I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray
Ruffled shirts. Big hair. Linn drums. Handclaps. Make-up. High-heeled boots. That is how I remember Prince. That is the image fashioned during the 80’s when Prince was generating hit after hit, when MTV had his videos in heavy rotation (when Music Television still played music).
Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last
Like everyone, I was in disbelief when I heard. A colleague fired off an email with just two words: “Prince died!!!” At first I thought it was one of those hoaxes that fly around the Internet like the ones about Sinbad or Queen Elizabeth you hear about every so often. So I turned on the news to see if it was true. Horribly, it was. By then, HLN, VH1, MTV, Centric, and BET had all preempted their daily programming and ran wall-to-wall coverage of all things Prince; either news, interviews, or videos.
I was introduced to Prince and his music when “Soft and Wet” came out. That song was on his album, For You. Prince wrote, composed, produced, arranged, and played all of the instruments on all of the songs on the album. (The only exception was “Soft and Wet”, which was co-written by producer Chris Moon.) That firmly implanted his status as a serious musician in my mind. His legacy as a genius would grow from that point on, especially after appreciating how much Prince’s influences were integrated into his music and performances. From Little Richard and James Brown, to The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, and even Miles Davis, each of the artists who inspired him could easily be identified, though the music was unmistakably Prince’s. And Prince paid those influences forward. The list of artists for whom he wrote and/or collaborated with is equally as impressive as it is eclectic. The fame of each of those artists skyrocketed as a result of Prince’s contribution.
When “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” dropped, those songs cemented his standing as more than a one-hit wonder. Both recordings got massive airplay on the radio. The cover photos on For You, and Prince stirred persistent questions about his race, sexuality, and spirituality. Prince addressed each of those questions in his next album, Controversy… but artfully answered none of them.
In high school, our leadership class had an exchange with Garfield High (if I remember correctly). Members from the class at our school got to shadow members of the leadership class at Garfield. We were encouraged to participate in the classroom learning and activities.
During what was then called Nutrition, the quad was the gathering place. Popular music was playing over the loudspeaker. And then “Sexy Dancer” came on. Our leadership class just started dancing like we didn’t care. It seemed like the whole school came out to the quad to see what the commotion was about. We tried to get some of the students to join in. Most were hesitant but a few did. I will never forget that day. We made some friends and kept in touch for a while afterward. It was such a memorable event because we didn’t have music playing during our break periods and they didn’t do much dancing. The purpose of the exchange was to bring schools together to learn about each other. Boy, did it succeed that day! And anchoring that day was the music of Prince.
I’m not a party animal by any stretch of the imagination. I’d go to a handful of parties but ended up holding up the walls most of the time. So it was a huge deal for me when I was invited by a very good friend to go to a local party. It was one of those parties where someone would rent out a ballroom at a hotel and throw the party there. Usually food and drink were available. This one was very large and a couple hundred people showed up.
The DJ was spinning records – literally, ‘cause everything was on vinyl then – but no one was dancing. Song after song played with the same result…nothing. Then he played “1999”. I grabbed another friend who had come along and we headed for the dance floor. I didn’t care if no one else joined us, “1999” was playing and I was going to get my groove on. But they did join us. A steady stream of people crowded the floor. And they stayed out there dancing the entire night. For a wallflower to get a huge party started, that was a priceless memory.
Not long afterwards, “Purple Rain” hit the theaters. I remember seeing it in Westwood with my running buddy at that time. We would say lines from the movie to each other. It wasn’t so much the movie itself that holds a special place in my heart. I think it was “Purple Rain’s” soundtrack and it being associated with all the places she and I went.
When the Purple Rain tour came to town (I think it was at the Forum), I HAD to go. This was pre-Internet so if you wanted to get tickets to a show, you either had to go down to the venue itself or go to a ticket outlet like Ticketmaster. News that Prince was coming to L.A. spread fast. It was going to be one of the hottest shows in town. I remember the line that formed outside the May Company department store (remember them?) in my neighborhood. They had a Ticketmaster inside. The poor guard on duty to open the doors that day must have dreaded what was coming. At the appointed time, he opened the doors and you can probably imagine what happened. Ticketmaster was on the second floor. Fortunately no one got trampled. I was near the front of the herd line and got to the window in good time. I plunked down my money and came away with my prize of decent seats to a Prince concert.
As you would expect, there were quite a few Prince impersonators and impostors. At the old Beverly Theater in Beverly Hills, a guy once came in during one of the concerts dressed like Prince, with a girl on one side of him and a guy on the other. Ostensibly, they were dressed like Wendy Melvoin and Andre Cymone. His height and stature were similar to Prince’s. His mannerisms were just like Prince’s, even down to talking in basically a whisper to his ‘sidekicks’. So good were they at their charade that they even managed to talk themselves backstage. They fooled everyone at the venue…except one person. At that time, Prince’s bodyguard was Charles ‘Big Chick’ Huntsberry. Word got to the sound engineer that ‘Prince’ was in the building. He didn’t buy it.
“Is there a big, white dude with him?” he asked.
“No,” came the reply.
“Then that ain’t Prince.”
The charlatans were ‘asked’ to leave.
Not long after that incident, the real Prince did show up at a concert at the Beverly Theater. James Brown and B. B. King were on the bill. Michael Jackson was in the audience. During The Godfather’s set, he heard that Jackson was in the house and called him up on stage. While MJ was on stage, he whispered something to Brown and told him Prince was also on hand. Prince was then called up on stage. Actually, Jackson “insisted” that Brown call him up on stage. Think about this for a sec: B.B. King (who performed earlier and later came back to close the show with Brown), James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Four legends. Each and all of whom revolutionized music and the music world. Even while they were all performing I knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime gathering; it would probably never happen again. That revelation proved true. None of them are with us anymore.
(There aren’t any good quality videos of the entire performance that night or of the segment with Prince. The clip below is probably the ‘best’ one showing Michael Jackson and Prince both being called on stage.)
(This one is the ‘full’ video of B.B. King and James Brown, but for some reason Prince’s cameo was removed.)
In 1989, Prince got the chance to do a soundtrack for a movie other than one of his own. He was asked by director Tim Burton to record a few songs for Batman. Prince came back with a full album. The accompanying video for “Batdance” featured Prince dressed as split personalities: Batman and Joker (Jokey?). I don’t recall ever seeing Jack Nicholson dance in a movie. He did in Batman – several times – to Prince’s music.
When he changed his name to “The Artist Formally Known as Prince” or simply, “The Artist”, or an unpronounceable symbol (which became known as The Love Symbol), I began to lose interest. At first I thought the name change was a publicity stunt. (Remember, this was before the Internet. It was much more difficult to get to the real story back then.) I soon found out the name was something ascribed to him by the media, and that Prince had stopped using his own name in protest of the way he was being treated by his then record company, Warner Brothers. When I finally heard the truth, I applauded Prince for sticking to his guns, for standing up for what he believed in. I also learned that Prince gave a LOT of money to charitable causes that he believed in.
It was also during this time that I got married, moved out of Los Angeles, and with it gained a long daily commute. This had the unintended consequence of removing me from most of the music scene. I continued to hear about Prince every so often but didn’t hear any of his music for many years.
Occasionally I would hear about Prince performing impromptu concerts. Sometimes he’d play two shows, then host an after-party/jam session lasting well into the wee hours of the morning. Reminded me of stories of the Jazz artists from way back in the day. I longed to see one of those shows. I longed to be there for one of those jam sessions. One of my regrets was sleeping on the chance to see Prince when he did his 30-day run in Los Angeles.
In the ensuing hours after Prince’s death was announced, SiriusXM Channel 50 The Groove turned into The Prince Tribute Channel, playing nothing but music performed and/or written by Prince. It ran 24/7 for about 3 weeks solid. I will be forever grateful to SiriusXM for doing that as it allowed me to reminisce, and, best of all, to hear a great amount of Prince’s music that I had never heard before. Madhouse is a perfect example. I was surprised to learn that Prince had some Jazz chops. On reflection, that should not have been a surprise at all given the talent he was blessed with.
Everybody’s got a bomb, we could all die any day. But before I let that happen, I’ll dance my life away
You have to remember, that line was written toward the end of the Cold War and we in the United States had a president whom many considered to be trigger-happy. I liked what Prince said here. None of us knows which day will be our last. Prince didn’t just sit there and wait for it to happen. He danced. He sang. He played. He supported. He gave. He loved. He changed the music industry almost single-handedly. Prince did Prince. And was unashamed to do so.
Prince was all about music. We have nearly 40 years’ worth of it to enjoy. Not many artists can produce music over four decades and still stay relevant. Prince did.
In this age of instant scandals proliferated over social media and the news, it is remarkable that Prince avoided all of that. You don’t see his name dragged through the mud because there is no dirt on him to dig up. Quite a testament to how he lived his life. How many people can say that after being in the public eye for more than thirty years?
Rest in peace, Prince. Thank you for the music you created and inspiration you provided while you were with us.