It seems impossible to have this feeling again. The stunning silence and disbelief that comes after you hear that a musical icon, an artist that has touched your life and molded your musical ideals and tastes for decades, has died.
Earlier this year it was David Bowie. I would not and could not believe he had died. It took days wandering in a fog to adjust to thinking of the world without his presence and unparalleled genius. And today word came that my favorite artist of all time has left this earth.
Like so many of his songs that I discovered as a teenager, I first heard of his death on the radio. I actually shook hearing report after report of his sudden and unexpected death at his Paisley Park studios home in Minneapolis. He was just 57 years old.
It was recently reported he had been ill, possibly with the flu, and had spent a day in a hospital after a plane was forced to make an emergency landing. But no one expected this.
Prince Rogers Nelson (yes, Prince was his real name) was born in 1958 in Minneapolis. The son of a jazz singer and pianist, Prince was destined to be in music. His early records were bold and brash, full of raw sexuality and deep spirituality. Prince reached a wider audience with the advent of MTV and release of his classic “1999” album.
He followed that with perhaps his greatest commercial triumph, the feature film “Purple Rain.” Billed as a semi-autobiographical look at his life, the film followed the trail and tribulations of “The Kid,” a struggling rock star. The movie was full of vibrant performances from Prince and his band The Revolution. It was a smash, and the accompanying soundtrack sold over 25 million copies.
Prince became a household name. In the 1980s he and Michael Jackson stood toe to toe as competitors. But honestly, it was no contest. Where Michael could sing and dance (so could Prince), the Purple One could also write, act, produce and professorially play a pile of instruments including guitar, bass, drums, piano, keyboards and various horns. He wrote and produced albums for the hottest acts of the time, including Sheila E, The Family, Sheena Easton and The Time.
Dozens of albums flowed in the following decades, ranging from the brilliant “Sign of the Times” to the for hard-core fans only “N.E.W.S.”
He had his odd moments, even changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol while in a legal battle with his record label. He swore off his “dirty” songs in favor of becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Through it all he never slowed down. Never stopped being innovative — and funky.
Live Prince was something to behold, an eclectic and electric mix of James Brown, Sly Stone, Jimmy Hendrix and Billy Preston all served up in tiny 5-foot-2-inch-tall frame. He blended all his influences into an original gumbo of funk, soul, rock, shock and awe.
I first saw him on the “Purple Rain” tour in 1984, and every time I could after that. From the “Lovesexy” tour to his intimate “Hit & Run” club shows (saw at least six of them) to the jazzy “Rainbow Children Tour” and, most recently, “21 Nights” stint in Los Angeles, where I saw him four times. Each different and better from the one before.
I never met the man, although I came very close during my time at Capitol-EMI when he released his three-CD magnum opus, “Emancipation.” I was less than five feet from him in a backstage area as burly security escorted him to the stage for one of his hit-and-run club shows. I gave him a goofy thumbs up as he looked back over his shoulder. I doubt he saw it.
Over the years as a music professional, I was lucky enough to have met and interviewed many of his musical collaborators and muses, including Wendy and Lisa, Bobby Z, Jellybean Johnson, Jerome Benton, St. Paul Peterson and Susannah Melvoin. Each marveled at his unlimited genius and wealth of creativity.
But there was a dark side to the man who one former collaborator called “a talent vampire.” More than one former bandmate confirmed Prince would use up the folks around him, then dump them in favor of a new group of musicians. Many fought with him in recent years — some in court.
Prince owned not only the songs he wrote for other artists but the names of the bands as well. The Time and The Family were both forced to find alternative names, with The Time Becoming The Original Seven and Morris Day and The Time, while The Family choose the moniker fDeluxe.
For someone so deeply spiritual, Prince seemed to have little compassion for those he was done with.
I had always not so secretly kept him at the top of my interview wish list for years, fearing and hoping at the same time that I might be face to face with him one day. Sadly, that will never happen.
I also never got to take my daughter to see him live. A couple months ago I promised the next time he came through town, I would.
The one thing we will all have is the music, decades’ worth of amazing (and some just OK) albums. Let’s be honest: Even his OK albums are better than the best most folks have.
The last two years saw him releasing four solid studio efforts. They are full of the most diverse blend of styles and songs to ever come out of one artist. For that alone I am eternally grateful.
How do you pay tribute to the man who provided the soundtrack to your life? How do you sum up all that emotion and feeling in a few insignificant words? I guess you keep it simple and say two words: thank you.
Thank you, Prince, for sharing your genius with the world. For teaching a pale white boy from a small town in the smallest state in the U.S. about funk. And rock. And diversity. About love. And lust. And sex. And religion. About the power of a live show and the importance of an open mind. About fashion and style. About image and filter. About sadness and despair and celebration.
Eye Thank U, Prince.