They say celebrity deaths come in threes. I refuse to do the research, but that feels true, so I’m running with it. Celebrity deaths come in threes.
2016 changed that. All year long, stars dropped like flies, in clusters rather than elegant trios. And not just lightweight celebrities, either, but people we all knew and loved. David Bowie, George Michael, Alan Rickman, Garry Shandling, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, and Carrie Fisher.
All those greats just gone, but the one that hit me hardest was Prince, the musical wunderkind from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I first became aware of Prince via MTV. In 1983, the music channel finally abandoned its narrow-casting ways to admit black artists into heavy rotation. Prince was, of course, one of those artists. Whatever its plans for itself, MTV’s hands were tied. The African Americans knocking at their door were producing big hits, and the channel had little choice but to ride the tide. “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” were (and are) iconic songs, and Prince’s bizarre New Wave look was perfect for a channel predicated on both sight and sound. It was fated.
But I didn’t buy any Prince music until 1984. As strong as those two songs were, I didn’t become a true believer until I heard “Purple Rain” (the song as opposed to the album). I used to have a thing I’d say when I heard a song brimming with obvious sincerity: “He meant that shit”. (I snagged the phrase from Eddie Murphy’s Delirious.) The first time I heard “Purple Rain”, I said, “He meant that shit.”
Chalk up one more sale for the vinyl.
And score one for sincerity.
It might’ve ended there if the record Purple Rain hadn’t been so goddam good. Here’s what it had going for it: 1) None of the songs were bad, and 2) It was a totally new thing (particularly to a guy who wasn’t as hip to Sly and the Family Stone as he should have been). In blending the rock sounds I knew with the R&B/Funk/Dance sounds I didn’t, Prince rewired my neural pathways; he made me hear differently. That’s a seismic shift for a suburban white kid from Ohio.
After Purple Rain, I went back and bought the five albums I didn’t have (For You, Prince, Dirty Mind, Controversy, and 1999). Then I waited patiently for whatever was next. I waited for and bought everything between 1985 and Prince’s passing in April of the aforementioned Year of Death. That waiting/buying became progressively less fun after 1988, but no artist before or since provoked the kind of loyalty I had for Prince. Can I say exactly why? I was afraid you’d ask that. I can’t say exactly why, and maybe that’s part of it. The “It Factor” I can’t put my finger on. Every great artist has some of that. The sum of the parts being greater than the whole. But I guess I needn’t explain myself. Time and again, both before and after his passing, even people who weren’t especially fond of Prince acknowledged his genius. And those who were fond of him were always effusive in their praise. Nelson’s fellow musicians were often his most eager standard bearers. Watch him do the solo in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and tell me there’s not something extra special going on there.
Brushes with Greatness
On his great NBC late night show, David Letterman had a recurring segment called “Brush with Greatness” where audience members talked about their encounters with celebrities. I had two Prince-related Brushes with Greatness. I’ll share the lame one first…
BWG #1: Head (Meet Lamppost)
Not long after I moved to California in late 2000, I went with my brother (who was visiting from Atlanta) to the Virgin Megastore on Sunset Boulevard. If you don’t know what the Virgin Megastore was, it was like Tower Records. If you don’t know what Tower Records was, I can’t help you. Anyway, both stores are gone now, which is a subject we’ll return to.
On our way out, we passed a short but dramatically beautiful brown-haired woman in jeans. I was immediately struck by her looks, and also by instant recognition. Here, walking in while the two of us walked out, was Carmen Electra — dancer, singer, and former Prince protege.
Apart from the pleasure of seeing a fine-looking woman, the encounter didn’t end well. Once she caught my eye, I continued to gawk at Ms. Electra. This resulted in my slamming into a lamppost. There was a hollow clang, drawing the attention of everyone in the courtyard. Carmen laughed; my brother laughed; strangers laughed; a good time was had by all.
Except by me. Because, you know, humiliation.
BWG #2: Baby, You’re a Star
I met Prince himself in March of 1993 at Turtles Rhythm & Views, an Atlanta record store which is no longer there (are you sensing a trend here?). At that time, the late Mr. Nelson hadn’t yet changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. He was still going by “Prince”.
As you can imagine, I didn’t get much hang time with His Royal Badness. My brother and I were part of a long line of fans there for autographed copies of that year’s record, the prophetically titled 0+>. What was Prince like? It was hardly a deep interaction, but I left with two impressions: 1) He was extremely shy, seemingly more afraid of us than we were of him, and 2) In person, he looked like a lollipop — short and skinny with a surprisingly large head.
Ever since that day, I’ve done a piece of none-too-flattering shtick. I say, “This is my impression of me meeting Prince!” then I bend at the waist and mime shaking hands with a teeny-tiny little person.
Disrespectful? Maybe, but trust me, it kills.
Anyway, I complimented Prince on a new song he’d performed at the Fox Theater the night before, and he said a few polite words in response. I had to lean in to hear him because he was so quiet. Quiet and shy. He didn’t show real signs of life until one of the folks in line behind me presented him with their baby. Based on his warm smile and wide eyes, I’d guess that super-shy Prince liked kids. Maybe he sensed an affinity. Most kids don’t like big crowds either.
Of course Prince’s shyness was never evident when he was on stage. I saw him in concert four times over the years and, though he stopped making good albums after 1988, the price of admission was always incidental. Whatever he’d lost in terms of studio output, Prince retained in showmanship. The guy knew how to run a stage. Up there, he wasn’t the scared kid averting his eyes. Up there, he was fully in charge.
As far as that studio output goes, I didn’t just throw out the year 1988 arbitrarily. Every artist has a career arc and, to me at least, the top of Prince’s parabola ran from 1980’s Dirty Mind to 1988’s Lovesexy. After the latter record, his creative bellcurve dipped. He would, from time to time, show glimpses of his former greatness, but for me at least, the fire was going out.
But let’s focus on the positive. Prince certainly would if he were here.
After Party: Why Prince Matters to Me Now More than Ever
Atlanta’s Turtles Rhythm & Views, Tower Records and L.A.’s Virgin Megastore are all gone, and so is Prince. Three big music merchants and a music maker supreme. It’s not incidental that Prince left when he did. The death of the American record store (or “wrecka stow” as Nelson called it in Under the Cherry Moon) preceded his passing by a few years, but the two events — music shops disappearing and music masters disappearing — came close enough together that they feel intertwined. With our culture moving online and so much of it becoming, frankly, disposable, I feel justified in leveling charges. We don’t care as much about music as we used to. Tune into pop radio for a while and try and talk me out of it.
You won’t be hearing any of that stuff in five years — let alone thirty.
Prince was my great love of the 1980s, and Grunge was my great love of the ’90s. In both cases, it was real people singing with real voices, writing real songs, and playing real instruments. Handcrafted music. Grunge supplanted the boy bands and the hair metal of the late eighties, but its reign was brief. Following its demise, empty-headed pop came back with a vengeance (and never left).
Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, One Direction, and, yes, even Beyonce can all take a flying leap.
Prince was Prince not because he thought outside the box but because he ignored the box altogether. At the risk of sounding like a character from The Matrix, in Prince’s world, maybe there was no box. But, to quote the song “Sometimes it Snows in April”, “All good things they say, never last/ And love, it isn’t love until it’s past”. The party had to stop at some point, and, for me, the Prince party stopped right around 1988. Why? All I can do is shrug and say, “It happens to everyone”.
Here’s a weird analogy you can take or leave. Prince reminds me of George Lucas, the Modesto, California filmmaker who gave us the fiery brilliance of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lucas created his own moviemaking domain, and for many years made outstanding work from inside. Then he self-isolated and lost touch with the world, producing the Star Wars prequels which, as we all know, did no favors to his legacy.
Like Lucas, Prince wove his own cocoon, using it for years as a base for astonishing creativity. Then, just as Lucas did, he isolated and got sucked into his own navel. He was a shadow of his former self, still more than capable technically, but lacking in soul (or simply in enthusiasm). Whereas his early work was idiosyncratically his, his later stuff was so often mired in cliche it could’ve been made by dedicated but not-nearly-as-talented impersonators.
Still, even in those latter years, there’s a through-line, a continuum begun back in 1978 with For You. It’s a consistent thread of unselfconscious positivity that’s always there percolating. Prince albums have social commentary, they have autobiography, and, yes, they even have their moments of darkness and anger. But what they have more than anything else is fun. And not just in a disposable, surface way. They’re the voice of a man, sustained over nearly forty-years, who’s having a good time and wants to share that good time with us. Maybe that’s the It Factor I struggled to put my hands on above. Maybe it’s that mood-altering gusto that kept me coming back again and again. Prince was a complicated artist with many layers and you can pick your own reasons for loving his music. For me, for this moment in time, I’m gonna say I came for the novelty, but I stayed for the fun.
I’ll give Prince the last word:
Lemme tell ya somethin’
If U didn’t come 2 party,
don’t bother knockin’ on my door I got a lion in my pocket, and baby he’s ready 2 roar
Photo by the Author.