4 the Tears in Your Eyes: Remembering Prince

A reflection on the life and death of Prince, one of popular music's greatest artists.

It’s impossible to contemplate recording these words on a blank screen, almost as if doing so makes it real — “Prince is dead” — but it has to be done. Not that he won’t be remembered as one of the greatest entertainers whether I write those words or not. But to me he was everything. Like so many others, music has been my constant, and sometimes only, refuge. There are many great artists, but Prince is (was) Prince. There are no others.

Prince was able to cut through daily anxieties, depression and drudgery. His genius, his often frustrating mercurial ways, his wicked sense of humor, his astonishing versatility… his music was from another world that inhabited his singularly gifted mind. Prince was first and foremost an escape. A purveyor of joy. Not just to me, but to millions of fans and admirers who are now in the same state of stunned disbelief. We all mourn together, just as we all love and loved together.

After all, Prince was indestructible. At 57 he looked 20 years younger. He took care of himself. He famously disparaged drugs and cigarettes. He was the consummate workaholic, whether on stage — touring constantly — or in the studio, where he was a relentless wizard, a musical machine that seemed to be driven by an irresistible compulsion to create. And create he did, endlessly. Much of his recorded work remains unreleased.

But oh, what he did release! My first recollection of Prince was “Little Red Corvette” when I was about ten years old. I didn’t understand all of the sly sexual connotations that were writ large to see, but I knew it was something different. Something I had never seen before. Then came “1999” and “Delirious” and finally Purple Rain the album that made me, like millions of others, a super fan with posters on my wall, magazines by the ream, and an insatiable need for his music. Every b-side, every remix, every side project — and there were many — he had so much music that he couldn’t contain it all in just his own released. Sheila E, the Time, the Family, Vanity 6, Madhouse, Jill Jones, countless others. These were all Prince albums in all but name. He wrote them, produced them, played all the instruments. Others sang their parts as he directed.

The music. There is so much of it, and almost all of it worthwhile. Some of Prince’s greatest albums rank among the finest ever released by anybody, in any era or genre. There wasn’t a stylistic area that he didn’t brush upon. And the genius. That word gets thrown around a lot, but no one, even his detractors, can argue it didn’t apply to Prince. He was bold, confident, extraordinarily deft as a musician, songwriter, vocalist, producer — his vocal arrangements alone, on songs like “The One”, “Still Would Stand All Time” and “Anna Stesia”, just to name but a few — are works of art.

Prince Rogers Nelson, the son of a jazz musician who named his child after his own stage name. A portend of things to come. Prince rose from the Minneapolis music scene, soaking up disco, funk, R&B, and pop in equal measures. As a precocious teenager with a streak for boldness, he taught himself bass, guitar, drums, keyboards… He was one of those rare gifted musicians that could pick up just about anything and master it almost immediately.

Beyond that, he had a peerless gift for song-craft: the melody, the tension, the exact arrangement a piece required so that it could be presented at its best. He landed a record deal with Warner Bros. that allowed an unprecedented amount of artistic freedom for such a young and unproven talent. They recognized the genius in front of them. How could they not?

Prince recorded his first album as a teenager. From the very beginning, he wrote, produced, arranged and sang practically everything. For You hit in April 1978. A slick collection of R&B/pop, it showed flashes of brilliance while not yet approaching the height of his genius. He already showed a strong affinity for sexuality, with his blazing first single “Soft and Wet”, his first foray into the minimalist funk style that he would perfect on later classics.

Next was his highly polished self-titled second album, which hit in 1979. Prince was a much stronger and diverse effort, earning him a major smash with “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and including “I Feel For You”, a song later made into a hit by Chaka Khan, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad”, the ferocious and controversial rocker “Bambi”, the throbbing disco rave-up “Sexy Dancer” and the exquisite ballad “Still Waiting”.

He continued to grow, and not always in ways that pleased the A&R folks at Warner Bros. His third album was 1980’s Dirty Mind, an album that started as a collection of rough-hewn, homemade demos. When Prince realized the down and dirty approach was exactly what this sizzling collection of new wave/funk needed, it became the final version. With a brazenly sexual cover and songs like “Head” and the infamous “Sister” (about incest), Dirty Mind was a bold and uncompromising collection. Critics loved it. Radio, not so much (although it did perform well on the Billboard Album chart). There were no Top 40 pop hits, although “Uptown” became a sizable hit on R&B radio.

Controversy (1981) was even more diverse, emphasizing new wave while still loaded with plenty of funk. The title song became one of his most widely-loved, even though it never reached the Top 40 on the pop chart. The luscious “Do Me, Baby”, with its protracted pillow-talk ending, was the first of a type of ultra-sexy ballad that Prince would perfect. Prince would perfect so many styles that its sometimes easy to forget exactly how much of a game-changer he really was.

Then came the golden years. 1999 (1982) was an ambitious double album loaded with long, electrifying, sexually charged funk epics. He broke through to a mass audience in spite of the raunchy lyrics — “Little Red Corvette”, “1999” and the electronic rockabilly pastiche “Delirious” all became major hits. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” was also a single, but proved too sexual for Top 40 radio; its b-side, “Irresistible Bitch”, became almost as popular as the A-side.

Prince was starting to become famous for his top-notch b-sides, hardly surprising given his increasingly prolific nature. “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, and emotional ballad sung in a hair-raising falsetto over a percussive piano, was the b-side to the “1999” single and later became a major hit for Alicia Keys. Other key b-sides from throughout his career (songs that most artists would kill for) include “17 Days”, “Erotic City”, “She’s Always in My Hair”, “Hello”, “Girl”, “Shockadelica”, and the joyful bit of studio wizardry “200 Balloons”.

Superstardom followed with Purple Rain, an album, film and tour that dominated the cultural landscape of 1984. This is the album that became Prince’s commercial (and some say artistic) pinnacle. Recorded with his band the Revolution (featuring the increasingly popular Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, who undoubtedly made an impact on his music), Prince perfected his lascivious mix of scalding rock, funk, R&B and pop.

“When Doves Cry” — a stark, dramatic, stripped-down masterpiece of escalating tension — was the first single, and rocketed up the charts to spend five weeks at #1. It was the biggest hit of 1984, and of his career. Another #1 followed, the blistering rocker “Let’s Go Crazy”, ending with the white-hot guitar freakout that still has fans shaking their heads in disbelief to this day. “I Would Die 4 U”, a taut slice of funk, was a Top 10 hit, but it was the album’s title song and finalé, “Purple Rain”, that became an electric hymn for the ages. A concert staple, a singalong, a moment of shared community, “Purple Rain” is more than a song. It’s a connection that pieces together millions of people in a shared love of music made with more genuine passion than anyone else could muster. Purple Rain was the top of the mountain for Prince as it spent an astonishing 24 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Album Chart, and has sold well in excess of 20 million copies.

Not content to try in vain to replicate the mind-boggling success of Purple Rain, Prince instead veered in a different direction for Around the World in a Day (1985), a psychedelic pop kaleidoscope that, despite being so different than its predecessors, still managed to hit #1 and score two Top 10 hits: “Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life”. It proved that Prince was not going to be content to stay in the same stylistic lane; he spent his career breaking new ground, now treading the same territory. He also proved that, while he might never move Purple Rain-type numbers again, he still had a sizable fan base willing to follow him wherever his flights of creative fancy might follow and those flights often sailed through unpredictable airspace.

A string of acclaimed and successful albums followed. The brilliant and esoteric Parade (1986) is one of his best and most undervalued. It yielded the #1 smash “Kiss”, as well as singles like “Mountains” and “Anotherloverholenyohead” and the classic reflection of loss, “Sometimes It Snows in April”. The album showed increasing influence by Melvoin and Coleman, but Prince being ever restless disbanded the Revolution following the tour in support of Parade. He recorded a ton of material and even approached Warner Bros. to do a triple-album to be called Crystal Ball. They asked him to whittle it down to a double-album, which became arguably his finest ever achievement: Sign ‘o’ the Times (1987).

A daring showcase for his breezy versatility, there is hardly a musical genre that isn’t at least touched upon on the sprawling double-album. The socially conscious title-track became a #3 single, and it was followed by the brilliant psychosexual “If I Was Your Girlfriend” (arguably one of his greatest singles, and it didn’t even make the Top 40), the electrifying funk/pop “U Got the Look” with Sheena Easton, and the soaring guitar-rocker “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”.

Fans were left to wonder and hope that all the additional material recorded during the prolific 1984-1987 period (some of which was heavily bootlegged and circulated among collectors) would somehow see the light of day, but what Prince did end up releasing was nothing short of stunning. Sign ‘o’ the Times is universally hailed as one of the great albums of pop history, and it even earned Prince a Grammy nomination for Best Album (the Grammys usually didn’t offer Prince much love, perhaps because he was unwilling to play the usual music industry games).

Prince continued his prolific nature with the The Black Album, a dark and funky piece of nasty sexuality due for release in late 1987 that he ended up cancelling at the last minute, but not before copies leaked and it became one of the most widely-bootlegged albums in history. It would finally be given an official release in 1994. Instead, he released the much better Lovesexy (1988), an upbeat and colorfully funky collection that explored the relationship between the human and the divine, sexuality and spirituality.

With elaborate arrangements and unpredictable twists and turns, Lovesexy wasn’t as a commercial smash in America, although it did reach #1 in the UK. Its performance was possibly hurt by Prince appearing nude on the cover, and the CDs being sequenced all as one long track so DJs couldn’t skip to a particular song. Still, the boisterous blues-pop gem “Alphabet St.” became a Top 10 hit, and singles “Glam Slam” and “I Wish U Heaven” became moderate hits in Europe. The tour in support of Lovesexy is widely admired by fans as perhaps his finest, and it yielded the famous bootleg Small Club, recorded at an aftershow in Europe and featuring absolutely blistering guitar on an incendiary version of the Temptations’ “(Just My) Imagination”.

A couple movie projects followed. His soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) returned him to #1 on both the album and singles chart, as his kinetic mashup “Batdance” reached #1 on the Top 40, with “Partyman” becoming a substantial follow-up hit. His next film project, though, wasn’t as successful. Graffiti Bridge (1990) was a critically-planned failure of a movie, but the soundtrack had redeeming qualities. “Thieves in the Temple” made the Top 10, and some older tracks that had been collecting dust in his famous Vault finally saw the light of day — the darkly atmospheric “The Question of U”, “Joy in Repetition” and and the extraordinary Parliament/Funkadelic-inspired “We Can Funk”. The soulful gospel-flavored ballad “Still Would Stand All Time” is another lesser-known gem in his catalog.

The ‘90s saw Prince move in a sharply more R&B and hip-hop influenced direction, in part to regain his commercial mojo. He had just signed a new mega deal with Warner Bros., and he evidently felt pressure to produce hits. Diamonds & Pearls(1991) is arguably the most straightforward radio-friendly album of his career, and it sold well. “Gett Off”, a sly hip-hop raunch-fest with a throbbing bass and some of his wittiest lyrics, was like a new Prince for a new decade. It was a smash, and he followed it with an even bigger hit: his fifth and final #1 pop single, “Cream”, a decadent R&B take on the old T. Rex rock groove with a sexy video that MTV put in heavy rotation. The swirling R&B ballad “Diamonds & Pearls” became a major hit as well, and Prince was once again riding high on the charts. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last.

Then things started to go awry with Warner Bros. His next album was released under the name of an unpronounceable symbol, to which he would later change his name in a fruitless attempt to extricate himself from his recently-signed contract (he eventually would take to scrawling “Slave” across his face). Commonly referred to as Love Symbol (1992), the album was a more edgy hip-hop flavored collection that was hit-and-miss. It wasn’t necessarily a natural musical language for Prince, and he sometimes struggled. The prominence of Tony M., a rapper of questionable ability that Prince plucked from obscurity, seriously mars the album. That said, there are still gems, especially the Top 10 hit “7” and the utterly sublime “And God Created Woman”.

Prince felt that Warners didn’t support Love Symbol, which resulted in disappointing sales, and Warners felt that Prince was releasing too much product and saturating the marketplace. The standoff led to one of the most famous wars between artist and record label in music history. Prince released the one-off single “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” under the symbol name on an independent label in defiance of his contract with Warners’ reluctant permission. His rationale being that Prince signed the deal, and now Prince was “dead” and the Symbol was doing the recording. Needless to say, the theory didn’t pass legal muster. Complicating matters for Warners, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”, a smooth Philly-soul gem, became a surprise smash, reaching #3 on the pop chart. After that success, Warners refused Prince’s plan to release a follow-up, “Love Sign”, and the bitter feud intensified.

Prince decided to only hand over to Warners older material, including the 1994 album Come, which is actually one of the more undervalued albums of his career. With sharp and atmospheric pop like “Space”, the sizzling “Pheromone” and the bitter ballad “Dark”, Come might have done well had either Prince or Warners shown any interest in promoting it. The Gold Experience followed in 1995, and it was far more successful. Brash and bold with big ‘90s production techniques (some would argue overburden with elaborate arrangements), The Gold Experience is the peak of Prince’s ‘90s output. It includes such high-caliber tracks as “Shhh” (a song that he gave to Tevin Campbell and snatched back after Campbell’s tepid version didn’t do the song justice), “Endorphinemachine”, “Dolphin”, “I Hate U” and the epic title song “Gold”, which closes the album with a bang.

Prince and Warner Bros. finally ended their feud, which was a public relations fiasco for both parties. In celebration (and to commemorate his new marriage to dancer Mayte Garcia), Prince released the three-LP opus Emancipation in 1996. Unfortunately the album turned from a joyous event to a tragedy when Prince’s infant child with Garcia died in infancy from a genetic disorder. The marriage and upcoming birth are prominent themes on the album, which must have rendered it incredibly painful (especially in light of the failure of his marriage to Garcia not long after). Prince being Prince, a three-LP collection is not going to be without strong tracks, and there are moments: “The Holy River”, “Sleep Around”, a smooth take on the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow!” that performed moderately well as the first single, the oddly prescient “My Computer”, “Joint 2 Joint” and others.

Unfortunately, too many of the songs were uninspired and the soulless, plastic production didn’t help. The album didn’t perform nearly as well as Prince had hoped, and its failure seemed to send him into a tailspin during the remainder of the decade. 1998’s New Power Soul is a strong contender for the weakest Prince album — full of disposable pop/R&B fluff, it’s decidedly uninspired (except for the stunning ballad “The One” and the funky nugget “Come On”). His 1999 album Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, the result of a one-off deal with Clive Davis and Arista Records, was supposed to be his big comeback. Davis had achieved magic with Santana, and Prince was his next project. Unfortunately, while there is solid commercial material (“Baby Knows”, “So Far So Pleased”, “ManOWar”, “I Love You But I Don’t Trust You Anymore”), the album was promoted haphazardly and failed to live up to expectations.

Prince retreated to the internet in the early part of the ’00s, releasing material exclusively through his NPG Music Club and on singles at his live shows. Then in 2001, he surprised again with The Rainbow Children, an organic, largely rock and funk album with some jazzy impulses that abandons the often ineffectual slick R&B he’d been purveying for the last decade. The album was his typically inscrutable treatise on his new-found Jehovah’s Witness adherence, which caused a great deal of controversy among fans. It wasn’t a particularly commercial album and was released on a small label, but it was seen by many as an artistic rebirth after the dismal years of the late ‘90s. Tracks like “The Last December”, “She Loves Me 4 Me” and “1+1+1=3” showed Prince could still deliver the goods.

The eagerly-awaiting comeback for Prince finally arrived in 2004. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and delivered a show-stopping guitar solo on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” during the obligatory all-star jam. Prince had lost none of his ability to amaze. His album that year, Musicology, was his biggest in over a decade, reaching #5 and launching a spectacular tour. He was able to maintain that momentum into 2006 when his excellent 3121 became his first #1 album in the US since Batman, 17 years earlier. 3121 is an ultra-modern collection of well-crafted pop and R&B that is arguably his single best album since his ‘80s heyday. After languishing in the wilderness for a while, it was clear that Prince was back. He had regained his musical relevance, and fans, critics and artists were more consistently invoking him as a major influence on much of the work that came after him.

Since then, Prince has continued confounding and delighting fans with a series of releases — some strong (Lotusflow3r, Art Official Age, HITNRUN Phase Two), some not so much (MPLSound, HITRUN Phase One, 20Ten.) Ever defiant of music industry norms, Prince had largely abandoned the usual industry machinery of promotion, distribution, contracts… He experimented with getting his music to fans via nontraditional methods such as the internet, including CD releases with concert tickets and in magazines. In recent years he would pop up on “Hit and Run” tours with his smokin’ band 3rdEyeGirl, including a blazing performance at Washington D.C’s Warner Theatre on 14 June 2015 that this writer will never forget. The last time seeing Prince will burn in my memory forever.

Prince may not have been scoring pop hits, but it hardly mattered. He was still a top draw, a superstar like no other; one that had never given in, never sold out, never did anything but what he felt was right for him to do at the time. Never will there be an equal. There have been scores of imitators over the years that Prince dispatched with a wry smile and a flick of his fingers. Classic album after classic album, and endless parade of brilliant singles, lesser-known tracks, b-sides, unreleased gems… Prince produced a library of extraordinary music that will be studied for as long as music is being studied.

Recently Prince had been on tour with just a piano and a microphone, playing a diverse set to rapturous reviews and ecstatic fans. The shows were often announced only days before the performance, and they sold out instantly. Very much unlike him, he recently cancelled a show in Atlanta because of ‘flu-like symptoms’. Maybe one day we’ll know the truth. Maybe we won’t want to know.

Prince was always searching for spirituality in his life and his music, from the early days. His music was marked by a sharp duality between sex and religion. He was as restless with his beliefs as he was with his music. He eventually dedicated himself to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, at least from what the public knows. The private life of Prince, as always, was shrouded in doubt, speculation and mystery. Nobody really knows, and perhaps that’s for the best. Maybe he’s found the answer to all the April snow.

We shouldn’t live in a world those loses David Bowie and Prince in the same year. It’s unfathomable, unbearable. And yet these were real people, with loved ones, lives, fears, anxieties about which we know nothing. We know the persona, the frequently changing personas. But Prince and David Bowie, no matter how massive they became, were enigmatic. We could never get to the core of who they were, and that’s how they wanted it. They presented themselves through their art. Art that will be admired, dissected and loved for many centuries after everyone reading this and crying over their loss will be gone. We are lucky to have been on the planet at the same time as these masters, and we will always have their music to listen to and reflect upon and endlessly explore.

It’s not enough. It’s never going to be enough.

“Walking up the stairs, just late afternoon

Sweet wind blew, not a moment 2 soon

I cry when I realized… That sweet wind was U

Spirits come, and spirits go

Some stick around 4 the after-show

Don’t have 2 say I miss U

Cause I think U already know”