Prince Rogers Nelson. Damn.
I'm unqualified to eulogize him, joining as I must a shocked, growing chorus of well-intentioned mourners grieving in reflection. I’ve plenty of memories, having picked up “1999” with my parents’ money in 1982-3 as a boy too young to handle the ride, but hell, I strapped in, anyway. That was two whole records of an education no dime-store suavecito could teach; truthfully, I had no business owning it, but I’m glad I did. The rest of my tale is suburban twaddle, so I’ll spare you the suburban details, except to say that his music has floored me, crushed me, stunned me, infuriated me, crippled me, splattered my brains and sometimes even disappointed me, but I loved and believed in him always.
Even at his most self-indulgent, he never made an album so awful I couldn’t revisit it later (well, maybe “Graffiti Bridge”) and discover what I missed the first time. Like “The Rainbow Children.” Remember? 2002-ish? Were you listening? I was. Slurpy, sloppy murk, sometimes akin to hearing a born-again Steely Dan while stirring from a velvet coma. Yeah, it’s a mess, but compelling nonetheless. Just last week I threw it on and appreciated that we still had artists who roamed whatever weird realm they pleased. Two years ago I tackled “Art Official Age,” and despite my initial confusion, something kept driving me back. I surrendered to its spirit eventually and gave up trying to solve its riddles. I’ll get around to his “HitnRUN”s (2015) someday. I’m just not ready yet. It’s hard enough to realize we’ve reached the end so soon.
David Bowie at least attempted to prepare us for the inevitable with “Blackstar” back in January: “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside”; “Look up here, I’m in heaven”; “I know something is very wrong / The pulse returns the prodigal / The blackout hearts, the flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes,” ad infinitum. Prince, though, seemed impervious to death, a dangerously ageless sprite with infinity in his DNA. He’d headline Armageddon, play the race out in 12 soaked encores, then ascend to another universe. (The papers say he was 57 years old — not by this planet’s standards, pal.)
Forgive the scattershot nature of this post, but I’m still wrestling with the news, still struggling to pinpoint why his death so affects me. He’s always been part of my life, true. Both I and my 20s crush Karenna Gore first heard the “m” verb on “Darling Nikki” in 1984, to our respective mothers’ horror. Mine just yelled at me; hers co-launched the Parent Music Resource Center and inadvertently made heroes of Frank Zappa and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider. But our boy wasn’t political; he was too busy being naughty (not tee-hee naughty, but what-in-the-hell-is-he-doing-to-Apollonia-in-that- “Purple-Rain”-bedroom-scene raunchy), funky and dangerous at a time when such elements seemed tired and calculated.
Over the next 20 years, he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol no standard keyboard technology could replicate, then changed it back because, hey, why not. Some of us futilely raged at his later work, but he did it, anyway, and really, who the hell were we to challenge his direction? People mocked his contentious relationship with the Internet while failing to realize he was protective of his art and owed them nothing for their affections.
Maybe that’s what I’ll miss most about him. He represents a vanishing breed of artist, the uncompromising kind indifferent to such hollow absurdities as “brand” in marketing jargon’s ever-advancing assault on creativity, twisting its definition into a perverse, almost craven need to please, to pander, to belong, to “matter.”
Funny thing is, Prince always mattered, even when we were sure he didn’t. And as of today, he matters even more, in a culture that, frankly, ain’t got enough gas without him.