There were only three artists that I loved prior to getting my first CD player—Alice in Chains, Aerosmith, and Prince. That list only makes sense in context. Alice in Chains was the favorite band of the kid I went to school with who most closely personified my definition of “cool.” Aerosmith was the favorite band of my cousin, who first implicitly taught me how important music was to teenage identity. And Prince was the artist most often playing in my dad’s van, in the first year after my parents divorced and the majority of my time with my dad was spent on the road, driving to auctions and antique stores. That was what first taught me the importance of music as a necessity of daily life; not just to fill the silence, but to make the silence feel okay.
I never totally stopped liking Alice in Chains or Aerosmith, but they haven’t felt a part of my musical identity in well over a decade. Prince, on the other hand, throughout all of the changes and evolutions of my taste, is probably the only artist that I’ve always loved. I didn’t even get into Springsteen until probably my third year of seriously listening to music. But Prince was there since day one. When I think back on those days going junking with my dad, driving all over East Central Indiana, so much of the conversation was about what it meant to be interesting, to be intelligent, to ask questions and have a curiosity about the world. There were other things we listened to then (R.E.M., Fleetwood Mac, and Hendrix were all on constant rotation) but Prince is really the one that my subconscious has chosen to soundtrack those memories. And it’s perfect, because who better to help teach a kid about being interesting and curious than Prince?
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Years ago, I bought a book called “The Show I’ll Never Forget,” which features short essays by 50 writers talking about their favorite concert experience. The catalyst to my buying the book was that one of my favorite writers, Chuck Klosterman, wrote about seeing Prince. I strongly recommend finding and reading this entire essay, but here’s an extended sampling of several of the sentences it contains:
At 9:59 p.m., rock’s purple elf walked onstage and started making music. And it was so goddamn mesmerizing that I remember almost none of it. I had a notebook, but I didn’t take any notes. He was just so amazingly good at everything. There was a sixty-second span where he played a keyboard, a bass, and a guitar in immediate succession, and I think he played each individual instrument better than anyone ever had played them before, anywhere, during any historical period over the last eleven thousand years.
Prior to this concert, what I actually meant when I said “Prince is a genius,” was that, “Prince is considerably more creative and gifted than almost everyone else who aspires to do the things he does best.” By this criteria, there are a handful of other musicians who would qualify as geniuses. But those artists are not geniuses; they are simply very, very, very good at a vocation they have selected. That difference became weirdly lucid whenever Prince did anything onstage, including his attempt to have sexual intercourse with a piano. Eddie Van Halen plays guitar like a genius, but that’s something he figured out how to do. He turned himself into a genius, and that isn’t the same thing.
Prince doesn’t really deserve credit for being a genius because he is not a normal human. His ability to create and perform music is so inherent and instinctual that it cannot really be measured against normal criteria.
I saw Prince in 2004, and I experienced the same thing. Whether or not anything Prince does on stage is literally spontaneous or impeccably rehearsed, I have no idea. But Prince would just constantly prance around the stage, picking up instruments and playing them for a few minutes, or 10 seconds, then key one of his band members into a solo while leading the audience in glorified cheerleading, then decide a song was over and immediately fly into another one, or rather decide a song should continue when it seemed the band thought it was time to begin a new one. Some songs he played would stretch well over ten minutes. Other times there’d be a medley of six or seven songs in less than five minutes. Every moment felt like it was only determined by the whims of its immediate predecessor.
The way his shows come off is a bit like watching a star athlete have a truly transcendent game, where suddenly the idea of what’s even possible for them to do expands, both in the crowd and in the athlete themselves, simultaneously. In basketball, when the best players are really feeling it, everything gets amplified. The drives to the rim become hopelessly reckless, the contested threes become egregious—but when the buckets keep falling, and it feels like there won’t be a miss no matter what… that’s what Prince is like on stage. It’s this elevated form of talent manifestation that feels un-replicable. But that’s the weirdest thing about Prince: everyone that saw him live will describe that same experience. Prince replicated it, night after night.
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On many of Prince’s studio albums, he played every instrument. This feels amazing on the surface, but also laborious. It seems like an unnatural way to create music. But after seeing him live, it makes a degree of sense. Prince’s whims just seem to happen at an infinitely faster speed than anyone else could hope to keep up with.
That’s evident in his recorded output. I often compare Prince with Springsteen in my mind. Both started in the seventies, became super-duper-stars in 1984, and both excelled at virtually every aspect of pop musicianship—songwriting, lyrics, melodies, production, performing, band-leading, even cultivating their own myths. In Born to Run and Purple Rain, they released music's two greatest self-fulfilling prophecies. The one major difference beyond style is in their outlook to releasing music. Springsteen spent years agonizing over every release; Prince did not. In his first 15 years of recording, Prince released 15 albums. Two of them were double sets. Though he slowed down a bit since his messy divorce with Warner Bros. ended the first phase of his career in the mid-‘90s, he hasn’t slowed down much. In addition to several outtakes sets and side projects, he’s released an additional dozen or so proper albums in the 20 years since, and, sadly/appropriately, he died in his studio. If ever there was an artist that had to die in his studio, it was Prince.
I don’t know whether anyone has attempted to prove this, but it’s entirely possible Prince has officially released more songs than any other pop musician in history. Some of them were frankly not good. Many more feel average. But now they’re all we have him, and any arguments on the merits of quality control feel hopelessly beside the point. To think that Prince ever could have been the type of artist to only release a perfectly crafted masterpiece every three or four years is to entirely misunderstand the nature of Prince’s genius. The ideas were just happening too fast.
1984’s Purple Rain and 1980’s Dirty Mind are the best examples of what happened when his talent was keenly focused, but the more I think about Prince, it feels like focusing his talent is just too unnatural of a concept. It’s the two classic double albums, 1982’s 1999 and 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times, which really capture who Prince was. They’re all over the map, with short singles, long jams, rock, pop, funk, soul, gospel, sex, social justice, female vocalists, God, guitar solos, dance tracks, party anthems, live cuts, romance, experimentation, and even a song called “Starfish and Coffee.” They defy any attempt at categorization.
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Prince became one of those rare celebrities for whom any story seemed plausible. Some of the stories really are true: he really was booed off the stage while opening for The Rolling Stones in 1980; his 1984 song “Darling Nikki” is what led to the advent of the Parental Advisory sticker on CDs; in the mid-‘90s there was a period where he would only appear in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek, symbolizing how he felt about his record label; Prince is actually his birth name (full name: Prince Rogers Nelson). Other stories seem like they can’t possibly be true. I once heard that a show he played in the late ‘80s began with a bathtub being rolled out on stage, then Prince emerged from it, completely nude, and picked up his guitar and started the show.
Of all the bizarre, ridiculous stories out there about him that may or may not be true, I have a personal favorite. In 2004, when Prince and George Harrison were both inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the ceremony ended with an all-star jam of Harrison’s iconic Beatles song “While my Guitar Gently Weeps.” Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison, and several others played the first half of the song, with Prince kind of inconspicuously lingering on far stage right. About halfway through, Prince goes to center stage and completely hijacks the song, concluding it with a three-minute solo as gorgeous and epic as any you’ll ever hear. And, so the story goes, Prince claimed he had never even heard the song before he was asked to join the group in playing it.
Here’s the video, and as you watch it, try to imagine that, if the story is true, Prince didn’t spend days or years absorbing the melody and perfecting the solo. He’s (allegedly) just playing it by feel. Look carefully, and you’ll see Dhani Harrison watching Prince the same way guys on the bench watch Steph Curry. Dhani was raised by George Harrison, so he should be kind of used to amazing guitar playing, but Prince still had him laughing at how incredible it was. Hell, Prince might not have even known who the other guys on the stage were. They didn’t matter anyway. Only Prince could turn everyone else into his backing band.