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Life and Death in the Purple Box: Prince, What Happened?

lovesexy

Cover of Prince’s “LoveSexy”, Warner Bros. / Paisley Park, 1988.

Yesterday I understood for the first time how old-timers must have felt on the day that Elvis tumbled face-first off his porcelain throne almost 39 years ago. Told of Presley’s death, John Lennon—who had once said, “Before Elvis there was nothing”—reportedly shrugged it off with the kind of pitiless succinctness that only a bitterly disappointed lover could reach: “Elvis died when he went into the army.”

Is it too harsh—or too soon—to acknowledge that something like that happened to Prince too? Anyway that was my first reaction yesterday when my wife phoned and blurted out, in a voice mixed with incredulity, grief and anger, “Prince is dead.” The news was so shocking and unexpected that I had to ask her to repeat it. It still hasn’t really sunken in.

It was only later that I realized part of my problem in absorbing the fact of his death was that it’s seemed to me for many years that Prince died sometime around 1990. After that point he spent most of the next 20-plus years releasing indifferent-sounding music and filling arenas on the strength of his well-earned legend. Like Elvis, he continued to scatter the occasional gem in an interminable run of joyless, by-the-numbers music; there were still singles like “Get Off,” “Sexy Motherfucker,” and “Let It Go,” and you should check out the little-noted One Nite Alone… Live! two-disc set, if you can find it. (Worse, like Elvis–at least if TMZ’s sources are to be believed–he appears to have died from ingesting high-test prescription pharmaceuticals.) For reasons no one has been able to explain, the Prince I had followed and written about during the preceding decade–well, he just left the building.

The Prince we are all mourning now worked from 1978-1988. Barely past his teens at the outset, he spent that decade trashing every boundary of music and identity he encountered with a sense of joy, discovery, and complete self-assurance. During those years he released 10 albums and salted away enough material for God knows how many others. The Black Album, released belatedly in 1994, was recorded during those years, and I have tapes of a couple dozen additional vault tracks from 1985-87 that deserved release then and still do today. That body of work earned him a spot in a 20th Century American pantheon that includes not only the usually cited suspects (James Brown, Sly Stone)  but such virtuosic composers, players and bandleaders as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. (And yes, that’s an all-black list–not in observance of the kind of racial boundaries Prince despised, but because I can’t really think of any white people who deserve to stand with them as musical pioneers.) He was that exciting. That germinal.

For me his last great work—perhaps his greatest—was the Lovesexy album and tour in 1988-89. A mammoth production on record and on stage, it was an electrifying, gloriously cluttered summation of everywhere he had traveled musically and emotionally in a decade’s worth of frenzied creativity.

It certainly didn’t feel like the end of anything, but in retrospect it was–the only conceivable title for any box set retrospective of his post-1990 records would have been PerFunkTory. For years I talked with friends and colleagues–Prince’s as well as my own–about what exactly happened. Our theories ran the gamut. One music-writer friend chalked it up to Prince’s mounting disappointment with the way his music was received by the critics he sniped about but read religiously. By this line of thinking, the confused, ambivalent reaction to Lovesexy was the last straw. Others said, well, his time was up: Who, among rock & roll era giants, has stayed at the top of his or her game as a performer and as a composer for more than 10 years? Nobody.

Both those observations make sense, but I always suspected that gravity simply caught up with Prince. Here was a freaky-talented young man who hatched a very personal vision of a musical community with no fences around matters of race, sexuality, musical style–that is, a place without any of the limitations he routinely encountered as a short, skinny, preternaturally ambitious black kid growing up in what was then the whitest major city in the country.

But another way to put that is to say that his vision was hatched in a state of profound isolation, and that it drew its power in large part from the desperation born of that isolation. How many of the Prince songs about sex, God, and the polymorphously perverse were really about loneliness at their emotional heart? Lots of them. Squint and you might say all of them. Go back and listen to “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Anna Stesia,” even “When Doves Cry.” You’ll hear lines like,

I wanna be your brother
I wanna be your mother and your sister, too

And

If I was your girlfriend
Would U remember 2 tell me all the things U forgot
When I was your man?

And

Have you ever been so lonely
That you felt like you were the
Only one in this world?

Have you ever wanted to play
With someone so much you’d take
Any one boy or girl?

I would submit that none of this is about gender-bending, or sex, or even pleasure, for its own sake; it’s about trying to escape the sort of desperate, terminal solitude from which he came and to which, in the end, he seemed to return. Last night they closed the street in front of First Avenue, the Minneapolis club made famous by the Purple Rain movie, and a huge crowd danced there through the night. Seeing the pictures at a local news site this morning reminded me of a story that one Prince insider told me years ago about one of his private birthday bashes. Everyone there was given a Prince mask and asked to put it on. Soon the entire ballroom was choked with Princes, but Prince himself was nowhere in sight. He was lurking by himself in an alcove above the crowd, my source told me, watching his guests dance without him. And there he stayed until he left the party.

And this is about as close to his own utopian vision of community as Prince the man ever allowed himself to get. So yeah, his death was shocking. It was sad. But from here, in these first numbing hours, I keep thinking–please forgive me–that it was his life and not his death that constituted the more profound tragedy. He deserved better. So did Elvis. So do we all.

Beginning in 1984, Minneapolis writer Steve Perry covered Prince’s music and career in the Twin Cities weekly City Pages and elsewhere.