PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Perhaps Prince Really Did Die 4 Us

On what would have been the groundbreaking musician's 58th birthday, a reflection on his final chord.

There is no user’s manual on how exactly a rock star is supposed to die.

One might think they’d go out in a blaze of glory, striking the perfect note before exploding in a fireball of sequins and Marshall amps. Or perhaps they’d go after a final bacchanalian romp, in full keeping with the ethos of excess they’re all expected to honor. The only assumption is that they’re all supposed to die young.

In fact, rock stars die in ways as random as everybody else. They have departed this mortal coil via means such as chemical abuse (Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse), plane crashes (Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ronnie Van Zant, Aaliyah) and suicide (Kurt Cobain, Donny Hathaway), which one might consider the most common causes within this profession. The actual list includes:

• Being murdered by a total stranger (John Lennon)

• Choking on their own vomit (Jimi Hendrix, John Bonham)

• Lupus (J. Dilla)

• Motor vehicle accident (Duane Allman, Lisa Lopes, Stiv Bators)

• Being murdered by a family member (Marvin Gaye, Roger Troutman)

• Accidental drowning (Brian Jones, Dennis Wilson, Jeff Buckley)

• Cancer of one form or another (Ian Dury, Syd Barrett, Linda McCartney)

• Skiing accident (Sonny Bono)

• Being murdered in alleged retaliation for someone else’s deed (Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G.)

• House fire (Steve Marriott)

• Cerebral hemorrhage (Jeffrey Lee Pierce)

• Illnesses after having been paralyzed (Teddy Pendergrass, Curtis Mayfield)

• AIDS-related (Eazy-E, Freddie Mercury, Klaus Nomi)

• Anorexia-related (Karen Carpenter)

• Heart attack (Paul Butterfield, Luther Vandross, Nikki Sudden)

• Being murdered under still-mysterious circumstances (Sam Cooke)

• Getting beaten to death by a bouncer (Jaco Pastorius)

It should be noted that none of the above artists had the fortune to live to a ripe old age (say, 65 or above), but many others have, including octogenarians Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino, three members of rock’s Mt. Rushmore (we’ll get to the fourth in a bit). While Morphine’s Mark Sandman is one of the few to actually die on stage, some have managed to issue a final work of grit and substance before succumbing to a long illness (thank you, Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Womack and David Bowie).

Still, rock stars dying in the prime of life, for whatever reason, happens. It’s shocking and it’s sad, but it happens. But I’d wager no one, absolutely no one, expected that to happen to Prince. In fact, I suspect many of his truest believers thought he might never die at all.

Prince always seemed a breed apart, more aura than flesh and blood. He apparently had the knack of not so much arriving somewhere as materializing, befitting a mystical life-force more than the rest of us and our hide-bound modes of transport. If you came into a room that housed his presence, it was apparently no longer a room but some sort of spirit-charged space, all but detached from the rest of the planet. The secrecy he maintained about most aspects of his life (which was respected by virtually all his associates) only furthered the air of mystery about him. And of course, the music: millions derived a sense of connection with their deepest wishes and identities through his records, and his concerts were routinely considered ecstatic experiences.

It’s hard to imagine what a proper death for such a being would be. Maybe “death” isn’t even the word: "ascension", perhaps, or something a bit more elegant than “corporeal dissolution into the ether, leaving behind a mist of his holy essence.” But it just doesn’t seem Prince-ly for him to have been found dead in his home.

That’s how they found Elvis: bloated and besotted with all manner of drugs, DOA on the bathroom floor. That inglorious ending seemed a fitting capstone to the long, inglorious spiral down from his rockin’ Rushmorian status. He was a fat joke by the end of his days, and his death seemed only to confirm that.

But Prince was neither washed up nor irrelevant. He was still vital, still recording new music, and still putting on memorable shows. He wasn’t selling product by the truckload anymore, but every time he sang or played his guitar, people still wanted to hear what he had to say.

So it was shocking and sad to see him gone so soon. But the headscratcher came as news of his final days surfaced. The autopsy results -- he died of a self-administered overdose of the super-potent opiate fentanyl -- lend credence to what those news reports had suggested. It appears he was suffering from an extreme dependence on, if not addiction to, high-octane opiates he’d apparently been taking in higher-than-optimal quantities to deal with the pain his body was experiencing, possibly as a result of not one but two rumoured hip replacements.

Prince… on drugs? The Jehovah’s Witness who long ago foreswore ingesting chemicals? Nah, couldn’t be.

Prince… 57 years old? Yeah, he’d been a recording artist for nearly 40 years, but he never sounded old, or dated. His music was always timelessly Prince, and so was his look. Anyone recall ever seeing a wrinkle or gray hair? His being AARP-eligible was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Prince… possessed of a body that had failed him to the point where he needed to do something drastic to keep that body functional? Impossible.

But that’s what’s so jolting about the way he died. For all the time we were captivated by Prince, the irrepressible flaunter of convention, we never considered (or had reason to consider) Prince Rogers Nelson, the middle-aged human who needed pain pills to get through the day.

Prince was not supposed to suffer anything like that. He was not supposed to be capable of suffering, period. That was supposed to be the lot of mere mortals like us.

But suffer he did, and it turns out he wasn’t alone. Just a month before he passed, USA Today reported new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the dangers of opiates. The article cited CDC estimates of 40 Americans dying each day from painkiller overdoses, and quoted CDC director Thomas Frieden:

We know of no other medication routinely used for a nonfatal condition that kills patients so frequently. We hope to see fewer deaths from opiates. That's the bottom line. These are really dangerous medications that carry the risk of addiction and death.

The alarm was being sounded, and the issue was bubbling up on the presidential campaign trail, but it hadn’t yet acquired a clarion’s urgency in the public’s consciousness.

Prince’s death upped the ante on that urgency. Reporting about his final week gave rise to a fresh round of stories about the dangers of opiates. Dr. Ford Vox wrote on CNN.com of measures states and medical providers might consider to reduce the growing epidemic. Author Maia Szalavitz wrote an impassioned defense in the Washington Post of the treatment program being considered for Prince’s affliction, the one he would have started had he lived just one day longer.

In Forbes, Matthew Herper came right out and said something ought to be done in Prince’s very name. Until stronger regulations happen, one way to actually do that might be to print that infamous Symbol -- that defiant middle finger to the record industry which ended up becoming his logo, one of the most famous such concoctions in all of music -- as a warning on every prescription painkiller label.

We don’t yet know the whole story of his final years, but for now the knowledge that Prince died the way he did still doesn’t feel right. Here is an artist whose overarching themes were the throwaway topics of love, sex and faith. Here is an artist whose every expression of frailty was accompanied by a huge guitar solo. Here is an artist who early in his career proclaimed a vision of “white, black, Puerto Rican / everybody just a-freakin’ / good times were rollin’” -- and whose music brought that vision to life. Here is an artist who, we all thought, was going to continue to do this for a very long time, and never much age, and always be that being who materialized from Minnesota or wherever to rock the house for hours on end.

And what was his final message to us, after a life’s work of defying musical barriers and being His Royal Badness? After four decades of cheeky sex tunes, socio-political and religious statements, one movie we remember and two we won’t, groove excursions galore, a first-love-then-hate affair with the internet, and a presence that reverberates throughout culture in numerous ways, what was the last thing we gleaned from him?

Be careful with those damned painkillers. (And also, btw, leave a will.)

That’s far from his most majestic statement, and certainly not one he’d planned to make. But who knows how many lives it might help save? His name was Prince, after all, and he was funky.

He will always, to quote a classic B-side, be in our hair.

And at least he didn’t die in the john.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.