Thursday, April 21, 2016

FTT Off-Topic: Thank U Prince

Can U Make It Rain More? 
Not sports; don't complain.

I don't mean to come off as ungrateful for my upbringing. Everyone did the best they could, and I had so much help from teachers, friends, my family, and so on. But into that mix comes the influence of Art, dammit, and Art helped me come a very long way from what I grew up with and in.

So a not inconsiderable amount of the credit for my much better than it should be life goes to Prince, the finest musician of his generation. Let me explain.

I'm the youngest child of a family of three, and grew up just outside of Philadelphia, in a nice suburb. This was before the Internet, before anything but music you purchased, and music you heard on the radio... and with my siblings and the local media, that meant classic rock and heavy metal, honestly, and very little else.

By the time the '80s started, I was ready, willing and able to listen to anything that wasn't the 500 or less songs that my local radio overlords decided was all I needed to hear. So that became some top 40, some prog rock, just, well, anything that allowed more thought than the canon. But I wasn't in a situation, family wise, to listen to black folks that weren't Jimi Hendrix, or gender challengers that weren't David Bowie. And, really, not much of either of those guys. We're playing some Skynyrd. (Yes, seriously, and without irony.) That stuff on MTV was for words that polite people do not (now) use. For reasons.

I had no idea what I was missing... but I knew that as a short guy with more or less straight down the line hetero urges, I wasn't ever going to be very tolerant of people who weren't like me. And while I didn't think of myself as a racist, I grew up around a ton of it, and clearly was. Along with the homophobia.

And into that world, Prince.

"Purple Rain" was such an absurdly good album on every level that it even broke classic rock playlists. What wasn't missed, even in my world, was that the best guitarist alive was now this pansexual black elf who seemed unwilling to play by any of the rules of my world. He also seemed to be getting the finest trim on the planet, and was having more fun than anyone, well, ever. Even the biggest haters had to respect his talents, and every time he turned around, some other amazing thing happened which involved him.

Sheena Easton was this prim and useless pop diva, and then Prince got his hands on her, and she was in the World Series of Love and droolingly hot in "U Got The Look." Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson reimagined "Batman" into something dark and plodding, but Prince "Batdance"-d his way into irresistible weirdness. Odd political musings about AIDS and Christianity didn't slow down "Sign O' The Times" from being this album that I'd just play, end to end, over and over. He changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and I didn't let it shake me; the New Power Generation was too good to allow for stepping off. He wrote songs for other people that were nearly as good as the stuff he kept for himself, kept finding impossibly attractive women who were also stunningly good side players, showing up in public with assless pants... just relentless. And when you thought he was past his prime, he shows up in a monsoon to perform the best halftime set ever at the Super Bowl.

Who was having more fun than this man? Who wouldn't want to hang out with him, if only to be near these women? Who, if ever, was living life any better than this? And why, dear God why, would you ever choose to hate on black people or gay people or trans people or any people at all, rather than just stop taking life so damned seriously and get your groove on?

How much influence did this man have on my life? This actually happened: I spent a month writing in an anonymous communal college dorm diary in Prince-speak, just to see if I could pull it off and still make semi-coherent points. His wildly over-the-top sexual calisthenics album "Come" became the de facto soundtrack for physical encounters with the women in my life. I covered some of his songs on acoustic guitar in solo sets, not because I was really capable as a singer or player to doing them justice, but just because I wanted, in any possible small way, to be more like him.

I'd like to think that, in time, the racism, homophobia, intolerance and general small-mindedness that was my start in life would have gone away without Prince. I did go to college, hang out with smart people, took steps to grow. But honestly, I don't know if I get there without him. That's how much better he made my life. And I can't imagine I'm alone in that.

I got to see him once, live, at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, just outside of Philadelphia, in January 1999. The Tower is a venue that only holds a few thousand people, just about the best place you could ever hope to see an artist of this level, and I wormed my way to about 5 feet from the stage in the mosh pit, and just tried to commit the entire evening to permanent memory. He was as tiny as advertised, even to my hobbit eyes, and there was never a person more born to do this than he was. To be in the presence of someone who is just that good at what he does is simultaneously great and terrible, because it thrills you with the achievement, and shames you with the comparison to your own life.

For reasons unknown to anyone but themselves -- maybe I was just the right height to provide useful friction -- two of the most attractive women that have ever been in my presence, just model-level or better and with European accents, decided to grind all over me for a solid hour of this show. Prince played a 20-minute bass solo, something I would have never enjoyed from any other musician in my life, and it was bliss. Eventually the show ended, and I was not myself for days afterward. It took the better part of a decade to work up enough distance go to another live concert, because no matter how good the show might be, it wasn't going to be Prince.

I know I'm supposed to be profoundly sad right now. First Lou Reed, then Bowie, now Prince; my songwriting and performing heroes are passing from this Earth, and I will not see their kind again.

But then I think of all of the catalog, and it's impossible to be sad for more than a minute. It's not what he would have wanted. He would have wanted to lose himself in the music, to be remembered for how it made you feel, and move. Not for the loss.

So play, and play, and play. The Internet is sprouting recovered videos that were suppressed during his life, because the man was litigious, and never really adjusted to the Internet age, and it's all somehow for the best, because I haven't seen many of these in decades.

And honor a man who left the world, and my life, so much better than how he found it.

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