Or…..A 20+ year journey with a guy who looks and sounds like a poof*.
1987 has a lot to answer for. Well, maybe it’s just the 1987 version of me that has a lot to answer for. I was 17 years old and militant in my attitude towards anything I didn’t like and if it wasn’t loud, hard and metallic, there was a very good chance that 1987-me wasn’t into it.
In 1987 I was a long-haired wannabe guitar player who had a hard time accepting that anything not involving a hammer-on guitar solo was real music. Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen were gods and as soon as I got a car in early 1988, it became a rolling church, blaring their hymns at maximum volume wherever I went. I used to have a 25km commute to work and I can remember winding down all four windows in my LJ Torana and having the music up so loud that I couldn’t hear the traffic around me. Yes, I was that guy.
It was around 1987 that I first met a certain guy who just happened to be a Prince fan. It was three years after Purple Rain, but he still wore the T-Shirt from the film at every opportunity and of course, I gave him heaps for it. Let’s just say that with all the frilly shirts, the heels and the high-pitched singing, Prince wasn’t regarded as much of a man’s man in suburban Melbourne. The recipient of my mostly good-natured derision was much nicer about it than I would have been, taking my constant ribbing in his stride and turning out to be a very decent guy in response to my constant asshattery.
A potential conflict of interest arose in 1989. My favourite superhero of all time, Batman, was the subject of a new feature film. I didn’t know it when I arrived at the movie theatre, but the soundtrack to the movie was written and performed by Prince – and I loved it. Thus began what was for me a minor personal cultural revolution, one that would later see me accepting all sorts of things that 1987-me would have considered rather ‘poncy’ – like European cars, for instance.
It was a guitar solo that got the ball rolling. Skip ahead to 2:20….
Who knew that Prince could play the guitar like that? Well, aside from all the people who weren’t boof-headed, loudmouth idiots like me. If I’d actually seen Purple Rain back in 1984, I would have known that Prince had significant guitar chops. But I didn’t. I preferred to base my opinion on how the guy dressed.
I’ve consumed plenty of Prince’s music since then. I’m still awe-struck by the volume and quality of the man’s output, the sheer brilliance of his musicianship. It’s not just screaming guitar solos, either (though there are far more than you might think, like this one). There’s very little, if anything, that this guy can’t do.
Songwriting – The number of hit songs in Prince’s catalogue is astounding. He’s filled album after album since the late 1970s with songs such as Little Red Corvette, 1999, Let’s Go Crazy, When Doves Cry, Kiss, Raspberry Beret, Batdance, Sign O the Times, U Got the Look, Cream, Gett Off, 7, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, Letitgo.
I’ve just listed 14 songs – a very small selection – and I’d be surprised if anyone exposed to American music between the 1980’s and today isn’t familiar with at least 10 of them.
Instrumentalist – This is the part that really blew me away when I delved deep into Prince’s music. So many performers over the years have proved to be manufactured entertainers – people with a degree of talent and an extraordinary producer. Prince is the real deal. 100%. Yes, he’s theatrical and there are very high production values in place during his performances, but they are the window dressing surrounding what is a very real product.
Prince can play any instrument he needs. He’s a virtuoso guitarist and an incredibly funky bass player. Piano, keys, drums – you name it and the guy is a master. The only question I’d have is whether he can play a wind instrument but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had those nailed as well.
If you’ve got the time and the access, take a listen to the guitar parts on The Question of You (from Graffiti Bridge) or Boom! (from LotusFlower). Some guitar players are fast but not many of them have that God-given ability to play what I’d call tasty. It’s the ability to make the guitar truly sing, to turn a solo into it’s own soul-filled melody. Eric Clapton has it. Slash has it. And Prince has it, too.
Singer – It might be something peculiar to me, but I love to hear men sing falsetto. Done well, it’s a wonderful piece of artistic expression that can have you dancing around your lounge room (Kiss) or hanging from the edge of your seat (The Beautiful Ones – must see!). Very few people know this, but I actually sang Kiss, Karaoke style, at a 21st birthday back in the 1990’s, in full falsetto including the screaming bits at the end – and I loved it.
Prince is much more than a falsetto artist, though. He can get guttural like the world’s best rock singers (Let’s Go Crazy), go sexy and sultry for a treacly ballad (Insatiable) and has a scream that would make Joe Cocker blush (Saviour, or Now).
That’s all good, but there’s another vocal highlight of Prince’s music, one that captivates me in a way that few other artists can – the harmonies.
A lot of Prince’s songs, especially the ballads, are coloured with incredible, rich, complex harmonies that provide both a counterpoint to what the music is doing as well as a segue for the vocal that’s to come (see Adore). They’re so inventive, so delicate and so…… perfect. Many’s the time when I’ve had a song on and completely forgotten about the main melody, losing myself instead in singing along with the harmonies (something I’m guilty of doing with guitar solos, too).
Prince Vs Michael Jordan
Prince has made (or been in) four feature films. He made three of them himself. Only his first film, Purple Rain, is any good and even then, it’s really the live performances that make the film a standout. The acting as is wooden as the Telecaster he plays at the start of the movie. Sign O The Times is acceptable but again, primarily because of the music. It’s basically a concert film and it falls apart in the few short sections where they try and inject some sort of commentary or storyline. Under The Cherry Moon and especially Graffiti Bridge are basically terrible, despite some of the great songs featured in the films.
I have a theory about Prince and it’s something I first picked up when looking at the career of Michael Jordan.
MJ was unstoppable when he was doing the thing he did best – play basketball. He was the greatest player I’ve ever seen and I don’t think I’ll ever see another like him. His subsequent careers as a basketball recruiter, administrator and team owner have been complete disasters. Everything he’s touched has turned to lead, including the team he owns right now, the Charlotte Bobcats.
Some men are built for a specific purpose and when they’re doing what they’re meant to do, when they’re surrounded by or doing it with the right people, it’s possible for we, the people, to witness purity.
Michael Jordan was basketball purity.
Prince, at his best, is musical purity.
When he tries to do too much (like MJ running a basketball team), he ends up with a lemon like Graffiti Bridge. When he’s doing what he does best, you get songs like Anna Stesia, The Exodus Has Begun, and Diamonds and Pearls. It’s breathtaking.
When Prince has good people taking care of the art direction, the costuming, the story – the trimmings – he gets to focus on the music and the result can be moving, beyond description. Watch the videos for Kiss and The Beautiful Ones, linked above. One is a studio clip and the other a ‘live’ clip from Purple Rain. Both represent near-perfection and purity in their genre.
I’ve been listening to Prince, and loving it, since 1989.
On May 15 this year, I’m going to see him live for the first time and I can’t wait. The man is now 53 years old and this is just his third visit to Australia, his first in nine years. Something tells me it’s unlikely we’ll see him here again, so I’ve bought the best tickets I could find and I can’t wait to shake my fat ass from the purple section.
* The opening statement is not meant to offend. It’s merely indicative of how stupid my 1987 cloed mentality was, as was that of many Aussies of the time, I think