Fearless and Peerless: How Prince Kissed My Soul: 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.
Confident, Confrontational & Controversial
I was immediately captivated hearing “Soft and Wet” as a high school sophomore. The insistent synth-driven falsetto track reminded of then-popular R&B acts like the Emotions and Patrice Rushen, of whom Prince was a fan. The Emotions reference is ironic since at the time they were being produced by Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White, who had been put forth to helm Prince’s first album. However, the impetuous teenager would not be deterred from his quest to not only create all the sounds on his debut but also self-produce it. In the end, For You was impressive but did not do that much for me overall. It was too laid back, with the only other real funk or rock track being the closing “I’m Yours,” a very impressive showcase for Prince’s multi-instrumental talents.
As he did throughout the first decade of his career, Prince made a quantum leap in songwriting and performance on his second album, 1979’s Prince. It was here where I began to really grasp what a special talent he was as his material began to stand out significantly from his contemporaries. Singing completely falsetto was his main limitation. The panting “Sexy Dancer” was the first true taste of just how dirty and funky he could get, “Bambi” how hard he could rock, and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel for You” what an efficient pop songsmith he could be. All the key pieces were already beginning to gel and fall into place.
I was in attendance in 1979 when Prince made his West Coast debut in one of his very first solo concerts at the 500-seat capacity Roxy on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. It was enjoyable and different, but he was still clearly a work in progress. His band included Andre Cymone on bass and Dez Dickerson on guitar. One of the more interesting aspects of this show was seeing how the brothers in the audience heckled and laughed at Prince, shouting out “Princess!” because he sang in a high voice and wore bikini briefs and leg warmers on stage. Meanwhile, however, the women there swooned and wanted to eat him up. It was quite a sharp, interesting contrast and symbolic of the road that lay before him.
That display was a microcosm of the struggles and obstacles Prince encountered throughout his early years in the music business. He had to face and overcome most people’s preconceived notions related to everything from race to sexual orientation. No wonder he seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. I must admit I too struggled with his feminine image and mannerisms, as I had also been put off seeing those qualities in David Bowie, Elton John and others. However, ultimately the music was so damn good and he was so damn talented that it obliterated everything else for me.
It was that same year when America got its first glimpse of the Minneapolis phenom as he performed on TV’s “American Bandstand,” famously making host Dick Clark squirm and struggle through what had to be the most challenging and awkward interview of his career as Prince only offered cryptic, single-word responses. Was he really so shy or just a complete jerk? It was indicative of the enigmatic way in which Prince would keep observers off-balance and intrigued throughout his career.
In 1980, Dirty Mind was another huge progression that blended new wave, punk and funk music with raunchy and controversial lyrics as only Prince could. This was the landmark release that brought the majority of the nation’s music critics to Prince’s altar. In one of the rare instances where I did not catch his show, I missed his only local appearance that year at Flipper’s roller skating rink in West Hollywood. And his infamous stint opening for Rick James, in which he allegedly stole Denise Matthews’ (later dubbed Vanity and who also died this year) heart and copped James’ stage antics, never made it to the West Coast and was the basis of ongoing tensions between the performers.
The next year, as followers are well aware, he released his next album, Controversy. Less of a leap than there was from his second to third LPs, it reflected more of a refining of his abilities and was a set that I personally enjoyed more than Dirty Mind. The title track contained a chant that so aptly summed up his position and challenges: “People call me rude, I wish we were all nude. I wish there were no black and white I wish there were no rules.” Plus, that song’s lyrics also asked, “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay? Do I believe in god?” Prince also showed the first evidence of his prodigious talent by launching his first protégé act, the Time, whose terrifically funky debut album included monster jams like “Get It Up” and “Cool.” It would later be revealed the record was almost entirely a Prince-manufactured product, with Morris Day, Jesse Johnson, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and the other band members having to later learn their parts to replicate the material live. The mischievous Prince hid his role in many projects using pseudonyms such as Jamie Starr, Alex Nevermind and several others.
Just before the Controversy album was released, at the request of fan Mick Jagger, Prince opened for the Rolling Stones at the 100,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a bill that also included George Thorogood and the Destroyers and the J. Geils Band. I was there with several friends who at that point mostly only knew what I had told them about Prince. In what I deemed as an absolutely a hideous display of racism and musical prejudice, despite the gallant tries by Prince and his band, the crowd mercilessly booed them from the get-go. As he and his cohorts gamely pushed through a few songs, Prince even attacking the guitar in Jimi Hendrix-like fashion, the audience began throwing a barrage of bottles and other debris that ultimately forced them to leave the stage. I had attended many concerts but never witnessed anything as ugly as that near riot; it was repulsive and infuriating. You can imagine how mortified Prince and his bandmates were, and I was so thoroughly disgusted with the white rock audience.
It was a vivid, repugnant example of just how hostile rock radio, live venues and cable-TV’s new MTV (Music TV) with its rotation of almost exclusively white videos all were. It was the height of musical segregation, with the anti-disco backlash being used as an excuse to bash any up-tempo music performed by black artists. This was the environment in which Prince was railing against to smash barriers. He battled that negative energy, channeling it to further stoke his inferno of talent while giving no quarter in the mission to get his sound and vision across. In doing so, he positioned himself on the precipice of a new level of success.
A few months after the Coliseum debacle, as part of his Controversy Tour Prince returned intent to conquer Southern California. I saw his riveting show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (site of my first concert ever, the Eagles in 1972), and wow had he elevated his stage skills from the Roxy show just a couple of years prior. The highlight of the compact 70-minute set was seeing him dazzle the crowd by playing both guitar and synthesizer during a slamming version of Dirty Mind’s obscene funk classic “Head.” Opening the evening was the original configuration of the Time that included the soon-to-be fired Jam and Lewis (Janet Jackson Svengalis), and of course flamboyant frontman Day and guitar shredder Jesse Johnson, with his brother Jellybean Johnson on drums. To be succinct, they kicked major ass. Tighter than a drum musically, their attitude, shtick and dance moves all added up to make them easily the baddest band in the land. In fact, they were so good that Prince reportedly became concerned about them upstaging him.
Taking the Party to the People
Prince really arrived later in 1982, realizing his more fully formed potential with the release of the exceptional double album 1999. This set represented his greatest leap yet from one record to the next, as the songs were uniformly strong, instrumentation stellar and singing multidimensional thanks to Prince vocalizing in a lower, more natural register for the first time. In doing so, he revealed himself to be an incredibly expressive and unique singer of the first order. This was an astounding work with aural twists and turns (as well as catchy hooks and amazing guitar and synth work) everywhere. His look in hairstyle, makeup and clothing was now markedly different from when he started out, and he would subsequently alter his appearance at least as often as he did his sound — making him a trendsetter and envelope-pusher in fashion as well as music.
The Dirty Mind-Controversy-1999 trifecta is where Prince emerged as the master architect of what would become known as the Minneapolis Sound, which would influence and inspire countless imitators. It sprung from the innovative deployment of drum machines and synthesizers. Prince managed to do what no one before him had, humanizing mechanical-sounding elements into a fresh, cohesive and often irresistible blend. In particular, the early 1980s saw a move away from real horns in R&B and funk to synthesizers, for the most part at the expense of soul and groove. However, Prince, due to his masterful musical instincts and production and arranging skills, had exposed a way to not only tastefully use synths as an accompaniment element but more radically as a viable replacement for horns and exciting lead instrument. Having invented an entire genre as he did with the Minneapolis Sound, most musicians would have been content riding that approach out for an entire career. Not Prince, not even close. That was the path of other mere mortals.
Like a funk missionary, I was forever trying to “convert” people to become Prince followers. I discovered that most who were exposed to his craft in a relaxed, open environment appreciated if were not stunned by his recordings. In one such instance, I pulled the 1999 cassette tape out of my car and played it for the middle-aged husband of one of my girlfriend’s friends. He was a musician and had been closed-minded where it came to Prince. As we progressed through the tracks, he became increasingly impressed and was in absolute disbelief learning it was all primarily the work of just one individual. Suddenly, he was a fan. Resistance was indeed futile. At the same time, popular rock stars were also promoting Prince, with one famous incident being John Mellencamp playing the recording of “Little Red Corvette” over the PA system at his own concert. Eric Clapton was famously once asked what it felt like to be the world’s greatest guitar player, “Go ask Prince” he replied. The fact is Stevie Wonder may have come close, but no one before or after Prince has ever worked the studio as comprehensively or cohesively. At the same time, he was rapidly maturing into one of the best live performers of all time.
Other major developments in conjunction with the momentous 1999 album was MTV finally opening up as “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” got into regular rotation, and Prince expanding his protégé acts with a second Time outing (What Time Is It?) and the unveiling of his lingerie-clad female trio Vanity 6. He would continue to expand his universe with several other bands and performers (e.g. Sheila E., the Family, Madhouse), as well as contribute songs and major hits to other established artists (e.g. Chaka Khan, Madonna, Sheena Easton, Paula Abdul, Sinead O’Connor, the Bangles). As evidenced by that list and his penchant for courting striking beauties, Prince was not only in touch with his feminine side but also in touch with feminine sides. It was also during this timeframe when he began stretching out more creatively in his music videos, away from straight-ahead stage performance clips to more provocative and visually alluring efforts such as “Automatic.”
I experienced a full taste of Prince’s budding empire by attending the 1999 Tour at the Long Beach (Calif.) Arena in 1983. It was a killer show with Vanity 6 opening as the Time played their music behind a curtain. Prince’s supposed worries about the Time stealing the show were not unfounded. On the night I saw them, they were at least his equal ― even as Prince had continued to further develop his stage show by incorporating more elaborate backdrops, props, effects and devices. His agile, acrobatic dancing that included jumping off pianos and speakers into splits had by now also become prominent and sometimes astounding (later leading to injuries and hip problems). Given the subsequent departure of Vanity and Jam & Lewis, that concert turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In 1983, for the first time in his career, Prince failed to release a new album, instead riding the extended success of 1999 for all it was worth. Part of that was the title track being rereleased and becoming a bigger hit the second time around. Meanwhile, he began to make a regular habit of serving up unreleased gems as B-sides to his singles and producing extended versions of songs as 12-inch singles. Here again, he was on the leading edge of the industry and it was such an added treat for fans. Cases in point were the long versions of “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious,” and the B-sides “Irresistible Bitch,” “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore” (later a hit for Alicia Keys) and “Horny Toad.” Through the years, some of Prince’s very best tracks were nonalbum B-sides (e.g. “Erotic City,” “She’s Always in My Hair,” “Shockadelica”). He would also contribute many previously unreleased songs to movie soundtracks and other compilations. Spending the majority of his waking hours in studio or on stage, this guy was mind-bogglingly prolific, producing dozens of quality new songs on a monthly basis. Complete songs and albums flowed into his mind like a waterfall and he recorded them almost as fast. Talk about the gift that kept on giving. Even with his multitude of outlets he could not get it all out to the public, and so began the compiling of what would become his legendary vault of unreleased recordings.
While his star was rapidly rising, no one could have predicted the impending Purple Rain phenomenon. When I heard he was making a feature film, even as big a fan as I was, it left me skeptical that it would ever see the light of day. This was due to having seen several top black music acts take a stab at feature films with the result being highly disappointing flops, or never materializing at all. Examples include Earth, Wind and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” (awesome album though), the Ohio Players’ “Mr. Mean” and Stevie Wonder’s “The Secret Life of Plants.” And then there was supposed to be a Parliament-Funkadelic movie that never came to fruition. “Purple Rain” seemed especially a longshot given Prince and other musicians were taking on dramatic acting roles. It didn’t help my optimism when my best friend at the time viewed a rough cut of the movie several months before its release, and even as a fan he found it to be amateurish and near incoherent.
There was, of course, no issue in the music department as lead single “When Doves Cry” showed Prince yet again marrying indelible melody to compelling instrumentation, with intriguing lyrics and highly innovative arranging. It was another work that no one but Prince could have created and set the tone for a string of his songs that were deceptively simple and sparse but genius in execution. The Purple Rain album turned out to be uniformly terrific, taking Prince’s pop song craft and ability to produce a tightly constructed hook-laden album to another level. It also solidified Prince’s status as a rock and pop rather than just R&B artist, as well as his credentials as a guitar hero. His guitar skills would continue to elevate and eventually lift him to virtuoso-like status.
Fortunately, when the film arrived it had been cleaned up and improved considerably from the rough cut my friend had seen. It was actually quite good; it was funny, sexy and filled with electrifying performances. When the film became a box-office hit it further propelled the album until it yielded multiple hit singles, became one of the top sellers of all time, and went on to win Prince several Grammys and even an Oscar. I saw the movie in theaters multiple times in its initial release and subsequently many more times on DVD and TV. When it returned to select theaters the week following his death, it was emotionally challenging but a welcome opportunity for me to again see it on the big screen.
Witnessing Prince in 1984 vault to rivaling Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna as the world’s biggest musical star left me both stunned and smiling like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. It became a regular occurrence for friends and family to marvel at and share with their circles how Scott (me) always said how amazing and special Prince was, and now look at him. At this point, it seemed as though there was nothing Prince could not overcome or conquer, regardless of the odds stacked against him or how unyielding he was in proceeding only on his own terms. That summer was an especially exciting time to be in L.A. as it was also the site of the Olympics, and no one was more deserving of a medal than Prince.
Although I was thrilled to see his ascent, I have to admit not enjoying how much more difficult and expensive it became to see him play. I also wrestled with mixed feelings about all these newcomers and bandwagoners. Surely many of these Johnny-come-latelys didn’t warrant the same kind of status as hard-core fans there at or near the beginning. I had similar qualms about the overwhelming outpouring of attention and tributes given Prince upon his passing. Where were the media and those millions of people during the 32-year interim of Purple Rain to death, particularly from 1992 onward? On some level it felt like an intrusion because the grief I felt with his loss was so profound and personal. On the other hand, it was deeply moving to see how universally respected and beloved he was. I only hope that continues on as generations to come discover his magnificent splendor.
During the height of Purple Rain mania, I was lucky just to get a nosebleed special during his six-night run of sold-out shows at the 17,000-seat Inglewood (Los Angeles) Forum. It was cool, but the whole scene was a little too mainstream and overhyped for me. On stage, Prince had become a masterful tease, slowly working the audience up and then easing back to generate ever-increasing tension, working them into a lather before metaphorically getting them off. As good as he was, though, sometimes it would try my patience. I would think, “Enough already with the antics, just jam M.F.!” I enjoyed timbales terror Sheila E. opening and joining Prince on stage. For a vivid depiction of Prince’s knack for reinvention, try comparing photos of Sheila Escovedo before (when she was a busy session musician) she joined his camp and after. What a transformation.
I was so relieved when right in the midst of the Purple Rain craze Prince promptly did a left turn and delivered a new album in 1985, Around the World in a Day. While the set was a mixed bag as far as I was concerned, it was a welcome departure when most artists would have attempted to replicate the sound of recent popular glory. For what would prove to be like the billionth time during his storied career, Prince would strikingly demonstrate he was no ordinary musician. As further evidence of his individualism and refusal to conform regardless of perception or consequences, he was the only noteworthy act to balk at joining in on the high profile song or video for the “We Are the World” charity. Instead, he generously contributed the mellow and moving “For the Tears in Their Eyes” for that project’s album. Again, he did things his way.
The following year, 1986, would show itself to be yet another watershed period for Prince, who having toured the world demonstrated a newfound affinity for European sensibilities that further extended his aural palette. As he readied another album, Parade, and movie, “Under the Cherry Moon,” he popped up for a handful of live performances. One of them was at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theater. The announcement of the show on the radio came just a day before tickets went on sale. In a move I never did for any other performer before or since, I arrived early in the day and stood out on Wilshire Blvd. alone for at least six hours to get my $20 tickets, of which only two were allowed per customer. As soon as I had them in my tight-fisted grip, a guy offered me $200 apiece. No way! And you know what, it was worth it. Although I was a bit disappointed Prince did not spend more time playing instruments, he shined as frontman and bandleader in a show that was funkier than ever and for the first time incorporated horns.
The subsequent Parade album took the listener on a dense aural journey similar to the way Around the World in a Day did but was much more developed, and funkier, with many new wrinkles to his sound. While some of the tracks like the smash “Kiss” and soaring “Mountains” were immediately accessible and fantastic, several other tracks took repeated listenings to sink in and gel. But once that happened, it was apparent Parade was a masterstroke ranking with his very best works. I think it is just as incredible today as the day it was released. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for “Under the Cherry Moon,” a cringe-worthy film that unlike “Purple Rain” downplayed music in favor of comedy and drama. My favorite part as I sat mostly dumbfounded in the Westwood (L.A.) showcase Mann’s National Theater was the closing credits with “Mountains” blaring over the stellar sound system. Prince actually took over direction chores early on in the production and famously said after it bombed that he learned he could not direct what he did not write. What that incident really proved was there were indeed artistic endeavors outside his vast reach. It was a reminder he was only human after all.
As impressive as Parade was it was just a warmup for what I (and the majority of critics and followers) still consider to be his all-time greatest work, the double-LP Sign ‘O’ the Times. Having severed his association with backing band the Revolution, he dug deeper into his seemingly bottomless well of creativity and invention to render a collection (reportedly originally intended to be a three-LP set) that comprehensively displayed his full range of one-of-a-kind talent. I contend that the three-release cycle of Parade-Sign ‘O’ the Times-Lovesexy (it’s also fair to include the then-shelved infamous Black Album too) was the pinnacle of Princedom.
To top off the Sign sensation Prince released his third feature film, this time a concert movie! Although as is Prince’s tinkering way, some post-production interludes (less obtrusive than those in say Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same”) were added to the performances, they hardly detracted from the majesty of the “Sign ‘O’ the Times” theater experience (which I also viewed at Westwood’s superlative National Theater). The flick offers most of the SOT album in a live context (except for truncated version of “Little Red Corvette”) and devastatingly showcases Prince’s charisma, total command of the stage and ability to change and often further improve upon his studio recordings. I could not get enough of it on the big screen and it remains among the all-time best concert films, certainly the best presenting Prince at the height of his powers. He also performed at that year’s MTV Awards with the same electrifying drumline and fuzz guitar embellishment of Sign ‘O’ the Times’ title track as seen in the motion picture.
Within a year or so of the Sign album Prince had readied the aforementioned Black Album that he famously had second thoughts about and pulled back just as it was to be shipped to retailers. Between that and his concert aftershows in the wee hours of the morning becoming commonplace and fabled, another element was added to Prince’s rapidly ascending legend, one that emerged independently of his efforts: the proliferation of bootlegged recordings.
Prior to Prince, bootlegs of unreleased recordings and live performances were largely the domain of white rock stars like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Who. But Prince’s constant recording and performing made him an ideal bootleg candidate. I had long had dreams about coming across new and unreleased Prince albums, and so when I began to find these illegal offerings in stores it really felt like a dream come true. Although they were way overpriced and the quality usually substandard, it was exhilarating! These unauthorized releases only escalated over time, eventually becoming CDs and then downloads (and often better quality and much cheaper or even free). Like many, I built up quite a collection. The rationale was that I bought everything Prince had a hand in and so why should his lack of releasing something himself keep me from enjoying it? If he wanted to get paid for it, then he should have released it himself! Plus, there was no way I could attend all his concerts. Hey, ultimately it was his fault for being so damn good and turning me into a hopeless Prince addict. There, that’s my justification.
Having pulled The Black Album, Prince rushed out the revelation that was Lovesexy. This complex and joyous album, presented as one continuous listening experience with no breaks between the songs, was yet another refinement and advance of what Prince had previously recorded. It was also his most overt complete work centering around his deep spirituality and love of God, continuing much of the direction heard in Sign ‘O’ the Time’s rich and moving “The Cross.” As further evidence he was laying his soul bare, Prince appeared naked on the cover with a strategically placed lily. It created quite a stir and many retailers either refused to carry the LP or covered up the imagery.
Lovesexy’s “Anna Stesia” especially mined spiritual territory and was another Prince classic. That track was one highlight of many during the Lovesexy Tour, which I had the great pleasure to witness at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1988. The elaborate “in the round” stage included a bathtub, a Thunderbird (yes, the car featured in the “Alphabet Street” music video), basketball hoops (another Prince passion despite his diminutive stature) they took shots at whenever the mood struck and an elevating piano that raised Prince to the ceiling during “Anna Stesia.” The presentation and performance was among the best concerts I ever saw, and included the dancing foil antics of Cat Glover and Sheila E. behind the drum kit. Following this tour, however, he took his longest hiatus from touring stateside (he did engage in many one-off performances), playing on just about every other continent until finally returning to the United States in 1993. And that ended up being his only tour to include the U.S. during nearly a 10-year period (until 1997).
Although one never knows how even the most seemingly ideal combinations will work out, it appeared to be kismet having Prince provide music for the much-ballyhooed “Batman” reboot from visually provocative director Tim Burton that was also to star none other than Jack Nicholson as the villainous Joker. After all, Batman’s good vs. evil duality represented preeminent and recurring themes in Prince’s works, and the theme to TV’s “Batman” was said to have been the first song he taught himself on piano as a young child. Originally brought on to contribute perhaps one or two tracks, Prince took it upon himself to cook up an entire album’s worth of new songs around the storyline for his 1989 Batman album. The hoopla surrounding the film helped him achieve his greatest crossover success since Purple Rain, with the unorthodox “Batdance” becoming a No. 1 pop hit. The album was mediocre by Purple One standards but still contained some gems, and the music videos including “Partyman” were among his best ever. It was a supreme kick to see his songs so prominent in a major motion picture, even if the film was also only so-so.
The new decade started off with Prince once again courting the silver screen, this time with a sequel of sorts to “Purple Rain” called “Graffiti Bridge.” This time Prince did write what he directed, and despite including several musical performances the result was somehow even worse than the fairly abysmal “Under the Cherry Moon.” I remember being in disbelief at how awful the flick was when I saw it in the theater (again in Westwood but his celluloid offering did not make the fabulous National Theater this time around) and how badly he had blown the momentum that could have been generated from “Purple Rain” and even his association with “Batman” just a year prior. The best thing about it was the poster art. In addition to Morris Day and the original Time lineup being reunited, the movie included performances by George Clinton and soul-gospel icon Mavis Staples (both of whom were now collaborating with Prince) but was still near incoherent and flatter than a steamrolled tortilla.
It would be Prince’s last stab at being a leading man in a theatrically released feature film, although he continued to make video productions, some of which remain in his vault. There was a rumor for a time he would play Robert Johnson in a biopic about the legendary 1930s bluesman, but it never materialized. Prince also commissioned filmmaker Kevin Smith to shoot a documentary in and around Paisley Park and despite footage being compiled he opted to kill the project. The irreverent Smith, a Prince fan, has often subsequently spoken about his misadventures with Minneapolis’ man of mystery. I believe with the right script, director and circumstances Prince could have pulled off at least one more flick as compelling as “Purple Rain,” but if it would have meant less music than I am glad he cut his silver screen losses.
All of the aforementioned “Graffiti Bridge” acts as well as new teen sensation Tevin Campbell were much more favorably represented on the Graffiti Bridge double album (single CD). The solid but unspectacular set also included some outstanding Prince tracks like the haunting “The Question of U” and “Joy in Repetition.” Also that year, the Time’s reunion album Pandemonium came forth and managed to rekindle some of the old flame even if it never quite coalesced as heard in its initial incarnation.
In terms of sales and chart success, Prince did not mess around on his next release, 1991’s Diamond and Pearls. It included unabashed stabs as mass-appeal pop with hits like the title track and “Cream.” But for me, it was a low ebb of his career signifying for the first time concessions made to mainstream interests and I especially deplored him adding rapper Tony M to his new band, the New Power Generation (NPG). As always, there were some redeemable tracks and aspects but the three-album run of Batman, Graffiti Bridge and Diamonds and Pearls had me really questioning for the first time ever whether he was on the decline. Counter to that, however, he did stir the pot again when he performed “Gett Off” with pants exposing his butt cheeks at the MTV Awards, and his music videos (including long-form efforts) were well produced and executed.
My fears of his decline were fast blown away by the release of his 1992 follow-up, which came to be known as The Symbol Album or Love Symbol because the only textual element was a glyph that took artistic license with a combination of the male and female gender signs, which he would soon adopt as his new name. Now this was more like it! Filled with enough music to push the CD near its 80-minute capacity, the LP is chockful of first-rate funk, gorgeous ballads and everything in between. Tony M’s rapping was still present but not as annoying because the songs were so strong. The material was also powerful enough to overcome a misguided attempt to string together a storyline featuring actress Kirstie Alley as a reporter. The disc offers an overabundance of unexpected and delightful left turns, perfectly reflecting the lyric “If you tell me to walk a straight line, I’ll put on crooked shoes” from one of my favorite tracks, “The Max.” The album is also noteworthy for introducing teenage belly dancer Mayte Garcia, who would become Prince’s first wife in a little over three years. He also later released the entertaining long-form video, “3 Chains O’ Gold.”
The Symbol Album began what to me was one of the most exciting periods of being a Prince fan. It was also a confusing and sometimes frustrating era, but nevertheless always intriguing. Motivated by wanting the rights to his master recordings (something few music stars had secured), feeling creatively stifled and estranged from his longtime label Warner Bros., he began a series of moves and stunts that caused the label much grief, baffled the marketplace and ultimately sacrificed Prince’s run as a pop record hit-maker. The most overt change was telling the world he was no longer “Prince” (this just a year after his single “My Name Is Prince”) and was instead the unpronounceable symbol seen on his last studio album. He came to be referred as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (TAFKAP) or just The Artist, and has also taken to writing the word “Slave” on his face. Whatever slings and arrows he had endured for his mysterious ways or gender-bending in the past was nothing compared to the ribbing the public and media unleashed on him for these unprecedented announcements.
I was bemused by it all, not really caring what the heck he did so long as the funk-rock kept flowing, and boy did it ever. It felt like he had combined the peak of his music-making abilities shown during the mid-1980s with the fierceness and devil-may-care attitude of his formative early-1980s period. Prince’s hyperactive music and multitude of associated activities in the early to mid-1990s included: opening Glam Slam nightclubs in Minneapolis, Miami, Fla., Los Angeles and Yokohama; opening New Power Generation retail outlets in Minneapolis and London; long-form video productions like “The Sacrifice of Victor,” “The Beautiful Experience” and “The Undertaker”; “Glam Slam Ulysses” music-dance production; “Interactive” CD-ROM game; Joffrey Ballet’s “Billboards” performances and video; 1-800-NEW FUNK various artists album (featuring the great “Love Sign”) and mail order service; protégé albums from the likes of rapper T.C. Ellis, Carmen Elektra (before anyone knew her) and Mayte; rapper T.C. Ellis; albums from classic artists like Staples and Clinton; and his own albums Gold Nigga (NPG), Come, The Black Album (finally officially released), Exodus (NPG) and The Gold Experience. Those last two are among my all-time favorite Prince records, so deep and funky!
Prince had taken to performing incognito with the NPG, often abroad, playing behind a curtain or wearing clothing that obscured his face and adopting one of his many pseudonyms, Tora Tora. The Come album cover showed a Prince tombstone dated 1958-1993 as proof that persona no longer existed. I was ecstatic when he opened the Glam Slam (L.A.) in my neck of the woods, and would end up seeing him play there at least a half-dozen times, typically waiting several hours before he would take the stage and play until 3-5 a.m. I also saw the “Glam Slam Ulysses” show there featuring what to that point was unreleased music and Carmen Elektra as the lead dancer, and attended the official Come release/listening party there. But the top highlights for me was seeing a show with my girlfriend who I met due to our shared Prince connection (more on that in a moment) and being there when Stevie Wonder joined Prince on stage. The two of them jammed together on Wonder’s smoldering classic “Maybe Your Baby.” It tickled me to see Prince playing guitar, all the while gazing and smiling at Stevie with utter reverence and glee.
Now about that shared connection and the intimate effect Prince has had on my personal life. In a twist of fate, I met my wife-to-be, Jill, on the Internet in an America Online chatroom called Paisley Park that served as a communication vehicle for Prince fans. Six years my junior, like most fans Jill had been swept off her feet by Prince during the 1984 “Purple Rain” phenomenon (but she was no bandwagoner!). Online, my handle was Dr. GX (Doctor Good Times, my disc jockey stage name) and Jill’s was Aura6, inspired by the lead character in “Graffiti Bridge” (played by Ingrid Chavez). Neither one of us was looking to hook up as we were both in long-term relationships, and it was a fluke that chatroom was there at all that evening because it was typically a once-a-week occurrence on a different night of the week. That’s why upon almost simultaneously entering Paisley Park, we found ourselves alone in what on its usual night was a packed chatroom.
This was 1994 when the Internet was still either brand new or an unknown mystery for most folks, and so while I had been online for a few months and was familiar with the Paisley Park chatroom, it was Jill’s first time ever on the World Wide Web. “Hello,” she typed, “what is this?” “It’s a chatroom for Prince, but usually on a different night,” I explained. The rest is history. By chance, I had struck up what would snowball and blossom into the romance of a lifetime with a girl 3,000 miles away in Long Island, N.Y. It was exciting but it wasn’t cheap. At a time when AOL charged per hour and before cellphones, we rang up thousands of dollars in courtship communications. Six months later, having never been east of Arizona, I flew to New York and brought Jill, who had never been west of Louisiana, back with me to begin our new life together. Short on time, we had to pull an all-nighter to pack up all her belongings and clear out her apartment ― playing the 1999 album on a loop the entire time. It was apropos that when we wed a few years later, Prince’s sublime “Damn U” was our first dance song.
Shift forward to 2004, I brought a friend along to see ace ex-James Brown sax player Maceo Parker perform at Hollywood’s (Calif.) House of Blues. Parker is sensational in his own right, but he had been playing with Prince’s band during that part of his career and so I had a hunch (and prayer) that his Royal Badness would show up unannounced, as was his spontaneous way, and possibly play. Sure enough, in one of the most electrifying moments among the hundreds of concerts I have attended, Prince did show up and proceeded to tear the roof off the sucker for a good hour or so. It was euphoria, and when I got home at 3 a.m. I was floating on a cloud of musically-induced bliss. Even though she was disappointed to have missed the show, Jill picked up on the lingering aura and that magic carried over to our bedroom. A few weeks later, we learned that encounter had planted a seed that would become our only child and arrive almost 10 years to the day (both events in September) after my wife and I met in the Paisley Park chatroom.
Considering we owed both our chance meeting and conception of our son to Prince, it only stood to reason the baby’s name should reflect that. But we wanted to be somewhat subtle and clever about it, and so when we knocked the concept around we came up with the perfect combination. We dubbed our baby son Nathan based on Prince’s “Sign ‘O’ the Times” line, “Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby … we’ll call him Nate, if it’s a boy.” We gave him the middle name of Parker, both as a tribute to Maceo Parker’s role and Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times album track, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” And guess what, that first and middle name combined with the sir name Goldfine meant the boy’s initials would be NPG — the acronym of Prince’s band, the New Power Generation. Jill already had an I <heart> NPG California vanity license plate and so that gained double meaning. It should shock no one that long before Nathan Parker Goldfine took his first breath I already had a piano and guitar waiting for him.
Were it not for Prince, I would not have met my wife or sired my son. Combine that with the countless ways Prince’s music, attitude and spirit have affected myriad aspects of my existence through nearly four decades. How is that for a profound and personal life impact? Is it any wonder his death has ravaged my psyche and soul with such ferocity and despair? Due to the challenge of coming to terms with his passing and usual life distractions and responsibilities it has taken me weeks just to write this tribute. But I must see it to completion.
Going back to where we left off with our hero in the early to late 1990s, that era was an especially funky time for Prince. It was a period in which he not only wrote and performed his own extended jams of tracks like “Days of Wild” and “Now” but got deep into adding cover versions of classics, especially those of Sly and the Family Stone (who his own multigender and race group the Revolution had harkened back to) and that act’s bass legend Larry Graham and his band Graham Central Station. As a lifelong funkateer I of course too was a huge fan of those acts and songs, and also enjoyed hearing his take on Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang, Stevie Wonder and several other 1970s cornerstones. Some of the awesome Graham tracks he was often playing at this time were the muscularly down and dirty “I Believe in You” and “Hair.” It marked a significant development for Prince because he had rarely done anyone else’s music and especially early on denied other artists’ influence (even though several were obvious). A favorite quote is when asked if he listened to new music he replied, “When I want to hear new music, I make it.” We now know full well among his leading inspirations was Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Sly Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic.
In 1995, I took my wife to the House and Blues to see the reunited Graham Central Station. Despite some sound issues, it was a fabulous show. The band was striking in all-white attire, as in synch as ever and Graham’s presence was energetic and magnetic. I had brought along some of their classic 1970s album covers with the hope of getting them signed. After the show, we were able to get back stage and meet Graham, his wife Tina and other band members. He was incredibly gracious and all too glad to sign my albums (Graham Central Station, Ain’t No Bout a Doubt It and Mirrors). During our conversation I told him Prince was a big fan and had been regularly covering his songs in concert. I asked him if he was aware of that or had met him. He said he had heard that but had not met him. I told him the two of them needed to get together, which he agreed.
I cannot say I actually had any influence on what would subsequently take place, but the next year the two of them did meet. They would not only collaborate extensively musically but Graham would go on to become a big brother-like mentor to Prince, eventually indoctrinating him into becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Prince also renounced the use of profanity and sought to be as pure of mind and body as possible, also becoming a vegan. While much of that seemed like a radical departure, it must be pointed out that God and spirituality were always overt themes with Prince. Graham ended up moving to the Minneapolis area and has to be considered one of the most significant figures in Prince’s lifetime. How painful must it have been for him to see his “little brother” pass before him? Many fans villainized Graham for sending Prince down a path they did not agree with or understand, but he had a mind and will of his own so I do not subscribe to that. Plus, having met Graham I believe his motives to be genuine and his musical pedigree is unassailable. And misguided and baffling lyrics aside, the JW influence led to Prince producing what in my opinion stands as his most daring and accomplished post-1995 (maybe even post-1988) work — 2001’s The Rainbow Children. Not even apparent anti-Semitic sentiments could dissuade me from digging it.
Besides opening himself up musically with frequent interpretations of other recording artists’ songs, finding love and settling down with Mayte seemed to make Prince more approachable and for lack of a better term, “normal.” It was also around the time a phrase he had placed on album liner notes and other media, “May u live 2 c the dawn,” was changed to “Welcome to the dawn,” signifying an arrival of sorts. Change was definitely in the air. Although he had performed on TV dozens of times through the years he had often avoided interacting with anyone let alone sitting for an interview. Or sometimes, as with “The Arsenio Hall Show” for example, getting him on would involve allowing him complete run of the entire program. However, not only had he begun more regularly appearing on TV but was speaking much more ― coming off as highly intelligent and affable no less.
A prime example is “Oprah,” in which he appeared with Mayte to talk about his new life as a family man and mark the release of his first post-Warner Brothers album, the three-CD Emancipation. He had touted the set as being “what freedom sounded like,” and while it was undeniably ambitious I was far from alone in dissatisfaction with the project. Although it contained some excellent tracks, it also included a lot of filler throwaways, was too mellow and suffered from soft, “plastic” production. I also saw his unremarkable (for him) Jam of the Year Tour at the Irvine Meadows (Calif.) Amphitheatre in October 1997. As for him being more accessible, I was a bit torn because like most people I wanted to get to know the real Prince better, but by the same token such a major part of his persona was the mystique. Did I really want to see the curtain pulled away? I had needn’t worried; Prince had so much mojo to spare that even in opening himself up it scarcely diminished his complex and powerful chakra.
Things took a tragic turn in the late 1990s after Mayte delivered Prince’s son with a rare birth defect that led to his death just a week after being born. She reportedly also suffered a miscarriage during their time together, which ended in divorce by the end of the decade. That seemed to be the closest Prince ever came to having offspring, failing to leave behind a legacy bloodline and thereby further adding to the magnitude of his premature departure from this world. In the wake of the loss of his baby son, Prince’s late-1990s output was spotty. As further evidence of it being the end of a chapter in his life, all of the Glam Slam clubs were shuddered.
Unless you count the much-derided New Power Soul album (which I happen to like; it includes the throbbing and hypnotic “Come On,” among other gems) officially credited to the New Power Generation, his only subsequent new release before the decade was over was late 1999’s commercially and artistically disappointing Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. A notable exception, however, was the five-CD (if ordered directly as special edition with “crystal ball”-style packaging) Crystal Ball compilation, which included three discs of previously unreleased songs and remixes from his infamous vault, the tedious and orchestral Kamasutra recorded for his 1996 wedding and the scintillating and mostly acoustic album called The Truth. Crystal Ball’s epic title track is one of his greatest works and there’s a lot more to love too, including funk jewels like “Hide the Bone,” “Movie Star” and “Calhoun Square.” My wife and I were set to see Prince play the Inglewood Forum in October 1998 when he postponed and then canceled the show due to what I recall was an ankle injury. We were so disappointed; it was so last-minute that we only found out outside the venue. I still have the unused tickets.
Rave, on the other hand, marked Prince’s return to a major label for what turned out to be a one-off arrangement. Having been wooed by record mogul Clive Davis and signing to Arista Records, the album was a blatant attempt to try to recapture TAFKAP’s fading mainstream pop glory. With several famous guest stars (e.g. Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow and Public Enemy) in tow, the record was misguided and diluted, with just a few worthwhile cuts. At the same time, he was getting a lot of attention with the close of the millennium due to partying “like it was 1999.” He even did a live New Year’s Eve concert party at Paisley Park that included Morris Day, Larry Graham and Lenny Kravitz, that was later released on DVD as the “Rave Un2 the Year 2000.”
With the dawning of a new century, Prince turned another corner. He asked to be called Prince again, unleashed his aforementioned masterpiece, The Rainbow Children, and launched the NPG Music Club Web site. It was again an especially unpredictable, fun and occasionally maddening time to be a fan. He began issuing new downloadable songs on a monthly basis and also served up an enhanced version of Rave called Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic that added the simmering “Beautiful Strange.” The download tunes would later be compiled onto two digital-only albums, The Slaughterhouse and The Chocolate Invasion. He also released the mellow piano-centric album One Night Alone and two instrumental albums in the first half of the 2000s, Xpectation and N.E.W.S.
Belonging to the NPG Music Club provided me perhaps my most unforgettable Prince experience of all time. In 2002, he undertook his One Night Alone (little relationship to the studio album) Tour and on April 19 my wife and I were able to attend the sound check prior to the scheduled concert at Hollywood’s Kodak (now Nokia) Theater. During this preshow, we were in the second row as Prince rehearsed, joked around and took questions from the couple of hundred fans. It was an awesome, pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming encounter. Later, the show itself was off the charts with much of the recent Rainbow Children album played. To top it off, post-show we headed over to the nearby House of Blues on Sunset Blvd. where Prince and the band played a stellar aftershow that included tracks like “Calhoun Square.” Somehow he was still going strong even as my wife sank to her knees from exhaustion, even as I tried to keep her upright until just before sunrise the next morning. Talk about perpetuating the legend. A three-CD box set commemorating the tour was released at year end. In 2003 he released another document of his stagecraft, the “Live at the Aladdin” DVD, which was shot in grainy, bootleg-like fashion and offered an eclectic set list.
The rest of the decade would see Prince to some extent recapturing his mainstream popularity even as he continued to experiment with new ways to release music. In 2004, his Musicology Tour and album rekindled some of that spark and gained him much exposure. The Musicology LP (another so-so effort in my book with, as always, some notable highlights) was given away with the purchase of a ticket to the concerts. It thusly became his biggest seller in a long time. Strategies like caused the music trade publication Billboard to alter its chart methodology on more than one occasion.
I was traveling on business in Las Vegas when Prince played the tour’s second show at Los Angeles’ Staples Arena, but was able to get to a movie theater out there to see a simulcast beamed to select movie houses around the country. The $15 prince also included a copy of the album (what a deal!). It may have been inventive, but on some level I felt like it was also devaluing his work by making it akin to a promotional giveaway. A few weeks later I returned to Vegas to see the actual concert at the newly constructed Mandalay Bay Events Center. It was a very slick, soul review type of show but a highlight was a segment in which Prince appeared center stage with only an acoustic guitar and mike. He had become so comfortable in his own skin and at with his audience, even in the most intimate setting. His band now also included former James Brown alto sax great Maceo Parker (best ever in my opinion), “Batman”-era protégé Candy Dulfer (also on sax) and former P-Funk trombonist Greg Boyer.
Given the relationship between my son’s existence and Prince as detailed earlier, the fact my wife was in her second trimester when we saw that Las Vegas show made it that much more special and meaningful. Earlier that year on Valentine’s Day, she had surprised me with one of the best gifts ever: a pair of tickets to see Prince perform the next night at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. I am not sure if we were yet aware she was pregnant, but off we went and had an amazing time. We got to hear several new songs for the first time since Musicology had not yet been unveiled. And we waited outside after the show and got to meet Maceo, Candy and other band members who signed event posters we had acquired from the box office.
That year was also very noteworthy because not only was Prince inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but also absolutely killed with a breathtaking guitar solo during an all-star tribute to posthumous inductee George Harrison on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Perhaps more than anything else, that performance solidified Prince’s divinity as a guitar god. He also opened the Grammy Awards in 2004 with Beyonce in a performance that would serve as the basis for a recurrent “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph hosting the fictional “The Prince Show.” All in all, 2004 was quite a way to mark a quarter century of unparalleled excellence.
Unconventional, Unbelievable & Unforgettable
Other unique ways Prince promoted and got his records into fans’ hands that decade included offering Planet Earth in 2007 for free with the U.K.’s The Mail on Sunday newspaper, an exclusive arrangement with Target stores for his three-CD 2008 collection of LotusFlow3er, MPLSound and protégé Bria Valente’s Elixer, and issuing 2010’s 20Ten as a piggyback with a handful of European publications. The rock-oriented Lotus was one of Prince’s strongest LPs of the decade. It rivaled both The Rainbow Children and 2006’s 3121, which was really Prince’s only major, conventionally promoted and released album of that decade. Beyond Rainbow, 3121 and Lotus, in my opinion the retro-sounding 20Ten was the best of the rest. So it was especially disappointing it was never officially released in the U.S. despite promises of a deluxe version.
Another curio was the Indigo Nights coffee-table book and CD combo released in 2008, a visual and audio account of his 2007 performances at London’s Indigo nightclub. It was one of several artsy books Prince published during his life, but the one most were waiting for, his autobiography, had been promised for 2017 just a couple of months before his death. There, of course, have been dozens of unauthorized books penned about him and his musical works. Also in 2007, Prince reaffirmed his stature as the world’s greatest performer with an unforgettable Super Bowl halftime show, completely unfazed by a rain downpour all the while.
In 2006, I uprooted my life and relocated across the country to the Charlotte, N.C., area. In doing so, I removed myself from being able to potentially see many more Prince performances in and around the Los Angeles area as well as a residency at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. In fact, there would only be one more opportunity ever to see him in my new neck of the woods. In 2011, as a stop on his Welcome 2 America Tour he performed at Charlotte’s Time Warner Arena. It was a tremendous show that reminded me a bit of 1988’s amazing Lovesexy spectacle. That was due to the playful atmosphere and stage again being in the round, this time surrounded by a gigantic illuminated “love symbol.” For the encore, he rode out from a corner of the arena on a bicycle!
Prince looked and sounded outstanding. The fact that aside from hair and clothes his appearance had hardly changed after more than 30 years in the public eye made him that much more of a marvel, that much more of some type of superhuman. The closest he would ever come again to Charlotte was his final performance ever in Atlanta April 14 as part of his Piano and a Microphone Tour. That series cast his genius in yet another light, one that cemented his never-ending quest for reinvention, the strength of his songwriting catalog and mesmerizing stage presence. Somewhat eerily, he had recently reverted back to his original look with a large afro hairstyle and was uncharacteristically reflective and nostalgic during what would be his final tour.
The ensuing 2010s decade entered a lull period for the Prince community, commencing with his longest break from releasing a new album in the entirety of his career. He would not unveil another studio album until fall 2014, when as is the Prince way he delivered not just one but two new LPs. A couple of years prior, he had come up with yet another fresh spin to his repertoire. Through the Internet and YouTube he had handpicked three musicians half his age to form the rock-centric band 3rd Eye Girl. Acting as frontman, bandleader and mentor, he spent a lot of time shaping and teaching these young women. Although they were undeniably rough around the edges and not very adept at the funkier material, it was once again very exciting and unpredictable to be a Prince fan. He had done it again!
As he prepped 3EG’s debut album Plectrum Electrum, Prince further surprised followers with the concurrent release of more of a solo-oriented LP, Art Official Age. Both records demonstrated Prince striving to meld his legacy sounds to new and different influences, with Age being the far more cohesive. Although too mellow overall for my tastes, it seemed to indicate Prince had reached a new plateau of maturity and stood among his strongest works of the 21st century. That year was also noteworthy due to Prince guesting on the sitcom “New Girl,” playing himself with grace and hilarity. And as an another indicator of continuing to go to the beat of his own drummer, even after mending fences and working again with his original Warner Brothers label, he passed on the opportunity to mark the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain with a deluxe, remastered version. It’s hard to imagine that not springing forth posthumously in the near future, along with long-overdue remastering and potential expansions of all his LPs.
Much to the chagrin of some of his mainstream fans, throughout his career Prince has always said he likes to focus on what’s next rather than revisiting the past. With that has come the thrill for me of a seemingly endless avalanche of fresh material and never knowing what song he might decide to perform during a given appearance, often eschewing whatever his single or promoted song might be in favor of his whim of the moment.
In 2015, Prince once again waded into a burgeoning form of music delivery by signing an exclusive agreement with new streaming music service Tidal. In a throwback to his sociopolitical songs like “Annie Christian” and “Sign ‘O’ the Times” as well as his longstanding charitable pursuits (ranging from school to Hurricane Katrina benefits), Prince penned the protest song “Baltimore” and put on a benefit concert in the racially divided city as part of the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality. I found the song itself to be on the bland side, but his LP release later that year, Hit n Run Phase One (said at the time to be the first of at least three planned ‘phase’ albums) was anything but. Somehow, someway, even in his late 50s Prince was pushing the proverbial envelope with an industrial-charged serving of funk, pop and rock. Although it had a similar feel to 1996’s tossed together Chaos and Disorder, it contained some of his most daring experiments since The Rainbow Children and a genuine classic in “1000 X’s and O’s.”
Completely unexpectedly, Prince unleashed Hit n Run Phase Two as a digital download right around Christmas 2015. The terrific collection was very different from most of Phase One, less experimental and “out there” but a much deeper and complete album experience overall. And even then, it was still unlike any Prince album that had preceded it in that it placed big-time emphasis on funk and soul with the most upfront deployment of bright horns ever heard on one of his LPs. It included several upper-echelon tunes such as “Black Muse,” “Revelation” and “Look at Me, Look at U.” The CD arrived in early 2016.
Alas, Prince would not live to deliver another Hit n Run offering. In hindsight, regardless of his apparent fitness and healthy lifestyle, looking at how much he tirelessly gave of himself for almost four decades it is a bit of a wonder Prince made it to 57. Even the universe’s biggest, brightest stars burn out eventually. Certainly none ever shone more radiantly that his upon this physical realm; and now undoubtedly in whatever metaphysical state comes next.
Naturally I have always known how all-encompassing Prince’s talents were, the breadth of his reach and vastness of his influence. However, the perspective is different when you follow it day to day through the course of many years. While I never took Prince for granted, I had grown accustomed to his exceptionalism. I believe that to be the case for many who followed him as closely and why some tended to be overly critical and harsh at times, particularly in online forums. Constructive and intelligent criticism that comes from a place of enlightenment is terrific, but I never understood unnecessary negativity, or even worse outright hostility. Now, forced to take a step back to fully survey and assess the totality of his career, it is quite simply a staggering achievement. The antithesis of the ambition exceeding grasp adage, Prince repeatedly reached for the stars and more often than not tucked stardust into the pockets of his custom-tailored britches.
Although I was never able to make the pilgrimage to Paisley Park during Prince’s lifetime I am hopeful it will remain active and perhaps be opened to the public as a museum. While I have traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and to lesser extent abroad, mostly due to my work in the electronic security industry as trade journalist and publisher, I have only been to the Minneapolis area once. It was just a single-day excursion in 2008 to visit with a security provider. It was too off the beaten path to get to Paisley Park but I did have my cab driver take me by First Avenue, the famous music club featured in “Purple Rain” and where Prince extensively performed and hung out through the years. Feeling the goosebumps, I had the cabbie take my picture with the club in the background. The stop delayed my arrival by at least an hour, and I made up some story about traffic and the driver taking a wrong turn.
My house is somewhat of a shrine to Prince in its own right, as I have every album he ever released on vinyl, cassette, CD and download as well as all the 12-inch singles, many unofficial records, CDs and downloads, and all manner of memorabilia. The latter includes scores of publications (of late depressingly including the postmortem tributes), record company promotional pieces (from my time as a music journalist and critic), posters, calendars, ticket stubs, laminates, clothing items, a symbol tambourine and my wife’s Get Wild perfume and Princely jewelry. Years ago when I dumped almost my entire collection of more than 1,000 vinyl records — fully committing to the CD age ― the only artists I held onto were those related to Prince and P-Funk. Aside from all the music, the most special items for me are all four of Prince’s framed movie box-office posters, the Time’s first album signed to me from all the original band members (I was on set during the shooting of their “Jerk Out” video), and an authentic RIAA platinum record award for Parade presented to former manager Steven Fargnoli that I purchased from a collector.
In closing, I wrote this essay as my tribute to the irreplaceable man who meant so much to me and my family. I hope it will be cathartic as I seek to heal from this overwhelming pain, loss and grief. At the same time, I hope others who feel similarly will find it comforting and reassuring, and that those not as familiar with Prince will gain some deeper understanding of what made him so unique and special. Ultimately, my intention is for this to serve as a monumental “plus sign” as we strive to spread the positivity he always preached to us. I am not a religious person and so in some ways that makes contending with such a profound loss more daunting.
Frankly, I am not sure if I can ever truly accept for the first time in my life facing a world with no more brand-new Prince appearances, tours, songs or albums. But frequently reminding myself of how fortunate I have been to share his plane of existence helps. Religious or not, I look at that as a supreme blessing. It also helps to knowing how his legacy is secure and will be perpetuated as young people continue to discover and bask in his greatness. My son, for example, gains a deeper appreciation for his namesake each day and I don’t think would wish to have been named after anyone else. I gain additional solace looking forward to the mountains of Prince’s unreleased vault recordings (of which I have heard dozens of sterling songs but seldom in pristine quality) eventually seeing the light of day — and thereby lighting up many days throughout the balance of my life.
Rest in peace my dear Prince Rogers Nelson.