Monday, April 25, 2016

Goodbye, sweet Prince

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
                                                                 — Prince

WELL ... YOU heard the man. Like it or not, we’re called on to do now, in silence and shock, what we couldn’t wait to do on dance floors and in bedrooms all over the world, all those years and weeks and days ago.

When Prince Rogers Nelson died Thursday morning, transitioning to the full spiritual realm, we just couldn’t cope; the news rattled everything, shifted the axis of everything from the moment we heard what had happened. Millions of his fans literally never knew a world without him; never mind the millions more who did, and who miss him just as much.

“He worked 154 hours straight, said his brother-in-law, Maurice Phillips, after a private family service at Paisley Park, the Purple One’s estate/studio in Chanhassen, Minn. “I was with him just last weekend. He was a good brother-in-law.”

Clearly, 36 years into his career, his ravenous work ethic never abandoned him. Neither did his spiritual side, even at the end. Like a heavenly father in his own universe, he worked for six days straight and then some — and presumably rested on the seventh. Or not. Hopefully he did. But still ... gone at 57. The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.

He gave us a lesson about getting through this thing called life. But for a world of fans, it's already been a horrible year. David Bowie. Glenn Frey. Maurice White. Paul Kantner. Phife Dawg. Keith Emerson. Merle Haggard. And now this. This deep, deep wound. For those fans, now bereft and quietly struggling with his absence, we need something more. We need something to help us get through this thing called death.

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This is what it reads when Twitter cries:

The praise for Prince, the sorrow of his passing begins to hint at what we’ve lost. There’s the music, of course: its irresistible union of the spiritual and the salacious; its adherence to the protocols of funk, R&B and rock at the same time it blew those rules outta the water; its crazy voluminous output; its very existence (especially in the early albums) as the literal work of one man and one man alone.

“We have lost our greatest living musician,” Justin Timberlake said on Instagram. Without question.

But let the record show that (when we were paying attention) we’ve already been witness to other facets of the jewel now and forever known as Prince.

His steadfast insistence on creative control of his work makes him, rightly, an ethical champion to all artists, everywhere. Prince’s legendary battle with Warner Bros. led to what may be the ultimate artists’ symbolic stand: adoption of an unpronounceable glyph as a new identification; renunciation of his own name in defense of his own, purer creative identity.

Prince went up against Goliath and he won. His place in pop-cultural history was locked by that alone.

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HE WAS a songwriter, of course. Sinead O’Connor’s biggest hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U”? Prince wrote that. “Manic Monday,” which helped the Bangles get over? He wrote that too, and more besides. That was for other people.

What got him over, starting with his debut album, released in 1978, was a stream of his consciousness that set the stage for a new sexual frankness in the musical vocabulary, and a freedom of expression in the culture. Prince delighted in pushing every envelope (and every button) there was, and we gladly went along for the ride. Thirty-nine studio albums, five soundtrack albums, four live albums, six compilations, three movies (as the freakin’ director!), 29 tours, hundreds of live performances over a 36-year career ... and that’s not even counting the music we haven’t heard yet.

But he also had a huge and largely unknown role in the national life, combining social activism and philanthropy with breadth and style. In 2001 he anonymously donated $12,000 to the Louisville Free Public Library system to keep an historic library — the first full-service library for African Americans in the United States — from shutting down.

The Prince charity underwriting that donation, Love 4 Another Charities, reportedly contributed millions to schools and community programs across the country.

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He helped fund Green for All, an advocacy organization dedicated to construction of an environmentally-sensitive economy that directly assists America’s poorest citizens.

In early 2011, he donated $1.5 million to various charities. In 2015 he conceived and launched YesWeCode, an organization that provides underprivileged children with access to information on writing computer code for the tech industry.

When Freddie Gray died in 2015 while in the custody of Baltimore police officers, he released a single, “Baltimore,” and he held "Dance Rally 4 Peace," a tribute concert at Paisley Park, encouraging his fans to wear that color in Gray’s honor. When Lauryn Hill and her kids were struggling a while back, the Purple One stepped up.

Van Jones, Prince’s founding partner in Green for All, said it on CNN after the man died. “The music was one way he tried to help the world. But he was helping every day of his life.”

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PRINCE was a bridge, an instrument of connection in a racially polarized America. Like Chuck Berry and Little Richard in the 50s, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown in the 60s, and Michael Jackson from the 70s into the 21st century, Prince was a reconciling figure who closed the cultural gap, the social gap between minorities and whites, one who hewed to their ambiguous, androgynous stylistic orthodoxy ... until he broke away and did it, everything, his own way.

Today in the post-Prince world we’re fated to live in, fans and critics will debate all the ways in which Prince was or was not bigger than other seminal musicians of his time. But it’s not a question of whether Prince was “bigger” than, say, Michael Jackson or James Brown, the only antecedent contemporaries in his league.

We tend to use the term “bigger” in a commercial sense, in the narrow economic context of units sold and shipped, streams per minute, gold and platinum records achieved, the number of asses in the seats.

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In another way altogether, by the end of a sadly abbreviated career, Prince was wider than MJ or JB, his public life more panoramic than theirs: as a musician of extravagant gifts, a lightning rod of social activism, a philanthropist whose contributions were both secret and substantial; a symbol of artistic expression that would not be co-opted or compromised.

But deep down — and you know this in your bones ... everything about Prince comes back to that sound, that rhythm we can’t shake, the funk that don’t stop, ever. It makes us feel alive, sharp and flashing and vivid, and we need that so much today.  It all returns to the music we’ll hear and feel forever in our hearts and our heads, our crotches and our dreams, in the respective elevators of our everyday lives.

All due props to Purple One. Thanks to him, those elevators won't break down completely. They wouldn’t dare. Not while his gets us to the top floor.

Prince top: Neil Lupin/Redferns. Prince second image: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for NPG Records. Love 4 Another check: via Fadsr. Tweets by their respective creators. Prince bottom: Reuters.

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