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Prince: An appreciation

22 April 2016

Prince at Coachella 001

As VICE wrote: Fuck You, 2016. This year has, in less than four months, brought a seemingly unprecedented string of celebrity musician deaths: Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Maurice White, Sir George Martin, Keith Emerson, Merle Haggard, and, of course, David Bowie. But this week’s untimely death of Prince Rogers Nelson truly shocked his hundreds of millions of fans around the world. It’s fair to say that nobody saw this coming. And, with all respect to the other greats who’ve passed this year, we’d argue that only Bowie compares to Prince’s genius, innovation, commercial success and influence. We asked a few of our staff writers to share their thoughts. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments. R.I.P. Prince.

Chuck Foster

For as long as I can remember, Prince has been a part of my life. My mother was a big admirer, but, understandably, she never listened to him around me when I was young. As a child, he was that guy on MTV who, like Madonna, kept pissing people off.

It wasn’t until I was in junior high school that I became a full-fledged fan. I car-pooled with a family whose father was musically liberal, and my mind exploded hearing a steady rotation of Jane’s Addiction, Metallica, Peter Gabriel, REM and, of course, Prince. Hearing 1999 for the first time truly changed my life, as it was the first time I’d actually heard profane language used in rock’n’roll (“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” — that sleazy, grinding arpeggiated synth still drives me insane). I immediately stole my mother’s cassette of Controversy (which I still have) and became completely enamored by this mad genius.

“Prince’s music was completely unclassifiable. He may as well have a genre devoted to his own name.”

Prince’s music was completely unclassifiable. He may as well have a genre devoted to his own name. Though a pop star, his music transcended the tag as a biomechanical amalgamation of funk, psychedelia, soul, synth-driven new wave and hi-nrg disco. Hendrix guitar solos wailed over Patrick Cowley dance rhythms. Listen to “1999” and tell me it’s not a cyberpunk Sly and the Family Stone, then deny Ministry and Nine Inch Nails didn’t influence “Batdance.” The man ate, slept and breathed music — he could play every single instrument with precision and passion, and often did, especially on his early one-man-band albums. His lyrics preached a gospel of love, respect, open sexuality, intelligence and pacifism, all of which make right-wingers extremely uncomfortable.

In his later years, Prince became quieter musically, converting to the Jehovah’s Witness faith and waging a personal war against an internet that denied him royalties. It’s those early albums that still do it, though. Just about everything up to 1991 varies in degrees of genius — his later work less so, but still innovative. In between recording his own brilliant albums, he wrote astounding songs for The Bangles, Sinéad O’Connor, Sheila E. and Apollonia 6, among others. There must be a vault somewhere of his unused recordings — a treasure trove of weird originality. Hopefully we’ll finally get to hear it now.

We miss you, Prince, but, hopefully, you’ve found solace in the afterlife you so dearly loved. Goodbye, master.

Matthew Berlyant

I wish that I could say that I’ve loved Prince’s music for my entire life, but that would be stretching the truth. Of course, I was aware of him as a kid growing up in the ‘80s and heard a lot of his music on the radio and MTV, but I was 9 when Purple Rain came out, not 13 like an ex-girlfriend whose first concert was on that tour. Nevertheless, though I started to get seriously into music at that same age (13), my listening as a teenager was consumed almost exclusively first by classic rock, hard rock and heavy metal and then from the age of 15 onwards by alternative/indie rock and punk rock. I didn’t start really opening my musical horizons much further until my early 20s and that’s when I got into Prince.

I purchased both Hits sets and Purple Rain and from that point on, I was hooked and eventually bought just about everything he did up to and including the 1987 double album Sign ‘O The Times, i.e. the period that contains his greatest work. After picking up a biography in the mid ‘00s, I went through a phase where I listened to Around the World in a Day and Parade a lot, digging deep into his psychedelic period after the massive success he had with Purple Rain.

I have to admit here that what triggered my initial interest other than just general curiosity and the fact that I always liked the hits of his that I heard growing up was the fact that Elvis Costello had covered “Pop Life” in the mid ‘80s and tried to sample it on a 1997 track called “The Bridge I Burned” before being denied permission. In any case, during that slightly obsessive period I even watched all of his movies. Though Purple Rain and Under the Cherry Moon are fun (and the soundtracks contain 2 of the best records he ever made) and quite quotable despite their flaws, let’s just say that the soundtrack to Graffiti Bridge was much better than the film, OK?

“Prince seemed like one of those rare human beings who was super talented at anything he touched.”

What this proved, though, alongside his seemingly non-stop ambition, was that he was human. Simply put, Prince seemed like one of those rare human beings who was super talented at anything he touched, whether being the 6th man on a high school basketball team that won the Minnesota state title to his unparalleled musical career. Acting and directing, alas, were skills that he wasn’t nearly as accomplished in. It’s almost impossible to talk about Prince without talking about how much he recorded. With a work ethic that would make just about anyone aside from Miles Davis, *John Zorn, or Robert Pollard blush, he’s likely left behind enough unreleased recordings that hardcore fans will be satisfied for decades to come.

I only got to see him live once, a 2004 show on the Musicology tour at Madison Square Garden. The show was not a particularly good one, full of medleys and being in the cheap seats didn’t help, but though at the time it was disappointing given the astonishing performances he was known for and so capable of, now I look back upon it and am glad I got to see him even just that one time.

Fifty-seven is much too young and his death comes as a complete shock. Only David Bowie, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder in the 1970s and perhaps the aforementioned Costello from the 1970s to now have accomplished what Prince has done, which is to combine boundless curiosity, unlimited talent, stylistic diversity and a Herculean work ethic and yet achieve huge mainstream success despite or perhaps in part because of all of the above.

RIP to his Purple Majesty. There will never be another one like him.

Jeff Elbel

Our generation produced only one artist, pop songwriter, and entertainer who could be placed on par with James Brown. His skill as a musician was second to none. When I saw his final United Center concert in Chicago, I knew I was seeing one of the best rock and soul performances I’ll ever witness. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” has been a staple of my solo sets for years. My band just added it to a set originally designed in tribute to David Bowie for this weekend in Detroit. What a crusher. RIP Prince Rogers Nelson. We thought we’d have you around much longer.

Joseph Kyle

True story: back in 2014, after reading Prince’s biography, I felt compelled to write an article for the next print issue of my zine, The Recoup. The article was going to be a thorough re-examining of Prince’s 1990s output for Warner Brothers, during which he was fighting constantly with the label, releasing a slew of archival releases as current material and engaging in sonic experiments that often challenged both the label and his fan base.

I was going to examine these records to see if they were really as bad as the author of this biography had declared. I had many of them, and tracked down the rest: not always a cheap venture, but a worthy one. I got all of these materials together and started to pre-write, listen, and gather notes. I sat there, pleased about it all. One day, I came up with the perfect title: “Prince: The Slave Years” — a reference to his infamous appearance at WB meetings with the word “slave” written on his head. I was chuffed, proud of myself that I’d come up with a clever yet apt title.The next morning, I log onto the internet, and the very first news item I read?

“Prince Returns To Warner Brothers; To Release Two New Albums”’

All motivation for me to write the article was now gone. I am living with the notion that Prince learned of this article somehow through his mystic powers, and arranged the cosmos for this to happen. He always was one step ahead of the world. He will be missed. But I don’t think he’s dead; I just think his 57-year long vacation as Heaven’s musical director came to an end, and he wanted to get home early and get ready for the first day of work, because, well…you know how he feels about Mondays!