Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, hard working Scandinavian farmers, liberal politicians and mediocre sports teams, is also the birthplace and last resting place of a 1.58 metre tall force of nature called Prince.
Before Prince, Minnesota’s most famous musical son was a skinny Jewish kid named Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan. And like Dylan, who radically redefined the notion of folk, pop and rock music, Prince (born Roger Nelson), remoulded R&B into a musical form that was infinitely more complex, rich and exciting than anything that had been pedalled before him.
With his death on Thursday, at age 57, popular music has entered an era that will henceforth be known, as AP—After Prince. His contribution to popular music is nothing less than genre-defining and so his loss is as equally traumatic to fans, critics and peers as the passing of David Bowie is to pop music.
As a student at the University of Minnesota my first awareness with Prince was as the bus driver’s son from North Minneapolis, the black ghetto. He had made a couple of well-received albums, including Dirty Minds notable more than anything for the fact that he played every instrument on them. A good-looking novelty act, nothing more. Or so we thought.
Little Red Corvette
But then Little Red Corvette zoomed onto the radio, followed by 1999. By the time When Doves Cry and Purple Rain became the soundtrack of life, he was no longer a local boy. He belonged to the world.
Then he went on to conquer it.
He was a regular customer in an all night pizzeria I managed in Minneapolis, Minnesota and was by then famous locally as well as in the rest of the country and on the edge of global domination with his music. After a hard night on stage or in the studio he’d amble in with a bevy of lingerie-clad ladies and find a quiet booth near the back. Spaghetti and meatballs were ordered but left untouched. Coffee and Coca Cola spilled across the table. His Purpleness hardly spoke throughout. The girls chatted at him but he showed no expression other than boredom. Hours would pass while he poked at the pasta with his fork.
By 3 am it was time to leave. He shuffled to the cash register where I collected his money for a meal not eaten. As I counted his change he coiffed himself in the reflecting glass of a refrigerated case full of apple pies.
“He never tips,” hissed my headwaiter bitterly. “But watch this.”
The headwaiter moved to open the door for the Man and his ladies. As they sashayed out, he caught Prince’s eye and said, “Purple Rain is hot! Love it.” With a smoothness native to the entitled, Prince fished a $20 note from inside his cape and dropped it gently into the headwaiter’s hand.
Loyal to his hometown
Throughout his life, unlike Dylan, Prince remained loyal to his hometown. He bought the city’s biggest nightclub, First Avenue, and filmed Purple Rain there. He opened up a huge studio complex, Paisley Park in the far suburbs to which artists from all across the country flocked. He gathered about him a pack of musicians and producers whose creative energy established the Minneapolis Sound. It was this sound, Prince’s funky-pop, New Wave-y sort of R&B, that together with hip-hop, has to be considered the basic template upon which all subsequent R&B, urban and African American dance music has developed. Not only have dozens of stars such as Kanye West and Madonna sampled his work but his ardent admirers cross all genres including rock, pop, jazz and folk. A musician’s musician.
Prince had the ambition of royalty. Each album pushed into fresh waters, starting with the massive Purple Rain in 1984. Though not every outing received praise from the pundits, and some fans fell over board at the pace and frequent change of direction of the Royal yacht, most albums sold enormous numbers. A poor showing for Prince was a smash hit for most other artists.
Like Bowie, his look, and off stage persona changed regularly and influenced fashion and commerce. His vision was crystal clear and unwavering. He didn’t care if record labels or fans followed him. To get out of his contract with Warner Brothers he changed his name to a symbol and insisted the world refer to him as ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’. Even his most loyal subjects didn’t get why he chose to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
For all his brilliance as a musician and a studio magician, it was on stage, with his electric, stringed phallus strapped on that Prince never disappointed.
Several years ago, a friend bought me a ticket to Prince’s show in Melbourne. I was unenthusiastic. I had almost grown up with his Highness. I told my friend I was ‘over’ Prince. I had better things to do than watch a retiree grind through his greatest hits yet again. But my friend insisted.
When the show ended that night I nearly floated out of the hall. Prince had simply filled the space with an electric energy that I had never experienced before or since. Trim and elegantly done up in an ever-changing set of colourful outfits he moved around the stage like a young stag. He pranced and preened, always milking his guitar or piano to sound as if they were made of solid gold.
After barely an hour he said goodnight and left the stage. The audience froze like bucket of stunned mullets. As we waited, unsure whether to head for the exits, feeling aggrieved, his Royal Purpleness arose slowly from the depths of the stage promising an encore. Ninety minutes later he was still playing!
The music was outstanding. The pyrotechnics and lights blinding and exhilarating. This is to be expected. What really impressed was how happy Prince was. His smile was not just visible, it was palatable. Here was a man, 35 years into his career, as happy as the first day he stood on stage. When at last he called it a night, 3 hours later, he was hopping and pumping the air like a bunny rabbit on laughing gas.
Positive vibes were everywhere. His presence carried me home and stayed with me for weeks after.
The absence of Prince from music will leave us reeling for a while. We can take some comfort that though there will be no new Prince album, the vaults of Paisley Park are crammed with unreleased material. Only with time will we really comprehend what a genius we’ve lost. A cocksure prophet, a sexy anarchist, a sentimental child, an imagination from beyond. An iconoclast who himself was an Icon.
Prince we miss you already.
India-born Nate Rabe regularly blogs on music. He lives in Kuala Lumpur.