Not sure how I first found out about Prince. I might have been listening to The Black Experience In Sound, which was a radio show on the University of Alberta’s radio station, CJSR. I’ve recently discovered that the host of the show was Cadence Weapon’s dad. TPOH’s drummer, Dave Gilby sold me 1999 at the discount he got at the record store he worked at. I played the crap out of it. Not only the vinyl but taped it and listened to it on my oversized Walkman as I walked to and from my job at Tops Supermarket on Whyte Avenue.
At the time, I was getting into funk, hip hop and all the black music that was missing from the radio in my very white town. Grandmaster Flash, The Sugarhill Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire were all great new secrets I’d recently discovered.
What was interesting about Prince though was that, like many fans, I didn’t necessary perceive it as ‘black music’. It was funk and pop and psychedelic and rock and soul. But more than that, it was driven by synthesizers and drum machines so it also had post new wave affectations. So while many compared him at the time to Sly Stone, (high praise), he was actually a lot more complex.
Then there was the musicianship. Prince was a multi-instrumentalist and producer just like two of my other heroes, Todd Rundgren and Stevie Wonder. Like them, he was a one man operation who wrote, arranged, produced and performed everything. He was a killer guitarist but it was his overall sound that really grabbed me. There was a unique idea of ambience on his tracks, using delay on his drum machines, the timbre of his synth patches-it was completely his.
However, we are getting ahead of ourselves. 1999. It was the music, for sure. But just as importantly it was the lyrics. Their completely raw sexuality. Prince’s lyrics didn’t sound sleazy like those of a hair metal band. Rock bands didn’t write songs like Little Red Corvette where the woman was sexually intimidating. 1999 sounded authentic, real-the kind of feelings a young man has when he is actually discovering sex, not just a rock star’s view of sex. Prince used the real terminology of sex, it was explicit, but 1999 was glamorous not dirty.
My next step was buying his self titled record and Controversy, which I may have bought on the same day. Controversy had two killer tracks, Private Joy, with it’s amazing harmonies and Jack U Off, a high octane jam that talked about getting the girl off. I also bought Vanity 6, a Prince written and produced project starring his girlfriend. Nasty Girl, off of that release, is quintessential Prince, if Prince was a woman. It’s one of his best grooves.
So it was in this completely besotted state that I walked into, (was it the Varscona or the Garneau) theatre to watch Purple Rain the first week it played in Edmonton. This was a real rock movie where a real rock star played a rock star. Melodramatic, corny and totally fucking awesome. I saw it twice more in the next 10 days. I remember being out with my girlfriend at the time’s family and completely ignoring them as I listened to the soundtrack on my Walkman. From then on, Prince became a real artist. Like Todd Rundgren and Lou Reed, he was a prolific songwriter who released an extraordinary volume of material. Like them, he followed his muse, some of his releases resonated with the marketplace and others didn’t and either way, it never seemed to matter to him. Prince was on his own path and you were welcome to follow him or not. But he never drank the Kool-Aid, he never tried to release Purple Rain 2 and none of his records ever sounded like he was pandering for success. He had the occasional hit, most notably Kiss off of Parade, (which had two amazing tracks, New Position and Girls and Boys) the soundtrack to his follow up film Under The Cherry Moon. Was Sign O’ The Times a hit? I remember getting a promo 12” of it when we were on the road somewhere in the States. It had the most infectious bass line almost an antidote to the bass-less When Doves Cry.
He didn’t labor over a record for 3 years to make the perfect, commercial product. A writer writes, a painter paints. A songwriter/musician/producer makes music. Will there be anyone like this again? Was Prince the last of a dying breed?
Living in Edmonton, there wasn’t much opportunity to see Prince live. My friend Alan Kellogg, through his job as a music writer for the Edmonton Journal was flown to Toronto to see him and i was green with envy. I moved to Toronto not long after but never saw Prince live. I became busy with my own music career and also, started to hate going to big shows in arenas.
Recently, he announced two nights of shows in Toronto, intimate performances with just him and a piano in a theatre. My friend Nick was lucky enough to have scored one of the very scarce pairs of tickets available. When his daughter couldn’t accompany him, he asked if I wanted to go. It was an amazing night. Prince just noodled at the piano, playing a bit of this hit, a bit of that one, some Bob Marley, an amazing rendition of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You. He still had all the swagger of his early days and the audience ate out of his hand. He strolled off and on the stage for encore after encore and I think we would have stayed all night. In the light of today’s events, I am extraordinarily grateful that I had the opportunity to see that show.
The Pursuit of Happiness would often cover When Doves Cry in our encore. When it came time to record two new tracks for a greatest hits CD, we decided it would be one of them. I don’t know if Prince ever heard it, probably not.
The news of him dying today was so shocking. There have been an unusual number of rock deaths lately, maybe a sign of the times? But there are people you don’t expect to die quite yet. One would have thought Prince would have continued to pound out material for the next 20 years, challenging himself and his audience. I don’t have anything profound to say about Prince dying. I can only speak about my experience with his music. There was a time in my life when his music dominated my life and transformed me as a writer. This is the great thing about being a fan. You fall in love with rock stars and their music and they give you joy. Who wants to die if it means you can’t listen to your favorite record anymore? You want to create great music because of the great music you just listened to. When I listened to 1999 or Purple Rain or Sign O’ The Times, it made me want to get on stage and do something even half as cool.
The loss I feel and the loss I’ve felt through this epidemic of death in music is (cliche alert) the loss of my youth. About how much music used to mean to me. I don’t worship artists like I used to. Sometimes when I listen to an old record I think of where I was and what I was doing when I really loved it. During the height of my love affair with Prince, my music career was just about to take off. The world was opening up to me.
But that doesn’t matter. What’s important today is to celebrate the lives of those who give us so much and to remember how important music is.
As a post script, since I wrote this and before I am posting this, a story. I was hired to DJ the Bloor Cinema’s showing of Purple Rain. I’d done this twice before over the past year and a half. The vibe in the theatre is always great for this movie, people often dance in the aisles to my set and cheer and sing along with the movie. It’s like a less showy Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was hired two months ago to do the gig. Then three days before the showing, Prince died. The advance tickets for the show very quickly sold out. They added a midnight show to accommodate the overflow.
I often DJ music movies at the Bloor and always take pains to not play songs by the actual artist featured in the movie. However, this was going to be different. I needed to do some kind of tribute to Prince which meant playing his music. It was hard to know what to play, and so I played a bunch of my favorite Prince songs. The only exception was that I played Sinead O’Connor’s version of Nothing Compares 2 U because I thought people would want to hear that. I think I kind of bombed. Not sure what people were expecting, maybe not Delirious, Jack U Off and Dirty Mind? Maybe they wanted to hear Purple Rain tracks which I avoided, (obviously). Anyway, who cares. I was given an opportunity to pay my personal respect to Prince and I took it.
Prince. Thanks for the music and the inspiration. Your music will live on for generations to come, which is the great hope of every artist. But I hope your example of what an artist is will influence the next generation to not be such fame hungry pigs. I hope young people will go explore their muse, their creativity and we’ll get a new Prince.