“Sometimes I wish life was never ending / and all good things, they say, never last” [Sometimes it Snows in April]
Hearing the news this evening was like a funeral at dawn – eerie and premature. I took a long, meandering route to the bus stop under dark skies, gazing vacantly into the eyes of passers by, looking for some faint acknowledgement of the bombshell that had just landed. Some solemn faces were hunched over their phones, others fatigued and gazing vacantly into the distance. Had they heard? The loss of another alien legend, only three months before, had done little to prepare us for the fact that the fragility of human life inevitably seals our fate. Even the extraordinary among us.
My initial reaction was one of confusion. Just before my phone ran out of power I texted my friend to ask whether he would be joining me at an exhibition. He simply replied, “PRINCE.” Had be taken up his Prince2 project management course again, I thought? Then jealously swiftly kicked in. Had he caught wind of another secret gig by the Purple One, the same flu-ridden figure who had been rushed to hospital only days before? No, such a speedy recovery seemed ridiculous. Then I thought, “But, it’s Prince,” echoing the words of Kevin Smith as he recounted a bizarre attempt to make a documentary at Paisley Park. Anything is possible. The world collectively breathed a sigh of relief and moved on to the next hashtag talking point.
Then … disbelief.
Growing up in the Eighties you fell into one of two camps. Prince or Michael Jackson. Sure, you might love both – pop superstars with catchy songs, slick moves and soul-deep deliveries. Singular talents and trailblazing heroes for their people. But I chose a side. To this day, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because Jackson was more ubiquitous on TV and in the press, simultaneously their darling and punchline. The conservative choice for a conservative kid like me. Prince was an enigma, in comparison – aloof, androgynous, shape-shifting, x-rated. Undoubtedly, some perceived him as being blacker and therefore more authentic but Prince maintained he grew up in "a black and white world, rich and poor, night and day". He strived to make all kinds of music and be judged for the quality of his work and not the colour of his skin. The Face put him on their cover in September 1984, proclaiming him “The Cool Ruler” and asking, “Can Prince take Michael Jackson’s crown?”
They never did square off in that ‘Bad’ video. In Prince’s words, “The first line of that song is ‘Your butt is mine.’ Now who’s gonna sing that to who? Cos you’re sure not gonna sing it to me. And I sure ain’t singing it to you. So right there, we got a problem.”
Seeing this clip from 1983 for the first time was definitely a calling. A priceless artefact dug up long before the dawn of YouTube. I watched in amazement as three legends met in the arena for one night only. A moment in time that would never be repeated. Prince managed to squeeze a concert’s worth of drama into two minutes on stage … and off! Who is this guy? I thought. I mean, really?
It was only after I passed into adulthood and my knowledge of the roots of black music began to grow that I came to truly appreciate the full extent of his abilities. From there, I became increasingly fascinated about lesser-known aspects of the man. There was that legendary interview with Electifying Mojo in Detroit (brilliantly sampled by Moodymann), the fact that he also wrote irresistible pop oddities such as ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and The Bangles’ ‘Manic Monday’, his love of Joni Mitchell and Cocteau Twins, his jams with Miles Davis at Paisley Park, the influence of those drum machines and freaky synths on legions of dance producers, and the roots of the Minneapolis sound he helped to establish. There was also a warmer and more down to earth side that the public rarely saw: his qualities as a loyal and supportive friend to the likes of Arsenio Hall, Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton for instance. “An amazing, rounded human being” as Fox 9 reporter and Paisley Park regular Iris Perez described him. In secret, he was a humanitarian that supported numerous projects in areas such as Oakland and Chicago. And let’s not forget his wicked sense of humour… Prince on Sesame Street, anyone? Or Jimmy Fallon’s ping pong story? To think, at 5ft 2” he was a baller. Literally. Gets me every time.
He had more comedy in one look than most stand-ups have in their whole career.
Listening to the Little Richard special on BBC6Music a fortnight ago, the flamboyant singer was quick to recognise the debt Prince owed to him, as well as Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone. A touch of Charlie Chaplin too, according to Miles Davis. Such was his magnetism and gift for theatricality. Here was a guy who assimilated the best of each artist, shook them up and made something far greater than the sum of its parts. As the years passed, Prince would himself become the inspiration and mentor, endorsing the careers of new artists such as King, Esperanza Spalding, Janelle Monae and Lianne La Havas as well as his own band 3rd Eye Girl.
Although he was notorious for being a harsh taskmaster, souring relationships with numerous band members and protégés such as The Time, he could also be a generous collaborator and guide for those fortunate enough to be allowed into his domain. Many of them were women looking for a break. “I am a giver by nature, I like people,” he claimed while in conversation with Will Hodgkinson for Mojo magazine in 2014. “But I test people in many ways.” For more on the creative process and a revolving door of supporting players, check Matt Thorne's book.
Signed to Warner Brothers in 1978, Prince instantly gained a cult following with his first three albums For You, Prince and Dirty Mind, fusing classic r’n’b and lithe funk with rock and new wave while courting controversy with explicit tracks such as ‘Head’ and honing his outrageous stage craft to the point of orgasmic release; till the crowd were “burnin’ up”. But it was Purple Rain that sent him stratospheric, a melodramatic funk opera about a young kid trying to make it in urban America, steeped in gospel and blues – a black experience electrified by the technology of the day.
Beside the carnal there was something almost spiritual at play. Prince never truly got his props as a lyricist but he could certainly write a poignant line or two. How about, “The beautiful ones, they hurt you every time”? Or “If I was ur girlfriend, would you let me dress you? I mean help you pick out your clothes before we go out? Not that you're helpless, but sometime, sometime, those are the things that being in love's about.”
In a BBC documentary about Prince’s eighties’ period, Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis perfectly expresses the catharsis of the epic title track. For many, Prince's masterpiece… “The level of emotional nakedness and honesty is often overlooked. That sense of injuring someone and almost wishing you weren’t doing it, as you’re doing it. This longing for a place, this purple rain that could just wash all that away somehow and allow you to have that connection without all the pain. It’s deep.
“I remember when I was going through a divorce, I listened to that song and just started crying. In a very indirect but profound way he gets at those emotions of what went wrong. There’s no way I can make it better, I may even be at fault but can't something save us from this? Let’s go to another world, let’s get to a place where we can get beyond this. That’s what ‘Purple Rain’ is about.”
I have this recurring dream, a fantasy perhaps, of dancing in front of the Pyramid Stage as the heavens opened … under the purple rain. My one entry to Glastonbury by the grace of the ticket gods. It felt like inevitability. A dream it shall remain.
The breadth of creativity on Sign O the Times still astounds me. It’s probably my favourite album of his, although Parade has its moments as this Pop Matters anniversary feature attests. From the rap social commentary of the opener to the brooding, gender-bending devotion of ‘If I Was Ur Girlfriend’ with that Linn LM-1 heartbeat, to the giddy sweetness of ‘Starfish & Coffee’, all-time favourite love song ‘Adore’ and the ultimate New Year’s party starter ‘It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night’. But that’s the thing about Prince – scores of fans have their favourite album, their go-to track, even those who didn't quite “get him”. He had the keys to your soul. Even if you didn’t know it.
Then there was his mystique. This afternoon I watched a fascinating discussion about the legacy of David Bowie, featuring photographer Kevin Cummins, producer Ken Scott and GQ editor Dylan Jones. Cummins brought the house down with his comment that he’d never want to see David “Instagramming his f-ing breakfast”, and preferred to always assume that he lived on a spaceship and ate moon dust each morning. It was a poignant lament about the lack of mystery and mythology in music today. Although he eventually did join Instagram, Prince always kept you guessing. The wicked flirt, the compulsive tease. The closer you felt you got to him, the further away he pulled. Here was one artist that couldn’t be figured out, followed and ignored.
Even in his later years, when the star mellowed, found god and stopped doing the splits, he continued to experiment on stage, rarely playing the same tune in the same way. With limitless talent and hits like his, why would you? The One Night Alone and 3121 tours in particular helped to rekindle people's adulation while also introducing the artist to a new generation of fans. (A show-stealing medley with Beyonce at the 2004 Grammys didn't hurt either.) He was also a leader in the fight for artistic freedom, taking control of his intellectual property and being the first major artist to sell albums, his preferred canvas, through the web. He saw the potential for the internet to be a “direct line” to his “friends” long before others.
I think back to spring of 2014 and those guerrilla gigs he blessed us with in London. A refreshingly mischievous way of simultaneously treating and torturing fans. Many of those in attendance weren’t necessarily part of the Purple Army, fanatics willing to entertain every whim and indulgence, the kind you’d hear on overblown sets such as Emancipation, The Crystal Ball and The Rainbow Children. But seeing him was something you simply had to do before you died. Or before he died.
It’s a bittersweet memory as I remember waiting outside Ronnie Scott’s for seven hours, slowly creeping up to the door and hearing the faint strains of classics as revellers kept each others’ spirits up beneath a projected image of the main man.
I finally reached the entrance round midnight only to be told that no more punters would be let in. To make matters worse, staff refused to open the door even a few inches to make us feel part of the ceremony. Suddenly, there came a decree from on high, as if from the Royal Badness himself: “Party where you are.” We did. At least I managed to catch him at the O2 during his 21-night 20TEN tour, a blistering trawl through his hits. But it was the after hours afterparty that I really craved. Prince going way out there – no format, no limits.
His influence on music and popular culture is undeniable. You can hear him in D’Angelo and Pharrell, you can see him in Miguel. Hell, you can feel him in the colour purple. He claimed his own colour. Can you believe that? As Robin Givhan describes in her brilliant piece for the Washington Post, Prince made purple "complicated, sexy and mysterious". She continues: "The clothes were his. His choice. His style. Uniquely him. He did not appear to be searching for himself in fashion."
There will be an outpouring of tributes over the next few weeks, some impressive in their recollection of key moments and astute in their observations about his influence on music. Others will be heartfelt testimonials, sharing experiences of records and performances as true rites of passage. And I have no problem with the latter. In a world that’s becoming increasingly cynical, where compassion, humanity and emotional honesty are exceptions rather than the norm, I think it’s beautiful that the music changed lives, brought strangers together and made them feel. If artists can give others the confidence to stand out, even better. Let’s not have a repeat of Bowie's “grief police”.
It is impossible to make sense of tragedies like this. The last time I wrote a tribute to a fallen idol, it was James Brown on Christmas Day 2006. How apt that this is for one of his children. But life should be filled with more hellos than goodbyes. I expected Prince to be composing for an orchestra into his sixties or making mental jazz music after that. But alas, it wasn’t to be. We can now only wonder where he might have gone next.
A wise man once said: "It's time we all reach out for something new. That means you too." So what now? How many young artists can ride the waves of change and stay the course like him through sheer dedication and application? This YouTube comment perfectly encapsulated the gaping hole Prince and a handful of others have left.
Who will be our icons in 20, 30, 40 years’ time? Who will carry the torch? What will they stand for and how will they change our lives? With a song, an experience, an encounter. Hopefully, this moment will be an awakening, a new beginning for the next generation. All that music to inspire. And if the vault is opened, well…
Eccentric? All the way. Cryptic? U bet. A savvy puppeteer of the media? No doubt. But to his credit he was not in the least bit interested in the cult of celebrity. Instead, Prince was utterly consumed by the craft, achieving complete mastery of studio, stage, audience and image. In turn, we submitted. As Nextdraft editor Dave Pell put it so bleakly in his mailout today: “Think of all the instruments that make up a band. One of the greatest players of each of those instruments died today. And he was one guy.”
For me, Prince will always be his own energy. His own universe. The ultimate showman, a liberator of body and mind and the greatest musician the world has ever seen.
Always on the one.
With a cheeky smile.
For now, that is all there is to say. Off to dream of heaven. I know he’s there among friends.
Watch. Listen. Cherish. Remember.