The Day the Music Died. Again.
Posted on April 21, 2016 by Blake Leath
Prince died today, age 57.
It's been a rough 2016. We've already lost a lot of great artists this year, and it's only April 21st.
One would be hard pressed to find anyone under, say, 65, who either doesn't know who Prince is, or who doesn't have a story or anecdote about him. Prince didn't perform the soundtrack to my life, but if my life had a soundtrack, he would certainly be on it.
I have recollections of his music dating as far back as 1979, and I can remember—clear as day—the ratty little theater and the names and faces of high school friends who sat, equally enraptured, watching 1984's breakout movie Purple Rain.
Not twenty feet from here I have a turntable, and against that turntable is a stack of Prince vinyls.
On January 12th of this year, I sat at Burgers and Brew on the UC Davis campus, downloaded HITNRUN Phase Two, mashed earbuds deep into my ears, and must have played the buoyant new song Baltimore about two dozen times in the span of ninety minutes, noshing on a guacamole burger with pepper jack cheese, sweet potato fries, and that elixir of life, Dr Pepper. It was a typically gorgeous California evening and, as one thing leads to another, I eventually found myself on Wikipedia, then on site after site after site recounting his childhood, his musical influences, his recording contract difficulties, his litigious copyright attacks on fans and others who surreptitiously used his content without permission, his infamous record deal emancipation, his inscrutable moniker (TAFKAP era), his recent health difficulties, his religious beliefs, his concert dates, his forthcoming autobiography, his on and on and on.
I came across countless photos, of course, but one, in particular, caught my eye. He was standing on a tarmac beside a small private aircraft, just a few weeks prior (circa December 2015) to perform a private concert for some queen or socialite. Beside him was his bodyguard, who held his black leather duffel bag and personal effects. And in Prince's hand was a snazzy walking cane.
It made me feel sad, worrying a bit—for perhaps the first time—about his health.
I read of rumors regarding his recent ailments, including chronic difficulties with his hips (having performed so physically over the years in high heels, and periodically coming down wrong on one stage or another). As the tabloids would have you believe it, he allegedly refused to pursue double hip replacement surgery because it would require a blood transfusion, verboten among Jehovah's Witnesses.
Interesting as it was, he had denied it all.
No matter; it's irrelevant.
As we each do, I wandered and puttered and clicked and investigated one story after another while the music played and college kids and professors out with their families swirled around me on this gorgeous deck beneath an enormous swaying tree, eating and imbibing, everyone warming her and himself beside outdoor heaters like moths beside flames.
I remember thinking to myself, "He has outlived Michael Jackson. I'm glad he's still with us. He's endured a lot."
I then recalled a story from a friend, Bonnie, who had once seen Prince perform in some small, sweaty bar in Minnesota, years ago, in the early 2000's. Apparently, it was during a low point in his career, and what he preferred as an 'intimate venue' sounded, according to her, more like a literal dive. "Everyone was ignoring him, carrying on, shouting over his music. He was standing right there. It was bleak."
Oh, how times change.
In the years immediately following Purple Rain, he could have filled something as large as an AT&T Stadium to the rafters. As recently as the past few years, he sold as many shows as he wanted.
But yes, he was known for being reclusive, and for playing lots of private gigs, but also for recently appearing on TV and at random theaters and awards shows. It would seem he was becoming less 'shy,' if that's a word one might associate with Prince.
Clearly, all careers—particularly public ones—have their fair share of ups and downs, highs and lows, springs and winters. Prince was no different in this regard; no one is immune from failure, much less the changing tastes and aesthetics of a fickle public. Everyone tires of most everyone and everything after a while, particularly when they are as omnipresent as someone like Prince or, say, Phil Collins, once a darling of radio, now a virtual clichéd schlocky pariah.
Prince was always, however, timeless. A true maestro; master of the hook, the beat, the wonderful riff and soaring guitar solo, and dominator of some thirty-odd instruments. He was similarly a starmaker, a ghostwriter, album producer extraordinaire, and the flawless performer of Purple Rain the single which, clocking in at nearly seven minutes, was good enough on stage to make the released album in one single take.
Whether writing something as bare, sparse, and stripped down as Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U or producing something as elaborate as a multi-city concert with pyrotechnics and thirty musicians in tow, Prince was a luminary, a whistling thrush, a virtuoso from whom music emanated as naturally and essentially as from a songbird.
He always sang his little heart out, all 5' 2" of him.
I shall miss him dearly, as shall hundreds of millions more, evidenced by his breaking both the internet and every streaming music service today.
Public controversies, private and personal missteps, and periodically profane musical pursuits notwithstanding, he had talent galore, voice, and something to say. He had a point of view. In a world of same-same and derivation, it is refreshing to hear someone who, like he, continued to grow, to evolve, to create, to challenge convention; to reinvent and remain relevant, releasing as many as three new studio albums in the past two years alone, each of which possesses one gem or another.
That's remarkable. Lots of artists become jukeboxes, repeating their hits into oblivion, snapping the record needle off the arm. Prince created anew again and again and again. I admire that.
Say what you will about his shortcomings and failings; he lived. He produced songs as iconic today as they were thirty-nine years ago, and I doubt very much that's something we'll be saying about Bieber, West, et al. in 2049.
The music industry has changed to its core, and we've lost lots of great folks recently, but I thank my lucky stars—as perhaps you do, too—that I got to experience Prince in his heyday. At the height, dancing as a dorky teenager to amazing songs played on someone's thunderous boombox at a summer of '85 barn party at Babler's. And at the lowest, retrieving an ejected cassette from my CJ7, totaled in '86, just relieved I'd snatched the slippery tape before the wrecker hauled the larger muddy mess away in the rain.
Lots and lots of memories with that guy.
Good and bad, I treasure them all.
Thank you, your Purple Bedazzled Highness.
May you rest in music, forever bathed in His light and surrounded by fluttering doves that coo and never cry.