>> Thursday, April 21, 2016
He steps out front about three minutes and twenty-five seconds in, and his guitar doesn't just gently weep, it cries, it howls, it wails, it stutters and it sings. Dhani Harrison, himself the child of one of the rock gods who once made the Earth tremble, looks like a three-year-old watching a magician make a coin slide out of his ear the first time. Prince hammers and slides and bends, effortlessly trills off a firecracker chain of fractioned notes and slides his hand down the Fender's neck like its greased. And the wrecking crew of Hall of Fame inductees and pop legends up there with him might as well not be there at all, he just blows them right off the stage.
It isn't his number, of course. It's a little challenging finding Prince tunes on YouTube because he was skeptical of the Internet; he filed a lot of DMCA takedowns, and then he'd go on a tech binge and relent and try to fit in with the new world order of online musical distribution, and then he'd relapse and send out a slew of takedowns. Didn't make a lot of friends doing that, but it was his right to be prickly and controlling.
That control, in fact, was what made him a brilliant guitarist and songwriter. And the guy, he was brilliant. Prince was just utterly amazing when he was firing on all cylinders and still interesting even when he wasn't. I'm not sure he ever quite lived up to the monster run he had from 1981's Controversy through Sign O' The Times (1987), a run that included 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984), and the often-overlooked gems Around the World In A Day (1985) and Parade (1986). It may be that not even a genius could have kept up that kind of home-run record, or maybe he got derailed a bit during his infamous and very public beef with his label, Warner Bros., in the mid-'90s.
He was an eccentric, to be sure, and prickly, to be surer; but that epic fight with WB left a lot of people with the wrong impression. It was commonly misperceived, probably because it was commonly misrepresented in the press, as a personal meltdown. "Wow, is Prince nutty, he says he doesn't want to be called 'Prince' anymore, he wants to be known by an unpronounceable symbol! And he shaved the word 'SLAVE' into his sideburns, is that wacky, or what?" Easy for the press to dismiss, I suppose, in light of Prince's gender-bending costumes and makeup, which were less a matter of drag a la Bowie or The NY Dolls and more a matter of imagining we lived in a world where sexuality and gender were solved problems. Of course the "Artist Formerly Known As Prince" business was a brilliant bit of publicly trolling Warner, trying to seize back control of his catalogue and career by making himself damned-near impossible to market even while he was still recording earworms and generating extraordinary publicity; the "SLAVE" was a more personal and (ironically) subtle-yet- (paradoxically) hammer-fisted statement; when he was a teenager and a nobody, he'd gotten himself stuck into a bit of a suboptimal recording contract, and the loopy shenanigans were part of a twisty and often-clever escape act. And I believe--I'd have to relearn the details, but I think--it ultimately worked, he got the label to cave. Of course, by the time they did, labels were facing the extinction-level-event of the Napster Impact and its global aftermath, a bit of off-timing (no wonder he didn't trust the Internet).
He was one-of-a-kind, anyway. One of the last true originals, probably. A synthesis of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Sly Stone, and David Bowie, along with undiscovered elements that appear on the periodic table in boxes marked with question marks and unpronounceable icons, and that scientists have failed to reproduce in lab experiment after lab experiment. Apparently capable of playing any instrument he set his hands upon. An extraordinary lyricist, and don't get distracted by the playful (or pretentious) substitutions of letters and numbers for words ("Nothing Compares 2 U," a Prince-penned song made famous by Sinead O'Connor, may have a deceptively childish title, but the song, an utterly wrenching flaying of an abandoned and lost heart, is anything but).
And now he's gone, another artist lost in a year that's been cruel so far. Not just the quantity of artists, which is inevitable as we all grow older and pass into history, but the quality. Prince Rogers Nelson, June 7, 1958 to April 21, 2016. A few years shy of his 60th birthday. Someday, some kid is going to hit play on whatever it is they listen to music on (the way things are going, hell, it could be a good ol' vinyl platter), and not believe that this guy walked the Earth. Is going to wonder how he did it. Is going to pick up a guitar and blow his friends away by learning to be half as good. Some day, hell, some kid is going to come along and be better, and he's going to tell every music journalist from pole to antipode he learned to play listening to Purple Rain over and over and over again, a bit of "When Doves Cry" here and a snag of the title track there.
Don't rest in peace, Purple One: may the ghost of your eminence imbue the fingertips of a hundred thousand thousand kids with an uneasy longing that can only be eased with calluses. May your spirit flow through our speakers and headphones, stay with us for a century so that generations of rock and roll prophets can study your secrets and keep you alive in hearts and hearts again.