I was in a car with work friends and colleagues when we heard the news that Prince had died. Stunned, we sat and shared our favorite songs and memories of hearing them. We joked about taking the rest of the day off to mourn. It was so sudden, even though I’d heard of his emergency plane landing and hospitalization in Moline, Illinois last weekend. Twenty-four hours later, the cable news and my Facebook feed are full of reminiscences and appreciations of his humanitarianism, his daring, and most of all, his artistry.
We have lost too many great artists in 2016. David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and Merle Haggard are the ones that stand out to me. The loss of Prince is truly a loss to humanity. In the United States, we tend to value the pragmatic, the pursuit of wealth. How many kids love the fine arts in school but are pooh-poohed in terms of considering it for a career? I certainly never seriously considered it, believing that it would never lead to a stable, comfortable life, despite adoring my flute and singing. The lucky and talented few ignore that pragmatism and those social pressures. It seems as if for true artists, they cannot exist without creation and expression and inspiration, and that certainly seems to have been his purpose, or at least one of them.
I believe Prince speaks to a part of all of us that yearns for expression for expression’s sake, the beauty and pain of what it means to be human. He sang about desire and faith and joy and jealousy. His music defied categorization. He had crazy talent. When Eric Clapton was asked what it was like to be the best guitarist on Earth, he said he didn’t know and to ask Prince. Bono posted on Facebook that he never met Mozart, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, or Elvis, but he met Prince. What admiration!
My first exposure to Prince was via a cassette tape of Purple Rain, played over and over again on our home stereo for family living room dance parties. I knew the words to “Darling Nikki” before I understood what they meant. I remember having friends over and putting a sign on our front door saying, “If you don’t want to party, don’t bother knocking on the door.” (How wild could a fifth grade party be?) I rode the bus to and from school and Prince was heavy in the rotation on the bus radio and I remember singing “Raspberry Beret,” “1999,” and “Pop Life” the countless times they were played.
As an adult, I grew to understand more about why he was as controversial to some. It never really clicked with me as a kid how he challenged gender norms with his high heels and falsetto vocal range and make-up. He just seemed impossibly cool, and he was. Was it the Golden Globe Awards where he showed up walking with a cane? He made it look effortlessly sexy. I watched his Superbowl performance live and it was easily the best one I have ever seen. I just laughed when he defied the NFL’s efforts to present “clean, family fun” at the halftime show, three years post-Nipplegate, with that awesome, phallic use of his guitar behind the sheet. I love that in a time when our society is transforming, in which we question white privilege and gender norm policing and bigotry disguised as “religious freedom,” he has put forward a fearless willingness to challenge those very things. Al Sharpton tweeted yesterday that Prince donated privately to Trayvon Martin’s family. He achieved financial wealth via his artistic genius, but seemed to never forget where he came from and helped others.
As much as I love what he did as a humanitarian, I have even more respect for him as a performer. I wish I had seen him in concert. I think one of the things I loved most about him was his recognition of fellow artists and his desire to collaborate with them. I loved that Stevie Nicks was able to call him when she was inspired by his music to write a song and ask for help, and that in response he spontaneously showed up at the studio to record instrumental tracks with her and finish the song. I love that he performed with beautiful ballet dancer Misty Copeland.
In the music industry these days, we see meticulously-managed, image-conscious entertainers. In Prince, we see what my friend Maria said is “living proof you can be yourself in all your purple freakishness and change the world forever.”
I was listening to a Minneapolis radio station yesterday that was playing only Prince songs. The DJ started talking about Prince’s legendary parties at his home in Paisley Park. The public was often invited and she said that in the morning (because of course the party lasted into the morning), you could have pancakes there. The thought of that makes me so, so happy. A man who has played at the White House still lives in his Midwestern home state and invites guests to his home for pancakes. I wish I had been to one of those. I shall have to settle for listening to all of his music all weekend.
There is nothing I can say to properly memorialize Prince. There are more knowledgable, dedicated fans. But I felt the need to salute a true artist, someone whose music formed part of the soundtrack of my childhood and young adult life, and whose music will stand the test of time. My favorites include “When Doves Cry,” “Darling Nikki,” and “The Cross.” What are yours? Comment if you will.