The last time I saw Prince he walked on stage at a charity concert in London last year and said, “What we’re gonna do right now is play 14 hits in a row.” He paused, smirked, raised an eyebrow. “Fourteen!”
On one level Prince found his own talent hilarious. He knew he was special and it delighted him. Some artists are remarkable at one particular aspect of music but Prince excelled as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, performer, producer and arranger, and made it all seem effortless. No wonder he was so religious, a Jehovah’s Witness for the last 15 years of his life. He was enough to make you believe in talent as a mystical force. Music simply poured out of him and it didn’t stop until he did. “It’s a real powerful feeling,” he said in 1981. “Not the kind of power you have over anyone else but the power that’s going on around and through me. I think I’m only a conductor of whatever electricity comes from the world, or wherever we all come from.”
For a while in the 1980s Prince was the epicentre of popular music yet somehow aloof from it. At one point in 1984, the year of Purple Rain, he had the number one single, album and movie in the US, as imperially famous as it was possible to be, and he was still out of reach. He wanted to be a star but not one that anybody expected or could pin down. The following year he rendered Bob Geldof apoplectic by choosing to go to a Mexican restaurant rather than attend the recording of “We Are the World”. It’s not that he didn’t care; he just didn’t want to follow the script. He had, after all, written his own, and a very unlikely one, too.
Prince Rogers Nelson came from Minnesota, and was based there until he died. It was very cold, very white and very far from the industry hubs of New York and Los Angeles, so his crowd made their own unique scene. “We were very fascinating,” he told me in 2011. “In Minnesota it was a clean slate. It was punk rock. There were a lot of fascinating people around.” He designed himself to be as fascinating as possible.
On 1981’s Controversy he asked, “Am I black or white/Am I straight or gay?” For him, a truly free, courageous pop star made such questions irrelevant. He scrambled expectations of race and gender in ways that were by no means guaranteed to succeed. As the singer Frank Ocean wrote yesterday, “He was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee high heeled boots, epic.” Now you might call him a prophet of gender-fluidity but Prince was just being Prince: an identity group of one.
Musical labels didn’t stick either. He had giant hits by doing things that would have crashed and burned in less talented hands. “Purple Rain” was an eight-minute-long sentimental power ballad. “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss” were funk records without basslines. “Sign o’ the Times” was a stark, spooky litany of ways to die in America. He could be florid or minimal, unashamedly weepy or cold as ice, sweet or outrageous, rebellious or reactionary, futuristic or nostalgic, sacred or profane. He was the best at what he did, and he did everything. As critic Jody Rosen wrote back in 2004: “He is both an anomaly in the history of twentieth-century pop music and that history’s logical end point — all of the excitement and grandeur and nonsense of rock and roll (and virtually every subgenre) embodied in one preening, doe-eyed, androgynous, biracial, sartorially resplendent, sexually and spiritually obsessed musical polymath.”
Prince was never musically absent for long. In fact, during his turbulent 1990s, when he warred with his record label, changed his name to a hieroglyph and stopped having hits, he was too prolific for his own good. Only hardcore fans could keep up. But as a person he sought to be unknowable. He made employees at his Paisley Park studios sign gag clauses. When he granted interviewees he banned recorders (and, in one phase, even handwritten notes), lending direct quotes the quality of legend rather than concrete fact. The rumours and myths that swirled around him served him well. When I met him, I found him earthy and playful, having fun with his otherworldly reputation, answering some questions candidly while deflecting many others with a raised eyebrow and a secretive smile: his sense of humour was his only underrated quality.
His slipperiness makes even mourning him complicated, because his hostility towards giving away music online meant that anyone heading to YouTube or Spotify in order to remember him last night would have found slim pickings. I’m grateful that some audience members defied his instruction to sheath their phones and captured moments from his glorious recent tours, because each performance is a masterclass.
It’s horribly apt that we should lose Prince so soon after Bowie. Both men were giants who invented new, surreal, genre-transcending forms of music which never stopped influencing younger generations. Both blazed through their most creative decades like comets. Both were beautiful, sexually ambiguous, somewhat alien figures who made pop more hospitable to misfits. Each death rips a hole in the fabric of popular music, inspiring real grief on a grand scale. Both made us marvel at what a single human being could achieve with enough talent, drive and appetite
Prince’s death, however, is even more shocking. He was only 57 and looked much younger, uncannily lithe and uncreased. His gung-ho vitality meant that he didn’t meet middle age with autumnal albums, haunted by mortality. Unlike Bowie he never retired from live performance; the very idea was inconceivable. After restoring his reputation with a knockout crowd-pleasing tour a decade ago, he became a tireless performer and he was still on the road until a few days ago, playing songs alone at the piano, including Bowie’s “Heroes”. He was famous for playing right up to, and sometimes beyond, a venue’s curfew, often continuing with an informal aftershow performance because he just wasn’t ready to stop. He was the last person you would have expected to leave the stage too soon.