It has been reported that Prince is dead. He was 57. The news arrives a week after he was hospitalised with the flu after an emergency landing. Prince had been touring non-stop in recent months – including his first time in New Zealand.
The word ‘genius’ is forever thrown around, it lost most of its meaning some time ago. But most people – with ears – could tell you that Prince was a genius. People who claim to not even be interested in his music will acknowledge that; will tell you they know he’s great, just not for them.
Well, Prince was for me. He was always for me. I owned everything I could – and still do, whatever I could get my hands on. I’ve been aware of his music since I was about seven or eight years old. Since then I’ve never not been a Prince fan.
His music is the music I know the best, as a fan, as a critic. I’ve written about him a lot – but I never thought I’d have to write something like this. Of all the greats he truly seemed immortal. I never thought I’d be here now, searching for words or a way to convey his true meaning to me…all of that incredible music…I’d always hoped I’d just get to pick and choose periods and albums, keep exploring, keep writing. And of course that will happen – but we’ve just lost one of the most talented musicians of the pop-music era.
He was the greatest talent of his generation.
As a guitar player he was good enough to be on Best Guitarist lists. As a songwriter he created huge hits for Sinead O’Connor, The Bangles, Chaka Khan, Martika and many, many others. Then there are his own hits – some 40 albums, no serious music collection should be without at least a half-dozen of them.
He made films, he played 27 instruments, he talent-spotted, he recorded and performed under pseudonyms too. In between 1980-1985 he not only recorded two of his most important albums (and two other very good records) he released music as/with The Time, Sheila E., The Family and recorded the instrumental jazz tracks for Madhouse – yet another side-project (eventually released in 1987). He also made his first film, still one of the benchmarks when it comes to music-based films, Purple Rain and its soundtrack/standalone album made him a global superstar.
There simply was no downtime. There was never any downtime, apparently there was no need for it. Well, for a start, with downtime nothing gets done. Prince got things done.
His fabled vault contains enough material for at least another 40 albums.
Think about the fact that one of the most prolific artists in pop music was actually more prolific than anyone could actually imagine. Think of a number – then double it.
He’s play after-party gigs, sometimes they’d stretch on for hours. On his recent tour he was playing two shows a night. There were private parties at his Paisley Park home/studio/bunker. And around that there were songs being written, albums being made.
Outside of the music – all that great, great music – my favourite thing about Prince, a bundle of brilliant weirdness, was that in an age where everyone knows everything about everyone, or thinks they do, or is sure they could find out, he really was – still – an enigma. He announced his first ever New Zealand shows just three weeks out from performing them. He played the shows at the piano, solo. We all know he played more than one instrument, fans knew that the piano was always a component of his shows, but he had never performed a solo piano show. Apparently he was sick of rave reviews, wanted to challenge himself, wanted to test himself.
He had the ability – always – to pop up out of nowhere doing something new, to reinvent, to circle back, to surprise.
I’m a lifelong fan but I know that some of his music wasn’t that great. I listened, closely, to the (relative) failures. Was he trying too hard, or not really trying at all. The answer was both, or either. But when he did try – and he got it right far more often than he got it wrong – he was untouchable. He was the greatest.
Musicality coursed through his veins – we lucky few who saw those New Zealand shows got to see how he could effortlessly splice two seemingly non-parallel songs into a surprise-on-the-night medley; how spontaneous interpolations of the Peanuts Theme, for example, gave clues as to how deep his influences ran, and showed how he had a sense of humour with(in) music too.
At his best he understood pop music better than anyone – I truly believe that. He made pop music that spans generations, that speaks to so many people, that is – in the best possible way The Classic Rock of Pop Music.
I also – always – thought of him as something of a Willy Wonka-character. Hiding away in his compound, making magical confections, always unpredictable. Searching, it seemed, for an heir…hiding a secret, always. That smirk told you he was sure he knew something you didn’t.
Maybe Prince’s recent workload was the result of him knowing something. (He always seemed to know just slightly more than anyone else).
He certainly gave us more than enough music for this lifetime. It’s all there, at least the stuff he wanted us to hear. And the best of it will brighten your day. We need that feeling now more than ever because this really is some sad, sad news.