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.