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American Royalty

People way more qualified to write about Prince are writing about Prince right now. But I’m going to write about him anyway because I want to remember, years from now, how this made me feel when it all went down.

I have five brothers and sisters. The best stereo in the house was in the basement….and one of us was always down there with our albums, rocking and rolling. We’d sit in the large chair against the wall and groove. No distractions. No TV. Just the music. Singing, air-guitar-ing. There was no sharing though. If one was down there, the others weren’t allowed. Unwritten rule. If somebody invaded, they were summarily ejected. If one wanted the space, we’d flick the light off and on at the top of the steps. “How much longer?” “Get lost!” Rock and roll was serious business in our house.

Prince-CTCMy twin brother was and remains an unassuming dude. But there were times when he’d be spinning something down there that I’d never heard before. He was a Cheap Trick fan before the Budokan record broke them. I was seeing these oddballs on album covers….some lunatic with a cap who looked like one of the Bowery Boys, writing songs like “He’s a Whore” and “Elo Kiddies”. My brother didn’t give a fiddlers fart that nobody knew who Cheap Trick was. He knew them and the rest of us could piss off as far as he was concerned.

He felt the same way about Prince. For You. Dirty Mind. Controversy. He had ‘em all down there, and I remember thinking, “what the hell is this?” Prince was some strange looking dude in his underwear…singing songs that were positively filthy. I scoured the album jacket, because in those days we did things like that, and saw that this kid was playing all the instruments himself. He was singing like James Brown and funking like George Clinton and then, out of the blue, he’d rip out a guitar line that would melt Hendrix’s afro. This was cosmic shit, and when the coast was clear I’d spin the records, thinking I was listening to some strange alien. Then just as quickly I put them back so I didn’t get caught. It almost felt like listening to Prince would bring on repercussions.

And then Prince became American Royalty.

The “1999” record blew minds, and “Purple Rain” followed and changed the fucking world. In retrospect we all should have seen it coming. Because this wasn’t just your run of the mill multi-instrumentalist. This was a total freak…..a talent not so much touched by the gods as one who overwhelmed the gods and forced them to question their own divinity. He could write better songs than you. He was a better guitar player than you. And a better bass player and drummer and keyboard player too. He was a better producer. He could dance you into the grave and had a voice that sounded like he swallowed Motown and Stax whole. He didn’t share the spotlight. Prince brought his own spotlight with him.

Remember in 1984 how Springsteen was everywhere? “Born in the USA” mania was upon us and “Dancing in the Dark” was being played every 7 seconds on the radio, propelled even more by MTV, who played that ridiculous Courtney Cox video every 8 seconds. “Dancing in the Dark” reached number 2 on the charts. It couldn’t dislodge “When Doves Cry”, a song that crystallized what every artist in the 80s was trying to do, and doing it all in 4 minutes. Prince was a badass. “Purple Rain” the record made him a celebrity. “Purple Rain” the film made him a star.

He was also a colossal fucking weirdo of course, but that’s allowed in rock and roll. Encouraged actually. Nobody normal changes the world.

“Sign ‘O the Times” might be my favorite Prince record. A sprawling double album that was impossible to pin down….normal people do not make music like this. He was inventing stuff on the fly and then moving on, sometimes in the same track. This music inspired my favorite record review of all time, when Robert Christgau of the Village Voice called it “Merely the most gifted pop musician of his generation proving what a motherfucker he is for two discs start to finish…”

And thinking on it….if ever anybody ever topped the Beatles in pop song-craft, it was Prince with “Raspberry Beret”. Argue this with me at your own peril.

Last night 6 of us formed an impromptu “Revolution” and got up on a stage in a bar and sang “Purple Rain”. The song is devastating and deserves better than was gave it, but I make no apologies because that’s exactly 6 musicians in a bar should have been doing last night.

Prince could always fascinate us. Even as he fell off the cultural radar….fighting the good fight against thieves and record labels (but I repeat myself), he’d pop up like a whack-a-mole with some one-off gig or Saturday Night Live appearance wearing 3-eyed sunglasses, or with some strangely distributed music in his pocket, following his muse wherever it took him. He made music constantly, and probably only released half of it. Rumors of thousands of unreleased tracks behind bank-vault thick doors at Paisley Park abound. So expect some unseemly money grabs in the future. A few nights back Prince performed a solo piano show in Atlanta. By all accounts it was absolutely transcendent. The man needed music like the rest of us need air. But music didn’t kill him, so don’t think that way. Music kept him alive.

But for now….I just feel gutted. Because Prince isn’t supposed to die. Our nation is diminished. But we were stone lucky the have him. And now he belongs to the ages.

I like to think of “the ages” as being a place similar to my childhood basement, with a killer stereo and an unlimited collection of our favorite records. And people rocking back and forth saying, “you ever heard of this guy?”

“Everybody shut up / and listen to the band
shut up already / damn”

–Prince

In a bit..

–tf

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. April 22, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    Moving tribute, Tom. Grateful you wrote and shared it.

  2. jimbob
    April 25, 2016 at 10:24 am

    I saw him live

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