Goodnight, sweet Prince: remembering a pop icon
When I first discovered Prince via a late-night showing of “Purple Rain” on VH1 early in the 2000s, I was transfixed. The static cling of our old Toshiba television wasn’t enough to shake my fascination with The Kid and his quest to reign supreme over the First Avenue nightclub. And as I dove further into the discography of His Royal Badness, I became overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the man’s talent.
The liner notes of Prince’s debut record For You reveal all one needs to know about how enormously talented he was: “produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince.” The list of instruments he could play — and play well — is simply staggering. On For You, he is credited as performing all vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, Orr bass, bass synth, singing bass, fuzz bass, Fender Rhodeselectric piano, acoustic piano, Minimoog, Polymoog, ARP String Ensemble, ARP Pro Soloist, Oberheim 4-voice, clavinet, drums, syndrums, water drums, slapsticks, bongos, congas, finger cymbals, wind chimes, orchestral bells, wood blocks, brush trap, tree bell, hand claps and finger snaps. Even Michael Jackson had Quincy Jones, Brian Wilson had the rest of the Beach Boys and David Bowie had a litany of collaborators. Prince had himself, and that was all he needed.
But then came the charisma. Not only could he sing with exceptional ability, he could also perform, dance and produce with extraordinary aplomb. He was a singular talent that was able to define an entire city’s sound in the late 1970s by crafting one of pop’s most intoxicating personas.
For someone like myself, Prince even helped open up a young mind to salacious concepts that I hadn’t yet attempted to broach. As I wallowed in my bedroom as a teenage hormone grenade, I would frequently look to Prince and his endless reservoir of sensual funk to better understand that elusive concept known as sex. Rather than dancing around the subject, Prince invariably got right down to what Raymond Carver described as “what we talk about when we talk about love.”
Tracks like “The Beautiful Ones,” “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” and incestous funk punk anthem “Sister” all played into the sex-obsessed dramatis persona he adopted for the stage. From the outset of his career in 1978 to its sudden close here in 2016, he never stopped confronting the topic with a transparency and freedom that is liberating and refreshing.
The wealth of artists and people inspired by this take on all things pertaining to the heart and loins is about a mile long. Most recently, Alan Palomo’s Neon Indian project drew mightily from Prince’s canon for VEGA INTL. Night School, with “News From The Sun (Live Bootleg)” especially being virtually indistinguishable from something off either Purple Rain or Sign O’ The Times. A lyric like “We’re all just waiting for something ‘till love touches you like a hand in the dark,” which Palomo uses to perfectly capture the idyllic nature of finding heartfelt love after a night out in pursuit of more lustful aspirations, simply would not exist with Prince.
Prince was obsessed with breaking down boundaries and finding new ways to express himself. Whether it be through his instruments, his lyrics or his performances, he was always seeking a way to tell people it was okay to feel things and feel yourself. Like Bowie, Prince was a pioneer of expression, and 2016 seems to be taking those away from us in droves.
For those of us that loved Prince and were so inspired by him, this loss will reverberate for a long time. But for those that never dove into his wealth of material — or, shockingly, never even knew who he was — now is the perfect time. Getting down and getting funky is exactly what he would have wanted.