Prince was my first.
I’ve been trying to put into words why it is that this particular death hit me so hard, and I think the best I can come up with is he was my first. The first to make me stop and say, “now I understand what it’s all about.” The first to make me grab other people and say “you have to hear this right now!” The first… a lot of things.
I want you to understand. Before I heard Prince there was plenty of good, relevant, vital, powerful music, but it was all historical artifact. Sure, I could appreciate the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones, or Hendrix, or… well, this can be a long list but you understand my point: I wasn’t there for any of them. They were great because that’s how they were introduced to me, but not because I played any part in the discovery of greatness.
Prince was different. I was in high school when he became PRINCE, in a boarding school, at a time when the only music I could claim to own was what I recorded off of FM radio with a cassette player.
It was the first time I was present, self-aware, and listening, at a moment when music became historically important—by which I mean vital, necessary, and all the other descriptors we put with things we immediately realize we cannot imagine living without. And because I was there for Prince at that moment, he was some how mine.
I’m not even a very good Prince fan, to be honest. He was the first musician whose music I actively sought out for personal ownership (rather than ripping off the radio with my tape player) and the first one I tried to convince other people they had to hear. But I didn’t keep up.
When we get older, sometimes, we stop listening to the things that we liked when we were younger. I only hung with Prince until the late 1980’s before moving on, and then (like Genesis, and Pink Floyd, and Zeppelin, and many others) I put him in a box and sought new music instead.
Because you have to do this, right? I worked with a guy whose favorite band was Metallica, and he was so in love with Metallica that he stopped listening to other music. I mean it; nothing that came after Metallica was as good as Metallica as far as he was concerned, and so the part of him that was receptive to “not as good as, but different” atrophied.
(I feel like this happens to a lot of us. Do you know people who think no good music has come out since ’80’s music? I do.)
I found other things to listen to, in other words. I tried to keep my tastes relevant, so I could continue to be surprised by new talent, and relive that thing I felt the first time I heard Prince. Meanwhile, Prince kept on making more music, but I wasn’t really paying attention, because he was in a box marked High School.
I only opened that box again a few years ago.
My understanding of Prince is less than comprehensive, is what I’m trying to say, so it doesn’t seem possible that his death could impact me so very much, except that for the past three years I’ve had his albums—the ones that mattered to me—on heavy rotation in my music shuffle.
And look, I’m not a music critic, I don’t play a musical instrument, and I can’t sing, so take this as the pure listener fanaticism it is, but when was the last time you listened to these songs because holy fuck.
Seriously, go play Let’s Go Crazy, and try to put yourself in the perspective of someone hearing it for the first time. I appreciate that this is difficult, but try.
This is the song that woke me up, specifically the guitar solo at the end. Because right up until that moment, in the four-minutes-and-change of the play-time, two things are made clear: Prince can write a great song; Prince can fucking sing. Then comes that guitar.
It was like if Michael Jackson got to the bridge of Beat It and, instead of turning to Eddie Van Halen for a blow-the-doors-open guitar solo, he picked up the guitar himself. It was as if James Brown, instead of hiring the best musicians in the world to back him, just happened to be the world’s best guitarist too.
It doesn’t seem possible, or even a little bit fair, that all of this is one guy. And that’s just the first song on the album.
Listen to The Beautiful Ones, which I swear is the most remarkable un-remarked-upon pop vocal performance you’re ever going to hear. Or When Doves Cry, a song that is mostly percussion, with tiny bits of furious guitar and no bass line. These three songs were by the same person, and they are different enough to have been by three different people. In fact, if those hypothetical three different people never did anything else we’d still know their names today.
Or listen to Purple Rain. The most amazing thing about this song isn’t even in the song. It’s the thirty seconds before Prince starts playing the song in the movie, when he just stands there onstage and looks at the audience and doesn’t move until nobody can fucking breathe. (Have you seen this? Go see this. Go see this right now.) It is the most incredible silence in cinematic history, it is an eternity on film, it is perfect, and it helped make the song that followed—already great—impossibly greater.
And while we’re here, Purple Rain the film is probably the best rock movie ever made, and I’m pretty sure Prince just threw that thing together in his spare time.
This is what it felt like with him: he could do whatever he liked better than anyone else, provided he felt like doing it. He was Brown and Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, and Parliament Funkadelic, and Clapton, and Lennon & McCartney, and Jimmy Page, and on top of all that he could be a goddamn movie star in his free time because why the hell not?
There are other albums to talk about, and song to dissect (I probably have another thousand words in me just on D.M.S.R.) and performances to share, but I’m running out of time to make the point I don’t think I’m fully equipped to make, which is that for some reason I feel like something of mine died this week, and I can’t explain why I feel that way.
As I said, he was my first musical love, but that just isn’t adequate somehow. Prince was the first musical love for a lot of people and his music was for everyone, and yet it feels like it belongs to me.
I’m pretty sure this feeling is what’s connecting the millions of us in mourning today. No, you don’t understand, this music belonged to me. We can all feel that kind of personal association with this particular celebrity death, and the thing is we’re all correct and we’re all wrong.
Prince was my first, but he was also mine. He was yours too, and I get that, but no, no, no, you don’t really understand. He was mine.
I’m crying today because something of mine died. I was supposed to have him around for another twenty years, and I don’t, and I’m going to be upset about that for a while. Sure, you can be upset too. We can all be upset together.
But he was my first.
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