Saturday, April 23, 2016

Prince and I: Farewell to The Purple One

When I logged onto my various social media handles on Friday morning (NZT) I could scarcely believe what I was reading. It had to be a hoax. Some sick joke. It was April 22nd not April 1st, and hadn't 2016 already been enough of a cruel mistress to music fans and pop culture fiends? Apparently not. Prince was dead. At just 57 years of age.

I wasn’t a fan of everything Prince did. His output was always a bit hit and miss for me, and I’ll admit that I’m unfamiliar with all but his most recent of post-2000 work. But the Prince stuff I did like, I absolutely loved, even if it wasn’t always the most obvious stuff. For example, I never quite got the whole Purple Rain thing, the album and the movie, and for me, many of the songs from that era felt a little too wannabe-Hendrix, and just wound up being too Hendrix-lite. Yet for many, that work and that period is what he’ll be best remembered for. I get that. And I get that he was a sensational guitarist in his own right. Apologies, Prince, it wasn’t you, it was me.
That said, there was a lot to love, and like Bowie before him, Prince was one of those artists who was omnipresent throughout my lifetime. He was everywhere, sound-tracking everything, for better and for worse. That’s why people mourn. We didn’t know the man personally, we’re not family, but we grieve because he takes a little bit of each of us, snippets of our past, with him. Or rather, we’ve taken bits of Prince (songs, albums, movies) and made them part of our lives. We mourn the memory of that. The loss of that. That’s how I see it. How I saw it with Bowie, Michael Jackson before that, and now with Prince.

Rather than pen some sort of obituary, which I’m ill-equipped to write, I thought I’d celebrate his life and mark his passing with a short list of five key Prince moments, as they relate specifically to me and to my life. The reasons why I consider myself a Prince fan – while not a fan of everything he did. If you can appreciate the distinction. This is the stuff I loved (and love). My own most memorable Prince moments, if you will:

I Wanna Be Your Lover

… “I want to be your brother, I want to be your mother and your sister, too. There ain't no other. That can do the things that I'll do to you” … I was a mere slip of a schoolboy in late 1979 or early 1980 when Prince burst into my eardrums with this sublime piece of sleaze-funk. It was everything Michael Jackson wasn’t. Not wholesome and glossy. It was down and dirty. Sly and suggestive. Full of exactly the sort of thing that would get any pubescent schoolboy sniggering covertly. I’m sure I recall an interview I read, around this time, or perhaps it was a few years later, where Prince talked about being fascinated by porn. It may have even referred to his Mum’s collection of porn magazines … yes, his Mum’s collection … and it all just seemed too weird to even contemplate. Weird, but kind of honest and exciting. Like nobody else was. ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ was his first big hit, and his reputation as the beholder of disco’s dirtiest mind was cemented with the release of the Dirty Mind (yes!) and Controversy albums in 1980 and 1981. Note that it wasn’t the things he’d do “for” us, it was the things he’d do “to” us … the dirty blighter.
Under The Cherry Moon

Everybody raves about Purple Rain. The song, the album, the movie, and the era. And to be fair, everything Prince touched between 1982 and 1985 turned to gold. Platinum or triple platinum, even. And Purple Rain garnered Prince an Oscar for best score. I wasn’t a fan. A couple of years later, Prince won a Golden Raspberry – the opposite of an Oscar, and yes it is an actual thing – for his acting and directing of Under The Cherry Moon. It was, from all accounts, an awful film. Or should I say, from all “other” accounts, because to this day I still love Under The Cherry Moon. I love its blatant attempt to rip-off so-called “film noir” sensibilities – it was shot entirely in black and white, and reeked of all things art deco. I love that it was superficial and pretentious. For all that critics pan it precisely for those characteristics, it was exactly as it’s supposed to be. It’s a story of forbidden love and Prince was wonderful in the lead role as Christopher Tracy. Okay, some of his acting was ridiculous, but it’s wonderful because he was hilarious rather than occasionally terrible. None of that is really all that important though – the best thing about Under The Cherry Moon is that it was sound-tracked by Prince’s 1986 album Parade, which was, according to me, the second best album he ever made (see ‘Kiss’, ‘Girls And Boys’, and the brilliant slice of sleeper-funk that is ‘Mountains’). I had a cassette copy of Parade in my car for years and it never let me down as a reliable go-to listen.

Sign O The Times

It’s 1987, and I’m sitting in the lounge of my Rintoul Street (Wellington, NZ) flat, while my flatmate John, a local club DJ, is introducing me to his latest batch of brand new vinyl when suddenly, boom! … “in France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name. By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same. At home there are seventeen-year-old boys and their idea of fun is being in a gang called 'The Disciples' high on crack, totin' a machine gun” … right there, dance music would never be quite the same ever again. One of those “where were you when you first heard?” moments I still recall three decades later. Like I say, forget Purple Rain, forget going crazy, crying doves, little red corvettes, raspberry berets, or partying like it’s 1999. ‘Sign O The Times’ was Prince’s true masterpiece. As a song and as an album. This was a career highpoint and he’d gone from faux-Hendrix porn-funker to right-on social commentator in one giant leap. And of course it helped that the tune’s relatively simple groove struts along like a particularly cocky free-range rooster on acid. One of the best songs of its decade, and it almost felt like Prince wasn’t even trying.

Nothing Compares 2 U

I love how Prince used text-speak way before texts were even a thing. Actually, I’m quite sure there was a lot of stuff he did way before other mere mortals caught on. But we won’t go into those gory details here. This is a family blog. Would Sinead O’Connor have been the star she became if he hadn’t written this break-up masterclass and gifted it to her? I very much doubt it. There was talent there, for sure, but ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ launched the crazy baldhead into the global stratosphere (albeit temporarily). I was going through a particularly dramatic relationship breakdown in late 1989, early 1990, when this was all the rage, and I came to despise everything about this song. Except Sinead, who I’d formed a secret relationship with (if only she’d known, huh?). Which basically means I liked the song so much, I gorged myself on it until I was utterly heart sick of it. To the extent I couldn’t bear to listen to it ever again. Gawd, what a lame arse. I can laugh about it now of course (*weak smile*) and it wasn’t until a few years later that I learned our man had written it. Suddenly the mist cleared and everything made sense. Prince’s version is great if not quite as compelling.
Gett Off!

… “Get off, twenty three positions in a one night stand. Get off, I'll only call you after if you say I can. Get off, let a woman be a woman and a man be a man (squeal)” … it was the autumn of 1992 and I fancied myself as a club-night promoter. My closest friend (of the day) and I hired Wellington’s Reactor nightclub (in Edward Street, above what is now Meow) and planned for a Sunday night gig. We called the night “Delerium”, and as it turned out, all the fun was in the weeks of promotion and not the actual event itself. It rained heavily on the night. We had friends run the door. They had friends who had names on the door. Hardly anyone paid to get in. The bar staff were our friends and friends of the clientele. Hardly anyone bought drinks. We had an acoustic duo (an early version of what would become the hard-rocking Desert Road band) open the night. Then a performance DJ (DJ Glide) and three or four other DJs. Then an “exotic dancer” from Brazil. Everyone needed to be paid. My friend and I lost a lot of money. It was a night I wanted to forget, but the performance of the exotic dancer – a hunk of a man called Marconi, who later became a male trolley dolly on a TV show called Sale of the Century – was something I can never really forget. His performance – like his cladding – was brief, and he danced to Prince’s ‘Gett Off’ like nobody had ever danced to anything else (ever) … it showcased Prince at his finest, and sleaze-funk was evidently right back on top (no pun). And that four-to-five minutes of bittersweet turmoil will always best represent Nineties’ Prince for me, albeit Prince as interpreted by somebody else’s moves. As much as I’ve tried to forget. It partially saved an otherwise rather forlorn night.

And so we come full circle. Prince means many things to many people. Many different things to many different people. For me, he was a musical genius who gave me all of the moments listed above. And a whole lot more. He’ll have touched you (and many others) in completely different ways, obviously, but just writing this has been a form of catharsis for me. A way of trying to give his sudden death some kind of context or perspective. I’m lucky to be able to share these memories with you. Thanks for reading. And thanks Prince, for being there all the way.

R.I.P Prince Rogers Nelson (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)

No comments:

Post a Comment