“I don't believe in time. I don't count,” Prince once said in an interview with Notorious magazine (via Vulture). “When you count, it ages you."
That’s how Prince could be 57 years old, and also still seem ageless, and still seem like the baddest motherfucker on the planet. Just last month, there he was, in an outfit made out of a leather orange creamsicle, tipping his afro to Black Lives Matter, still slicker than your average. It’s also why it seems impossible that Prince Rogers Nelson, Minneapolis’ greatest son, could be, after being found in Paisley Park, dead now. No cause of death has been announced yet, but it seems like the bout of flu that grounded his plane last week was more serious than just a bug. Prince wasn’t supposed to go out like this, man. Part of me hopes that this is an elaborate hoax to get Prince out of some jam with a record label, or that Prince didn’t die of the flu, but died instead because Morris Day enacted the final part of his revenge plot. But the reality remains: as your social media feed has told you, Prince is dead at 57.
There’s this tendency to call out public social media grieving as “performative” like everyone tweeting “R.I.P. Prince” is just putting on airs and trying to get those pity likes for their timely tweet, even though they didn’t listen to “Raspberry Beret” in the 10 minutes before they heard Prince died. But that ignores that all grief is performative, and it ignores the reality that to live in 2016 is to live in a world that Prince helped create. He was the guy—along with Michael Jackson, forever his foil; I can’t wait for the thinkpieces comparing them and detailing their battles in the ‘80s—who brought black music to MTV. He put rock in R&B and then made that the new popular music through his own magnetism and star power. He exploded color, genre, and gender lines. He was the guy who made wearing purple cool (no Prince, no Future, believe that). He threw away albums because he didn’t like them, and those albums were probably better than anything your fave ever made. He was the guy who proved that even if you’re 4-foot 11, you can still be the coolest guy in the room. He went by one fucking name. You realize the kind of coolness that’s required to go by one name professionally?
Prince was an artist that felt like a constant; he’s been famous since before I was born, and I assumed he’d be famous and making music even after I was dead, even if that makes no sense. Like David Bowie, who also was taken from us too early this year, Prince never stopped working; he put out two albums just last year, and both of them totally ruled. When I heard he died I remembered being 3 or 4, and singing along to “When Doves Cry” when the video was on Vh1, back when my family used to pass lazy Sundays around our TV watching music videos. I remembered one of his videos from his sexed-up ‘90s period, the one that my mom made me and my sister close our eyes for; We were allowed to appreciate Prince’s music, but his video was too racy.
One of the vagaries of our tuned-in digital society is that I am not going to be able to pepper this write up with links to his music, or a plethora YouTube videos of him performing. Prince didn’t buy that places like Spotify or YouTube were good for his career; he was probably right, plus those places didn’t pay him as much as Tidal would, which is the lone digital house of his music. This is where the “streaming music allows you to have all music every recorded at your fingertips!” party line on streaming falls apart: Prince isn’t on Spotify, so Spotify is desperately flawed. I’m not going to advocate for his estate to pump his catalog to every outlet now for the quick buck, but I will say it’s a goddamn shame I can’t flip my 15-year-old cousin a Spotify link of “Batdance” right now. Prince even did cash-in soundtracks better than anyone else.
My cousin probably knows him better through The Chappelle’s Show skit, to be honest. And Prince seemed to have a sense of humor about it; plus he never publicly denied any of Charlie Murphy’s fanciful tale of being housed by the Purple One on the B-Ball court. That’s been a wistful part of Prince dying: getting to revisit all of the crazy stories people tell about the guy. Like the tale of clucking over Michael Jackson sucking at Ping Pong, or Prince showing up to rollerskate with Questlove with custom rollerskates. Prince nearly getting duffed out by Carlos Boozer over fucking up Boozer’s house. The fact that he’d never let reporters carry a recorder when they interviewed him so he could never be directly quoted. He apparently once showed up to a record store, bought their Prince bootlegs, and left without saying anything. The man will forever be a “can you believe this shit” bar story as long as “When Doves Cry” plays on dive bar jukeboxes.
Watching the limited videos that are available on YouTube made clear an element of Prince’s music that has often been underrated, if that’s possible: He was an incredible guitar player. Maybe the best since Jimi incredible. I mean, watch this:
Which leads me to a part of his biography that will serve as the B-material in newspaper obituaries the world over: the years in the ‘90s when he went by a symbol instead of as by his name (and made boatloads of music that deserve a serious critical reappraisal; there are classics there). It was wildly mocked in popular culture at the time, and it was sorta ridiculous (his label had to send out floppy disks with font updates so music publications could still cover him…another great Prince story). But he did it because he was pissed that Warner Brothers didn’t promote one of his albums the way he wanted, and they were also telling him that releasing 2-3 albums a year was not a good strategy for them, at a time when he was basically living in the studio making new albums. He wanted to release albums, and as many of them as he wanted, when he wanted to, and his label said no, forcing Prince to put dozens of songs and albums in the vault (more on that in a minute). So, in retaliation he changed his name to a symbol, and eventually got out of his Warner contract when they released some greatest hits comps. Prince, from within the major label system, fought for more freedom than any indie band. He eventually got it.
And about that vault: Prince had been threatening to let loose the entirety of everything buried in his purple vault in Paisley Park for years, and you have to imagine there is going to be a great Tidal wave of “new” old Prince albums in the next few years. It’s going to be a fun exercise to see how the stuff he’s sat on for years—especially since there are reports of dozens of songs recorded between 1999 and Purple Rain—stacks up against the stuff he actually did release. But still, it’s not going to feel the same as knowing that Prince won’t be ensconced at Paisley Park, releasing his lost classics knowing he was the best.
When Michael Jackson died—sorry Prince, you’ll always be two sides of the same coin with that guy—there was a lot of ink spilled about how Jackson represented the final death of a popular consensus; he was the last great musician we could all agree on. Not everyone agreed on Prince—he was too obsessed with sex (he was an update of Marvin Gaye that way), and he probably made too many albums to be universally beloved by the monoculture. But it’s hard to imagine we’ll have another musician who can inspire notes from the sitting president, and a perfect and hilarious story in the Onion. I made it this far without mentioning that the guy had a legit hit movie (Purple Rain would have made $150 million in today’s dollars), that’s how singular and incredible he was.
Prince was too rare to live, and too rare to die. I’m gonna go put on Sign ‘O’ the Times and eat some wings in my purple basketball shorts. And cry like a dove.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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