If you told me that Keith Richards had died, I'd be devastated but pretty unsurprised. If you told me Brian Wilson had died, I'd curl up in a ball singing "Vegetables" to myself, but I'd feel somewhat prepared for it after years of watching his fragile mental state deteriorate. But as with David Bowie only a few months ago, Prince's death Thursday was a total shock. Maybe it's because, like Bowie, Prince seemed like a mythological creature, a space alien, an androgynous rock star who touched us and encouraged us to touch ourselves unapologetically.
Maybe it's because he was only 57 and he looked like he was aging in reverse—maybe it's because it feels like only yesterday that he was playing ping-pong on New Girl and jamming at City Winery. He just started working on a memoir for next year—hell, he just threw an all-night dance party last weekend—how could he leave before the party was over?
Now trending in our online dictionary: 'icon', 'iconic', and 'iconoclastic'. https://t.co/vbKDoK8mIG
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) April 21, 2016
Or maybe it feels so awful because he was one of the most life-affirming, sexually-uninhibited (he is responsible for the adoption of "Parental Advisory" stickers for a good reason), genre-transcending artists to ever wander the earth. He was someone who dedicated his life to séanceing with the funky vibes of the universe. He conquered the world and then threw parties at his mansion for strangers. And he made being the weirdest guy in the room something to be proud of.
He also wrote "Erotic City." And "Raspberry Beret." And "When You Were Mine," "Take Me With U," "Purple Rain," "Sign O The Times," "Little Red Corvette," "When Doves Cry," "She's Always In My Hair," "Alphabet St.," "Darlin Nikki," and literally, a hundred more. Once you adjusted to his wavelength, his sound—that mix of futuristic James Brown funk, Smokey Robinson sugar and wholly original panache—was addictive. Almost everything he did from 1979-1991 still sounds like hits to me.
I mean, "Erotic City" alone gets you into heaven or whatever, right?
prince is immortal. prince did not die. prince just turned his back and returned to the universe. pic.twitter.com/zPLZ4a5rMG
— Falowo (@eleyeyele) April 21, 2016
The nation might be too sad to get down right now, but we are all gathered here today in Prince's looming purple shadow, getting through this thing called life. "Electric word life," Prince said. "It means forever and that's a mighty long time."
If you're feeling at a loss for how to process this, the best way is through your ears—and there is no shortage of music available to listen to from the extremely prolific artist. His intimidating discography includes at least 39 studio albums (and that doesn't include all the unreleased albums, for which there is reportedly a vault filled with thousands of songs), four live albums, a boatload of singles and compilations, and of course, "Bat Dance."
The problem is that Prince was intensely vigilant about not letting his music be put online—the man sued YouTube, fan sites, even a suburban mom, to get his music off the web. Although there are only a few videos available (we've put some throughout this piece), you can listen to him on Tidal, you can stream Minneapolis public radio station The Current (who are broadcasting an all-Prince set), tune into MTV (they're still doing a marathon of his videos), or you could, you know, buy his music on iTunes.
Put Prince on the 69 dollar bill
— Megan Amram (@meganamram) April 21, 2016
Deadspin has Prince's entire 12-minute Super Bowl XLI halftime show from 2007, which includes a truly epic rendition of "Purple Rain" (...in the rain). It was one of those special shows that reminded the entire country of just what a treasure he was, and helped launch something of a late-period renaissance—although he never reached the heights of his '80s and early '90s fame again, he put out worthwhile material in the final years before his death. I'd point to the likes of X's Face, "Black Sweat" and the exceptional "Breakfast Can Wait," which is a bit like an R&B takeoff of his classic "Starfish And Coffee." (This was the song that used a photo of Dave Chappelle-as-Prince serving pancakes as its brilliant single art.)
Below, you can watch a full episode of The Arsenio Hall Show from 2014, which includes some very funky performances with 3rd Eye Girl, as well as some interviews with the man himself (in which he may or may not have exhibited some gay panic).
Ben Greenman at The New Yorker did a good job of summarizing the breadth of emotions over the last 24 hours: "There will be longer pieces written, and better ones, about the death of Prince, but the main point is that there will be many, and each will demonstrate purely and powerfully how deeply he connected with those of us who loved his music, his spirit, his playfulness, his petulance, his bravery, his youth, his wisdom, his weirdness, his virtuosity, and his vision."
There's no shortage of good Prince tributes online already: celebrity friends and admirers (including President Obama) offered tributes yesterday and Stereogum listed 20 essential moments from his career, but you might want to revisit SNL's 40th Anniversary after-party (Prince tore up the place), Heavy Table's classic "What's in Prince's fridge?" piece, Slate's closer look at his lost period of 1995-2001, and AV Club's piece on his delightful Muppets Tonight appearance from 1997. There are also some really nice excerpts, anecdotes, and links below worth your while.
— Albert Samaha (@AlbertSamaha) April 21, 2016
Here's a paragraph that I wrote about Prince in 2004. Still true. pic.twitter.com/kOuyisVnj4
— Jody Rosen (@jodyrosen) April 21, 2016
My favourite Prince story is when Michael Jackson asked him to duet on Bad. RIP you mad, funny fucker. pic.twitter.com/pEXweZ1F0v
— Niall Doherty (@NiallMDoherty) April 21, 2016
A visual reminder that reinventing yourself is healthy, necessary, and wonderful. Thanks, Prince. https://t.co/0FldCdHmcM
— Jason Kottke (@jkottke) April 21, 2016
I love this Prince story pic.twitter.com/y8srPawZXY
— Adam Graham (@grahamorama) April 22, 2016
— E. Alex Jung (@e_alexjung) April 21, 2016
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) April 21, 2016
For the longest time, I think I took Prince for granted—when someone has so much brilliance in excess, as a coworker put it, it's easy to take it for granted, to just expect excellence at all times with whatever project or show he was putting his considerable skills toward. Especially after he turned his back on fame during the symbol era in the '90s, became more religious, and never really tried to take the spotlight back (with a few exceptions, such as that iconic Super Bowl performance). He seemed ageless, thanks to his remarkably youthful face and his boundless energy for live performances—but also because he seemed like the magician of the music world.
Prince was in tune with his own primal, gushingly positive urges—he had a utopian vision for the world, one which saw him tossing aside racial and sexual barriers in pop music with an eye roll, one which saw him searching for female collaborators above all others. And it was his sheer empathy that drove him: as NPR's Ann Powers put it, these women reflected and inspired his own feminine spirit, and he in turn gave "musical space to women's sexual desire."
A (very) brief Prince and Bowie thought: we've lost two artists who acted as reminders that there's no one right way to be a man.
— Alyssa Rosenberg (@AlyssaRosenberg) April 21, 2016
— Jordan Hoffman (@jhoffman) April 21, 2016
Like Bowie, he was a searcher who refused to be pigeonholed, and he became more comfortably self-conscious and self-deprecating in his later years. Most importantly, his gifts never atrophied: he mastered 27 different instruments (he played nearly all the parts on his first five albums), and his guitar chops were Hendrix-levels remarkable (it was devastating to hear last week that he wasn't able to play guitar anymore, and I wonder whether that very recent condition was related whatsoever to his death)—just check out his guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at 3:28 below and feel the shivers crawl up your spine.
As one friend told me, he felt no urgency to see him because he always assumed he'd be back—Prince never seemed to be in a hurry whatever he was doing. I was having drinks one evening in August 2013 in no hurry to go anywhere or do anything when Gothamist's Executive Editor Jen Chung called to tell me that Prince had just announced a surprise gig at City Winery that evening. I froze in my tracks for a moment: I was 100 blocks away from City Winery catching up with old friends, and I had no idea how mobbed it would be down there, or whether I'd even be able to get in. There was a voice inside of me that was ready to pooh-pooh this adventure: "Prince will be back, there's no rush, I can see him some other time."
Thankfully, my better, sexier, numerically-attuned angels came through 4 me. We rushed downtown and found ourselves among the first 10 people on line. We got past the Purple Curtain (no photos, no videos, leave your cell phone in your pocket if you can), and around 1:40 a.m., Prince appeared with an entourage of 20-25 musicians on stage. He was sheathed in a sleek purple suit with loose gold chains, sporting a natural afro and retro sunglasses, waving a sparkling gold cane, and looking every bit like a character from a '70s blaxploitation film. The intimate venue was decked out in purple lights in appreciation, and he shrieked with joy through nearly two hours of relentless and familiar funk jams.
A few things stand out to me about the evening: Prince was stupendously happy, constantly smiling and waving, talking to his band and teasing the crowd into the wee hours of the morning. He seemed delighted to live up to his reputation as a consummate performer and booty-shaking priest. Also, I've never heard the word "funky" tossed around so accurately or often. And I'm eternally grateful I got to see him perform "Nothing Compares 2 U," a song whose raw emotion knocks me off my feet every time, a song that truly exudes brilliance in excess (as well as humility, considering that he gave the song to Sinead O'Connor and never officially released a studio version himself).
He died much too soon, but it always would have felt too soon. No one like him—fearsome, irreverent, elastic, soulful, visionary—should go so soon. The last week of his life sounded like a Prince song: he brushed aside illness and vulnerability by throwing a giant party, and finally, seeking peace in the studio, surrounded by the tools he used to do the thing he most loved: making music. We should all be so lucky to get such a funky exit from this mortal coil.
— NASA (@NASA) April 21, 2016