“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life."
"I don't wanna die, I'd rather dance my life away."
"And all good things, they say, never last."
I’m not sure how to even get through writing this. I’m not going to attempt to write a proper obituary, just a collection of thoughts about my all-time favorite musician, performer, and sexy beast, Prince (real name: Prince Rogers Nelson), who passed away this morning at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota, at age 57.
It’s rare that you remember exactly when or where you were when you first heard an piece of music that changed your life, but I remember it clearly. I had a teacher in high school that fed me soul and R&B music recommendations from time to time, and it opened up my confined little pop-oriented mind to a whole new style of music. The only time she actually handed me an album, however, was when she gave me a copy of Prince’s CONTROVERSY. I knew there was something slightly naughty about the record, and I didn’t own a pair of headphones at the time, so after my parents were asleep, I put on the album, planted myself next to the speaker and listened to some of the funkiest, sexiest music I’d ever heard. I was too young at the time to have understood some of Marvin Gaye’s purely sexual work, so hearing a song like “Do Me, Baby” for the first time got my heart racing, and I was ready for more. And I'm still trying to decipher all of the bizarre messages in "Sexuality." And by the time I was done listening, I also realized that Prince was a phenomenal rocker on top of everything else.
CONTROVERSY wasn’t Prince’s latest record at the time. I knew the hits from 1999 fairly well, and PURPLE RAIN (the film and album) was just months away from being released and changing the music world forever. But my immediate reaction to hearing CONTROVERSY was to buy all of Prince’s albums (there were five available at the time).
As a film lover and burgeoning Prince fan, the release of the film PURPLE RAIN changed everything for me in 1984. Sometimes I get asked what film I’ve seen the most, and while I’m still not 100 percent sure, I feel fairly certain that it’s PURPLE RAIN. If I catch it on cable even today, it gets watched until the end. As comfortable as I am writing about film, I’m equally uncomfortable about explaining why I love certain pieces of music. But I don’t know how you can’t listen to the song “Purple Rain” and not get emotional. It’s about a person just barely hanging on to every aspect of his life, and who can’t identify with that at some point in their existence. That's also what appealed to me about the film.
And when Prince won the Oscar for Best Original Song Score (a category that doesn’t exist any longer), I was so proud and happy for this famed outsider, who played all of his the instruments on his albums, and was such a prolific songwriter, that he had vaults overflowing with unreleased material (a great deal of which I own on tapes and CDs scattered around my place).
Prince was the first artist that got me to really pay attention to what was going on on the flip-side of his singles. For every “When Doves Cry” there was “17 Days”; for every “Raspberry Beret” there was “She’s Always In My Hair.” And perhaps most notably, for every “1999” there’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, one of his most covered songs. And when MTV suddenly realized it wasn’t playing any black artists in the early to mid-1980s, Prince was the obvious choice (along with Michael Jackson) to kickstart that trend.
When Prince agreed to create the soundtrack for Tim Burton's BATMAN, it was like my worlds collided in the best possible way. Not to bring it all back to movies, but Prince’s film career was spotty at best. UNDER THE CHERRY MOON and GRAFFITI BRIDGE are not good movies, but they spawned wonderful soundtracks. But his rarely seen concert film SIGN O’ THE TIMES is extraordinary even with the short sketches in between songs. Prince was one of the most visually oriented music artists around for a long time. He was releasing video albums and other extended video collections as part of the regular process of releasing albums for time. And on those rare occasions when he popped up for a television appearance, I was glued to the set, VCR at the ready, so I could watch and re-watch the performance.
I’ve seen Prince in concert so many times, I’ve lost track. He’s one of the few artists I have travelled to other cities to see. The first time was on the PURPLE RAIN tour. He played seven nights in the suburban Washington, D.C., venue where I saw him, and I could only afford to go one night. Since I was only buying two tickets, instead of the maximum eight or ten that everyone else was getting, the guy at the ticket window smiled and handed me two second-row tickets. And if you look carefully at the live video Prince put out for “I Would Die 4 U/Baby, I’m A Star,” there’s a shot when one song is transitioning into the next where there’s a pan across the front rows of the audience, and there I am with the girl I took with me in Row 2. I still get a chill thinking about my cousin calling me and asking if I’d seen the video yet (I didn’t have cable or MTV yet, so I didn’t see the premiere), and when I did, I lost my fool mind.
In 1995, Prince started writing “SLAVE” on his cheek and did interviews about wanting to releasee music more frequently, without the burden record company schedules. Late that summer and into the early fall, he did a series of concerts at Paisley Park outside of Minneapolis, and every weekend, myself and a group of die-hard Prince fans drove the seven hours from Chicago to the Park to see him play on the soundstage inside the building. The first time I ever saw an Oscar in person (and a Grammy, for that matter) was in a display case at Paisley Park. And I just stared at it for about five minutes.
Usually the concerts were free, sometimes they charged $5, but every night for weeks on end, Prince and his band (which included his then wife Mayte) played a host of unreleased songs (many of which were on THE GOLD EXPERIENCE, COME, or the New Power Generation album EXODUS), as well as a few favorites. The crowd sizes ranged from 100-300 in a venue that could have held far more than that. I had seen Prince play in a small club before, but this was different. It was loose, he would talk to us between songs, even walk through the crowd before the show and say hi to us. And the fans were respectful. This was in the days before selfies, so people mainly just wanted to greet him and say thank you.
The last of these shows was filmed for a VH-1 special, so the crowd was a little more substantial. Dave Chapelle was a warm-up act; Nona Gaye (Marvin’s daughter) was there to sing a song as well; and Prince blazed through a set of unreleased songs that floored all of us. The following week, a handful of us that had signed releases for some special filming before the concert were contacted to return to Paisley Park for some additional filming. I was already back in Chicago; it was about 10am and I was at my job. I walked into my boss’s office, and simply said “I’ll be back in 24 hours,” and by 8pm that night, I had flown to Minneapolis, rented a car and was back in the Park with about 15 other fans sitting on bar stools around Prince’s piano in a lounge-type set up, with fake alcoholic drinks in front of us, and Prince singing a cover of The Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow.”
The song eventually ended up on his EMANCIPATION triple album, and the video we shot never say the light of day—he shot an entirely new one centered around the birth of his child with Mayte, which makes me sad just thinking about it. But what I remember most was that the people handling the extras for the shoot made it clear that we should not talk to Prince, and the first thing that happened when he came to the set and sat at the piano was Prince saying, “Did they tell you not to talk to me?” Everybody laughed, and he led a discussion about nothing in particular. He asked where we were from, and it turned out he was well aware that there had been a contingent from Chicago coming every week to his weekend shows earlier in the year. He thought we were crazy for making that drive every weekend, but grateful that we supported his efforts to be free of his record contract. He was soft spoken, funny, kind and playful with us, and when the cameras started rolling, he snapped into Prince mode and played the shit out of that song.
About a year later, I got into a test screening of Spike Lee’s GIRL 6 in Chicago; at the time, Lee tended to screen many of his films in Chicago months in advance, but when I sat down to see GIRL 6, I had no idea that the entire soundtrack was going to be Prince music. I got picked to be a part of the focus group after the screening, and the moderator asked if we had any questions. Lee sat quietly in the back of theater listening to our comments, but when I asked if the final film would have all that Prince music, Lee chimed in “Hell yes it will, and some new songs too.” If you haven’t seen the Spike Lee-directed video for Prince’s “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” (which is not in GIRL 6), check it out; it’s a great one.
When Dave Chapelle did his classic sketch/re-creation of Charlie Murphy meeting Prince, playing basketball and eating pancakes with him, it was just weird enough to be true and just true enough to be weird.
In more recent years, interest in Prince has ebbed and flowed. New music has been met from the masses with everything from enthralled rapture to complete indifference. Prince’s touring has been more sporadic, but anytime he comes through Chicago or nearby, I was there. I never stopped getting his music; I own every single one of his album, legal and otherwise. Here’s how crazed a Prince fan I am: two nights ago, after hearing that he’d been sick recently, I scanned my old live Prince bootleg tape collection to find the best-sounding shows, and sought out CD versions of those shows that I didn’t already own. I literally just put in an order for a whole batch of different shows, dating back to that CONTROVERSY era, up through the MUSICOLOGY tour, just because I was desperate to hear more music.
After David Bowie’s death, people talked a lot about how much he changed up his persona and looks over the years, and no offense to Bowie’s fine music or influence, but no one changed it up like Prince—from music styles to hair to costumes to musical instruments, the man was never not altering himself and opening up his ears and mind to new sounds, visual artists, and all that went along with being a rock star. Through Prince, I discovered Sly & the Family Stone, Mavis Staples, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, and so many others. I would have found these people eventually on my journey through music history, but filtered through a musician who actually embodied so much of their style, I was able to see their work in a fresh light. (I should note that at Prince's last two-night stand in Atlanta last week--performing with just a piano and a microphone--he played a loving tribute to Bowie with a cover of "Heroes.")
Prince could be frustrating for some fans, including me. He’d promise all sorts of new music, and more recently he even promised deluxe editions of old music—something he’s never done before—only to have radio silence on these projects. But I was so excited that in the last year he’d put out two new albums (two volumes of HIT N RUN), and the album he produced and played on for Judith Hill (star of the TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM doc) finally comes out on CD next week.
I guess one of the reasons Prince was my favorite is that he was one of the few artists I enjoyed sharing with other people, friends and acquaintances. I took people to Prince concerts, because I knew seeing him live would change their lives; I made mix tapes and CDs for all occasions. You need a tape to workout to? Here you go. You need a sexy-time mix? No problem. You need a CD to dance to for 80 minutes? That’s not even a challenge. Prince was right for any and every occasion.
And I’m still thinking about him like he’s with us. It’s hard to even be properly sad because he gave us such happiness for so damn long, and lord knows, we didn’t always deserve it. And now, this deeply spiritual genius musician is gone. I see that MTV has pre-empted its programming to just play Prince music. I know what I’m doing for the rest of the afternoon.
I’m not great about collecting video clips with stories likes this, but this one seemed appropriate, both in terms of it arguably being Prince's greatest guitar solo and the song choice itself. Prince slips onto the stage about two minutes in—blow it up to full screen and turn it up. “May U Live 2 See the Dawn” and let me know your favorite Prince memories below.