It’s a sign ‘o’ the times.
First came Bowie, then came Frey, and then the Grim Reaper moved on to Dan Hicks, and Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson died on the same damn day! Rock’s killing itself.
And that’s what Prince was billed as. A black guy on a white label who was gonna revolutionize music just like previous one man bands like Paul McC and Todd the Wizard and True Star before him.
Only he didn’t.
You could get attention in the late seventies. We all read “Rolling Stone,” there were just a few music magazines, and we had to endure the story of this gremlin from Minnesota of all places with a wispy moustache who lied about his age and was gonna blow our minds.
He didn’t. The album didn’t live up to the hype, we thought he was done, like Jobriath and the rest of the two-dimensional acts with faces but little more.
And then came “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” An infectious one listen smash that sounds as fresh today as it did back in ’79, only this time the white people were not paying attention, Prince targeted the R&B market and hit one over the fence and most people didn’t know. Sure, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” ultimately made it to number 11 on the Hot 100, but this was when Top Forty was at its nadir, and every market played different records. So instead of being ubiquitous “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was something you heard in a stolen moment and asked…WHAT IS THAT?
Still, Prince was easy to dismiss, the track might have been a revelation, but it was not a revolution, it was steeped in the format and anybody can hit once.
Then there were the reviews for “Dirty Mind.”
This was when the only way to hear a record was to buy it. And I didn’t know another soul who bought the LP, and that’s what it was, this was still before CDs. I went to the store and came home, broke the shrinkwrap and dropped the needle and said… HUH?
This was a DISCO record! Hadn’t Steve Dahl just blown up the format in Chicago?
But the dirty little secret of disco haters is they love the beat, otherwise how could KISS have had success with one of their best tracks, “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”? And I loved “Dirty Mind,” I couldn’t help myself, you just had to hear it, although few did. It was an astounding production, youngsters should check it out, this is a one listen LP.
And the opener was the title track, but after that came what is still my favorite Prince cut, “When You Were Mine.”
“I know (I know)
That you’re going with another guy
I don’t care (don’t care)
‘Cause I love you, baby, that’s no lie
I love you more than I did when you were mine”
I was in my twenties, I’d had and lost love and these lyrics resonated. I’d stumbled in on my girlfriend and another guy, even though I was the one who pulled the ripcord, it HURTS!
The track is almost cheesy, kind of tongue-in-cheek, featuring a thin, high-pitched vocal. But all I could think was…HOW COME THIS ISN’T A HIT TRACK?
Because FM was still playing corporate rock and MTV was two years off and racism still ruled, Buddy Miles and Billy Preston seemed to be the only African-Americans tolerated in the rock world.
But the best track on “Dirty Mind” is probably “Uptown,” the second side opener. You drop the needle and can barely keep up, you’re following this ball of energy as he sings a tale about the hippest neighborhood in Minneapolis, before the internet made us aware of what was happening everywhere. That’s right, Prince never lost his roots, remember that scene in “Lake Minnetonka”?
And if you know your history, John Hinckley shot President Reagan and the Oscars were postponed a night and on the ultimate evening I went to Flipper’s Roller Disco to see Prince live.
That was my life, if I loved a record I had to see the act.
Only in this case, despite being in the heart of West Hollywood, there was hardly anybody there. Just me and about seventy five other people. And Prince came out and did his full act, jumped on the bed, mesmerized and overwhelmed us, good times were certainly rollin’! I was maybe seven feet away, feet planted, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, it was one of the three best shows I ever saw.
Bruce Springsteen is not the only act who made it via live performance, Prince was so stellar in concert that the pump was primed for his follow-up, “Controversy,” he even opened for the Stones…AND IT WAS A DISASTER!
Kind of like when I saw Van Halen open for Nils Lofgren at the Santa Monica Civic, before their album came out, I laughed, I thought they were a joke, David Lee Roth was Jim Dandy reincarnated. People booed Prince. I was there at the L.A. Coliseum, people couldn’t have cared less.
And then came “1999.”
The title track became the theme song of the millennium, for years before and right through New Year’s Eve.
But what put the LP over the top was “Little Red Corvette.”
Sure, Michael Jackson is credited with breaking the MTV color line, but Prince owned the format first. And his success was not based on production, but sheer charisma, it oozed out of the diminutive one’s soul. Certain tracks are so infectious, evidence such presence and personality that you just want to get closer, you need to get closer, human beings can really be this cool?
And then came “Purple Rain.”
“Hey, look me over
Tell me do you like what you see
Hey, I ain’t got no money
But honey I’m rich on personality!”
Not for long, when it comes to cash, that is. Prince was soon rich. Because “Purple Rain” was the phenomenon of 1984, a movie that played all summer when flicks didn’t only last a weekend. The album sold double digit millions. Because the audience finally caught up with Prince, he’d been waiting, time came.
This was not supposed to happen. It was miraculous that the man had survived the initial hype. Rock movies were flawed enterprises that tarred their participants, just ask Peter Frampton. But the flick had heart. And it had Prince. AND THAT WAS ENOUGH!
And then the legend was cemented.
And what exactly is that legend?
Well, Prince could certainly play. As could Frank Zappa. Two people famous for something else who had the chops.
But unlike Frank, Prince could sing, he had a great voice. And he could write hit tunes.
And they both had their finger on the pulse.
And it wasn’t only for himself. The Bangles cut “Manic Monday.” Sinead O’Connor covered and built a whole career upon “Nothing Compares 2 U.” And Tom Jones was brought back from the dead and given a victory lap based on “Kiss.”
And Prince didn’t come from nowhere, he had roots, he tried to help Bonnie Raitt when she was in between labels, before her renaissance, and he loved Joni Mitchell, even covering “A Case Of You,” before everybody else. And even though “Under The Cherry Moon” flopped, Prince seemed to be able to throw off infectious tracks on a whim. Like “Cream.” And “Pink Cashmere.”
And then it all crashed.
PRINCE WANTED TO PUT OUT MORE MATERIAL!
He was ahead of the game, he understood the internet era, he knew artistry was not about marketing, that if you could not free your soul and create you were dead inside. And even Warner Brothers, his label, the best in the business, couldn’t understand, it was inured to the system. But the acts always know best.
And despite ultimately making more records none of them gained traction. One could say Prince was too old, had lost the plot, but we all had, there was too much music at our fingertips and little stuck except for the catchiest of inane ditties.
And then came the Super Bowl.
Now if you think about the game’s highlights you cannot forget Namath and the ’69 Jets. But right behind that I’d put Prince’s performance. He owned not only the stadium, but the WORLD! That’s the power of music, the power of talent. Prince always had something to prove AND HE DID THAT NIGHT!
No one will ever equal it, they should retire the trophy, without overwhelming production but sheer will Prince grabbed us by the collar and made us pay attention, and wowed us in the process. That’s a performance, that’s a STAR!
And then came the shenanigans. The takedown notices, the pronouncements that the internet was over, Prince was wrong on nearly every account. But he was right about one thing, that the future was all about PERFORMANCE! The EXPERIENCE! And there was nobody plying the boards who was better than Prince. It was positively old school, it was about the music, not the trappings.
And now he’s gone.
He was still at the top of his game, albeit with a different focus. Records don’t mean as much these days, it’s all about the show, he was the king of the show, someone who always got our attention without begging for it, someone we could never count out.
Prince never repeated himself. He always took risks. He demonstrated his influences. He was about what felt right as opposed to what looked right. The business rejected him, but the fans embraced him. Because that’s what enthralls us, someone sui generis, who knows if they follow their own muse they resonate with us most. Prince never put his finger to the wind, never pored over the research, he believed in the power of his fingers and his mind, he just channeled God, to the point he approximated him.
Give him credit for not only integrating rock, but taking it out of the locker room. Wendy and Lisa were part of the Revolution, and Sheena Easton and Sheila E.’s bona fides were established on his back.
But that’s no surprise. Because Prince oozed sex. He was more magnetic than the North Pole. He just drew you in. He drew the whole nation in. To the point where even the President had to testify to his greatness.
That’s what our best artists do, testify. Tell us the truth. With their words, their music, their personality.
Not only doves are crying tonight.
He’s causing us a ton of sorrow, we’re experiencing a ton of pain.
I’m sure he’d want to see us laughing.
It’s a shame our friendship had to end. But his music survives, as does his legend. Years from now his music and career will be studied, to see how someone listened to no one but himself but got it so right.
He lived for us.
And now he’s gone.
I’m at loose ends.
(Videos after the jump)
Prince Performs “Purple Rain” During Downpour
I Would Die 4 U
Little Red Corvette
Prince Rocks the Muppets