“You mother—ers have no idea how big this guy is going to be.”
Those were the first words I head about Prince, shouted through the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum P.A. system by concert promoter Bill Graham in 1981. It was my first concert and I was pressed right up front. Prince was summarily booed offstage after only a few songs (his attempt to get a singalong of “Jack U Off” certainly didn’t help with the largely biker crowd).
It was a well-intentioned but mismatched pairing of him opening for George Thorogood, the J. Geils Band, and headliners the Rolling Stones. Three songs, and he was gone. It was my first and last Prince concert, and I remember every detail to this day. It also would have been a lesser man’s career epitaph. Thirty-five years later, this is it.
Has anyone cared so much, so deeply, so purely about music? Has anyone worked so hard to put the music up front and push all of the nonsense to the side? Prince made music. Simple. Day and night. Tirelessly. Compulsively. He gave his entire being to the music. He was an untamed musical spirit animal who understood that we can only be touched and touch others if we surrender.
Prince has finally laid down after a life of surrender.
There will be the gossip stories. The determination to dig up unseen dirt. You can have ‘em all. Who was Prince? No one will ever know and no one should ever care. Like David Bowie, the musical conversation was the only one he cared to have. He gave us music multi-layered, meant to hold our fascination more than pop culture ephemera.
For 38 years, Prince maintained an impossible balance of sexuality, showmanship, sensitivity, style, and swagger. He held the church in one hand and classic rock in the other. And as I write that sentence, I realize I am part of genre-obsessed world for which Prince could not be bothered. Music — like love — sees no color.
Prince released 39 original studio albums from 1978 to 2015. There are presumably thousands of hours of unreleased music locked in his Paisley Park studio. Others will write their top 10 lists, underrated classics, most embarrassing or obscure tracks. I want to point to only two moments that sum up his spirit and his power as a performer. Both occur 26 and 29 years into his career.
This mini-doc, above, on Prince’s Super Bowl performance says volumes about what it means to be a performer. Forgot the whole ginned-up controversy about his guitar phallus. As New York Times music critic Jon Pareles says in the video, “He’s not promoting himself. He’s just making music.” The purity, professionalism, precision, and passion are spellbinding.
Prince’s transcendent, epic solo closing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction has also circulated on the internet for years. It’s easy to understand why. Watch him stand in the shadows for the first half the song then step forward (at the 3:28 mark) to take over the second half. He summons every signal being poured from above into his red fedora, brings the classic rock geezers to church, throws his guitar to the heavens, and disappears.
Watch both and ask yourself, “Who else would be willing to be so spirit-led, unscripted, and spontaneous so deep into a career?” Most artists etch their script into stone by the time they reach the 25-year mark. Prince understood that maintaining relevance had nothing to do with being on the pop charts (his last top 10 hit was 1994’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”) and everything to do with surrender. Watch these videos and imagine a life where you just gave it up and laid it down every day.
As I finish this, two items have appeared in my social feed (sorry, Prince, I know you hated social media) closing the musical circle. One is this Los Angeles Times photo of the Stones show I attended, taken a few hours after Prince’s ejection.
It was found by one of my middle school concert-mates. The other is this tweet from Mick Jagger, the man who asked Prince to perform for that Coliseum crowd in 1981:
I am so saddened to hear of Prince’s passing. Prince was a revolutionary artist, a wonderful musician and composer. 1/3— Mick Jagger (@MickJagger)April 21, 2016
Prince was an original lyricist and a startling guitar player. His talent was limitless. 2/3— Mick Jagger (@MickJagger)April 21, 2016
Prince was one of the most unique and exciting artists of the last 30 years. 3/3— Mick Jagger (@MickJagger)April 21, 2016
What better summation could exist? What more could any artist want? Years ago, he once called himself “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” due to a record label contract dispute. But perhaps, Prince realized he was actually an artist first. Perhaps he understood that art transcends any name given to us at birth — any flesh and blood we lease for this short time on earth.
Prince surrendered to the music because it was his only path to heaven. He was simply an artist in a world where celebrity survives more easily than art. And in watching him, we were reminded of the power and necessity of transcendence.
Thank you, Prince for taking us away.