We’ve all lost a lot of heroes this year. Groundbreaking individuals who shaped and soundtracked all our lives have now lost theirs and we have all had our hearts broken over and over again.
But today has hit me harder than anything. Then again I guess I can’t truly say; it hasn’t really hit me yet. I could never have prepared myself for the news I got this morning.
It’s so strange listening to Prince’s music and trying to remember how alien it sounded at first. Even his biggest hits are unlike anything else. “When Doves Cry” was infamous for having no bass line and still being funky as hell; “Kiss” and “Sign o’ the Times” did it one better by being hardly anything but a drum machine and a guitar. “Little Red Corvette” is a tender ballad that describes a woman carrying a pack of condoms, some used. “Let’s Go Crazy” starts with a sermon and ends with Prince begging someone to take him away. It’s a testament to his talent that all these songs, some of which left me so cold at first, burned their way into my heart and have stayed there still smouldering.
Although those hit singles are what propelled him to international fame and success, it’s the rest of his discography that made him such a fascinating and beloved figure to so many people. If you ask die-hard fans about their favourite song from Purple Rain many will point to “Computer Blue”, a song that seems fairly nondescript on the album, but in its original form was a multi-part 13-minute epic that ends with a barrage of feedback. For me it’s “The Beautiful Ones”, which begins as a shimmering ballad with Prince singing in his most fragile falsetto and ends with him screaming “I want U” at the top of his lungs over a cathartic guitar solo. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.
I honestly can’t think of another musician whose B-sides and rarities were so celebrated. Songs like “17 Days” and “Erotic City” are among Prince’s greatest and never made it onto an album, and extended versions of songs like “Mountains” and “I Would Die 4 U” and the 20-minute “America” jam are considered by some the definitive versions. Bootleg copies of live performances, albums that never were, or even different configurations of those that were, have been circulating for over 30 years among fans. There are hours worth of unreleased albums from 1986 and 1987 alone.
This is all a testament to Prince’s insane work ethic. He had to be talked down to a double album with Sign o’ the Times, and finally released a triple-album Emancipation in 1996, a year that also saw two more albums. Beyond ghostwriting songs like “Manic Monday” and “Nothing Compares 2 U” there is also an entire career’s worth of albums he recorded alone and released under the guise of other groups or musicians just to satisfy his creative urge. Apart from their singer Morris Day, not a single member of The Time played a note on any of their early albums, while practically the only aspect of Vanity 6 that wasn’t Prince was the voice of Vanity herself.
If Prince seemed like a mass of contradictions to so many it’s because he was such a stridently unique personality in a society that is often rigid and partitioned. He was devoutly religious throughout his life, being raised a Seventh Day Adventist and becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, yet his music was so explicit and sexual that he is the reason we have stickers on CD’s. But although this seems like a weird dichotomy, his religion and sexuality were just two sides of the same coin. “Controversy” makes fun of the debate surrounding Prince’s unflinching sexuality, but in the middle he recites the Lord’s Prayer in full. “I Would Die 4 U” sounds like a straightforward love song until you realise he’s singing from the perspective of Jesus Christ: “No need 2 worry, no need 2 cry/I’m UR Messiah and UR the reason why”. His underrated Lovesexy album is a full-length attempt to reconcile these two sides of his personality, proving that faith is best expressed personally and honestly.
Another mass of contradictions came in the form of Prince’s gender politics. Although he lived his whole life a heterosexual man, Prince nevertheless blurred the lines between masculinity and femininity from the start of his career in the late 70’s, celebrating the nebulous area between the two that is still misunderstood today. When he first began performing live Prince would dance around in a trenchcoat, thong and thigh-high boots; throughout his entire career he would often wear heels. His songs often dealt with gender and sexuality in a very fluid way, from the man sleeping between him and his old lover in “When You Were Mine” to his pitch-shifted Camille alter-ego singing plaintively on “If I Was Ur Girlfriend”, to the countless songs placing Prince in a submissive or deferential role while giving women a sexual agency that is often still not afforded them in 2016. When in the mid-90’s Prince changed his name to an unpronouncable symbol he chose one that combined the symbols for Mars and Venus, and similar signs are still found in the LGBTQIA community.
There are so many sides of Prince, there is so much to dive into, so many random anecdotes that build up to the mythos that surrounded him. The fact that he was booed offstage twice in 1981 while supporting The Rolling Stones, only to sample the crowd on his 1985 single “Pop Life” after he had become a household name; the story of him writing “Little Red Corvette” in his sleep while sitting in his bandmate’s car; the fact that, rather than back out when informed that it was raining on the day of his now-legendary Super Bowl Half-Time performance, he asked if they could possibly make it rain harder.
Prince has given us all so many gifts, whether his talent or his output or the way he showed us how to reconcile parts of ourselves that seem worlds apart, and the ways we remember him will be just as distinct as he was in life, and just as personal as the ways we each enjoyed his music. I will always remember listening for the first time to songs that are now etched into my memory; looking at footage of live performances in awe (he shot a basketball through a regulation hoop onstage every single night of his 1988 tour); learning to understand through his art how to navigate life as a shy teenager becoming a shy adult and as a man wanting to be as beautiful and sensitive as he was. But above all I will remember the immense respect I felt and still feel for someone who understood who they were and would not back down from that sense of self for anyone, and managed against all odds to find a lifetime of success in spite or even because of that.
Goodbye, Prince. I wish U heaven.????