By Eleni P. Austin
I rarely go all first-person when I write here, to (once again) paraphrase the quiet Beatle, too much “I-Me-Mine-ing.” I write it, so you know it has to be my opinion, so I never feel the need to begin these things with “I think” or “I feel,” until now. Prince passed away on Thursday, and I have a surfeit of thoughts and feelings so I hope you will indulge me.
A local newscast interviewed me that day. I had a lot to say, about the majesty of Prince, but they only had me yapping for 30 seconds or so. (Clearly, one values my opinion as much as I do). Luckily the publisher/editor and “her man” indulge me from time to time.
Prince was a musical genius. That isn’t opinion, it’s a fact. The Minneapolis, Minnesota native appeared, seemingly out of nowhere in 1978 with his debut, For You. On his next four albums, Prince, Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999 he played all the instruments himself creating his own fusion of Funk, Punk, Pop, Rock, Soul and Funk. (Because he was that Funky).
I first got excited about him hearing the singles from the 1999 album. Both the title track and “Little Red Corvette” received airplay on my teenage radio station of choice, KROQ. My interest further solidified when I read long articles of appreciation in the L.A. Herald-Examiner from my favorite music critics, Mikael Gilmore and Todd Everett.
Back in the early ‘80s radio and MTV were still pretty homogenized. Even as he was being interviewed on the music channel, David Bowie famously noted “I’m just floored by the fact that there are…so few black artists featured. Why is that?” Both Michael Jackson and Prince took care of that, breaking the color barrier, effectively opening the door for other artists.
By 1984 Prince exploded into the mainstream with “Purple Rain.” Both the movie and the soundtrack made him a superstar. Even now, there is nothing on this earth that sounds like “When Doves Cry” or the movie’s Gospel-inflected title song.
Prince was a pioneer, along with his band the Revolution, he challenged conventional gender roles and played with sexuality. His music was influenced by James Brown and Joni Mitchell in equal measure.
Prince was prolific, following the massive success of “Purple Rain,” other artists might have been content to rest on their laurels, not Prince. Less than a year later created his own record label, Paisley Park, and released his Sgt. Pepper the Psychedelia-tinged Around The World In A Day. By 1986 he was back with another movie, “Under The Cherry Moon,” and soundtrack, Parade, a year after that he delivered his magnum opus, Sign O’ The Times. By the close of the ‘80s he had composed all the music for Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie.
Prince was the first musician to marry spirituality and sexuality. Other artists, most famously, Little Richard, Al Green and Marvin Gaye had struggled to reconcile their faith with their carnal appetites.
For Prince it was never an either/or situation. He cultivated an androgynous, almost effeminate stage persona, yet, he had a deeply masculine speaking voice and almost supernatural powers of seduction. A lot of babies were made to Prince records! Even when he became a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and cut back the salacious innuendo, he never apologized or renounced what came before.
Prince’s music offered a master class in songcraft. His music knowledge was encyclopedic, and self-taught. His love for Joni Mitchell matched my own and his enthusiasm for her Hissing Of Summer Lawns album persuaded me to revisit it, and I now I play it at least once a week.
There are few words to adequately describe his guitar playing, so I will leave you with this; when Eric Clapton was asked what it felt like to be the best guitarist on earth he replied “I don’t know, I’m not Prince.”
In the ‘90s Prince took on the record industry, decrying unfair contracts and attempting to gain ownership and control over his own music. He changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and performed with the word “slave” emblazoned on his face. Again, he was ahead of his time, exposing the labels’ unfair business practices and creating a DIY paradigm that other artists emulated.
Prince championed other artists, first collaborating and producing the Time and Vanity 6. In the mid ‘80s, he shared his enthusiasm for L.A.’s Paisley Underground scene, writing the Bangles’ first Top 10 hit, “Manic Monday” and signing the Three O’Clock to his Paisley Park label.
In the ‘90s gave Soul progenitors like Mavis Staples, George Clinton, Larry Graham and Maceo Parker a home at the label. By the new millennium he was singing on Ani DiFranco’s 10th album To The Teeth, she returned the favor for his Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic record.
Prince’s musical output was prodigious. He released 39 studio albums in 37 years, sometimes putting out two at a time, Lotusflow3r and MPLSound in 2009, Plectrumelectrum and Art Official Age in 2014 and most recently HITnRUN Phase One and HITnRUN Phase Two, in late 2015.
Prince was a consummate show man. Sometimes he was late, but his concerts were epic, lengthy and full of encores. I never got around to seeing him, I really can’t say why, money or scheduling or something. I was at a Bangles show at the Palace in Hollywood in 1984 and Prince was too.
Prince was a total enigma, and that was fine. It made it extra amazing when he deigned to appear on “Arsenio,” acting as an Afro’d Dear Abby, helping an audience member break up with a long-distance girlfriend. Or when he stole the show at the Grammy Awards proclaiming “Albums still matter, like books and black lives, albums still matter, tonight and always.”
Ultimately, the music will live on. The big hits belong to everyone, but the deeper cuts will always resonate for me. From the sly, yet wistful guitar-synth interplay on the instrumental break of “Computer Blue,” to the hiccoughing Psychedelia of “Paisley Park,” the Joni Mitchell shout-out in “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker.” As well as his surprisingly diffident need for reassurance on “Reflection” from the Musicology album; “Tell me do U like my hair this way?/Remember all the way back in the day when we would compare whose afro was the roundest?”
It was at least eight weeks after my mother died that I cried, (ironically, listening to a particularly badass Mambo from her beloved Tito Puente). But I burst into tears the minute I heard that Prince was gone; the same with David Bowie, Joe Strummer and John Lennon. I don’t know what that says about me. But I do know what it says about Prince. Thanks for letting me ramble.