Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
The 1986 Prince album “Parade” ends with the singer eulogizing Christopher Tracy, the character he played in “Under the Cherry Moon." “Sometimes it snows in April,” he mournfully sang. “Sometimes I feel so bad. Sometimes I wish that life was never-ending, but all good things, they say, never last.” Truer words were never sung: It is April, and life has once again proven, despite one’s wishes, that it is finite. Prince Rogers Nelson, the multi-talented musician who made doves cry, women delirious and millions swoon, died today at 57. He leaves behind an astonishing body of influential work and an enormous hole in the hearts of anyone who possessed ears and a desire to be funky.
Musically, Prince wanted to be your lover—international or domestic. When he was done, he wondered why you didn’t call him anymore, before realizing that the beautiful ones hurt him every time. Prince only wanted you to have some fun, whether you were partying like the end was near or relaxing with the morning papers. He treated your ears as if they were your body’s biggest and most sensitive erogenous zones, cooing come-on lines in a hearty falsetto or a haughtily amused lower register that dripped with confidence. He treated your heart as if it were the most delicate yet intricately folded piece of human organ origami. He demanded that you shake your ass, drop your drawers and never forget the higher, heavenly power that put you here to do so.
Nobody mixed the sacred and the profane better than Prince. His music dripped with jaw-dropping admissions of lust or rapturous exaltations toward the Divine. Sometimes he did it on the same song, reminding us that we could go to church on Sunday and still cabaret all day Monday. Starting in 1979, Prince invaded our universe, swinging a multitude of instruments he’d play by himself. He wore his musical influences on his sleeves, absorbing and recasting them in his own image, an image countless other performers would later embroider onto their own sleeves.
When you went to see Prince, he gave you a show. Like his hero, James Brown, with whom he once danced as a kid, Prince showed up and showed out for three or four hours. In her book, “Yeah, I Said It," Wanda Sykes jokingly prayed to God to strike Prince—not to injure him but just to get him to stop singing; his endurance onstage was literally killing her. With that much stamina, fans knew Prince would never retire. Just a week before his death, he was on tour doing beautifully stripped down versions of his classics and his new songs. It was just Prince, a piano, and the audiences who adored him.
Prince continued the fine tradition of what my elders called “baby-making music.” He was the go-to guy if your intentions, noble or otherwise, were to seduce. He could be far raunchier than most, as his reputation proved, but he could also slay one’s resistance with an achingly earnest profession of embarrassingly naked vulnerability. “You make me so confused,” he pleads to a lover on the “Purple Rain” soundtrack, and the verbal dexterity of his delivery stretches out the words to Aretha Franklin-level mastery. He could be humorously filthy, as on “P Control," or overwhelmingly romantic, as on “Forever in My Life." Whether you wanted to be an angel, a devil or something in between, Prince had a song for you.
Those influenced by Prince number too many to mention. Without Prince, there would be no D’Angelo, no Morris Day and the Time, no Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” and no extensions of the funk that originally nurtured him when he was young and listening to George Clinton and Sly Stone. You can draw a line from those early influences through Prince and into countless others. And Prince was always traversing that line backwards, pulling in Mavis Staples, Larry Graham, Clinton and many others whose work he admired. He sang with them, cribbed from them, and kept them in the same public eye he basked in.
Life can be so nice, but it wasn’t always for His Purple Badness. A dispute with Warner Bros. forced him to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol for a time, and even though it was a cool symbol (whose evolution you can see as far back as the motorcycle design on “Purple Rain”’s album cover), it didn’t stop the numerous “Artist Formerly Known as Prince” jokes. Like Marvin Gaye before him, this dispute led to a few very strange albums that play better in hindsight than they did at the time. And yet, below-average Prince was still better than most people’s best material.
I wish I could say the same about his cinematic output. Though “Purple Rain” is a classic ode to 80’s excess and the birth of the Minneapolis sound, and “Sign O’ The Times” is an excellent concert documentary, “Under the Cherry Moon” remains a gorgeously shot, terrible movie that the Great Love of my Life dragged me to see 13 times. And the less said about “Graffiti Bridge” the better, though it still managed to spawn an underrated soundtrack that pays tribute to the sound Prince created and pioneered up there in cold-ass Minnesota.
Speaking of “Under the Cherry Moon," Prince ends that film not with the death of his character (he gets blown away at the beginning) nor with the aforementioned eulogy that ends its soundtrack album. As the credits roll, Prince and his band play the joyous, boisterous “Mountains” as they ascend heavenward into the sky. At one point, Prince waves goodbye to us, mischievous grin on his face and his body draped, as expected, in the latest fashions. This is the image I will take with me today. All good things, they say, never last, but they were at least here for us to enjoy for a time. So it was with Prince. May you rest in Peace, O Purple One.
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