Prince: Five Years Gone

Life is full of curiosities, and it’s inevitable that you’ll come across the odd coincidence here and there. I guess it’s a small one that within days of one Prince passing, it’s the anniversary of the death of a much more colourful one. Today marks five short years since Prince Rogers Nelson was found dead at his Paisley Park home, in circumstances that seem ill-fitting with both his lyrical themes and his beliefs.

Personally, at the time, Prince’s death was far more of a rider to that of David Bowie. I liked some Prince stuff, but in the same way that I enjoyed, say, Belinda Carlisle. I hadn’t grown up with Prince in the same way that I’d grown up with Bowie, and neither had he been a touchstone in any aspect of my musical education. Nobody at school was a Prince nut; nobody at university walked about in a purple knee length frock coat and ruffles. You didn’t even hear ‘1999’ played at the student disco. Not that that’s an excuse; you didn’t hear Gay Dad either, but I bought their album the day it was released.

I think when Prince died it seemed somehow the latest in a line of giants falling, but giants whose time had come and gone. I was devastated when Bowie went, but he was arguably fresher in the public consciousness than Prince; the surprise flowering of The Next Day in the flat, post-touring desert enraptured the world and made them somewhat giddy. I remember the morning I woke up to ‘Where Are We Now’ on the radio, I almost clapped in delight. It was like a favourite relative had shown up on the doorstep with a massive Toblerone. Not so with Prince. All kinds of stories came tumbling out about his talent, his mystery, his sense of humour, but the last time he held any kind of extended interest for me was the nonsense about changing his name. If Planet Earth hadn’t been given away in the newspaper, I could state with confidence that I’d never actually held a Prince album in my hands.

Those hands are now thrown up in a mea culpa, embarrassed to say in another example of my excellent timing, I managed to fall in love with Prince about three years after seeing him live was an impossibility. This process began fairly slowly, and well after the fan vigils and commemorative issues had been put to bed. In fact, were it not for a blog post I began researching at the butt-end of 2018, I’d probably be living in a Prince-less universe even now.

I set myself the task of reviewing Prince’s theatrical efforts, Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge, largely because I’d read at various times that the latter two were among the worst films ever made, so I thought the contrast might make for interesting viewing. In a former life I reviewed the kind of DVDs which were so incomprehensible, they may as well have been packaged inside curate’s eggs, so a trio of vanity projects were hardly going to overwork me.

And no, they didn’t. Purple Rain stands up, Cherry Moon is watchable in a screwball way and Graffiti Bridge is indeed a big pile of shit. But to gain context for the post, I needed to go beyond the subject, and began to read around Prince’s career and his catalogue. I listened to his career-high albums, trying to work out the disconnect between his greatest strength and this cinematic hubris. Somewhere along the line, during those evenings of research, I started to look forward to spending more time in his company. I started to listen to album tracks. I started to listen to the stuff either side of the accepted imperial period. I started to learn more about his collaborators, his history. His wealth of material. 

It was an epiphany. Even when I thought he was ridiculous, I knew he was a genius. But it was only now, during this period of maybe two months of continuous exposure to the music rather than just the caricature that I felt he was a genius.

Prince Rogers Nelson: 1958-2016


Knowing Prince’s strong attachment to faith, he would not appreciate this sentiment at all, but it was like being touched by the hand of God. Almost like being rescued. That sounds over the top, but let me explain. At the point I seriously started listening to Prince, I was nearing my forties. By the time you’re nearing your forties, there are very few surprises left. Not in a ‘oh wow, you’ve got me a track day’ sense, but in an emotional one. You’re not very receptive, I don’t think, to being smashed around the head by an unexpected emotional punch. You’ve seen enough films, watched enough sport, borne enough children to guess if something’s really going to knock you for six.

Having been a music obsessive (within the narrow lines of the type of music I was obsessed with) since the early part of my teens, I wasn’t expecting to fall headfirst into a craving to hear a new artist at this later stage of life, and as anybody who can recall what that feels like will attest, it is pretty much like falling in love. Something about discovering a new fascination makes you a bit silly, and you want to listen to that music all the time, non-stop, and tell everybody about it, and ask if they’ve listened to it too, and why haven’t you listened to it, and are you an idiot?

And so, running in parallel with the planning of my wedding to the person I actually love, I was having clandestine trysts with an exciting, lascivious purple Yoda. This wasn’t a physical attraction (while I can certainly appreciate Prince’s charms, they do nothing for me down there, where it counts), but a creative addiction. I was entranced by the versatility, the variety, the sheer luxuriousness of the bazaar I was free to wander around in. For a time I was taking any opportunity to hear his music again, staying up into the wee small hours playing his videos on YouTube, until I acknowledged that it was all starting to get a bit like something a psychologist might uncover before whispering, “My God, he’s going to kill again.”

This wasn’t a mid-life crisis, you understand. I have no desire to be Prince, or pretend to be black, or play funk, or relive an alternative youth where I’m a bit freer. I was, and this is the point of this post, excited by being excited about music, which I figured I’d long since grown past. Learning new music is like learning a language: at the start, all you can do is say hello and ask for directions to the beach, but after a while, if you give your twenty minutes a day to it, you start to absorb the vocabulary, the grammar of the thing. You pick out an idiom here and there. Before you know it, you’re fluent, and the pleasure it gives you to walk unnoticed amongst native speakers is a private and very proud thing. You might even claim learning Prince is like learning Latin given his death, but with the steady flood of special editions and vault material, he seems more alive than Latin can ever be.

So on today of all days, I made sure I listened to Parade, which was the album which really hooked me, and added my appreciation to social media to a man who I didn’t really realise I’d been missing until it was far too late. It’s possible that this is an obsession which will wane in time, but after three years or so, I really doubt it. I still ration out the Prince when I’m in company, in case people get sick of it and I get a reputation. I still won’t listen to an album of his while in the office, in case it gets interrupted and I miss that wibbly piano bit at the end of ‘Purple Rain’ which makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I’m still working my way through the City Lights bootlegs and have probably got a thousand still to find, let alone the videos scattered across the internet.

Yes, I do feel kind of sad (in all senses) writing this post. You’re not meant to be forty and prattling on about a bloke five years dead, who you never saw play live and who had been long available to listen to. But like I said earlier, not opening my mind to his work is my error, and I’m enjoying correcting that mistake. I’m thrilled to have a whole world to explore at my own pace, including all of its blind alleys, cold and lonely valleys and spectacular scenery. That’s my Prince story - I don’t have one, but I’m writing one every day, with a soundtrack of a genius to help me along.

Chris Stanley

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