One year later, Prince's light still burns bright.
By: Scott Woods
1 year ago
The only reason I’m not a lifelong Prince fan is because I was born before he had a record deal. I was 7 when he released his first record, and I can recall the exact moment a little more than a year later when I discovered the wondrousness Prince had to offer even in his formative years. I was 9. I broke into my brother’s bedroom to go through his record collection and found the record that would change my life. I've recounted this experience before in greater detail than I offer here — exactly one year ago, to be precise. Suffice it to say that Prince has been an influence on me ever since. And this was back when his records were new, not reprinted as hip vintage swag, so we’re talking about a substantial relationship here.
If you’re reading this, you likely have your own Prince origin story. The ending to all of them is that every Prince fan thinks they are the biggest Prince fan in the world. It is why encounters with fans are sometimes challenging: You can’t tell us anything about Prince, let alone anything that would make us change how we feel about him.
That’s an important distinction to make when talking about Prince: Almost no one over a certain age has an impression of the music and not the man. Perhaps, like Jamie Foxx’s comic routine about meeting Prince, we all got caught gazing into his eyes while watching "Purple Rain," and pieces of him broke off in us. People have as many opinions of Prince as a person as they do his music. It’s rarely just: “I liked 'Purple Rain.'" Instead, it’s: “Prince was a trip. You remember when he had his pants cut out the back at the awards show? Dude was a trip.” We can point to other artists we talk about this way, but if we’re being completely honest, none of them crossed the cultural lines that Prince crossed with the same success.
More than perhaps any artist in mainstream music, Prince charted a course toward true cultural solidarity. More than that, he succeeded at making that solidarity as close to a reality as art has ever brought us as a society. Consider race, and that it is not enough to be black in white spaces, even if you are exceptionally talented. Being able to dunk a basketball or play guitar alone doesn’t make the space welcoming or diverse or nurturing. You have to, in some way, become an example of what is possible. And so Prince’s music and gender and messaging and band all fed into the point: that love can fix every problem we have. Or at least allowing the freedom of any kind of love that could be had to come your way, and to offer it to anyone who asks.
It wasn’t enough to preach it; Prince had to exude it. We had to be convinced that, somewhere, someone was capable of expressing all the angles necessary to convince us that such a world was possible — that someone was capable of actually being from such a place. To this end, Prince endlessly integrated his bands, continued to tie the religious to the secular in every inch of his art, and built a complex — Paisley Park — that essentially acted as a mythical Shangri-La, where all the magic was created and spilled from, and which, with his death, has become a weeping wall, where we come to see the temple and leave our thanks. (And where a musical celebration is going on right now.)
Prince took it upon himself, quite literally, to create such space, first within the 12 inches of each plastic disc of music, and later anywhere he was. It is why his concerts, perennially sold out, were populated with all manner of people from multiple generations. The swaying grandmother next to the wild teen, the assured gay next to the pompous Christian, all of us singing the same (sometimes naughty) lyrics as if the world might really come to an end if we don’t get our acts together in this song.
In death, the dynamic persists. Anywhere his presence is summoned, the air changes a little: The men become softer, the women sexier, the androgynous more glorious, the cursing less rampant, the politics grayer, and everybody becomes a little less self-conscious about what they’ve got on, understanding that Prince always wore whatever we could possibly be wearing better. Your hair, your shoes, your dress, your makeup — all better with Prince.
Prince fans operate the same way any other type of fan operates. Very few of us are degreed musicologists, approaching new albums with the slavering drill of an academic. We instead attach distinct and personal memories to songs: where we heard them, what we were doing while we listened to them, who we were with, what we thought of them. But if you note a singular gleam in the eye accompanying Prince recollections, that’s not a coincidence. When Prince was really cooking — 1981 until 1987 — every line of music he touched seemed to be coming from another dimension, some place that sounded similar to ours, but got twisted coming through the wormhole. It was easy to attach memories to songs like “If I Was Your Girlfriend” or “When Doves Cry,” because they didn’t sound like anything else you’d ever heard, radio or otherwise. Half of every memory attached to a Prince song starts with “I had to stop what I was doing because I couldn’t stop staring at the radio/stereo/television.”
I say this as if I am not one of them, when in truth I am no different from my enthusiastic kin. I can pretty much name every first-time Prince listening experience from the beginning. As I grew in my fandom, the setup conditions of a first listen were usually tantamount to a ritual: The volume had to be just right, nothing else could really be going on in the room, and I certainly couldn’t do it with other people around. I had to be able to listen without reservation, to cheer — sometimes physically — on the winning parts, rewind the parts I couldn’t believe I was hearing, curse the bad parts, and otherwise come to my own conclusions.
Today, on the anniversary of his death, a new “album” of previously unreleased work was slated to come out, titled "Deliverance." Because I am not an ordinary fan, I acquired the album (technically an EP) a couple of days ahead of the release. I did nothing nefarious or complicated; it was there for the listening, and despite how anyone, including Prince, feels about bootlegged material, Prince has always been a little too tight for his own good in this regard. All that was left at that point was to listen to it.
It had been years since I’d needed to observe the rituals. Even when he was alive, I had let the first-listen ceremony slide on his last handful of albums. He hadn’t put out a record I could stand behind since "Musicology," and that had been well over a decade ago. Fortunately, I’m not some slavering fanatic, so the stations in my first-listen process are few: Alone? Check. Phone off? Check. Ready to take notes? Check.
At a scant 16 minutes of material, it's not a lot of new music, but it is enough. Containing tracks that bootleggers hadn’t had their way with yet, it was a genuinely refreshing listen. I review it elsewhere in-depth; in short, it is a perfectly acceptable epitaph. It's essentially a gospel musical, or rather, it is six songs made into a musical by their compilation. It is a good record — a better record than he has put out in some years. I imagine to the point of certainty that the experience I had listening to it was the effect he wanted his music to have at this stage in his career: uplifting, spiritual, compelling you to bond with others through the dance of life. It is unmistakably Prince, and because this is how he has always opted to speak to me directly, it is like seeing my old friend again.
And yet, he kept this music to himself for the last 10 years. And, as it turns out, may have never intended to share it.
As of this writing, the album has been snatched back into Prince's storied vault, the conditions of its release not having passed legal muster. I have mine, but millions of listeners do not. There is a sadness to that math, but more importantly, there is a chaser of bitterness for me. What does it say about Prince that he had a set of keys to salvation — by his definition and on his terms — and chose not to unlock the door? Chose instead to give us "Planet Earth" and "3121," and, beyond all reason, "LotusFlow3r/MPLSound"? In my mind, a real friend would have pointed out this travesty to him, but then, Prince was not known for surrounding himself with people inclined to criticize.
Once again, much sooner than anticipated, I can tell you where I was when I heard Prince music I had never heard before. It was three days ago in my basement, early evening. I was wearing jeans, no shoes, and was on the tail end of a cold. That all sounds fairly ordinary, and it is, but it all happened in a different world than the one I have listened to every other Prince album in.
It is a world wherein I know Prince isn’t squirreled away in the bowels of Paisley Park at all hours coming up with something in response to what’s passing for civilization these days, or more selfishly, trying to change my life again. It is a world where genius has a bar that it will not rise above again. It hurts knowing that on the nights when I am slaving away at my own projects that I cannot convince myself into another hour of work by remembering that my lifelong-but-distant friend is probably doing the same thing at the same time. It is not a world any of his songs has prepared me for. One year into living in this world, I find it infinitely lessened by his presence, catastrophically full of itself and nowhere near as cute as it thinks it is.
I await new conversations with my old friend. None of them will be what he would have said given the chance, but what he had to say was so powerful, so touched by genius, so profound in its ethics, that he may change my life still. If he has a legacy besides the spotlight and gold records, it is in the sum total of what he has yet to say, and for that, I’m all ears.
Scott Woods is a librarian, writer, poet, and critic who runs one of the most successful poetry open mics in the Midwest. You can buy his books, Urban Contemporary History Month (2016) and We Over Here Now (2013), in all major online retail outlets.