“It was a pretty good year for fashion, a lousy year for rock and roll” – Don Henley, “The Garden of Allah”
Wow, not again.
It appears the music world has once again been turned upside down when Prince was found dead in his home earlier today. I had heard he was ill last week, but I don’t think anybody had an idea that it was this bad. What a shitty year it’s been for rock stars. And have no doubt about it, Prince was a Rock Star in capital letters.
So much can be said about Prince. I’m sure the obits will have these words: enigmatic, genius, prolific, ground breaking, mercurial, androgynous, eccentric, influential… the list goes on. And all of these things are correct.
In the spring of 1983 I was finishing up the 2nd half of my freshman year of college. At Christmas break I had left my beloved Kansas State University for the University of Kansas in what is a very sordid story. I consider that “the dark semester” in my college career. I changed schools for the worst reason anybody can change schools – a girlfriend. Love is fickle people. Luckily the girl did me a favor and broke up with me in time for me to return to KSU my sophomore year, but as usual, I digress. I was living in the dorms with a guy from my high school who it turns out was a sociopath and my girlfriend broke up with me. It was a rather low point. Except for the two gents who lived across he hall from me.
My neighbors across the hall, Brian and Robert were two very cool guys from St. Louis with a stereo with enormous speakers. They played this album I had never heard before, over and over again… that album was entitled “1999” by a guy named Prince. I can’t count the hours I spent hanging with those two guys listening to that momentous double album (I’d have done anything to avoid my roomie, thank God these guys had great musical taste). It literally got me through the last six weeks of my freshman year. I still can’t hear “Little Red Corvette” without thinking about sitting in that dorm room, but that doesn’t make it any less a classic tune. “DMSR”, the title track, “Lady Cab Driver,” even the obscure song “Free” are amazing. Prince was able to blend funk, dance music, sex and a Hendrix-like guitar that was like nothing I had ever heard before. Michael Jackson ruled the music world in those days, but I liked Prince infinitely more because he seemed dangerous. Maybe it was the androgyny thing. I mean, you could see the guy’s ass crack on the inside sleeve. Despite that, I bought the album as soon as I got home that summer.
By summer of 1984 Prince had returned in a movie, of all things. Everybody was talking about how kick ass this Prince guy was… I hadn’t seen the movie, I eventually did, but knowing “1999” had blown my mind, and having already heard “When Doves Cry” I bought the album “Purple Rain” immediately after I got my first paycheck from my summer construction job. I was going out drinking with my buddies WW and Matthew that night and I only had time to hear the first side (ah, vinyl). We were in the bar when the DJ played “Purple Rain” and I couldn’t wait to go home and turn the vinyl over to make sure that song was on this new album. I was pretty obsessed with that song for a very, very long time… And I think I’m safe in saying I’m not the only one who was. The album was so huge it kept Springsteen’s “Born In the USA” from the number 1 spot. It’s a true masterpiece. It’s hard to conceive, today, how huge he really was in the mid-80s…
I hadn’t realized until today that Prince would have only been 25 when “Purple Rain” blew up. I can’t imagine having that kind of fame, power, money and well, women at the age of 25. I would probably be dead now, but man the stories my friends would be able to tell about me. Anyway, I think at that tender age, the success freaked Prince out a bit. I’ve seen it happen countless times – an artist hits it big and then faced with the daunting task of outdoing themselves, the artist retreats into a different “more artistic direction.” Fleetwood Mac went from “Rumors” to “Tusk,” the aforementioned Springsteen went from “Born In the USA” to the scaled down “Tunnel of Love.” I remember being shocked when I bought the follow up to “Purple Rain,” “Around the World In A Day” the day it was released at how wildly experimental and different that album was. I was so disappointed I sold it at the used record store. I wasn’t as musically broad minded in those days. It didn’t completely sour me on Prince, but I was a much less enthusiastic fan.
Over the next decade or so, there were still the occasional great song by Prince. “Kiss” was ubiquitous. I did really like the title track to “Sign O the Times” although I didn’t think the album was the masterpiece the critics heralded it as. I was slightly disappointed with Prince’s work on the original “Batman” movie soundtrack but he kept me interested. “Thieves In the Temple” was another standout. I wasn’t buying his albums any more but I always kept an ear on what he was doing. He was always doing something new. Like everybody else I bought the “Hits/B-Sides” package later in his career, which is one of the better curated greatest hits packages out there.
A buddy of mine turned me onto a clip on YouTube of Prince performing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Prince owns the stage – not only was he visually captivating – his guitar work on that song makes Clapton’s work on the original seem tame. You can actually buy that tune on iTunes and I strongly urge that purchase.
Now the genius is gone at a frightfully young age. He was such a prolific artist, it seemed like he put out an album every 90 days, that the rumors about what he’s got in his vaults are the thing of legend. I saw him in a rare interview, long ago, where he said the best of the Revolution (his backing band in the “Purple Rain” days) and tapes of him jamming with Miles Davis were all in the vault. He went on to say those tapes would come out some day. Sadly if there is anything positive we can take away from his passing maybe this man’s amazing unreleased music might finally see the light of day, although losing him was a huge price to pay for that reward.
That’s the one thing we’ll always have from Prince – the amazing music. I’m shuffling all my Prince as I sit typing this and I’m still awed by his talent. Tonight, I pour a dark and murky tumbler full of bourbon and head to the turntable… I still have that vinyl copy of “1999,” and I will not mourn, I will celebrate the genius of the man known to the world as Prince.
My heart goes out to Prince’s family, fans and friends. It’s a dark ride people, enjoy it while it lasts.