Prince's life is over but his music is not, and that music was never just about him, and it was never just about me, and it was never just about you.
The Day After
After Prince died, it was inevitable that Clara Gordon would stop in to my record store. We'd dated for a couple months back when we were younger and louder. When she broke up with me, she gave me a present: a bootleg from Prince's Lovesexy tour in 1988. Clara said it could teach me a few things about love.
Sure enough, at 25-minutes to 11 on Friday night, just before closing, Clara walked in and just stared at me.
"What'll we do now?" she said.
"Keep arguing, I guess."
Clara had become a regular in the past few years, and the only musician we really liked debating about was Prince. She was a hardcore fan, a completist -- she even found a way to get a copy of The Mail on Sunday and its free version of Planet Earth, all the way from England, just to have it. In her eyes, in her ears, Prince could do no wrong.
My stance? Prince had struggled to overcome his brilliant past. Don't get me wrong, I love Prince. I have a Sign O' the Times poster framed in my living room. In college I traded for his bootlegs on the nascent internet; even their titles were like secrets: Dream Factory, Yellow, Small Club, Paradiso. He was a brilliant performer, an incredible musician, but his recorded music lost a step in the '00s.
Clara leaned across the counter and hugged me. I told her it bothered me how he died: alone, suddenly, in an elevator. It should have been beautiful: purple light, doves, a bridge from heaven in the shape of a Telecaster's neck.
"Dorothy, he was just a man," she said. "That's what made him extraordinary: he was just a man and yet he was so much. I mean, where do you start? The fusion of rock 'n' roll and funk and New Wave and R&B, or the fusion of gender fluidity, queer politics, love, lust, and God? His guitar playing, his prolificacy, his work ethic? His live shows? His humor? His quiet offstage demeanor, his eccentricities? The hits, the B-side hits, the obscure hits, the hits he wrote for other people?"
I should mention that Clara, having dabbled in acting, had become a writer.
Gesturing to the stack of records and CDs I'd pulled out yesterday after I heard the news, I asked what she wanted to hear.
"Play Art Official Age, but go to 'Way Back Home' first." She dragged over a stool I use for in-store performances and sat down. "That's all he was ever looking for."
In My Lonely Room
As I cued up the track, Clara told me she had a theory: there was a deep loneliness and alienation inside Prince, a kind of otherworldly distance that he fought off his entire life. Of course there were whole songs devoted to it, lyrics that popped out at you. "17 Days", for instance. But she said you could also hear it in the coldness of "Computer Blue" and its synths and drums, and even in slow jams like "Call My Name" or "Shh". There was real suffering behind all the impulsive desire and lust. Sometimes it was a fear of human touch, sometimes it was a fear that the human touch wouldn't matter. (What else is The Black Album about other than nihilism?)
"Okay," I said, "but what's your point?"
She shrugged. "I've just been thinking about it."
Prince's voice at the start of "Way Back Home" sounded young and abandoned. "All I ever wanted," he sang, "was to be left alone--"
"That," said Clara. "Right there, Dot. You can't miss it."
The pain could be found in the quality of his voice sometimes, she said, in the fragility of his falsetto in "I Wanna Be Your Lover" or in the way he owned that version of "Motherless Child" he did circa 1999. You might hear the ache in his guitar: near the end of the cover of "Creep" everyone had been posting, yes, but what about the hypnotism of "Little Red Corvette" at Montreux in 2009, or in the fury of "Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic" -- the good version, the one from that small club.
The muddy concept of Art Official Age has something to do with Prince being revived from suspended animation 45 years in a future that's the fruition of our current moment -- or maybe its antithesis. When the album came out in 2014, I thought it was a flawed masterpiece, sagging in the middle with all those ballads, but also his most layered and sonically complex work since The Rainbow Children.
Standing across from Clara, watching my Facebook feed flood with articles already promising "the real story of why Prince died", it was hard to listen to "Way Back Home" that night. For me. Clara was mouthing along to the words: "So many reasons why I don't belong here." Over a percussion or keys sample churning like a heartbeat, angelic voices chimed the title phrase. Something about their clipped quality was both heavenly and technological. Utopian. Then the drums and the simple two-note keyboard progression gave way to a wall of synths and Prince at his most innocently condescending -- "Most people in this world are born dead, but I was born alive" -- but the death and the birth and the going home was getting to me. The percussion opened up, there was more going on in the background than I could name, so dense but clear, and then --
I've heard about those happy endings / but it's still a mystery
Let me tell you about me:
I'm happiest when I can seeeeeee
-- his falsetto took off, 50-something years old and having weathered hundreds of concerts but still clear as water. And that was it for me. I was mush.
One Night Together
"That's not how I want to remember him," I told Clara. I'd never thought of Prince as a lost soul trying to find his way back home. Mostly I just thought of the sheer joy he found and created by playing music, especially live: the showmanship, the performance, flirting with the audience, daring them, daring himself.
"I thought we at least agreed on that," I said.
"We do. The stage was where he felt most connected to other people."
She offered an example: 1988, that Lovesexy tour. In just a few notes, he bends the melody of the "When U Were Mine" chorus -- "I know that you're going with another guy" -- into total defeat. But then he shouts, "Europe, come on!" and suddenly you're in the middle of football match.
What about a few years later, I suggested: that carnal performance of "Gett Off" on the MTV Video Music Awards. Prince is in that yellow doily and ass-less pants outfit, surrounded by an orgy, and the performance is severe, a ritual, but every now and then he grins at someone in the front row like he knows he's getting away with something. It was the most dangerous thing on television that year.
Late 1982, said Clara. "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" stretched into a five-minute conversation that seduces the entire audience. His new woman's a nurse, he says, and he asks her for a "bold examination", then rolls his eyes like Charlie Chaplin.
Jamming with Cee-Lo on "Crazy", with Stevie Wonder and Sheila E on "Superstition". Freestyling with Kendrick Lamar.
The way he'd open up a song for his musicians, give them room to shine: Sheila E., Sonny T., Renato Neto, Eric Leeds….
Taking over "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and laughing with Tom Petty as he does it.
Any performance of "Anotherloverholenyohead", said Clara. Take London, 2007, heavier than heavy metal, funkier than "Uptown Funk".
Finally I laid down my ace: the shows from 1986 to 1988. So joyful, so complete, so effortless, collectively they form the greatest party you've ever imagined, one where no one stands alone in the corner, one where everyone is somehow unified but themselves -- where a snippet of "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window" slides into "Automatic" and the host brushes his teeth during "Head", where the thrill of "Housequake" becomes the freedom of "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night", where the ringleader invents a brand new dance, a new code every night: The Scratch, The Detroit Crawl, "squirrel meat", "chicken grease", "confusion", where every emotion you can feel, from "The Cross" to "Bob George", resolves into and finds satisfaction in the pleasure of making music and being alive.
In fact, every time I listen to Prince playing live, he convinces me there's nothing better than music.
Chasing the New
I flipped over the OPEN sign, locked the door, and we spent the next hour jumping from album to album, track to track. I played "Controversy", Clara called out for "Black Sweat". I found "Electric Intercourse" and Clara insisted on "Chelsea Rodgers". "Pop Life" live in Detroit. The Super Bowl performance.
"I'll never convince you '3121' is as good as 'Kiss', will I?" said Clara.
Probably not, I told her. Since yesterday I'd been actually obsessing about Prince's struggles in the studio in the '00s to overcome and top the brilliance of his past, which was filled with innovation and utterly shocking originality. Aside from a few, scattered incredible songs -- "Black Sweat" is one, "Avalanche" another: lyrically unsettling, musically riveting -- Prince never quite bested his old self. A lot of his recent music was nostalgic for his earlier sounds. Musicology longed for old-school R&B; the Lotusflower/MPLSound set was essentially a tribute to the Revolution. But none of his recent music, on record, sounded like a revolution.
I'd been obsessing about this because… well, I was feeling guilty about it. Death has a way of redeeming the dead.
"The dead, maybe, but not their music," said Clara. "Did Elvis' death redeem 'Song of the Shrimp'?"
Maybe Prince's music in the 2000s wasn't as good, Clara said for the first time ever. Maybe, in fact, his last great album was The Gold Experience in 1995. Maybe The Rainbow Children and Art Official Age came close. Maybe his true brilliance was on the stage.
But, she continued, he kept trying. He was mercurial and sometimes he tossed off mediocre work, but Clara had always believed it was because of his impulsive need to release what he was doing right now, not because he didn't care.
"I always had the sense that he was chasing something new," she said, "and you can't do that carefully. At least, he couldn't." She smiled and lit a cigarette. "Every musician, from the famous to the unknown local, knows how hard it is to constantly try to be good. Just good. Prince never stopped trying to be incredible. Why else would I listen to every new record he put out?"
"I thought it was to help me stay in business," I said.
"You think I love everything he did," said Clara. "That I'm totally uncritical. Not true. But after Chaos and Disorder, I snatched up Emancipation. Even after Emancipation, I bought Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. I loved listening to him chase. Maybe it was the pain and alienation that pushed him along, or maybe it was the balance of that and the pure joy of it. But I loved hearing him seek. I loved him being alive."
"That's the Prince I'm going to remember," she added. "Not just the guy who gave us '1999' but the searcher who never stopped searching."
The Long Goodbye
It was late. Clara had to take her son to soccer practice the next morning and I'd been at my store since nine in the morning. Outside, we hugged by our cars. I wanted to make her promise we'd keep arguing about Prince until we were a pair of old bats with gray hair, but I had no right to ask her for any promises. All those years ago, she'd broken up with me, yeah, but it was because I'd been seeing another woman behind her back. Like I said: we were younger and louder.
"Dot, you ever read that essay Lester Bangs wrote after Elvis died?"
"Maybe. A long time ago. I have the book somewhere."
"Find it," Clara said. "Make sure you read the end."
At home I put on Small Club and listened to Sheila E's drums tick into a rhythm, an electric piano skirt jazz chords until settling into a funky pattern, and then Prince's guitar rise from underwater and take off.
Once the opening jam gave way to "D.M.S.R.", I scrounged up the Bangs essay and read it in bed. "If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe," he writes, "then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others' objects of reverence." He concludes:
We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis's. But I can guaranteed you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.
For a moment I panicked. Was this a message? Was Clara never coming into my store again? But it was just like her to have me read the essay because she thought Bangs was wrong. Maybe we, as a culture, never agreed on Prince -- or Michael Jackson, or Lou Reed, or David Bowie… or Mia Zapata, or Amy Winehouse, or even Bessie Smith -- like we agreed on Elvis, but maybe that's never been the point.
What matters, I think, is this: Prince's life is over but his music is not, and that music was never just about him, and it was never just about me, and it was never just about you, it was about all us. And if that's so, we'll never agree. Not completely. Not if everyone's going to be part of the conversation. But that doesn't mean we have to say goodbye.
What I hope is that we never become indifferent, that we never stop listening, that we never stop searching. Prince didn't. We don't have to, either.
Author's Note: This article is a work of fiction that tells a truth, a composite of experiences real and imagined. As a straight guy, I was hesitant about embodying the perspective of two women who've been in a relationship with each other -- and two women whose names, Clara and Dorothy, might seem significant to Prince fans -- but I also wanted to include a more than subtle nod to the massive, positive impact Prince has had on the LGBTQ community.