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Prince was 5'2" but too big to wrap your head around.
Definitely too big for TV and newspapers. So many reporters have lost their jobs, and the consequence is a dismaying shallowness to what we see and read. It's especially obvious when something like this happens, something that really matters. Reporters are scrambling like dogs on ice.
Prince was an '80s rock star. Purple Rain, the unpronounceable glyph years, the Super Bowl, oddball fashion. And in other news...
OK, but this is why Prince mattered to me: he was a weird little dude, but he was our weird little dude. He was one of us: a guy who loved American rock/funk music, everything about it, and he dedicated his life and his talent to it.
For twelve years, from 1983-95, Prince was up in that rarified air where his throwaways and curiosities could have been someone else's whole career. He would toss off guitar fills at the end of tunes that could have gotten a lesser man a house in Malibu.
But his career was longer and better than that.
Prince was, from dawn to end, one of the best rock/funk guitarists alive. And one of the best rock/funk keyboardists. And one of the best rock/funk producers. And one of the best rock/funk songwriters. And one of the best rock/funk singers. He was the musical bridge between Joni and Earth, Wind & Fire, between Parliament and Page. And lord, he could dance.
He fought for what he believed in and he wrote about what he believed in, often at great cost to himself, and often on behalf of his fellow musicians. He was whipsmart. (It's odd not just that two of the most important people in American music came from Minnesota -- Dylan and Prince -- but two of the smartest guys in music, too.)
He loved hot, younger women. (In rock and roll? Say it ain't so!) But every rock fan knows the rumor: Prince was unusually giving, and I don't mean with money. Whatever the truth was, women didn't usually walk away from him angry.
He was, famously, a control freak in the studio. He wanted it to sound just exactly perfect, and it's astonishing how often he got what he wanted. More than anyone else who ever lived, the studio was his instrument, and he never stopped exploring it. His albums from the last few years, once you get past the "Hey, this isn't Little Red Corvette" expectations, all have great moments, and some of them -- Musicology, 3121 -- are fantastic. His second-to-last album, Art Official Age, has an elegiac quality that is especially poignant right about now.
As good and as interesting as his studio work was, though, Prince's real glory, if you ask me, was live shows. There was no such thing as a Prince show that didn't leave you talking for days.
His performance schedule was eccentric in the extreme, possible only if (1) you're really good and (2) you want to keep yourself and your audience on it's toes. He played arenas, theaters and clubs, often all on the same tour.
He did huge, massive rock-event type runs. (He once sold out nearly a month at the O2 Arena in London.) He did a Vegas residency in a club at the Rio Hotel he had designed especially for him. He'd play a two-and-a-half-hour arena show, then show up at a place like the Fillmore in San Francisco later that night and play from 2 to 5. Lately, he'd been doing guerrilla shows, unannounced until shortly before he went on stage. And we're not even talking about Paisley Park and his turns in and around Minneapolis.
I was lucky enough to see him four times.
In Cleveland, at what they used to call a legit theater, he came out, acknowledged the crowd, cued his band, sat down on the lip of the stage with his guitar and played a long, soulful instrumental piece that would have made Jerry Garcia grin all day.
In Las Vegas, he showed up at a club at 2 am and turned my scowling girlfriend, who'd stood, waiting, for four hours, into a barefoot funk goddess. (At the end, as we walked out of that show, the floor was littered with beer cups and heels.)
I ended up in the second row at a Las Vegas arena a couple of years later. Prince was playing on a rotating stage, so I spent half the show staring at his ass. I'm here to tell you, that ass put on quite a show.
The last time I saw him, at the Coliseum Arena in Oakland, Prince sat down at the keyboards, brought Carlos Santana out and gave him his band for a couple of numbers. Best Santana show I ever saw. But then Prince casually topped him later with a show-stopping guitar turn on Purple Rain. Who can do that?
He'd play an offhand medley -- "hey, was that a verse from Raspberry Beret, no, no, here comes Cream, oh, fuck, it's Crimson and Clover! DMSR!" -- that would leave you frustrated that you'd only be hearing snatches of songs you loved. But it was a set-up: he'd leave the medley and launch into a funk workout you'd never heard before, blaze through it for eight minutes, and you'd be locked into Princespace. As he knew you would.
I'd recommend a live album so that you can hear it for yourself, but here's one of the oddest things about his career: in 35 or so years, Prince never released a proper live album. (He did a couple of download things through now extinct Prince music clubs, but at this point, they're difficult to get in a format that doesn't butcher the original sound.)
I hope like hell that his estate, which Prince worked so hard to get under his control, has an executor who will do something like the Grateful Dead did -- bring in someone to lovingly and intelligently curate a series of live concert releases.
Losing Prince means we've lost a great musician, of course. It also means we've lost someone who loved American music and celebrated it every way he knew how. We've lost a good friend.
Jeff Beresford-Howe is an American writer living in Shanghai, where he will be quite happy to never again hear the phrases "post-" or "math-rock." Read more of his writing here:
Bob Dylan: An Appreciation of How He Is Now
Good Morning Aztlan: Music Reviews
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