(Above: LA's essential art museum LACMA turned its Rain Room exhibit into a memorial for Prince.)
By PAUL ZOLLO
The world has changed. Profoundly. He was a miraculous musician of multitudes. As the world knows well, he was a miracle songwriter, a remarkably soulful singer and performer, and an astounding guitarist and virtuoso musician on almost every instrument under the sun. And under the purple rain.
First time I saw him live was when he was one of the opening acts for the Rolling Stones at the L.A. Coliseum. It was John Lennon’s birthday, October 9, 1981, less than a year since his death. Prince came out in a long trench coat, black boots and bikini underwear. Nothing else. He was on fire, playing electric guitar with a fierce fluidity that was stunning to behold and singing and dancing like some miracle hybrid of James Brown, Sly Stone, Michael Jackson and Hendrix. Who was this little man?
The Stones fans, however, did not like what they saw. Not sure if they even heard it, because they quickly began booing and throwing cans and bottles at the stage. He stared bravely through the barrage with a clarity of courage in his eyes, not unlike that other Minnesota musician who got booed for being new, Bob Dylan. As Dylan said years later, “People have a hard time with anything that overwhelms them.” And Prince being Prince – like Dylan going electric – was overwhelming.
Yet there was no mistaking that there was electricity in this man. He was tiny, yet exuded magnificence. Drunken kneejerk reactions to his provocative image were soon replaced with awe and love. Within months he started scoring singles on the pop charts, and the world woke up to the singular and expansive brilliance of this one man. Like Stevie Wonder, Prince just exuded music. Joyful, funky, soulful, sorrowful, lusty, holy, funny, romantic music. Like Stevie – and really no others – Prince could go into a studio and do it all himself. He would lay down the drum track first, playing to the music in his head, before layering on the other elements: vocals (he could sing powerfully and passionately in every range), bass, guitars, keyboards and more.
As a pop craftsman, he was a songwriter of remarkable reach. His songs ran the gamut from musically complex but also delightfully simple. When I spoke to Randy Newman a few years ago about his own unusual use of dissonance in songs, he said, “You know who else uses dissonance? Prince! Listen to that stuff!”
Prince wrote anthems for the century’s end, like “1999,” themes of deep sorrow, such as the crystalline, “When Doves Cry,” and his miraculous hymn for humanity, “Purple Rain.” He also created wondrously complex and capacious musical suites, such as “The Cross” and “Anastasia.” When he delved into psychedelia, he did it better than anyone since The Beatles with the multi-chromatic sound feast of Around The World In A Day.
He also not only wrote the songs, but crafted the production himself, and created a chain of unparalleled pop singles. During his first reign, he ruled radio and enlivened it with the dynamism of his songs, and his sound. Records like “Little Red Corvette,” “Kiss,” “1999,” “Raspberry Beret,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “When Dove’s Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” He raised the bar not only in the crisp, funny and romantic lyrics of his songs, their soulful tunes, but in terms of the production, and the deep compelling grooves he brought to radio.
Of course, pop songs were only a tiny bit of what he could do. His musical genius expanded in every direction; he poured as much soul and grace into a multi-dimensional suite as he did to a 3-minute pop hit.
I met him once only. But it remains, of course, one of the most momentous meetings I have had. It was at a music awards dinner. During a break when all the guests began to mingle, Prince remained at his table- which was, of course, in the very front – with a young beauty who looked to me to be about 17, though I was told later she was in fact 21.
For years prior to this I had tried and failed to get an interview with him. He famously did not like to do interviews. But here at this dinner, I saw it as a chance to bypass the gatekeepers and go straight to the source.
So I walked up and said hi. He nodded and smiled. I told him I wanted to interview him, but only about music and songwriting – no personal questions or anything unrelated to music and creativity.
He smiled, and then said, softly, “Hey man, I dig it. But no.”
Of course, a yes would have been more desirable. But the “I dig it” did make me happy. Prince said that he dug it. And I had met the man. If only for a moment. But some moments we hold onto forever.
As I walked away, people at the event were all astounded I went up to him. “You just spoke to him? And he talked back? Wow!” He was one of those musical stars – again, not unlike Dylan – who carried with him such power and mystery that even jaded journalists were absolutely electrified by his presence. The last time he was on the Grammys, he didn’t perform, he simply walked out on stage to give out an award. His presence – even without a performance – was the single most spectacular moment of the night. Even the jaded ones were electrified. And the question circulated, “Hey – how is it that Prince never ages?”
He was great at everything he did. As most people know, he was a gifted basketball player, always eager to challenge someone to a game, and then whip them. That athletic prowess, abundantly evident in the super-charged and exultant fluidity of his onstage dancing, spinning and leaping in high-heeled boots, was displayed at a staggering show at the L.A. Forum in 1985. Tall basketball hoops were part of the set, and the choreography included Prince and his dancers shooting hoops with multiple basketballs. Not once did anyone miss a basket. It was a wonder to behold. The choreography which surrounded his songs was always as perfect as clockwork, and yet still contained a wildness, a spirit of unbound liberation that transcended the Vegas-like dancing we often see, and was spellbinding.
One time I met the great Nik West, bassist extraordinaire who played with Prince for years, and asked her for any secrets about Prince. He was always so mysterious, we were forever hungry for any morsels of inner information.
“Well, you know he absolutely loves ping-pong, don’t you?” Actually I had no idea, though I know it’s the perfect sport for those snowbound Minnesota winters. I asked if he was good.
“Good? Dude, he is way beyond good. He is amazing. You have never seen anything like it. He moves so fast, it’s a blur. That guy is just kind of amazing at everything.”
His was a concert unlike any other. They were true parties, and ones of great diversity – as his appeal was widespread among every community. I remember sharing my row at the Forum with every kind of Prince fan, which is to say every kind of human, including some very large black ladies in very tiny provocative outfits, who danced a mighty dance all night long. We were all best friends by the end of that night. His music was inclusionary in the best possible way – whether you loved funk, soul, R&B, pop, rock, jazz or something else- he was all of it and more. He showed from the start that all songwriters are links in a chain, all connected, and all music is one. Although the industry relegates artists to separate genres and bins for easier marketing appeal, musicians always know that all music is one, and his spirit and soul exemplified that truth always. His concerts were a beautiful gift to his fans, like Christmas every night, three solid hours of pure, soulful electric joy.
As a songwriter, he followed in the hallowed tradition of writing songs for other artists that didn’t only fit them, but defined them, and in many instances became their signature songs. There’s no example more stunning or hauntingly beautiful than the defining song of Sinead O’Connor’s career, “Nothing Compares To You,” which remains one of the most essential love songs written. Similarly, the song that defined Morris Day and The Time – also elevated by their appearance as Prince’s nemesis band in Purple Rain – was the one he wrote for them, “Jungle Love.” And was there ever a better song for Chaka Khan to be her purest Chaka than “I Feel For You,” which he wrote?
And still others. With Madonna (who like Michael Jackson was also born the same year as Prince, 1958) he wrote one of the most beautiful songs she’s ever sung, “Love Song.” The Bangles had the great “Manic Monday,” while Cyndi Lauper, on her debut album, delivered a shiny and soulful rendition of his “When You Were Mine.” Stevie Nicks co-wrote “Stand Back” with him, one of her biggest solo hits ever.
His friend and frequent drummer/percussionist Sheila E., (one of many artists whose careers he launched), had a big hit with “The Glamourous Life,” a song he originally wrote for Apollonia, but which fit Sheila even better. Sheena Easton scored with the sweet pop of “Sugar Walls,” while even Tom Jones had a hit with a Prince song, his cover, with Art of Noise, of a song already a hit for Prince, “Kiss.”
All of which points to his greatness as a songwriter, one who could concoct every kind of song under the sun, and did.
Throughout his career there were transcendent moments that simply stunned everyone. One was at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction for George Harrison. Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and George’s son Dhani Harrison performed George’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with its elegant words perfect for mourning this other songwriting hero who died too young.
At the climax of the song, Prince, who had been playing along quietly on the side under a bright red chapeau, stepped into the light and proceeded to play a guitar solo so passionate, so beautifully lyrical and yet incendiary, that everyone – the performers, the audience – were blown away. It was a transporting moment. Simply beyond. A moment of true transcendence that is preserved forever. Watching this video now still stuns, as he brought such a tremendous wellspring of emotion to this one performance. See it now and behold the meaning and magnitude of true musical greatness.
Then there was the 2007 Super Bowl in which he performed. Told in advance that there was going to be rain and asked if he wanted to cancel, he said, “Make it rain harder.” Then came more transcendence – this one man in front of millions, electric and human at the same time. And few moments ever unfolded with more real amazing grace, than his heartfelt, passionate performance of “Purple Rain” with brave tears in his eyes, as the skies unleashed an enormous torrent of rain. With a massive army of attired marching band members dancing all around the stage, he transported us all. Another moment forever preserved.
He also expressed genuine love and respect for his fellow musicians and songwriters. He never hid his love of Joni Mitchell, even echoing some of her lyrics in his songs. (In “Kiss,” for example, he declares, “I just want your extra time,” which connects to Joni’s beautiful “Jericho,” with “I need your confidence, baby, and the gift of your extra time.” )
In Joni’s honor, he recorded a beautifully Princified version of her song from Blue, “A Case of You.” It’s a song far removed from the Prince we think of, a gentle female ballad of some cutting candor. (“I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.”) His version lifts the song in a whole other realm. Gentle, but with an insistent funk groove and hypnotic piano figures that are compellingly poignant. He was a consummate musician who invested himself fully into everything he touched, and with brilliant results.
It’s true he was so creatively on fire, so prolific, that his record company told him he couldn’t put out all the records he wanted to, so as not to glut the market. They put the reins on him. Imagine that. Like saying to Picasso, “Yeah, Pablo, we love the paintings, the sculptures, all of it. Great stuff. But too much! Take a break. Stop making art.” Not exactly conducive to the soul of a creator. But this is the business we’re in.
And like Frank Zappa and Lou Reed and others for whom creation always triumphed over commercial restraints, Prince kept making his music, even in defiance of the industry itself which was so impacted by his work. Like other great artists of our time and every time, art for him was more than a career. It was a calling.
At the heart of the thing was pure joy. He would famously give three hour shows – shows which encompassed the spacious splendor of who he was – take a break, and then give a late night show in a club. He loved to play, and he loved to share that love. And some things, even in this modern, disposable digital world we find ourselves in, do last forever. And the love – and sheer soul power – inherent in every one of his songs, in his filmed performances, and in his records, in his spirit – will stand forever. Long live Prince.
• • • •Paul Zollo first published this piece for American Songwriter Magazine. It appears here with his permission.