Friday, April 22, 2016

Sometimes it Snows in April

Our Mozart is gone.

I recall what Dick Schaap--who also died too young--wrote about Lenny Bruce's death: "Dead. At forty. That's obscene."

That is exactly how I feel about the news that Prince is dead at the age of 57.

Prince was a daring, fearless performer who also had a shy, reclusive side. When he was on stage, he could hold a crowd of thousands in the palm of his hand--but in one on one interviews, he spoke in muted tones and often refused to have his voice recorded.

When I think of Prince, I think of his all-encompassing talent, how he wrote, produced, arranged, performed and seemingly filled every role when he put out an album. He reached his commercial pinnacle in 1984 as he became the first artist to simultaneously have the top film, top album and top single in the U.S. That was the year that "Purple Rain" reigned over pop culture and left an enduring impact.

Prince's next movie project, "Under the Cherry Moon," is not viewed with nearly as much esteem but the soundtrack is tremendous, while the movie contains some underrated humor (I still love the "Wrecka Stow" scene) and pathos. The lead character Christopher Tracy was looking for love in all the wrong places but when he found true love he risked--and lost--his life to keep it. Tracy declared, "If two people really loved each other, they couldn't be separated no matter what happened." Don't we all yearn to find and keep that kind of love/loyalty?

Prince was a studio perfectionist who slept very little and once said that he played all of the instruments on his songs because he was the only person up at 5 a.m. when inspiration struck. He was also a legendary live performer. I only saw him in concert once, on March 29, 2004, when he started his Musicology Tour in L.A. and simultaneously broadcast the show to dozens of theater screens around the country. I drove from Dayton, Ohio to Columbus, Ohio to see Prince in action. The admission price of $15 included a free copy of the new Musicology CD. The concert was great.

A month later, in connection with the Musicology Tour, Prince appeared on an MTV special called "The Art of Musicology." I loved when he performed an acoustic version of "Cream," encouraging the audience to sing along and then gently chiding the fans for not singing with enough enthusiasm. Music was a communal experience for Prince; he was a singular genius whose talent lifted him to levels few others could reach, yet what he seemed to love most was to perform anywhere at any time to share the joy of music with his fans. Prince segued from "Cream" to "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" and when he finished that song he asked, "Remember that from high school?" Then he said, "Check it out. This is what I remember from high school" and he launched straight into Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing." Prince invited audience participation from the "ladies" and eventually tilted his microphone to the audience, letting the fans sing while he played his guitar.

I won't even try to pick a favorite Prince song. I am not sure he ever made a song I didn't like. Of course, some songs were better than others but every Prince song had something to it if you listened with an open mind. "If you set your mind free, baby, maybe you'd understand," as Prince put it in "Starfish and Coffee," a song that is deceptively simple, yet beautiful and profound.

One of the classic stories about Prince--it may not be true but the point is that it is plausibly true--is that he once said that he could write a song around any word or phrase. Then someone said "La, La, La, He, He, He" and Prince made a song out of that gibberish.

Prince could do anything with music and words. "Around the World in a Day" was his tour de force tribute to the Beatles. Then he shifted gears and released the 1989 "Batman" soundtrack album. The producers sent him some soundbites from the movie and Prince incorporated them into his songs in a way that captured the dual natures of both Batman and the Joker.

Prince could capture love, passion and yearning like no other, as demonstrated by "Adore" and "Insatiable" and the "Scandalous" maxi-single.

If I had to choose just one Prince track maybe I would go with the Purple Medley maxi-single because it contains a little bit of everything. I about wore that maxi-single out in the 1990s and early 2000s.

During his self-imposed exile from Warner Brothers, Prince returned to the top of the charts in the 1990s with "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Prince fought hard for creators' rights; that was what the whole "Artist Formerly Known as Prince" symbolism was all about. Prince did not care if you thought he was a fool when he scrawled "Slave" on his face. Prince believed that artists should have some control over the marketing of their work and he fought tirelessly against piracy. In "Flow," Basketball and Prince I wrote about Prince's struggle for artistic freedom:
He went from being a wunderkind at Warner Brothers who wrote, produced, delivered vocals and performed on an astounding variety of musical instruments to being a completely independent artist who dictates his own terms to record labels and distributors. Along the way, he received scorn for scrawling the word "slave" on his face and changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol but there was a method to his seeming madness: Warner Brothers wanted to control when and how he would distribute his music, while the incredibly prolific Prince simply wanted to release everything to the public as soon as he created it, whether or not this supposedly oversaturated the market. Since Warner Brothers owned his name (in a performing sense), Prince felt like a "slave" because he could not put his music out as Prince--so he circumvented the system with his "name change" until his Warner Brothers contract expired, whereupon he reclaimed his name and took total control over his music. Now he releases his music whenever and however he wants to, including his Planet Earth CD that he arranged to be given away with a newspaper in Great Britain in order to promote a series of concerts; in one fell swoop, Prince made a small fortune (he was paid in advance by the newspaper), sold out most of his appearances instantly and irritated Sony BMG, the corporate giant that was supposed to distribute the CD to retailers: for a nonconformist genius, it is hard to imagine a better day than that!
Prince loved the NBA and one of the things I appreciated most about Prince is that he felt, as I do, that Mano a Mano Competition is Pure. True greatness is not determined by popularity but by your ability to hold your own head to head against your competition; objectively rank Prince's talents and accomplishments and he will stand the test of time against anyone: Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares to U" is great but then listen to Prince perform the song (which he wrote) with Rosie Gaines and you understand that it is truly his song.

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