Sunday, April 24, 2016

Goodnight Sweet Prince

He always projected an eerily otherworldly aura even when you saw him in the flesh, and his music reflected that. Even when you felt that you knew him--as people often do when they are fans of a particular artist—you didn’t. Like any genius, he was a man out of time and space who did not move with the rest of the world but instead created his own. This much was recognizable instantly.

But being otherworldly, he always seemed as if he was not long for the world the rest of us live in. That powerful life force, that fire that could barely be contained was going to burn brighter and faster and be extinguished sooner. If you didn’t know this from seeing him perform, you felt it the first time you heard his music. Indeed, his best-known work, Purple Rain, was the artistic statement he had been working toward since Dirty Mind, but it was more than that: it was a manifesto, a call for us all to live in the moment, a dare to be our best selves, to be here now because it all could—and it would—end at any time.

Living out the tenets set forth in this manifesto would exact a great cost from him, but he always seemed as if he knew it. How else, then, to explain the immediate and overwhelming feeling of nostalgic longing the title track evokes even at first listen? The narrator speaks from some indeterminate future time, looking back wistfully at his past; he is addressing someone with whom he has had a powerful connection, some sort of relationship that is now over.  And yet it is not clear that there is someone else listening to him; it feels more like he is giving voice to the thoughts inside his head. Some distance, physical or mental or temporal, is separating him from the person he’s speaking to, and feeling unsettled about where he is now and so is trying to reckon with why and how he’s gotten here. Someone or something has driven him to this anguished place and he’s reaching back to this past relationship to resolve this crisis of the spirit.

But the song moves along and the narrative tone shifts; now he has morphed into some sort of spiritual guide exhorting listeners to accompany him into some mystical future that even he doesn’t seem sure of. The present is a confusing and distressing muddle of which both he and they can make little sense. The track builds slowly, steadily to its epic climax; a chorus of voices joins our narrator, following him into the unknown as the guitar wails. And then just as suddenly, there is a release of tension – they have arrived at their destination. The storm has ended, the clouds have parted, and rays of light filter through. The cacophonous wall of sound—voices, guitars, strings, piano and synth— diminishes to a single note and fades into silence.

And now he is silent forever. He was perhaps the greatest live performer of my lifetime. I never saw him as often as I wanted to due to financial and other constraints. Worse still, I never saw him on that tremendous Purple Rain Tour, the result of choices I made that were made with no consideration of their effect on my future but which made perfect sense at the time. Missing that tour is probably the single greatest regret of my life, but looking back, I don’t see how I would possibly have arrived at any other course of action than the one I chose; at 22, you don’t think long-term. And now he’s gone. I never saw him in his prime, and now I will never see him again.

But I have seen greatness. I have seen that electric energy that is barely contained by four walls, a sound system and a stage. In the spring of 2004, I visited Austin for the annual SXSW conference. I traveled on a shoestring, staying in last-minute accommodations obtained via Craigslist and attending events by virtue of an all-access pass presented as a reward for a favor done for an acquaintance. I came to see my friends’ bands play, I came to discover new bands and I came to see Little Richard. As things turned out, the only band that to me was unmissable was scheduled to play at the exact same time as Mr. Penniman, so I did not see Richard during that fortnight in the Lone Star State. But the universe sometimes gives you just what you need even when you don’t know you needed it, and what I witnessed instead was probably the greatest 45 minutes of live rock’n’roll of my life. It was Marah, and it drove through the midafternoon audience at the Continental Club like a 20-foot tidal wave.

I have seen greatness. I have seen Ryan Adams save himself from oblivion in the Mother Church of Country Music. Standing alone at center stage lit only by a string of Christmas lights hung on his mic stand as catcalls echoed from the rafters and filled his mind with darkness, by sheer force of will he stepped back from the void, wresting his music, his art, his life’s work from those who would see him fail. I have seen Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform as if their very lives depended on it on the night after John Lennon’s assassination had shaken them to their core. I have seen this and so much more. I know that I missed Purple Rain 1984 because I made the only decision I could make at the time. There should be some degree of comfort in this, and yet I am not at peace.

I am not at peace because he was Prince. And we will not see his like again.

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