I find it silly when a famous person dies then people get upset and, well, lose it. Wail, moan, it’s all about me, the whole thing. It’s not like you knew the person, right? How do you think the family feels? How could you be so affected?
Yet for the second time in my life, I heard of a death while driving my truck and was overcome. Understand, I don’t cry. Like, almost never. 4 or 5 years between a cry — if I’m lucky enough to release the emotion that often. Yet Thursday morning my good friend Lisa, knowing my love for a dazzlingly talented man, texted me as I was navigating the freeways of Los Angeles. Prince had died. I had to pull over to the side of the road.
My friend Andie reposted a beautiful and accurate tweet about this phenomenon. @ElusiveJ wrote:
“Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.”
This makes me ashamed I’ve secretly made fun of those who mourn artists. Yet I don’t think this is why Prince Rodgers Nelson’s death hits so hard.
When listening to Prince’s music, it’s less about coming to know ourselves than experiencing a deep sometimes dangerous revelation. His music and lyrics are filled with desire. Not his desire. But ours. At least for those of us who are dreamers, there may never have been an artist to speak so directly to us, connect so deeply with us. His music confronts us with our desires, our longings, our passions. As his music plays, something begins to bubble up from deep within.
It’s up to the individual listener what happens next. I guess there are people out there who can resist the call. I myself have never been able to suppress what happens inside when Prince’s music plays. Feelings I’ve buried emerge, emotions of all kinds, waves of joy, sadness, longing, sexuality, melancholy. And I feel a deep connection to the one artist I have never been able to resist.
Prince reaches down inside of us and pulls emotion out. Through his music he says, “Hear this? Feel this? You have this inside you, too. Let it out. Don’t be scared. Experience it. And live free.”
Tipper Gore was famously shocked by the lyrics of Darling Nikki after buying the Purple Rain soundtrack for her 11 year old daughter. I was a freshman in college at the time and was less amused by her shock than confused by it. That is the song that shocked you? Darling Nikki ??
What shocked me when I saw Purple Rain was The Beautiful Ones. In the movie, Prince is on stage singing what seems a slow ballad to Appollonia, who is sitting in the audience. The camera, in profile to Prince, captures a cool seduction as he looks at her and queries:
What’s it going to be? It is him or is it me?
As the song continues, the music builds in intensity. As does his emotion. The camera suddenly shifts to face Prince full on. He is singing not only to Appollonia but to us. A fierce, raw emotion consumes him and comes full force onto us. He points at us, dares us to meet him halfway. Unlike most men who are afraid to say what they want, Prince doesn’t wait for an answer, doesn’t wait for us to meet him, he knocks us down with a confession and his desire.
Cause I want u
With unbridled ferociousness he continues to pummel us with his truth.
Said I want u.
Listen 2 me
I said I may not know what I need
One thing, one thing’s 4 certain baby
I know what I want, yeah
And if it please u baby
Please u, baby
I’m begging down on my knees
I want u
It didn’t seem I could push back in my seat enough in the theatre. Something was off, something was wrong. This movie wasn’t supposed to reach out in such a way, to barrel me with such emotion. This was supposed to be just a fun rock/funk movie, a good time on a Friday night, then suddenly all our wants and desires are laid bare as the song continues, with Prince eventually on his back, laying on the stage, spent from crying out.
Can you imagine being on the receiving end of such passion? It goes beyond gender, orientation, age… for someone that talented, that fearless, that dazzling, to look you in the eye and cry with such passion “I want you.”
That is one genius of Prince. His songs speak to the listener. When other artists sing about love, it’s clear there is a person to whom they are singing. Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle’s interpretation of I’ve Got You Under My Skin leaves me depleted in the best of ways every time, the romance and longing and gorgeous, painful melancholy cause me to play the song over and over many times in a row. The way the orchestrations both mirror and make fun of the gobsmacked man who is in such pain blows me away. Yet I would never think Frank is singing about us, about me. It’s clear there’s a certain someone for whom he is hopelessly longing. We listen comfortably from the side.
When Prince sings such sentiments… in just about, oh, every song… there isn’t another person, it’s us, it’s me. He looks at the listener with a stare so direct and honest and open you want to turn away as it lays you bare. Yet who could look away? Prince lays waste to all barriers with a passion and freedom that can crash through anything. This direct stare isn’t unnerving, however. It’s compelling and thrilling. He connects with a desire not just to be recognized by such an artist but to be desired, wanted, loved. He reaches out, saying “Join me.” This is beyond sexual. It’s a call by Prince to a way of experiencing life. Fully. Freely. Without shame.
Prince’s fierce, raw emotion is always on display. Sometimes it is full force and wondrously brutal, as at the end of The Beautiful Ones. Other times, he hides it, hints at it, reveals it, sparingly, tortuously.
It’s difficult to pick a favorite song but ultimately I’d have to go with Kiss. It’s a classic Prince song, redefining the sound and rhythm of the music of the time, with devastatingly clever lyrics. For the majority of the song, he sings in the falsetto he often uses. The falsetto fits the song perfectly: playful, sarcastic, taunting. Yet a couple of times during the body of the song, he hints at that devastating low register he can also employ. A whisper of it here at the end of a phrase, a glimpse of it within a breath. It keeps you leaning forward, listening, waiting… will I hear it again? That window into the emotion?
Then, in the final moments of Kiss, we twice get the low register growl in full. His voice drops completely, away from the falsetto, in a manner that would send a ripple up the thigh of even The Church Lady. The forthright sexuality and openness that emerges in just those quick moments is astounding. Reaching down yet again into our being.
I love, too, this ferocious passion at the end of Computer Blue. That song starts so strangely, with Wendy and Lisa ominously conversing, weird alien musical shrieks creeping around behind them. Then, with a cry, Prince dives in. The lyrics are short, the song is mostly instrumental, a driving, passionate piece of dance music it is impossible to sit still for. At the end, we get once again his ferocious cries, incredible bursts of deep emotion that would embarrass anyone else, certainly me. You simply don’t act that way in public.
Prince was fearless in that way. He never seemed to care how he was defined. People constantly tried to pigeon-hole him, or say, when he released a new album that was a departure, that he was growing or changing. But this is to misunderstand who he was and the breadth and depth of his talent. I always felt when Prince went in a new direction he was simply expressing another natural side of himself, sides that could not be contained or expressed in a single work. His talent was mind-boggling – he played so many instruments, was a master of so many styles, could sing so many voices and emotions – but ultimately it was all just Prince. Watching him perform confirmed this for me. He was so comfortable, so casual when he played. It simply was. The way he was.
And his charisma! I was lucky enough to see one of his concerts at The Forum in Los Angeles, with my beloved friend Stacey Batzer. He played for over 3 electrifying hours. I could not believe this tiny guy could command such an arena, could easily express such incredible warmth and joy, exude such energy all within a comfort with himself and the apparent ease his playing.
He was often derided for his fearlessness. As are the few that appear ahead of their time. He was mercilessly mocked for his ‘name change’, for instance, it had negative impact on his career for years even though it was one of many ways he was fighting for the rights of his fellow musicians. Looking back now, his warnings, his entreaties, through word, music and action were remarkably prescient. He was right, those who derided him were wrong.
I doubt he much cared. Fearless.
Leave Them Wanting More
A phrase becomes a cliche because it is so perfectly true. One such showbiz cliche is “Leave them wanting more.” Underplay, given the audience just enough to satisfy but never too much, and the audience will come back. For more. Wanting more.
Prince is the antithesis of this cliche. My god, he was so unafraid of going too far. In his music he could reach peak after peak and when you thought the song or performance would end, should end, needed to end for it to be successful, the song kept going and going, deliriously so, incredibly so, yet even when too far it was never so far that it left you feeling it was too much. For other artists, such excess becomes self-indulgent and pretentious. Even the best of artists are guilty of it. Prince, however, somehow could go that far and still keep you coming back for more.
Take the end of Let’s Go Crazy. The song seems to end a number of times, “He’s coming” sung over and over, more than you think possible, then a dazzling guitar riff begins that goes on and on, a riff that keeps seeming to end but, no, it goes on and on, finally hitting the last note, a note Prince holds, just on the verge of a finish yet he holds it and holds it, we keep listening, leaning forward, when is it going to end, it needs to end, I don’t want it to end and finally, just at the right time, seemingly too long but just right he bursts out with Take Me Away! and it all ends perfectly.
The end of Purple Rain is the same. The instrumental at the end goes on much longer than any other musician would have it play. It should be tiresome yet we return to the song over and over again.
Artistry shouldn’t work this way, this kind of bravura always comes off as overindulgent but for Prince, it works. How? I have no idea. That’s his artistry. For even in going too far, giving us too much, not just in each song but in his entire canon, a stunning colossal lifetime of work that boggles the mind when you begin to examine in depth Prince’s musicology and what it means to music and art and life, even in going too far and reaching for the stars, Prince could still leave us wanting more.
As he did yesterday, Thursday April 21.
Perhaps it is perfect that he died leaving us wanting more, so much more.
That was Prince. And shall always be.
14 thoughts on “Ruminations on Prince”
Well said…..as Mark & I sit here reading your post, listening to the Purple Rain album, reminiscing on what every song meant to us and where we were when we heard it, and what they make us think of, and remember……
Hey! Thanks for telling me that. Very cool. Would be fun to be there with you.
Beautiful – Thank you, Tom.
Thanks very much! Glad you enjoyed it. Minnesotans are talented!
We certainly are! 🙂
I too appreciated your words about our tendencies to take on grief for people who we don’t even know. I think some of the grief I felt (feel) for Prince is related to the fact that he was a Minnesotan, and we were all so proud of him. It was very gratifying to see that the rest of the world loved our hometown boy as well.
I also agree with how rawly emotional he was, and he made you feel. The sexuality that he could bring out in me as I listened to his music, or watched Purple rain is a bit disconcerting and embarrassing. But hey… haven’t we wanted to scream at a person how much we wanted them? And then act upon that desire?
I was never lucky enough to see him in person, but I love the fact that I saw Purple Rain on my very first night of college. My first night of being an adult.
Thank you for your tribute!
Hey! Thank you for reading and for your very insightful words! Indeed!
So perfectly written…thank you!
Hey! Thank you. So glad you liked it.
Yours is the first essay to reconcile my own (cranky) “why mourn who you did not know?” sentiment and the fact I’ve been listening to Prince non-stop since I heard the news. Thanks, Tom.
hey! Much appreciated, thanks Chris!
hey! Thank you so much!! Means a lot coming from you, Kate!
This is great, Tom. I was never a big Prince fan, for whatever reason. Sure, I liked “Little Red Corvette”–Shanoah had that car in high school–and who couldn’t love that song and “1999.” But I didn’t see “Purple Rain” when it came out. EVERYBODY saw that film when it came out, but I didn’t really much care. When I finally did see it, I had that same reaction to “The Beautiful Ones,” which became my favorite Prince song. I was in love at the time with a girl who really put me through the ringer. That was my song to her. With all that emotion included. I remember taking a music history class in college and learning about Soul music, and how it was different from Blues, R&B, Funk and other similar music strands. The perfect soul singers were people like Otis Redding and Al Green, who just lived those lyrics when they sang them. Soul music wears it’s emotions on it sleeve. Actually, like a wet coat. “The Beautiful Ones’ is a perfect soul song. It’s a great testament to Prince’s talent that this multi-instrumentalist and singer, who played rock, funk, hip hop, and R&B, could deliver the perfect soul song when he wanted to. That’s the song I’ll play when I remember Prince.
Wow, Mark, I never knew all that, your story about the girl included. Now I have to figure out who it was : ) Very, very cool… and thanks for reading!