Life in the late modern West has a way of cutting you down, cutting you off, and making you conform. As wrong as many of Marx's prescriptions may have been, his diagnosis was for the most part accurate. Certainly what he called "alienation" afflicts us all. Consumerist society is really quite totalitarian in its way. We need people, cultural leaders, great artists, who refuse to let themselves be reduced and their art become merely a commodity, "product," "content," or whatever the money-grubbers call it.
Like a lot of people my age (50), my first real exposure to Prince was when his movie Purple Rain was released. At the time I was in Marine Corps Infantry Training School at Camp Pendleton, California. It was late summer 1984. I went with a buddy up to Los Angeles on a weekend pass (Greyhound bus) and stayed with his grandparents. Also living with his grandparents was his sister. His sister had a friend in whom my pal was interested. On Saturday night we went to the drive-in to see to Purple Rain. I did the gentlemanly thing and escorted his sister. She and I sat in the front-seat and watched the entire movie and enjoyed it. I think, like a lot of people there,we may have danced a little. Shortly after that I bought the movie soundtrack. I have listened to Prince ever since.
Prince was a prolific songwriter. In addition to the songs he recorded, he wrote quite a few songs that became hits for other artists. A quick sampling of some of these tunes are Chaka Khan's "I Really Feel You," "Manic Monday" sung by the Bangles, and Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U." Truly great musicians are never limited by genre, they defy barriers and loathe being pigeon-holed.
Not one to be kept down by the man, Prince was an artist who kept control of his music and his artistic identity. Like Bowie, he saw, long before most people, where the music industry was headed, and beat most of the industry there. Another artist I admire to whom Prince bears resemblance is Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, Prince was usually apolitical, even before becoming a Jehovah's Witness around 2007 (he was raised a Seventh Day Adventist). Like Dylan, he could be quite frank when asked about things, unless he wasn't in the mood. In my view, he was usually content to speak nonsense to a media that is largely nonsensical and uncomprehending of anything that isn't now, especially to an entertainment media ready to crucify any artist for not swearing wholehearted allegiance to the spirit of the age. Proof of his sometime willingness to frankly speak his mind is a piece written by the Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein yesterday: "Raunchy Prince was actually a conservative Christian who reportedly opposed gay marriage." The headline, as headlines tend to be, is overly provocative and somewhat inaccurate. The content of the article is much less so and conveys a revealing moment.
Prince, as well as Dylan, was much too smart and cagey to push matters too far or let himself be reduced to his views on such matters. After all, it's as important to be as wise as a serpent as it is to be as gentle as a lamb. Even though he was reclusive, he loved people and had an artistic and musical vision that was, at its core, quite religious, if eccentric. What has rock n' roll, or R n' B, to do with religion? Not just a lot, but practically everything, at least in my view.
To say Prince was complex is only to note the obvious. His complexity was merely his humanity. He refused to let himself be reduced. But his music is the main thing. He was an amazing musical artist. One of those rare musical artists of which each generation has only a few.
Our Friday traditio is Prince's amazing guitar solo, played at George Harrison's memorial concert. As the story goes, Harrison's widow only wanted musicians who were friends of her recently deceased husband to play the set. But she was prevailed to include Prince. True to form, the Purple One more than delivered playing guitar on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps":
As Alicia Keys said at his induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame: "There are many kings. King Henry the Eighth, King Solomon, King Tut, King James, King Kong, and the Three Kings, but there is only one Prince. There is only one man who has defied restriction, who’s defied the obvious and all the rules to the game." Prince Rogers Nelson, rest in purple splendor.