Great even-handed tribute by Arsenio Orteza over at WORLD. After reading it I was struck by its understated effect and how little I actually knew about the eccentric artist.
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Of the many popular musicians to have died so far in 2016, Prince was certainly the least likely candidate.
He was, after all, still touring, still recording and releasing albums, and, at 57, still relatively young. And he was, or at least he presented himself to be, a drug-and-alcohol-free vegan who followed the moral requirements of the Jehovah’s Witness religion to which he converted in 2001.
Born Prince Rogers Nelson, he became notorious early on for bypassing common pop sexiness and plunging headlong into eroticism. Certainly, his most obvious stylistic forerunners—Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Phil Lynott—never recorded anything as explicit as what Prince dared on his albums Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy (1981), or Purple Rain (1984), the most salacious track of which drove Tipper Gore to establish the indecency-battling Parents Music Resource Center.
But an awareness of God also occasionally reared its head. Controversy’s title cut, for instance, included an irony-free recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. And “The Cross,” from Prince’s 1987 double-album masterpiece Sign o’ the Times, was straight-up gospel rock.
Sign o’ the Times also contained the Top 10 hit “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” the song in which sensuality began assuming a more proportionate place in Prince’s emotional palette.
In it, a recently abandoned woman, pregnant with her second child, encounters Prince in a nightclub and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. But refuse it he does, seeing the woman as someone whose deeper needs outweigh his desire to make her another notch on his anti-chastity belt. The irrepressible melody and beat give every indication he meant what he sang.
Shortly thereafter, he set out on what was to become a long and notorious battle with Warner Bros. in particular and the music industry in general. At stake was control not only over the ownership and the marketing of his music but also, Prince implied, control over himself.
He ultimately won, but in some ways his victory felt Pyrrhic. Bereft of corporate support, his last two decades of albums and singles went more or less unpromoted, making him often seem more like a cottage industry than what he really was: the most gifted pop-rock-funk-soul musician of his generation.
One notable exception was his triumphant halftime performance at Super Bowl XLI in 2007. Risking electrocution, he performed a 12-minute set before the largest audience of his career in a torrential downpour, concluding, appropriately enough, with “Purple Rain.” At one point, his cocksure grin gave way to an expression of amazement, suggesting that even he was unprepared for what the culmination of his rock-star dreams would feel like once he actually experienced them.
The cause of Prince’s death was not immediately clear, giving rise to rumors and theories that will probably metastasize until the details of his autopsy become public.
What has become public are the six CDs Prince bought at a Minneapolis record store five days before he died: Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book (classic rock-funk), Joni Mitchell’s Hejira (semiclassic singer-songwriter confessionalism), The Chambers Brothers’ The Time Has Come (psychedelic soul), Santana IV (Woodstock redux), The Best of Missing Persons (perky new wave), and The Swan Silvertones’ Timeless Gospel Classics (timeless gospel classics).
From one perspective, they have little in common. From another, they sound like everything Prince was trying to synthesize during his remarkable 38-year career.
Hearing them as anything other than his epitaph will, for a while anyway, take some doing.