“When…working or thinking…your bloodstream beats differently.”
—Prince, Rolling Stone, 1985
Prince Rogers Nelson was never one to let anyone wrap him up in a pussycat bow. Pop-star. Rock-god. Funk-master. Preacher. Satyr. Dandy. Workhorse. Gender-bender. Monk. Magician. Philanthropist. Joker. Svengali. Recluse. Showman extraordinaire. He was a man of luminous, full-throated joy, and deep, shattering longing. Of indestructible groove laced with an abyssal ache that he was certain (and he was right) could be made to take flight through the transcendent, propulsive power of music. He played guitar like he was making love and talking in tongues. He sang like an angel and a man possessed. He was reverence and sin. Confusion and commitment. Artifice and naked emotional exposure. He hated being stared at but wanted everyone to look at him. And when we looked, we were as awed as he wanted and needed us to be, and we offered up the love that he asked for and that he made, and for a long time it was enough, it was everything, and at the same time it was not and could never be enough.
Since he’s been gone I’ve tried marshaling my disbelief and sadness, first by dancing (I think he’d approve), then by moping (less so), and finally, by turning towards my craft (yesss…just there). I’ve read and re-read his life and work, and I’ve read reams written about his life and work, both pre and post that day in April when—I can’t shake the feeling—the world somehow wobbled on its axis and slipped momentarily out of its alignment. (Astro-philosophical hyperbole is my academic speciality, and anyway people, the man made a rainbow). There are three things I’ve noticed. One, it is other women’s words—often confined to the margins—that have come closest to getting a handle on what made this man so magnificent. Two, the ranks of the mostly male rock-critic establishment are insistent on working the words ‘genius’ and ‘enigma’ into almost insignificance. And three, while the dynamic tensions in his art and life could never be brought to a neat harmonic resolution, they can however be held together by the elemental flow that underpinned his sexual and spiritual concerns, his attitude to women and his own desires, and his sublime ability to give himself over so completely to his art. Prince, it is often said, was made of music. Like his longing, and his lust, and his love of God, it all just flooded out of him.
But first, the genius thing. Prince was, without doubt, preternaturally gifted. But, as he was at pains to point out, he didn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. He worked like a dog, day in, night out, from his childhood to the end of his life. Nobody’s fingers fly over frets like that without inordinate patience and practice, and it does the aspirations of coming generations no good to suggest anything otherwise. And yet of course, the level and range of his mastery was still, in itself, skull-splitting. It is a painful irony that, due to his copyright stance, only his death would allow many to fully appreciate the prodigious diversity and mind-bending virtuosity of his life.
In the last weeks we have dissected (Daniel Ralston) and compiled (Perrie Samotin)—every riff and trill, every scream, shred and sonic bend. Exhibit after exhibit in a legacy catalogue of near-superhuman skill. It elicits a kind of awe, only amplified by the thrilling braggadocio—this unlikely, awkward, fine-boned boy’s absolute certainty that he was the shit, his early performances powered by an unwavering intent to ride his chops all the way from a broken childhood in an unremarkable Midwestern city to the very center of the rock-god pantheon. But there is also something in all this virtue-cataloguing that misses the mark. Skill can thrill, but it is one stop short of genius. Had Prince not surrendered himself as an instrument of sex, soul, and spirit, he would not have moved us.
And then there is Prince the enigma, or rather, Prince the incarnation of the old axiom about “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. There’s something to this, at least insofar as preternatural ability is confounding, and cannot, frustratingly, be any better explained by those that possess it than by those that witness it. (All one can say is, work it). And there is also, of course, the fact that he was legendarily guarded when asked about anything but music, didn’t allow interviewers to record him, and responded in ways that tended towards the cryptic and the elliptical. That he refused to talk about the past, was occasionally inclined towards deliberate misdirection, and spent much of his life enclosed inside a windowless studio complex in Minneapolis: a gesture of concealment—now horribly mimicked in the manner of his death—which only further incited people’s desires to know who he was and how he did what he did.
But the rock-critic consensus that this guy was unfathomable was also, I think, an index of their bafflement that a man of such musical mastery—who could funk like James Brown and play soaring, swaggering cock-rock—insisted on doing so while embodying such a sinuous, feminine fluidity, and was so enormously seductive as a result. What is notable about how people responded to Prince is that when you look to his fans there is little talk of enigmas or mysteries or riddles. Rather, their accounts are about how deeply their lives were touched by his expression and honesty. Of how connected to him they felt. Of the harbor he gave them in the world. Of what they feel he taught them about the value of creativity, and freedom, and fearlessness, and love.
Above and beyond the sheer virtuosity, when I try to understand what made this man so meaningful, I find I want to talk about water—about the affective power of rock ‘n’ roll convention replayed through the body of someone so fluid and so open to that fluidity. Much has been made of Prince’s distain for distinctions, whether of genre, gender, or race. And while we could put this down to savvy marketing—a Sly and the Family Stone crossover strategy marinated in the ambience of Byronesque post-punk—it was more than mere cynicism or contrivance. Water—the feminine element of slow erosion, of blurring and blending, and of torrential transformation—was everywhere in his work, from the longing for cleansing baptismal rain, through the legendary injunction that Apollonia purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, to the near obsession with the intimate amniosis of bathing and being bathed Yes, he knew how to rock a pair of four-inch heels or belt out an anthem while swathed in lace or diamonds and pearls, but Prince’s willingness to submerge himself suggests, I think, that his embrace of the feminine was far more than just a show.
Rather than indexing the aesthetic (and largely oppressive) performance we call femininity, water is an index of the feminine, understood as an ontological category. It is the repository of the devalued poles in our age-old system of metaphysical duality: the dark reservoir of emotion, intuition, and corporeal sensuality set under—and excluded—from the light of a disembodied masculine reason. It is the sign of the flexible, permeable, multitudinous and mutable as opposed to the rigid, impenetrable, singular and static. Water is welcoming. It allows the outside to enter into it, and, when it doesn’t dissolve you entirely, it soothes and softens edges, enabling (allegedly) obdurate oppositions to be suspended inside itself. Water moves and is moving. It is the sign of unstoppable momentum and the inescapable affective power inherent in the flow of our experience. Our cultural ideal may be of an impervious, inviolate, masculine invulnerability, but water will wash over you whether you like it or not. If you are alive, you cannot but be influenced, and sometimes indeed, overwhelmed. Your choice is only whether you try to fight it or work out how to float.
Prince knew not only how to float, but, more often than not, would strip off his shirt and stand outside in the storm. From his birth to his death he lived in a landscape both literally and figuratively dotted with bodies of water, and in addition to the sublime, aching swell of its most famous iteration, over thirty other of his songs make reference to rain. Rain served Prince as an occasional signifier of doom and gloom, but most often as an expression of emotional, spiritual, and above all, sexual transfiguration. It’s there in his first single, “Soft and Wet”—a panting, funky, filthy paean to the feel of female desire—while in “My Love Is Forever”, also from his debut album, the elemental influence of his lover is like “wind and…rain /…a river that takes away my pain.” In the originally unreleased 1985 track “Splash”, rain indexes sexual ecstasy, as it does also in “When 2 R In Love” from 1988’s Lovesexy, a rendering of sexual union almost entirely in the vernacular of aquatic confluence and merger. “Drop, drop, drop, drop, water, water, water” he gushes as he imagines the pounding in his stomach and the accelerating speed of his and his lover’s hips.
In “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” (1999) he falls into love “like rain (like rain)”, while the formal and sexual climax of “Raspberry Beret” (1985) takes place in a barn as rain drums down on the roof, a gesture he would replay in front of thousands at Madison Square Gardens some twenty years later. In the middle of the acoustic interlude of the 2004 Musicology Tour, as he is about to launch into a rendition of the seductive soul ballad “Adore”, he orders the house lights down low, shushes the whole arena, and tells them to snap their fingers together real fast. “Listen,” he purrs with delight, “it sounds like it’s raining outside.” The audience goes nuts.
And then there are those endless baths. In the chorus of “When 2 R In Love”, he petitions his partner with “Come bathe with me / Let’s drown each other in each others emotions… Bathe with me / Let me touch your body ‘til your river’s an ocean.” At the beginning of the video for “When Doves Cry”, the first single from the album that made him a legend—the first image many of us will remember him by—double doors swing open to reveal him supine and naked in the tub, surrounded by billows of steam and a floor strewn with flowers. Three years later, in the masterpiece “Sign O’ the Times”, he learns to still romantic discord by taking a well-timed bubble bath, returning to his lover after an interlude spent bathing (with his pants on) in the company of a quick-witted waitress called Dorothy Parker. On the album’s second disc we find him pleading—in the persona of Camille—for the chance to wash his ex-lover’s hair and “make her breakfast sometime,” a series of vignettes that also summons Lisa’s seductive question in the opening lines of “Computer Blue”, “Wendy… Is the water warm enough?” Listening now, some 30 years on, the unashamed longing of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” strikes as certainly as it did when I was a girl of 14. It is the most remarkable, and remarkably moving, outpouring of male desire for the intimacy and eroticism of care ever committed to vinyl.