Prince, 1958-2016

prince

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life …

I’ve been sitting here for hours and I can’t put my thoughts into any coherent order. Prince was not supposed to die at 57. Prince was not supposed to die, ever. It’s been a tough year for eulogizing geniuses, but this one … this one rips my heart out.

***

This is the first piece I ever wrote about Prince. The year was 1981. I was 23, trying to be a “rock” critic. Prince, who had just put out Dirty Mind, was playing Boston’s Metro club, and I got the assignment from What’s New, a free paper given away at music stores and clubs. The writing is crap, but it encapsulates that moment when Prince first hit, and suddenly, all of the tidy divisions between R&B and rock, between “black music” and the stuff that white suburban Boston kids like me listened to, blurred and soon fell away. It was confusing. It was liberating. It was the one moment in my life when I saw a performer for the first time and knew that I had better go study up on my musical history and, oh, yeah, have some sex too, that would help. And maybe then, maybe in a few years, would I have the words to be able to describe the changes Prince put my head through that night.

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After that electrifying 1981 Metro show, I stood with a bunch of other local writers in a circle around Prince and we asked him feeble questions to which he whispered curt responses. The questions were all lame and all of a piece, asking him about comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, trying to get him to say something definitive about his sexuality. This was what my naive little world was like in 1981: Black or white, gay or straight, male or female, rock or R&B, all neatly defined, stereotyped, unchallenged, and never the twain shall meet. And Prince, playing guitar like no one since Hendrix, singing “I wanna be your brother, wanna be your mother and your sister too” blew that world apart. He was all of the above, all at once. He was uncompromising and free.

During this excruciating scene, Prince didn’t make eye contact. He was almost trembling. He was very small, except for his eyes, which were as huge, dark and soft as a deer’s. He fled after five minutes. I’ve often thought about that scrum, and regretted it. But today I’m realizing the courage, the determination, the confidence it took for Prince to get onstage at a rock club, wearing the banana-hammock and the thigh-highs and the trench coat before an audience of smug white people who thought they had seen it all. Fuck, that show was a glorious awakening!

***

White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’ …

A year later, I saw Prince at the Orpheum Theater in Boston on the Controversy tour. My sister and I were in the first row. It was a more racially-diverse crowd, which in Boston in 1982 meant black and white people, together. This was something that would have been rare, and actually dangerous, only a few years before, given Boston’s terrible display of racist animosity that accompanied the desegregation of the public schools in the 1970s. But Prince’s music had been heavily played on the rock station WBCN since 1981’s Dirty Mind came out. Other FM rock formatted stations around the country wouldn’t touch Prince, but somehow, this city that was so recently torn apart along racial lines, had embraced him. Prince had brought us together.

I remember a few things about that show very clearly. Prince climbing onto a speaker cabinet to aim a guitar solo at the balcony, which was visibly shaking. Teasing us in the front row, coyly unzipping his pants. And this moment, which opens my review for What’s New:

The young black woman fought her way down the center aisle and she’d almost reached the stage when a burly bouncer grabbed her and tried to hold her back. “Prince!,” the woman shouted, holding an outstretched arm stageward where the object of her desire was sinuously bumping and grinding to “Do Me Baby.” Prince looked down at the woman — he touched her hand for maybe a fraction  of a second. “Oh my God!,” screamed the woman, just before she passed out in the arms of the bewildered bouncer.

I was not yet sufficiently enlightened to stop using race as an adjective. And, come to think of it, I’m pretty sure now that the woman was a plant, a part of the old James Brown-at-the-Apollo vibe Prince was putting out that night. This was a wild show, the prototype of tours to come, full of phallocentric sexual play, with a big, tight band of musicians of mixed gender and race, following their bandleader’s whims and direction. In the center of it all, Prince executed spins and splits and struck Christlike poses. I still didn’t understand this strange melding of sex and religion, though the music told me it had something to do with ecstasy.

***

I only want to see you bathing in the purple rain …

By 1984, Prince was such a huge star that he managed to get the backing of a major movie studio, just like Elvis. And he was so pervasive, on MTV, on the radio, that even little kids were  singing his songs. And that’s how Prince became one of the targets of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center, who successfully campaigned to put warning stickers on the Purple Rain soundtrack album (and others), all because Darling Nikki masturbated with a magazine. Sure, MTV was in every home and moms were digging some of that catchy new wave stuff. But Prince was a line in the sand. All of a sudden, pop music had a bad rep; it became dangerous again, disruptive — just as its forebears had intended. One night that summer, my husband and I took his younger siblings and cousins to a suburban Boston showing of Purple Rain, family entertainment at its finest, spreading Prince’s corrupting influence to the next generation and making lifelong fans of them all.

***

A few lines from my Boston Phoenix review of the Purple Rain album in 1984:

The color purple holds a place of honor in Prince’s elaborate self-proclaimed myth. Purple is regal; it’s also a mixture of two other colors, as is Prince himself. Purple is the color of a bruise, and of passion.

“Purple Rain” is an unbridled black-light-and-hash-pipe album, complete with psychedelic backwards vocals and a flower-power cover …

He makes us want to party like its 1969.

If I had had a crystal ball, I would have saved that last line. A year later, he put out the even trippier Around the World in a Day. “Raspberry Beret” was the melodic, hippy-dippy, skinny-dippy pop song we all loved. But “Pop Life,” all rhythm, with sparse instrumentation and slicing metronomic drumbeat, was the song that was pointing the way to Prince’s funky grooves of the future.

***

In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name …

1987. The single from Prince’s first solo album, Sign o’ the Times, begins with a reference to the 1985 death from AIDS of actor Rock Hudson — closeted friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The music was a somber, sparse, foreboding funk. Prince went there, in Reagan’s America, at a time when few wanted to hear it.

***

“Prince seems the self-conscious culmination of every dream that rock and roll has ever had about itself,” wrote my friend Mark Moses in a New Yorker column about Sign o’ the Times in August 1988. Less than a year later, he would be dead of a big disease with a little name.

***

Writing about Sign o’ the Times for the San Francisco Examiner, I called it “a chaotic crossroads,” the beginning of Prince’s investigation of the black pop underground, of house music, hip-hop and minimalist rap, put through the grinder of Prince’s singular sound and vision, and calling back to everything he borrowed from James Brown. After that sprawling double-album (a masterpiece in a career filled with them), came the smoother Lovesexy, with its coy, controversy-courting photo of a nude Prince perched on a bed of larger-than-life orchids; it was like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, with Prince playing the part of the flower’s sex organ. And with Lovesexy came its evil twin, the legendary Black Album, which was pulled back from official release and slipped into the hands of critics and fans in the dead of night (metaphorically). From my Lovesexy/Black Album piece in the Examiner:

“The Black Album” plays like a 45-minute extension of “Housequake,” the funkiest track from “Sign.” It’s one long slamming, blistering, rude hip-hop groove, Prince’s throwdown to the New York rappers … who rule the black underground. … There’s no mention of Jesus, peace, love or apocalypse here. And though Prince surrounds himself with exuberant party voices, this is no love-in, but rather, a house-rocking orgy thrown by a bunch of sexual vampires.

“Lovesexy” isn’t a bad album, but compared with “The Black Album,” it’s a safe one. The difference between the two records recalls the way Prince has often spun out some perfect Top 40 jewel for the A-side of his singles and then put some unsuitable-for-radio sizzler like “Erotic City” on the B-side. It makes you wonder: Is “The Black Album” just Prince’s most extravagant B-side? And if he had his way, would he have released different albums to black and white audiences? 

Then I went to see Prince’s Oakland Coliseum concert on the 1988 Lovesexy tour, and that question became moot. This was the greatest Prince show I’ve ever seen, one of the greatest by anyone. I’ve never been to an African American gospel church, but I imagine this show comes close to that experience. We were all of us dancing, screaming, testifying. And somewhere between “Little Red Corvette” and “The Cross,” I was overcome by a kind of spiritual euphoria I had never felt at a show, before or since. Prince’s preoccupation with sex and salvation came from the same place, I realized, the need to transcend the here and now, to be just a soul, communing with other souls, outside of divisions of color, gender, ethnicity. Prince gave us the music that could set us free; all we had to do was be open enough to listen.

***

For the rest of my life, I will regret not seeing him on the “Piano and Microphone” shows in Oakland earlier this year.

***

“Sometimes It Snows in April,” music and lyrics by Prince

Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war,
Just after I’d wiped away his last tear
I guess he’s better off than he was before,
A whole lot better off than the fools he left here
I used to cry for Tracy because he was my only friend
Those kind of cars don’t pass you every day
I used to cry for Tracy because I wanted to see him again,
But sometimes sometimes life ain’t always the way

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last

Springtime was always my favorite time of year,
A time for lovers holding hands in the rain
Now springtime only reminds me of Tracy’s tears
Always cry for love, never cry for pain
He used to say so strong unafraid to die
Unafraid of the death that left me hypnotized
No, staring at his picture I realized
No one could cry the way my Tracy cried

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad
Sometimes, sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last

I often dream of heaven and I know that Tracy’s there
I know that he has found another friend
Maybe he’s found the answer to all the April snow
Maybe one day I’ll see my Tracy again

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
But all good things, they say, never last

All good things, they say, never last
And love, it isn’t love until it’s past

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Prince, 1958-2016

  1. milomiles April 21, 2016 / 9:07 pm

    Beautiful work. I thought the Phoenix did an outstanding job of covering Prince all through the ’80s. Understood he embodied the newspaper’s ideals, perhaps even more than rap/hip-hop. But his music was such a glorious flowering, it was a pleasure to cheer it on. I’m glad to hear Boston remains a serious stronghold for him.

    • Joyce Millman April 21, 2016 / 9:14 pm

      Who reviewed that ’81 Metro show for the Phoenix? Dammit, I wish the archive was online. Thank you.

  2. Jonathan Perry April 22, 2016 / 12:49 pm

    Fantastic and touching tribute Joyce. I love how you wove in lines from your other reviews for historical overview and context amid the arc of such a long and prolific career (yours as well as his).

  3. Mark Langton April 22, 2016 / 5:55 pm

    That’s it. You are now officially my favorite music writer of all time. Hands up. Hands down.

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