Prince once said that if you didn’t acknowledge your birthday, you’d never age. And he never seemed to – at least, not so much that a fan could notice from the other side of the TV screen, or from the stalls of a concert venue.
In a 1986 interview on The Joan Rivers Show, Little Richard hollered, “Prince looks just like me!” It was true, from the vaguely Scarlet Pimpernel-like outfits to the pencil moustache that both singers wore. And like that immortal rock’n’roll dandy, Prince increasingly seemed immune to the passage of time. Watch the video for “Rock and Roll Love Affair”, his largely ignored 2012 single, and you’ll see a boy of 53 in circle-lensed shades fronting a slinky funk-pop band as if the Eighties never ended. Waves of synthesiser wash over the mix, melodies unapologetically borrowed from his earlier hits. But it doesn’t feel like a rehash. Prince is having fun, and fun is always new.
He was a star of the pre-internet age, deliberately crafted to be larger than life, towering above us all despite his modest height of 5ft 2in. Since 1978, when Warner Bros released his first album, For You, six US presidents have occupied the White House. The Berlin Wall was torn down and the Cold War was replaced by the war on terror. In recent years, Prince occasionally emerged from his Paisley Park party house with state-of-the-nation songs such as “Baltimore”, about Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody. Yet his grand tone (“Peace is more than the absence of war”) and simplistic prescriptions (“Let’s take all the guns away”) seemed at odds with these more cynical times – the song was good, just not quite relevant.
He was a giant and giants, perhaps, don’t fit so easily into today’s more grounded discourse. He warned of nuclear holocaust in his 1985 single “America”, a sinister national anthem for the Reagan generation, and he captured the giddy, heightened romance of the era in the same year’s “Raspberry Beret”, with its glimpses of thundering skies and a motorbike ride with a girl on the backseat. It all made sense back then, his bigness, because the Eighties weren’t just about big hair, big shoulder pads and Big Bang business. It was about big statements, too, about big love, big sex, big anything at all.
His musical language was the language of excess and it chimed with the maximalist boom period of the late 20th century. Critics at Rolling Stone and elsewhere named his 1987 LP Sign o’ the Times as the greatest album of that decade and it’s hard to disagree: in songs such as “U Got the Look” and “Hot Thing”, it seemed to sum up the head-spinning sense of wonder of a world self-consciously celebrating its own exuberance.
That world is gone, but until Thursday 21 April 2016, it lived in Prince Nelson. Though he was a massive concert draw to the end, his fame had diminished in the past two decades. Few but the hardened fan waited for his new albums (which kept coming, most recently last year’s two HITnRUN records) with much excitement. Instead, rumours about his glory days hardened into mythology. He was seen less as a culturally disruptive trickster, more as a curiosity whose power was safely consigned to the past. He’d become a “legend” – a life-sucking word that denies the vitality of a living artist.
Most of us looked backwards at what he had done, not what he would do. We wondered: what kind of music was he hoarding in his vault (from which The Black Album emerged in 1994, after gathering dust for seven years)? What was the deal with his name-changes in the 1990s, when he scrawled the word “slave” on his cheek and left his label in a strop? Was he a misogynist? Why did he tetchily remove his songs from online streaming sites, when he pioneered the concept of the download-only album in the internet’s early days? An aura of weirdness clung to him. Did he really believe that “chem trails” in the sky were part of a conspiracy to destroy black communities?
But this, I suppose, was what he wanted. He courted speculation, even parodying it in his 1981 song “Controversy”: “I just can’t believe all the things people say… Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?… Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?” The widely held perception of his weirdness, his eccentricity, was rooted in his unwillingness to deviate from his own path. For better or for worse, he didn’t compromise his creativity and his faithfulness to his muse was always inspiring.
It was this self-belief that let him get away with juxtaposing songs such as “Darling Nikki”, with its matter-of-fact description of a girl “masturbating with a magazine”, with heartfelt lovers’ pleas such as “Purple Rain”. And he could sing about AIDS and urban poverty (“Sign o’ the Times”) on the same record as he would shriek out party songs (“Housequake”) and trill a ballad about a schoolfriend’s lunch box (“Starfish and Coffee”). And his supposedly dirty songs never felt dirty, because there was no shame in them. One of my favourite songs by Prince, “Let’s Have a Baby”, from his 1996 album Emancipation, turned a couple’s decision to become parents into a bedroom come-on. His brilliant 1991 song “Insatiable” made a guy’s request to film a sex video sound romantic. He was an innocent, even at his most depraved.
The news of his death was so unexpected, to me, because he seemed ageless, unbound by the boring realities that apply to the rest of us. His songs dealt in fantasy and fantasy is supposed to be a matter of forever. He was a shy man, a driven professional. He had a personal life that he guarded carefully and fans rarely had much access to it, beyond the community parties he held at his home and studio. But he’ll always remain in the minds of his listeners as the sexy motherfucker who showed us how to go crazy when the de-escalator, inevitably, tries to bring us down.