I am not one to mourn celebrity deaths. Still, Prince’s passing yesterday really affected me. It was a mix of loss of my youth, the death of someone who seemed so vital, and the mourning of dropped threads -what had he been up to lately? I felt ashamed that I didn’t even know.
I also felt a sadness at the realization of the many things I hadn’t known about him. For example, he was an amazing guitarist. (There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that when someone asked Eric Clapton how it felt to be the world’s greatest guitarist he said, “I don’t know. Ask Prince.”). His guitar solo on the 2004 Hall of Fame all-star version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which got a lot of play on social media yesterday, is a revelation (video below). I hadn’t even known. And what I thought were the silly antics of changing his name to “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” weren’t antics at all, but a tactic to be able to keep recording when an overbearing studio system told him they owned the rights to the name on his birth certificate (yes, his mother actually named him Prince. I didn’t even know until yesterday).
I had a vinyl LP of Purple Rain at 14, the age I was when it came out. One of the bummers of buying music in the pre-iTunes days was that you had to buy entire albums, which often had two or three songs you really wanted to hear, and like 7 others which felt like filler. (You could buy single-play 45s, but even those had a B side). When you found an album that was electrifying start to finish, you knew you had something special. U2’s The Joshua Tree was one such album. Purple Rain was another.
I played Purple Rain endlessly back then, mesmerized and confused by what I was hearing. It was soulful, it was crazy, it was silly. I spent hours pondering the possible meaning of “Look for they purple banana ’til they put us in the truck.” What did the purple banana represent? The meaning of life? And the truck? It felt like I needed to know, although I never did.
I was shocked at the blatant sexuality in his lyrics (“Darling Nikki,” anyone?). I was moved beyond measure by his words. “Don’t make me chase you/even doves have pride.” I was energized and made to feel more alive by “I Would Die 4U” (“You’re just a sinner, I am told/ be your fire when you’re cold/make you happy when you’re sad.”) and “Baby I’m a Star” (“Hey, look me over/Tell me do you like what you see/Hey, I ain’t got no money/But honey I’m rich in personality”).
There was something subversive and bold about him, a courage I ached for at that age (and now). The man wore lace and midriff tops, for goodness’ sake, even while being unapologetically heterosexual. In ways I couldn’t even see then, he anticipated conversations on gender by several decades. And I don’t think he was even trying to.
I rediscovered him yesterday. I downloaded the Purple Rain album onto my phone. I was surprised at everything I hadn’t heard thirty years ago when I first listened to it until I knew all the words. The amazing guitar riffs. The obvious gospel influences. The sheer variety on the album, the range of his artistry. Knowing we had lost him made me profoundly sad.
I want to say something deep, something about his music living on. But maybe I’ll just let him say it with these lines from “Let’s Go Crazy”:
We’re all excited
But we don’t know why
Maybe it’s ’cause
We’re all gonna die
And when we do (When we do)
What’s it all for (What’s it all for)
You better live now
Before the grim reaper come knocking on your door.
Prince’s solo starts at 3:30
Also, a gorgeous tribute to Purple Rain by the cast of The Color Purple. Not to be missed: