NOTE: In recognition of his June 7 birthday, this is re-sent in memoriam of arguably the greatest musical talent of all time, such a staggering loss. His splendor lives on . . .
From the time I hit double digits, music has been the guiding force of my life ― especially funk. And no one, with the possible exceptions of Stevie Wonder and George Clinton, has had a more profound impact on my pleasure centers and spiritual self than Prince.
One of the many things that set my relationship with Prince apart from those other two giants was there being less of an age difference between us, allowing me to be able to connect with him from the very beginning of his career. With Wonder and Clinton, I jumped on mystical bandwagons that had been well underway from the time I was in diapers. Prince, on the other hand, came along in 1978 when I was halfway through high school, just embarking on a nearly 20-year stint as a mobile and club disc jockey and eventual music journalist and critic, and by that point fully musically informed. He and his music played a significant role in nearly every facet of my adult life, and so his recent sudden and premature death shook me to my very core.
Particularly in the Internet age and world of social media that made it as easy to follow his every move (or least keep up with every speculation, rumor and analysis) as you might a dear friend or family member, the news was devastating and caused several days of recurring weeping. Even though I had never met Prince (although did see him perform some two dozen times), I truly felt like I had lost a sibling. In an emotional and connectedness sense, he was the brother I never had.
How could this legendary man of universal acclaim whose notorious mystique, well-earned swagger, singular talent, boundless energy, prodigious productivity and groundbreaking accomplishments seemed to make him invincible be snatched away in the prime of life and at the peak of his abilities — even as he was continuing to challenge himself and his audience by blazing new trails? It was inconceivable. It was unjust. It was unfair. It was confusing. It was mind-numbing. It was gut-wrenching. It could not be real, and yet it was. The man who had touched so many had died alone at 57 in the elevator of his Paisley Park complex outside Minneapolis of unknown causes pending an autopsy. You will find no gruesome details, theories or suppositions here as there are endless sources for that elsewhere. No, this piece is about paying respects and sharing a very special bond. Long live the one and only Prince.
His passing on April 21, 2016 was one of the most distressing days of my life. In a bizarre twist of fate or eerie coincidence, it harkened back to his melancholy classic “Sometimes It Snows in April,” which was recorded on April 21, 1985. The event left me deeply saddened not just for my loss, that of my family and the world, but also perhaps most of all his empire. Although he had wed twice, both were short-lived as Prince was forever and always first and foremost married to his music. He and his magnificent works had seemed inseparable, one and the same. From the time of his first record in 1978 at just 19, he had always held such a tight and assured grip on everything from conception to completion. But instantly Paisley Park, the symbol-shaped guitars, his thousands of songs and recordings, all of them were orphans. Having left no known offspring behind, he had referred to his compositions as his children. This realization was particularly painful knowing he left hundreds of those “children” locked up in his infamous vault with their fate now uncertain.
As seemingly immortal and otherworldly as Prince was, although some did I never took him and the spectacular gift of his art for granted. Particularly since the untimely death of superstar Michael Jackson in 2009 at age 50, on almost a daily basis I had marveled at (and shared with whoever would listen) how blessed we all were to be able to enjoy Prince’s vast talent and ceaseless output. A multi-instrumentalist with especially great skill on guitar, extraordinarily expressive and identifiable vocalist, exceptional songwriter and inventive lyricist, electrifying performer and provocative showman with the dance moves of a gymnast and visual flair of a fashion designer, and studio engineering and production wizard, Prince was able to blend and bend styles and genres unlike any other musician. Somehow he had assimilated, updated and tremendously expanded upon the best abilities of many of the all-time great R&B and rock stars who had preceded him, and established a brand new sound in the process. The range and depth of his superhuman abilities, tireless work ethic and unbridled ambition allowed him to create without barriers and fully execute his uncompromising, varied, magical musical vision. Any attempt to rein him in was akin to shackling a unicorn, an apt comparison for this enigmatic figure of mythical proportions. He was the authentic item ― an undeniable genius.
That is all not to say he was infallible, because he certainly had his foibles and many lost patience with his coyness and eccentricities. More casual fans and observers were especially put off and puzzled by his antics. This was the guy after all who famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol that combined elements of the male and female gender signs, becoming the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and a lampooning bonanza. But those who hung in there for the wild ride were often pleasantly surprised and almost always richly rewarded. Few could argue that this is a man who gave it all for his art, his music, his fans.
Prince’s reach and influence also extended far beyond music. He was also a cultural icon who overcame great odds and obstacles, and who stood up for the underprivileged and disenfranchised regardless of gender or race. He was a prolific genius who held the proverbial lightning in a bottle for an incredible 10 years (roughly 1980-89), forever thereafter still firing off blasts and spurts of dazzling brilliance. His run includes a number of bona-fide masterpieces, several near masterpieces and everything else being at the very least good in spots. While not everything he did was exceptional, it was hardly ever dull and usually still better than most of his contemporaries. And on stage, once he honed he his performance skills and showmanship in the early 1980s, he became forever untouchable.
Let’s journey back to the beginning and indulge me as I share how Prince’s story has intersected with my own. Given the amazing and at times overwhelming outpouring of love and loss I have seen since his passing, I know I am not that unique in my depth of connection with him. But I have a hunch most will nevertheless find my personal tale both poignant and heartwarming.