Henry Rollins: Prince Took Us to Places We Never Knew Existed

Prince at Coachella in 2008
Prince at Coachella in 2008

Since the beginning of human history, it has been an endless patch of bad road. Things have not “gotten real”; they have always been so.

No matter what era of history you choose to peruse, the most cursory glance will reveal bouts of epic awfulness. Some eras might be considered better than others, but when it comes to Homo sapiens, it almost always ends badly. There were no “good old days,” just moments you remember fondly and cling to as the years burn past.

We have to be tough and be used to bad news. We have no choice but to “keep it real.”

Despite all this, it might have been difficult when you found out that Prince had passed away at only 57. Especially when you are unable to find any picture of him where he doesn’t look amazing or watch a performance of his that is anything less than superhuman.

I remember in 1987, my bandmates and I were camping out at a house in Eindhoven, Holland, before a show at the Effenaar the next night. We all watched Prince and Sheila E. on television perform “I Would Die 4 U.” They were beyond belief. You wanted to rewind the footage just to figure out how they could move the way they did, much less sing and play with such effortless brilliance.

Almost 30 years later, the man looked pretty much the same. The only thing that had changed was he had somehow become an even better guitar player. And then this man you had never met was gone, and it hurt.

Obviously everyone will eventually be gone. But sometimes when they’re extraordinary and you know them only through their output, as with Prince or David Bowie, the sadness you feel can be profound.

You have heard the wisdom of hating the sin but not the sinner. It’s the way to go, but hard to do. If we were able to love the music without loving the musician, the passing of a culture-changing giant like Prince would be a lot easier to handle. It’s just not how we’re wired. The music is real, and so is the sorrow of its creator’s passing.

These artist-fan relationships are so perfect that in many ways, there is nothing to compare them to in “real” life. That’s the thing, though — how you relate to the music you like is as real as anything. How you feel, the things that come to mind when you are listening to music you deeply connect with, could very well be you at peak existence. Music makes access to a heightened state not only possible but almost inescapable. Like drugs but better.

Often, I am on an unenviable schedule that has me up at 0500 hrs. and at the gym as soon as I can stagger in. I put the music on and I’m completely energized. With music pounding in my ears, I am suddenly not only awake but enthusiastically tearing into the day.

I am a philosopher, according to Mel Brooks’ definition in his film History of the World, Part I. I reckon reality is where you find it. Music is the realest thing I have ever come across. It makes life, and all the burdensome reality that comes with it, actually quite tolerable. That’s my reality.

As I write this, I’m listening to a record that I’m convinced was pressed just for me. The Cambodian Cassette Archives: Khmer Folk & Pop Music compilation on the excellent Sublime Frequencies label was finally released on LP for Record Store Day this year. It is four sides of intoxicating perfection. I am willing to bet that down to the engineers who rolled tape on the sessions, every single person involved in making these beautiful, mysterious songs was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Is that real enough for you?

In December 1997, I was in Birmingham, England, with Black Sabbath as they were preparing for their reunion shows. I was at band practice, production rehearsals, meals — it was like a dream. There they were, Geezer, Ozzy, Tony and Bill, finally back together and playing in their hometown at the 16,000-capacity NEC. People from all over the world had showed up. On the afternoon of the first show, on Dec. 4, I watched trains pull up and hundreds of black-clad metal fans pour out. This night was going to be a big deal.

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Hours later, it was showtime. After a video montage of the band, Black Sabbath walked out onstage. We were all on our feet; the roar was deafening. Black Sabbath responded by landing on “War Pigs” so hard you thought they had caused the planet to stop turning. Partway through the song, I involuntarily touched my face because of the tears. That was real.

Three days later, I was in a tent in Kenya, eating food that Sabbath had left in their dressing rooms from the second night. That was real, too.

Prince, like all great musicians, was able to take you to places you never knew existed. For that, you can never thank him enough. You can pay it back by playing the music.

I think Prince, like a lot of the best artists, kept his nonperformance life close to the vest. When the lights were up and it was showtime, he brought one of the most convincing A-games there has ever been. That’s what it’s all about.

No one lasts forever, but music never dies. With Prince’s death, there is reason to mourn, but with all that music, there’s far more cause to celebrate. Prince put his entire life into those songs. He didn’t “leave them behind.” He wrote them for you to play right now. There it is: Miss the man, but get down with the jams.

Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.


More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
Let's Invade Canada

Bend Over, America — Here Comes President Trump
I Am Basically a Vinyl Cat Lady

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