He was named after a jazz band, so it’s little wonder he became a musician. But a musician can be someone who merely plays an instrument, and Prince Rogers Nelson did much more than play. He did more than sing. He did more than compose. He certainly did more than dance, wear wild clothes, talk in a whisper or lead a multi-partnered love life, things the more gossipy media outlets are focusing on in the aftermath of his mysterious death last week at age 57.
If you want to know how blessed with talent Prince was — how much creation oozed through his bloodstream — look at how many musicians are grieving him today. When a pop star dies, the public mourns the face and the persona. When a true musical talent dies, the players drop their heads, and the notes on the staff seem to lower to half-mast.
You can’t overstate how musical Prince was. Jazz artists, classical artists, country artists — all can be heard exhaling a pained sigh. The tales of him virtually living in a recording studio make perfect sense, as do the rumors that he has so much recorded material hidden in the “vault” of his Minneapolis enclave, they could release a new album every day for a very long time.
Prince was of his music, by his music and for his music. A well-known R&B star told me after Prince died that at the very least, here was a man who did everything he was meant to do.
He just didn’t get to do it long enough.
Public figure, private life
Many media members, seeking to be on the right side of grief, gushed about Prince as a musical genius, while, I suspect, they couldn’t name more than the “Purple Rain” album (which they might only know from the movie) and a couple of funky hits like “Kiss.” I actually heard Wolf Blitzer from CNN, in reporting Prince’s death, declare, with empathy, “All of us, of course, remember ‘Purple Haze’ and what that did for the world of music.”
“Purple Haze” was great, but Prince didn’t create it. That was Jimi Hendrix.
But OK. There’s no reason casual musical observers should know the depth of Prince’s talent — or even that much about him. One of the things that, to me, was most admirable about the man was that he hated the Internet, didn’t want to be all over it, rarely gave interviews, discouraged people from videotaping his shows, would ask fans not to snap his picture in public, and tried to live a private life in the state of Minnesota — an awful long way from the clubs of New York or the glitter of Los Angeles.
An unquantifiable influence
Did you know Prince wrote “I Feel For You,” made famous by Chaka Khan, or “Manic Monday” by the Bangles or “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor? The fact that he wrote songs that could be interpreted so well by artists nothing like him speaks to the musicality of his compositions. He was a lot more than his beats. He was his generation’s Stevie Wonder and James Brown rolled into one. And, man, could he play.
Some artists focus on violin strings or piano keys. Prince dabbled with every instrument. It is hard to explain what a feat that is, to be able to create drum and rhythm tracks as adeptly as you create guitar solos, horn parts or soaring vocals.
And while some artists are great in a studio but eschew performing, Prince couldn’t be held back. To see him in a raucous concert was to understand what rhythm means. As he paraded across the stage, the guitar seemed an extension of his limbs, and his feet and shoulders were glued to the beat. He’d wander from the microphone, jumping, dancing, seemingly too far to get back but yet always getting back, just in time to yell “Huhh!” on the exact beat. It was watching a man split a diamond.
Stevie Wonder, whom Prince cited as a major influence, told CNN that Prince “brought all the various cultures together.” When the anchor asked whether he would play a Prince song, Wonder said tearfully, “I think I would probably break down.”
Understandable. Musicians mourn fellow musicians not only for the songs they’ll no longer hear, but for the songs that were yet to come. They mourn for what Prince would have created next, as they did for what Buddy Holly would have created, what Charlie Parker would have created, what John Lennon or Hendrix or Michael Jackson would have created.
I don’t know what killed Prince. As a lover of his music, it isn’t really what matters to me. His father, a jazz musician, played in a group called the Prince Rogers Trio, and in naming his son he put a whole band inside him. That’s how he lived. And now, in our memories, that band plays on.
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