Another shocking early death for another legend yesterday. Sophie Scott salutes the man whose talent was so huge, he didn’t take credit for much of it: Prince.
We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life
Electric word life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here 2 tell u
There’s something else
–Let’s Go Crazy, Purple Rain soundtrack
There was just so much to love about Prince – to quote a friend of mine he was a ‘world of music’. It seems unimaginable, but he was recording over a 40-year span, and for most of that time, as well as continuously innovating, he was absolutely on point.
He was unusually generous in his approach to music, unafraid of promoting other musicians, particularly women, happy to distort or de-emphasise his voice, happy to not take obvious credit for most of the instruments on his albums, happy to promote other people’s songs.
“On the cover of Lovesexy, a nude Prince is prettily averting his gaze from a purple penis flower, and in 1991 he was sporting a laser-cut yellow suit that showed his bottom. I honestly think that this is how he would like us to remember him.”
And what music in his world! My introduction was the Purple Rain soundtrack. I was absolutely astounded by the whole record, from the spectacular uplift of Let’s Go Crazy, the smoothness of I Would Die 4 U and the utter filth of Darling Nikki. (Full disclosure – I thought “masturbating with a magazine” meant something much more literal and for years could not imagine how that would work. So slippery! Paper cuts! I am a very stupid brain scientist.)
My entry into the world of Prince music in the mid-1980s coincided with Prince’s apparently unstoppable rate of record releases, flinging psychedelia, rock, soul, funk and solid gold pop at us with incredible frequency. Kiss still sounds so tight that if you threw a two pence piece at it, it would bounce straight back in your face.
As well as his music, and from the outset, Prince was both extremely stylish and very decidedly sexual in his presentation, including helpful images of himself in the shower on the cover of Controversy. Ladies, I don’t think he’s getting very clean in there!
On the cover of Lovesexy, a nude Prince is prettily averting his gaze from a purple penis flower, and in 1991 he was sporting a laser-cut yellow suit that showed his bottom. I honestly think that this is how he would like us to remember him. And I took all this glorious sexy positivity utterly for granted.
Another reason why Prince’s world of music reached so many people is that in addition to some amazing tracks, his records often contained real emotional truth, from furious anger in Sign O’ The Times to desperate loss (If I was Your Girlfriend) and some of the realities of adult finances (Money Don’t Matter). And as he grew in his career, he placed his sheer musicality to the forefront – especially if you were lucky enough to see him live.
Prince seems to have been without peer as a performer. It doesn’t fit many people’s idea of a guitar god, to be a diminutive sexy R&B popstar, but Prince could play most people off the stage. And he frequently did.
In this clip from the induction of the late George Harrison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood and Harrison’s son Dhani are playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
A figure in a red hat can be glimpsed at the right hand side of the stage, while everyone plays and sings: then at around 3’30” Prince steps forward and very neatly cleans the stage with everyone else – playing amazingly, playing with one hand, playing while turning round, falling backwards and being caught by someone at the front of the stage, who then returns him to his feet, without him missing a beat.
“Kiss still sounds so tight that if you threw a two pence piece at it, it would bounce straight back in your face.”
Prince doesn’t just play spectacularly: he looks utterly aware of how amazingly well he’s doing and completely certain that everyone else is up on this, too. At the end of the song, instead of dropping the mic, he throws his guitar into the air AND IT DISAPPEARS. Because of course it did. And I took all this for granted.
My love of Prince and his music has been a presence through my entire adult life, and a presence I took completely for granted. And we should never take the stuff we love for granted. Because it’s not forever.2086 Views
I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott