Prince: may u live 2 see the dawn
This isn’t one of those canned celebrity obituaries that you hear about that media companies keep on file in case of the untimely passing of an artist, actor, etc., in this 24-hour news cycle we live in—one where timeliness and the race to be first supersedes filing something with measured thought and emotion, although to be fair some of those have been published in the time since Prince’s untimely passing on April 21. I never met the man, although I shared a building with him and thousands of others in 1998 and 2004 on different tour stops, so it’s not as if I have some funny or personal story to tell like Questlove or Jimmy Fallon or Kevin Smith. All I have to share are the memories I have of what his music and showmanship meant to me.
At the 2004 concert, I remember being amazed at how incredibly tight his band was musically and how he commanded with his body movements to just watch him. Midway through his set, the band members left the stage, and Prince was just as effortless and engaging with only his voice and a single instrument singing “Little Red Corvette” on a stool.
I’ve been familiar with his music for years, and yet I only saw Purple Rain for the first time just a couple of weeks ago in its brief re-release. Revoke my Prince fan pass now for being so late in seeing it. What’s funny is I ended up getting a private showing, not because I’m VIP, but because I went to an 11 AM Friday show. Hey, unemployment has its benefits, too. I was running a bit late getting to the show, and as my eyes adjusted as I walked into the theatre, I noticed that there wasn’t one other person there. I’ve heard livelier accounts of other tribute showings of Purple Rain since his passing… ones where people were getting up and dancing to “The Bird” during the middle of the film and singing along to those wonderful hits, but there was also something cathartic about seeing it by myself.
Through the lens from someone who’s always known him as a bona fide star, it’s a little silly to think about his character being in danger of losing his spot at First Avenue. Even in context of the film, it’s difficult to believe it. There’s such energy to his performances and the music is top notch that it’s unfathomable that he’s relegated to being employed by only one venue in one city. But I get it, it’s just a movie and I was still entertained.
As the credits ended, I noticed the parting line, “May u live 2 see the dawn.” The dawn… when the day is new and anything is possible. Did he ever show us possibility. A man who conquered more instruments than I care to name, wrote an ungodly amount of material for himself and others, produced some of the best music you’ll ever have the pleasure of hearing, of dancing to, of feeling turned on by. A man who encouraged us all to go crazy, to push boundaries, to ask, “Not how much of your time is left but how much of your mind, baby?” A man who played with gender roles in his appearance and voice (see Camille) is typically shunned by the macho crowd, and yet eventually he won over acceptance by most, my mother not withstanding. She and I talked a bit about his passing last week, and her comments revolved around how she never really cared for his music (Really… “Kiss”? Nope. “Let’s Go Crazy”? She didn’t remember it. “1999”? She wrinkled her nose.) and just thought he was “weird.” Hey, your loss, Mom.
Not that I’m comparing their musical talents, but because of the relative space they shared on the radio and in my childhood and beyond from the ’70s through the ’00s, I don’t even remember being quite so much in a tailspin even when MJ died. And I consider myself a bigger Michael than Prince fan. Or at least I used to. Prince was just so prolific. As I’ve been digging deeper into the world of Prince (a big thanks to Prince Vault), I’ve been in musical quicksand. Just when you think you’ve got a good grasp on his catalog, you learn about offshoots like Madhouse and the Family, writing and playing on albums for everyone from Madonna to Martika to Celine Dion, and for intentionally leaving his name off of projects so the focus could be on the music and not on Prince doing a jazz album.
He moved about from the secular to the sacred seamlessly. For every track like the raunchy (and relentlessly funky) “Gett Off,” there’s a track like “The Ladder” that could easily find its way to your Sunday morning church service’s closing number.
There’s just so much material to go through, to appreciate, and to understand. The man was cranking out so much material, and quality material at that, throughout the years that Warner felt it had to protect its business interests by not flooding the market with Prince’s uncanny ability to just keep churning out more. But how do you stop a river, a force of nature, named Prince?
Enough can’t be said about the programmers of XM’s Channel 50 (The Groove) over the last few weeks (and sadly, as of this week, they’re back to the regular programming). Those folks deserve a programming award of some kind. After the first couple of days of taking calls from fans to pour their hearts out over the loss, they turned it into a 24-hour Prince Tribute channel where you got to hear tracks from throughout his career that served the uninitiated and the hardcore alike. Sure, they played the big hits like “Purple Rain,” “U Got The Look,” “Cream,” and so on, but they played live tracks from One Nite Alone, from The Rainbow Children, from Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, related side projects, even unreleased tracks, and the nasty stuff like “Sexy MF” and “Feel U Up.” The rules are different for XM since it’s a paid subscription compared to the free public airwaves, but these few weeks showed one of the great advantages that satellite radio has compared to terrestrial radio. One: no way could your local radio station play “Sexy MF,” but most stations wouldn’t bother to take a look beyond about a dozen songs for their tribute shows. Two: Local stations are too afraid to lose advertising dollars. Perhaps the best compliment I can give to The Groove’s programming staff is that last week when I got in the van with my family and switched it from Kidz Bop to The Groove just to see what was playing, my wife looked at me very deliberately and said, “No, I can’t take any more Prince.” I was hooked like a fiend. And when she got out of the car at our first stop of running errands, you can be damn sure I flipped it over to listen while I waited in the car, if even for only a couple of songs.
Over the last year, I’ve been purging my music collection to try to contribute to a savings fund for buying a new house. And while I’m kicking myself now for getting rid of some out of print stuff like Newpower Soul and Emancipation, which are going for more than I care to pay on online sites, at least I held on to The Gold Experience. Even as recently as the week before Prince’s passing it was on a pile, not once but twice, to go to the local Half Price Books where I’d have probably gotten something ridiculous like $0.50 for it because they’re known for lowballing on CD offers, in general. Its place on the Sell pile wasn’t a reflection on its artistic merits but had to do more with the fact I hadn’t listened to it in several years. After listening to it again while in between school pickups for my kids, I put it back in the Keep pile. “Endorphinmachine” slays. Then April 21 happened, and from an economic perspective alone, I was happy I didn’t have to shell out $80 for it on Discogs. It’s not like I could even have gotten a stream of it through Tidal as it’s not available there either.
YouTube on the other hand has become alive with television performances from Arsenio, NAACP Image Awards, the MTV Musicology special, after shows recorded from some shitty camera, official videos, unreleased material, etc. In other words, everything that would have been taken down very quickly were Prince alive. I’m guilty of partaking. It was nice to see the NAACP performance again as I remember watching it on TV when it originally aired. I was/still am a Frank McComb fan, and I knew he was performing with him that night. I went nuts in my living room when they went into “Housequake.” The MTV Musicology special, which I don’t recall seeing before, has a wonderful acoustic segment that has a medley of “Cream,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “Sweet Thing” (Rufus/Chaka cover), “Proud Mary” (CCR cover), and “Sometimes It Snows in April,” a song that has taken on an entirely new meaning since he died in April and ironically enough was recorded on April 21, 1985, thirty-one years to the day that he passed. (Be sure to check out D’Angelo’s jawdropping and heartfelt version.)
I’m taking an educated guess he’d be none too pleased about how rampant his material has come to be heard without compensation. He fought for his right to have control of how his music was to be heard, and who am I to tell an artist he’s wrong in wanting to be compensated appropriately? I don’t question God, the Creator, so why should I get to question a creator of his own art? Other artists should be thankful that one of their own fought so vehemently for his rights. While his tactics were curious and often bold with Warner, he at least had the fortitude to fight for what he believed in.
It’s odd to live in a world void of his presence, creatively and physically. His body used to occupy a space on this Earth, and now that, too, has vanished from this realm just like the guitar he threw up never to come down during the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Prince in past tense seems foreign.
I was watching a recent episode of The Blacklist where Reddington was going through a trunk of Agent Keen’s (who died on the show) belongings—baubles, pictures, books – and that’s all so many of us “normal” people leave behind: things. As another example, when my grandfather passed away three years ago, of all the stuff left behind to go through, one thing that mattered most to my aunt was to make sure I got a recording of his mailbox greeting from his answering machine so she could have a copy to be able to hear her father’s voice—probably a five-second recording—because that voice had now been extinguished. Similarly, my own father died when I was five months old, and my mom has an audio tape of him somewhere of a recording that I need to become more familiar with. As it is, I couldn’t pick my own father’s voice out if my life depended on it as I have no memory of it.
But Prince, on the other hand, we have so much to remember him by. Hours of recordings are available to hear him communicate his gifts from his soul through a microphone or one of his many guitars or a piano, either in our own collections or available at our local music stores. We have that incredible Super Bowl halftime performance where when just before showtime asked if he was okay with performing in the rain, Prince replied, “Can you make it rain harder?”
To quote “Let’s Go Crazy” again, “There’s something else. The afterworld.” In Prince’s, I hope there’s peace, something perhaps that mimics the cover of Around The World in a Day with beautiful blue skies overlooking a calm waterfront with that ladder for those who found salvation to climb. A world where doves no longer cry because there’s never ending happiness. A world of gold. A world where you can always see the sun. Day or night.
There’s a cruel irony that his last living moments were spent in an elevator, given that famous opening intro/sermon of “Let’s Go Crazy.” But Prince, ever the showman, punched a higher floor.
Thank you, Prince Rogers Nelson and all of those who created and performed with you over the years for all of the incredible music you’ve shared. Our lives would be filled with less joy without them.
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