When the first text came I didn't even believe it. Nor did I believe the second one. Sitting in an airport, waiting for a delayed flight with no one to talk to I wasn't going to believe it until I saw it on the NY Times website. I checked my phone, and according the news it did seem that someone died at Paisley Park, but it could be anyone -- a janitor, or a woman who was staying there. I'd seen him on stage too many times in the past few years to believe someone possessing that kind of vibrancy, energy, and yes, life force, could suddenly be gone. And then it was true. And that seemed absurd.
Michael Jackson's death -- surprising, tragic and too soon to be sure -- at least in retrospect makes a kind of sense: he was too frail for this world. The news of the deaths of Bowie, Lou Reed, Donna Summer, Whitney, Amy, and all the rest who've died in recent years, were shocks to the system but not complete, unfathomable surprises. With the exception of Amy we had them for a long time, and they'd already given us so much. When we found out they were sick it was sad but not surprising; those of us who grew up on their music are older too.
As far as deaths of popular musicians go, not since John Lennon's murder has something seemed so unlikely. More than a week later, it's still hard to believe. I've written about Prince on this site more than any other single musician, and though I skipped his last shows here I intended to see him again. That I would be able to was a certainty about which I would have never thought twice.
I started following Prince when Controversy came out in 1981 and stuck with him pretty faithfully through the Ƭ̵̬̊ album, after which I spent six months overseas and came back some new musical interests I'd picked up in Greece and Turkey. By then I'd grown tired of waiting for The Black Album to come out, and Come was a disappointment. Then came all the albums that were either multi-disc sets or had to be bought online or in a Target store, and by that time I had all the Prince albums I needed, along with a sizable collection of 12"s.
I checked out for a while, and returned to him with Musicology. The Oakland stop on that tour was a revelation: Prince's musical prowess had grown exponentially during the years I'd stopped paying attention, and to me that show felt like I was witnessing something akin to experiencing James Brown in his prime years at the Olympia. As good as that show was, there would be even better ones to come, most notably the insanely diverse three-night stand during the Welcome to America tour, when each concert felt like an entirely different version of Prince showed up, as if he woke up every morning and asked himself "what kind of musical genius do I want to be today?" and once decided, he went out on stage and proved it true beyond any doubt.
I've been reading all these articles in the past week stating he was largely a cult figure until Purple Rain came out, but LA radio was all over 1999, and KROQ, KJLH, and KDAY all played tracks from Controversy (though usually not the same ones -- an early validation of Prince's appeal to diverse audiences from early on). I remember him getting booed off the stage when he opened for the Stones at the LA Coliseum and how a couple of years later he seemed to revel in the contrast of the sold out, adoring audience at the Forum during the Purple Rain tour. Prince didn't really change all that much between those gigs except that he got better. Much better.
Before the Purple Rain album came out, "When Doves Cry" was released as a 12" single (b/w "17 Days." I'd never heard anything like it (a funk tune without a bass line?) and had already memorized the track when I went to a new hip-hop club in LA called The Mix. Afrika Islam was the DJ that night, which also featured a set by Ice-T in his poppy, pre-gangsta mode, back when he was just a skinny dude who would rap on any and every record he could, most of which were crap. It was my first time watching a hip-hop DJ up close, and it was mesmerizing watching Islam scratch the song into a ten minute, mostly instrumental version.
Inspired, I was soon spending hours practicing with "Erotic City," the Jackson's "State of Shock," and Malcolm McLaren's "Hobo Scratch," "World Famous," and "Buffalo Gals." I never became very good, but I did manage to make one really good mixtape, the highlight of which featured a back and forth between "Irresistible Bitch" and the Time's "Tricky," fading out with the ending of "Computer Blue." I still have a copy of it, as well as all those vinyl records, nostalgic mementos of my own youth (though I long ago disposed of the mounted Vanity poster that hung above my bed).
Together, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna owned pop music during the 80s. Serving as rivals and inspirations to one another, each at the peak of their peak powers, they formed a triumvirate whose cultural influence is beyond measure, only matched by the one between the Beatles, the Stones, and the Beach Boys during the 60s. In each case, the competition left them all rich and famous, but the ultimate winners were the fans, left with catalogs that find audiences with each new generation of listeners.
The depth of this truth became obvious to me a week after Prince's death at the nightclub 1015 Folsom, which opened its doors for a free dance party celebrating his music. Jam-packed, people danced to a large band in the main room and to DJs in the three smaller rooms. The crowd, racially mixed, equally straight, gay, and ambivalent, dominated by people at an age that rarely finds them out late on a Thursday night at this point of their lives, only started to thin some time after 1:00 AM. That didn't surprise me, but what did were the groups of younger people in their early 20s who sang along with nearly every song, knowing all the words to even the more obscure ones like "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" and "Lady Cab Driver" -- songs which weren't hits, don't appear on compilations, and came out years before they were born.
Going to 1015 and dancing with a roomful of fans was my way of accepting what had happened, and felt like the only appropriate response. Beyond that, I didn't feel like I had much to say about Prince that I haven't already said here during the past few years. After a couple of days I began getting questions about why I hadn't written anything about him yet -- certainly I was going to write something? But I had no idea what to write because I had no idea where to start. It's only now I'm beginning to realize how much Prince's music has sunk into my brain over the last 35 years. I barely remember a thing about the Michael Keaton Batman movie, and maybe I shouldn't admit this, but to this day every time I notice an especially good-looking woman the funky part of "Batdance" cues up inside my mind and my libido pushes the play button with an involuntary sense of delight, beginning with "Who is that?" Vicki Vale..." and continuing on to the "Oh yeah, oh yeah, I wanna..." part. I should probably stop here, but there's more, and while there are probably dozens of ways to appreciate everything Prince did as a musician (it's good to read so many people finally acknowledging his incredible guitar skills), above all else, Prince was one sexy motherf*cker.
"Purple Rain," "Sign O' the Times," and "When Doves Cry" are arguably his greatest songs, but my favorites were always the funky ones, especially those that bristled with sexual swagger like "Hot Thing," "Let's Work," "Head," "DMSR," "Let's Pretend We're Married," "Sexy M.F.," "Irresistible Bitch," Cream," and "Gett Off." Even without the lasciviousness, there was a driving, sexual energy that pushed tracks like "Guitar," "Baby I'm a Star," "Housequake," "7" and "My Name is Prince" far beyond what others seemed capable of doing, creating music that not only grooved, but at its best possessed a volatility that seemed capable of overflowing into something dangerous, exciting, and fun.
Then there was the strangeness and aloofness that both defined him and left him a mystery to most of us, leaving us never knowing what was a put-on and what was real. How do we reconcile the Prince who among other things turned Dave Chappelle's pancakes and basketball skit into an album sleeve, the one who taunted Apollonia as she stood topless in Lake Minnetonka, and who created texting shorthand long before anyone texted, with the Prince who was a Jehovah's Witness, the on-and-off again social media presence, internet vigilante, and hit-and-run touring artist? The contradictions, which were endless, and alternated between being fascinating and frustrating, became an accepted part of who he was: he was Prince, and he could anything he damn well pleased. Thankfully for us, he did it during our lifetime.