There are other words to describe him of course, and they’ll all be used in the coming days. Simon has already touched upon the big one – genius. And if you accept the notion that a pop star can be a genius, then he was undoubtedly that. He was also an icon, he was eccentric, he was a star, he was difficult, frustrating, sublime. He was all those things, and so much more at various points in his career. But through it all, Prince Rogers Nelson was consistently astonishing.
In the way he played, the way he performed. In the way he proclaimed himself a slave and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. In the way he never stopped producing new music. In his cocky upstaging of a room-full of talent at the rock n roll hall of fame. In the delivery of perhaps the only truly good Superbowl half time show. In his transition from a hypersexual pop-funk dynamo to a devoutly Jehovah’s pop-funk dynamo. In his strident rejection of the internet. In the million and one little weirdnesses that permeated everything he did. We don’t know the whole of it yet, but for better or worse I’m sure the stories behind his last days will be astonishing in their own way too.
His material wasn’t always good – whose is when they’ve been doing it for the better part of forty years? But so much of it was absolutely transcendent, and even the worst of it normally had some sort of fascinating quirk to it. There was the confronting video to Cinnamon Girl, the free release Planet Earth, the triple disc Emancipation set, Third Eye Girl, those confronting (Purple Rain) and abysmal (the other two) films with their amazing music… Even when Prince wasn’t at his best, there was always something going on to capture the imagination.
I became a Prince fan with the Gold Experience. The song Gold in fact. With its Purple Rain aping outro it provided me with the typical rock fan conversion – that growing awareness this pop guy could really play, followed swiftly by the greater realisation he
could really do anything. And then of course there were the 80s albums – an almost unprecedented run of excellence. Lyrically clever, musically diverse. Sparse and lush at all the right times. Funky, soulful, and rocking – sometimes all at once. They should sound dated now, those synths, that reverb, and it would all be so very much ‘of its era’ if not for the fact that those sounds were not just tacky add-ons, but integral in the same way a funky horn section was to so many of Prince’s obvious predecessors. Nothing was wasted, nothing unnecessary. Very little Prince did was less than perfect in that decade. People have been hanging out for the deluxe remaster treatment for years, But while I’ll take the bonus tracks, I wouldn’t want to hear an iota of change in the original music.
I saw him play once, 29 May 2011 at the Inglewood Forum, the last night of a month of shows around the LA area. In a run of shows that veered from greatest hit sets to deep-track extravaganzas, the set list was perfect, the performance its match. I was a long way from the stage, but the distance was nothing because the show was, yeah, astonishing. One of the best I ever saw. A memory I couldn’t be more grateful for.
It’s difficult not to get a little mawkish in instances such as this. No matter how much that sentimentality may be at odds with the very essence of Bowie, or Lemmy, or Prince, it is difficult not get a little Hallmark in searching for some sort of grand statement to capture an artist’s greatness, or the profound impact they had on you personally. Particularly in this facebook/twitter era, it’s hard not to strive for that perfect, quotable summation. I’m sticking with my opening though, Prince was astonishing.
Radio Nowhere is a new initiative here at Off The Tracks – a fortnightly guest column by Michael Ross. Record-collection reflection and other stray thoughts associated with music purchasing, collecting and listening.