I learned of Prince’s death via multiple texts this morning. The first few messages each read eerily, “We were just talking about this happening!”
Yes, but we didn’t mean to put it in the universe or anything. Discussing mortality and music and the idols we still have yet to lose is not about morbidity or insensitivity but self-protection. A lot of us still haven’t gotten over the deaths of Bowie or Lemmy or Glenn Frey. As time marches on, we need to mentally prepare ourselves for these losses in some small way. Even though anyone who knows me knows I’m a rabid Rolling Stones fan (and c’mon, Keef will never die!), I also worship icons like Iggy Pop, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Page and fear their passings.
Still, the loss of Prince was the biggest I could possibly imagine, and I said so a few times. After David Bowie’s death and the stages of grief that followed (and played out over social media), music lovers like myself inevitably ended up having this same somber conversation, highlighted by the big question: Who’s next?
In processing the loss of Bowie — his talent, his charisma, his innovation — and discussing the weight of this loss to the music world, there was only one who possessed the same kind of magical presence and game-changing musicianship as far as I was concerned. Prince is the only artist who could leave such a devastating void, I contended.
Now The Artist has, shockingly, done just that.
Prince was 57 and seemed healthy. He was in the midst of a solo tour called “Piano and a Microphone,” just him onstage playing stripped-down versions of old favorites and evocative covers. Ironically, the last to get some blog buzz was his powerful take on “Heroes.” For now, a full version of it from his April 14 Atlanta show remains available on YouTube, though by the time you read this, the player below may be blank.
Just last week, I got into a long Facebook exchange with a colleague about Prince’s overzealous protection of his music online. At the time I was frustrated by this, as I’ve been frustrated by the lack of access to his material via music services like Spotify and Pandora. But right now, I think I feel different. Now that he's gone, I realize I should have respected his decision. Because it was his to make. And he was a genius.
Surfing through various blogs, as well as Twitter and Facebook, it’s pretty clear that Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson) touched so many, in some ways maybe more than Bowie did. He was younger, for one, so his influence was more multigenerational. Also he was an American and he took great pride in his hometown of Minneapolis. He loved Los Angeles, too, and had homes here and even opened a sister club to his famed Glam Slam, right in downtown L.A. I saw him perform there a couple times and got to meet him briefly via friends who worked at the club. He was small in stature but with a huge presence, soft-spoken but not in a too-cool way. He was sensual and mysterious and, well, just nice. Stories about his diva behavior may or may not be true, but he was more of an enigma than an elitist.
Like many lucky L.A.-based journalists, I would go on to be in the Purple One’s presence many times after that. As a nightlife columnist for the Weekly, I had brushes with the superstar at various dance-club VIP rooms and A-lister Grammy parties, too. I’ll never forget the night I stood next to him outside OutKast’s post-Grammys bash at a Hollywood Hills mansion, both of us holding boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts given away upon exit. Man, did I want bust out a couple verses of “Cream.” ("Get on top/Cream/U will cop.") Sadly, I refrained.
Sightings were one thing but the live performances were always most memorable, from intimate jams (the super-tiny Sayer’s Club, where he debuted the ‘fro and I stood only a couple feet in front of him as he noodled and crooned jazz classics) to his extended Coachella set. His 21-night stand at the Forum was pretty much a gift to our fair city, as it was unprecedented in its scope (I saw show No. 4) and unparalleled in presentation and structure, or lack thereof, with many shows extending well past three hours of music.
Then there was the most surreal night of my entire life: the time I danced onstage with the iconic funkster to “Hollywood Swingin'” and “The Glamorous Life” at 3 o'clock in the morning. It was for his Oscar party back in 2009, and of course I have no pictures to prove it actually happened, because Prince never allowed cameras at his shows, even before they became ubiquitous thanks to smartphones. You could and would be kicked out if his security caught you snapping. I do remember the entire night was taped and we were told that the footage would appear on Prince’s new website, which never came to fruition. Maybe one day the world will see me funking 'til dawn with him, but for now there’s only this.
I can unequivocally state that no one I have ever seen live enjoyed making music in the moment the way Prince did. No one. He could veer off at any given second and take you somewhere you never, ever expected to go, and you’d pretty much never want to come back. Even when he was self-indulgent in his playing, he was still sharing and giving. He was just that good.
From androgynous provocateur to spiritual sonic guru, Prince pulled it all off as he evolved as an artist, The Artist. OK, some of his later material wasn’t the greatest, but he had a lot to live up to (just like the Stones) and nothing was tainting his legacy by then anyway.
Though Purple Rain — the film and album — was pretty formative for most of us, I first came to be a fan via a cassette tape of 1999. Like many, I went back to rediscover Controversy and Dirty Mind and his earlier material later. 1999, which came out in 1982, was fierce and futuristic in approach, an all-killer-no-filler masterpiece that in my opinion is his finest work. Even the non-singles like “Lady Cab Driver” and “All the Critics Love You in New York” were eclectic and epic, meshing rock, soul and electro in a fresh way that had never been done.
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Strangely (or not), the single “1999” was on the car radio just yesterday and when my 9-year-old daughter started singing along to the chorus, I showed her how to do the zero-zero , sign just like Prince does in the video. I also explained that the track was written before ‘99, as a call to live life to its fullest before it’s too late. Funny thing is, as I was explaining this to someone born in 2006, I realized that the song still holds up today, but in a whole new nostalgic and maybe more meaningful way.
Prince lived his entire life like it was 1999, and maybe we all should. Life is just a party, but it wasn't meant to last. Thankfully, the music — and the memories — will.