About half an hour into his epic, three encore solo performance at Perth Arena in February, Prince looked out over the hypnotised crowd firmly in the palm of his hand during “Controversy” and, altering the lyrics slightly to suit the occasion, playfully asked “Do you believe in God? Do you believe in me?”
It was a good question. It seemed inexplicably surreal witnessing such a legendary entertainer, who’d been on stage in Auckland less than 24 hours before, sitting alone at the centre of a stadium, surrounded on all sides by transfixed, adoring fans create something so energetic and yet so intimate. At 57, an age when most entertainers are well into leisurely touring schedules and pedestrian recitals of their hits, he had travelled around the Earth almost spontaneously to put on a series of shows based simply on a piano and himself. Nowhere to hide, nothing to fall back on, nothing planned in advance. A master in his element, still finding something new and exciting and worthwhile after nearly forty years of performance. He was so vital, so in the moment. It felt like he could play forever.
In recent months, I’d been revisiting Prince’s early albums – in particular 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy, where he first captured the wider public’s attention before embarking on the legendary run of masterpiece albums that decade that would cement his superstar status. I’m struck by how much the opening eponymous track of Controversy serves as a sort of mission statement for the entirety of Prince’s musical oeuvre; a foundation of raw sexuality with a side of self-mythologising; acknowledgement of the curiosity over his ambiguousness (his gender, sexuality, ethnicity, et al.) while firmly rejecting arbitrary binaries; a preoccupation with pursuing pleasure and celebrating life made all the more urgent amidst the ever-present spectre of death; the presence of the spiritual that oscillates between a Dionysian and a Manichaean outlook; and an ultimate resolution to destroy boundaries and embrace inclusion and togetherness. All set to a devastatingly funky guitar/bass/synth combination that compels you to dance.
Part of the legend of Prince is that he emerged fully formed as an artist in 1978; he wrote every song and more amazingly played every single instrument on his first two albums. But his instrumental virtuosity takes a backseat to the clarity of his vision as an artist and, despite his overwhelming shyness, his willingness to stand firm and fight for his vision. His multi-ethnic, sexually diverse band became a visual rejection of being pigeon-holed as ‘black music’. The genre-defying double album 1999 proved that he was more than just R&B or funk, but rock & roll, electronica, jazz, or just unashamed pop. Most musicians would be fundamentally shaken after being booed off stage opening for the Rolling Stones in the early 80s. Not Prince. His self-belief in his music, that he was ahead of the curve and that the public would catch up, would ultimately be validated: he was the most successful chart act of the 1980s.
That self-belief in who he was and his refusal to equivocate or hide his identity from the world was what made him such a captivating and important figure during the 80s and 90s to so many different people. In the aftermath of Thursday’s news, we’ve witnessed this in the personal reflections of countless writers, performers, celebrities and fans. In the midst of the current cultural and political climate around gender identity worldwide, it’s difficult to overstate the impact of an artist as influential as Prince in the 80s leading the way by actively rejecting gender norms and demonstrating that there is no ‘correct’ way to be a man. Prince gave you implicit permission to be weird, to not conform simply to appease society. There’s a natural compulsion to compare him to the recently departed, similarly androgynous David Bowie. But where Bowie was alien and otherworldly – transitioning between polished personas with the ease of a great actor – Prince was always much more human and approachable; someone with a more stable identity over time that allowed him to express his vulnerability and allowed you to relate on a personal level. Bowie could have been from Mars. Prince was (and remained till the end) a kid from Minnesota.
In my opinion, Prince was the most talented star of all time. His vocal range was vast and his falsetto was the gold standard. He mastered several instruments, was a bandleader comparable to Duke Ellington or Miles Davis (who himself compared Prince to Ellington), and was legitimately in the conversation as one of the greatest guitar players of all time. (Watch Prince’s solo during “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at George Harrison’s 2004 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then watch the face of George Harrison’s son Dhani during that solo. Pure elation.) His studio production remains remarkably modern and inventive, with the ability to create sounds both richly complex and ridiculously simple. His songwriting ability, demonstrated through his own prolific output (a staggering 39 studio albums, countless other releases, and the legendary vault in Paisley Park containing decades of unreleased material which, distressingly, may never be heard according to his wishes) and the dozens of songs he penned for other artists (not to mention those he’s suspected of writing) is only rivalled by his fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan. His 2007 Super Bowl performance ranks among the greatest performances of all time. He was an amazing dancer. In many ways, the sheer overwhelming sum of his output means inevitably there are areas where he’ll always be underrated. And yet, despite this, it felt like he still had so much left to give the world. He was still touring, still recording. In March, Prince announced he was writing a memoir.
When I woke up and heard the news, the first song I reached for “Sometimes It Snows in April”, the closing song of Parade. It’s a raw and emotional ballad that was recorded in one take about Prince’s character Christopher Tracy in the film Under the Cherry Moon (which he wrote and directed) who, spoiler alert, dies at the end. Prince was fond of using that phrase to answer the questions of executives and journalists trying to better understand and categorise him. But I can’t help but think when he wrote that song 30 years ago, he was writing about himself and acknowledging his mortality. “Sometimes I wish that life was never ending/ And all good things, they say, never last.” We are lucky to have him as long as we did.
Words by Wade McCagh