Getting Through This Thing Called Life: Prince 1958 – 2016
By Stephen McClain, Reference Department
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” –Prince
Prince Rogers Nelson died on April 21, 2016. He was 57 years old. That’s way too young. Prince was not only an icon and a musical legend, he was perhaps a “once in a generation” artist that was still relevant after almost 40 years in the business.
This isn’t supposed to happen. Our heroes are not supposed to die. Ever. We forget that they are mortal. We forget that they were once little children who went to school, ate dinner, got in trouble, and got scared. They are different than us. They are supposed to be stronger, smarter, more creative and invincible. In so many ways, they are unintentional representations of us; of who we are, who we want to be and most often, who we once were. We try to look like them, try to act like them, and try to write or create like them. But we can’t. Because we are not them. We deify them because they are greater than us and without them; we would not be who we are.
Prince stood up when he felt he was being taken advantage of by his record label, appearing in public with the word “slave” written on his face and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in protest. He stood for something, even if it was only the control of his art. I cannot think of a comparison today. So many artists are beholden to corporations and greed and will not risk alienating anyone for fear of losing money or endorsements. I miss those days when rock stars used to be dangerous and take risks. They didn’t care about money. They cared about art and what they believed in and were willing to risk everything for it.
Songs like “Little Red Corvette,” “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and let’s not forget “Darling Nikki” were the soundtrack to a very important time in my life. I am sure that anyone who was in high school in the 1980’s can relate Prince’s music to some time or someone in their adolescence. In those days we bought the record. We went out to hear music or waited for it on the radio. It wasn’t On Demand. It didn’t stream and it was worth far more than it is today. MTV was new. I didn’t have cable but my friends did and we watched videos after school and watching Prince crawl on the floor staring at me in the video for “When Doves Cry” creeped me out.
I can still see the flashing, sequenced lights and mirror ball at the skating rink in my hometown whenever I hear “1999” (that year seemed to be so far away). The same goes for “Little Red Corvette” (and everyone knew someone who moved a little too fast). The intro chords to “Purple Rain” take me back in time too, but that album came out later. I was older and the lyrics meant something more to me. In the 1980s, guitars ruled the world and Prince’s guitar solo on “Let’s Go Crazy” was nothing short of inspirational. It demanded you pay attention. Even at the age I was then, I could hear Hendrix in Prince’s playing. Everyone knew this guy was special. And now he’s gone.
I am so thankful that our time on this earth overlapped. His music was playing during so much of my youth and he continued to create innovative music with the recent albums “Art Official Age,” “Plectrumelectrum” and “HitnRun Phase One and Two.” He played one of the most memorable Super Bowl half time shows ever and performed an unexpected 8-minute medley on Saturday Night Live in 2014. On Saturday April 23, two days after he was found unresponsive at Paisley Park, SNL produced a special retrospective of Prince’s performances on the late night show. Hosted by a teary-eyed Jimmy Fallon, it featured not only his first appearance in 1981 but also his last, which had never been seen before, as he and his band 3rdeyegirl burned through an unrehearsed version of “Let’s Go Crazy” at the 40th anniversary after-party. Jimmy said that the “crowd parted as Prince floated to the stage in a cloud of purple” and then tore the house down. I watched the show in silence and for 90 minutes on Saturday night, Prince was still with us.
As I mourn Prince’s passing I also lament the struggling condition of today’s music. Many of the people I talk with share the same belief that today’s music is in a sad state, which is one of the reasons why Prince’s death is so numbing to me. Prince never repeated himself. He moved forward. He was about the performance and always had something to prove. We argue about politics and religion but what brings us together? Music. The pure joy of music. We’re all in this together and music is one of the few things that can unite us. Prince saw the future. Now he’s in the past. But his music helped create our present.
*Opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and in no way reflect the philosophy or preferences of the Williamson County Public Library, its staff members, their families, friends, or pets.