First David Bowie and now Prince. 2016 is turning out to be a bit hard on pop music visionaries. And what have I got to say about Prince that hasn’t already been said with more eloquence? I’m not sure. But my awareness that the question is moot, so far beside the point that it really doesn’t warrant much thought, owes at least a little something to one facet of what made Prince great.
I have been trying to recall what my first exposure to Prince’s music was. I know it was in 1982, the year that I’d moved from Little Chute, Wisconsin to Minneapolis. I’m pretty sure it was the song “1999,” on KQRS, the relatively staid album rock station that played Led Zeppelin’s “Over Hills and Far Away” every, single, day, of, the, week. Like other songs on KQ, I hardly listened when “1999” came on, knowing that, like the Who’s “Athena” and “Eminence Front” or the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, it didn’t require proper attention because it was sure to be played again and again and again with lobotomizing regularity.
More evocatively I remember the next fall, driving around with a new buddy, Steve (how many friends have I had named Steve, and just what does that say about me if anything other than the fact that every third guy from my age group was named Steve?), certainly one of the coolest people I’d met in my life at that point (sorry, Harold!), perhaps we were on our way to the Philip Glass/Joanne Akalaitis collaboration The Photographer, the day I would have had my first taste of 151 rum, purchased by his father in South America and smuggled into Minnesota, the liquor evaporating on my tongue, leaving the specter of a flavor rather than the full-bodied taste that I would only come to experience and appreciate later in life when I would give it the time and attention it required of me, and he asked me if I knew Prince’s music. When I said I didn’t, except for snippets of the song “1999,” he told me I would like him, slid the CD 1999 into the player, and blasted it in all its catchy, funky glory.
But I didn’t really stop and listen, just listen, to Prince until I first heard “When Doves Cry,” opening with that amazing, hot, slightly middle-eastern sounding guitar lick that is overtaken by a weird synthesizer/vocal part until the texture reduces, skeletal but evocative, to keyboard and percussion, then just percussion and voice. And the song continues, stark, tuneful, compelling, always making me sorry when it ended with a keyboard part that sounded like it was running up and out of the song. I had never really heard anything quite like it on the radio before, though it had a kind of pop-aural surrealism to it like other music I was getting into at the time—Peter Gabriel (I later learned that around this time Wendy and Lisa turned Prince on to Security as well as to Mahler, whom the Purple One avidly listened to), Robert Fripp, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Discipline-era King Crimson, and soon Tom Waits—and I knew I was in love.
Now that he’s gone and the well-deserved tributes are rolling in from every corner—they lit the Eiffel Tower purple!—we’re seeing just how many lives were touched by Prince, how many were moved by his music, his example, and his earthquaking, ass-shaking originality. But for all of his manufactured mystery, some of which seemed like it flowered from a quirky sense of humor more than anything, what made him original wasn’t that his work seemed to spring from nowhere. Rather, it was that we could see where his musical ideas came from—James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Parliament, Sly, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell—but Prince channeled them, and other less obvious sources, in ways that were wholly unique to Prince. He didn’t need to be an original by denying the past or pretending it had never happened but rather by doing his own thing with it. As the great iconoclast playwright and novelist Alfred Jarry once wrote: “We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well. But the only way I can see of doing that is to use them to put up a lot of fine, well-designed buildings.”
And it is that, more than stories of him wandering around Paisley Park in his jammies and slippers nuking microwave popcorn, as fun and human as they might be, that brings Prince nearer to us, for all his virtuosity and talent. We can all do what he did in the sense that we all can be original, and in fact are original, in same way Prince was, by just being ourselves. We don’t have to reject or deny anything to do that, though we may have to do that too, there being no end to the choices presented to us in the ever-branching path of our lives. But it is in the fullness of our embrace of what shows up that we find ourselves, express ourselves. Prince was original, he was Prince, solely by expressing his joy, his loves, his desires, the best he could.
And that’s what Prince taught us—how to be ourselves—if we really listened.