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Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Prince

Today would have been Prince's 58th birthday. When he died on April 21st it set off a flurry of memorials by the media and fans--it seems that everyone was a fan. He received an above the fold obituary in the staid New York Times, something rare for an entertainer. Of my Facebook friends, who range in age from their 70s to their teens, only one mentioned that he wasn't a fan, but had to tip his hat to a brilliant guitar solo on a Rock and Hall of Fame performance of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

I wasn't a fan of Prince, but he crept up on me. My taste in music, especially during the teens and twenties, favored white rock, and was leery of "exotic" sounds like funk, R&B, and soul. My brother had Prince's 1999 album, and I think I was a little off-put by the photo of him on a rug, his pants dangerously close to exposing his ass.

But with all the remembrances it occurred to me that I really did like Prince, and he had an amazing career. He was certainly a genius--he produced, arranged, and played all the instruments on many of his records. While I didn't keep up with what he did for the last 25 years or so, the stuff from his first decade and change is just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, and I've been listening to a greatest hits package for the last week or so.

What Prince did, as has been pointed out by many, is merge genres. That's usually a way for someone to blaze new trails--by taking what's already been done and reinventing it. Prince was, primarily,a guitarist, and played in the tradition of white rock. He combined that with the black sounds of funk, R&B, and soul--he was like Jimi Hendrix and James Brown in one pint-size form. Sly Stone did some of this in the '60s and '70s, but Prince blew it open.

Listening to his hits, chronologically, I really pick up with his stuff from 1999, including the title track. "1999" is a great dance song, with portents of looming disaster (it seemed to guess at the Y2K panic, even though it was the early '80s). But an even better song is the melancholy "Little Red Corvette," which imagines a woman as a car that is running too fast. There is an ache and poignance in the lyrics and in the vocals that really gets to me. Slate calls it the best song about a one-night stand ever.

Next was his magnum opus, Purple Rain, which made him a superstar, along with the accompanying movie. There were three classics from that album--"Let's Get Crazy," a dance song that contrarily begins with a preacher's sermon: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life," and then it breaks into its groove. There is also "When Doves Cry," an amazingly complex song, both lyrically and musically, that contains expert guitar playing over a drum machine. This was Prince's first number one hit. Of course, the title song remains his signature tune, a mini-epic that mixes rock with gospel and seems to reveal Prince's very soul.

Push comes to shove, my favorite Prince song may be "Raspberry Beret," which one fellow called the best pop song ever written. I may not go that far, but I can't argue with him. The song is lushly arranged, with strings, finger-cymbals, and a harmonica. It is in the psychedelic style (if you can track down the video, which is hard to do after Prince removed all of his videos from social media you can see the influences) and is a simple, almost innocent tale of a young man picking up a girl wearing the titular hat and having sex with her in a barn while it rains. It's one of those songs I could put on repeat for an hour or two.

"Sign o' the Times" was the only Prince record I ever bought, and that 45 is kind of him in microcosm. The A side was one of Prince's most political recordings, a diatribe about the state of things:

"In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name
 By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same
 At home there are seventeen-year-old boys and their idea of fun
 Is being in a gang called 'The Disciples'
 High on crack and totin' a machine gun."

The flip side is the deliriously joyful "U Got the Look," performed with Sheena Easton. You have to laugh when they sing, "Your face is jammin' /Your body's heck-a-slammin' /If love is good/ Let's get to rammin'."

I kind of lost track of Prince's work after that, though he still had almost thirty years of material. Of that music that is represented on his hits package, I especially like "Gett Off," which is some old-fashioned funk, highlighted by a flute of all things.

Of course, Prince wrote many songs for others, most prominently "Nothing Compares 2 U" for Sinead O'Connor, "I Feel for You," for Chaka Khan, "Manic Monday" for The Bangles, and "Stand Back" with Stevie Nicks. That last song I didn't know about it until just a few minutes ago, and that's one of my favorite Nicks songs.

When all is said and done, I think Prince will be remembered as the greatest musical artist of the latter half of the twentieth century. His songs will stand the test of time, and be covered by many artists in the future. His loss, which we now was accidental, is incredibly unfortunate and sad. At least we still have the music.

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