As if the list of talented people who’ve died so far in 2016 couldn’t get any longer, Prince was taken from us earlier this week. One of the most talented and creative musicians of the last few decades is gone, but he leaves an amazing catalogue of music.
I’m not exaggerating here.
He had a massive influence on me. Before I ‘found’ jazz, I was actually listening to it (and funk and pop and pure, unadulterated swagger) every time I played a Prince album. I discovered him secondhand, via a friend’s older sister. I remember the first time I saw the cover of the ‘Parade’ album (on a cassette! If you don’t know what that is, go ask your parents) and how I couldn’t believe all that music – and that voice – came out of that head.
I’ll admit his gender-challenging image was a little unsettling for the young me. But I began to love it. He showed us all how you can be a man in very different ways. And how you can be a short man and still kick serious ass.
(This was important to young, short me.)
I picked up more Prince tapes whoever money allowed. I learned the songs by heart. I could pick out any Prince track within seconds and spotted his signature flourishes on guitar, keyboard and horns. I deconstructed the songs, as only a music nerd can. I untied the complex layers of music he weaved to make his hits and began to understand there was life beyond most of the frankly crap music that was filling the airwaves.
Music aside, the thing I loved about him was that he just appeared not to give a flying fuck what anyone thought of him. He was all about creating his music, giving performances that blew the audience’s minds and swinging his hips in one outrageous outfit after another.
And then? And then…I saw him live in concert in Dublin. It was 1992 (I think!), at the RDS and my mind was – essentially – blown. The energy coming off him and his band was overpowering. They gave it everything. Non-stop. I saw people around me get a little disinterested when the band deviated into some pretty hardcore instrumental improv, but I lapped it up. It was like a game for him. He seemed to push it and push it and the band just had to keep up.
I wished I’d seen him in concert again. But lucky for all of us, the albums kept coming. He was a one-man music factory and, while everything he released wasn’t an instant hit, it was an impressive body of work.
I spent most of last night and all day today, from my morning run to navigating London’s West End crowds, listening to a selection of my favourite Prince tracks.
Impossible to pick an absolute favourite album, as they’re all so very different. I replayed Parade quite a few times today, I’ll admit. But then there’s nothing like strutting through a crowd with ‘Sexy Motherfucker’ blasting in your ears. Today’s fave? ‘Girls & Boys’.
The video above is doing the rounds on social media and it’s superb. A tribute concert for George Harrison, it includes some great performances from the usual suspects. And then, out from the shadows steps Prince and it all steps up a notch. Or twelve. Stellar stuff, playing alongside some legends, but check out the looks on their faces when he lets rip.
And he made it all look so effortless. But behind that, you just know there was decades of hard work. And we all got to benefit from it. I read a quote today that Miles David (apparently) described Prince as ‘the possible Duke Ellington of our times’.
I’ve also watched as TV news anchors asked squirming music journalists to compare Prince to David Bowie. I didn’t envy them. But it’s a pointless question. Like trying to compare water and air. Wine and cheese. Rome and Madrid. At least to me. Prince joins a pantheon of musical greats that have left an indelible impression on me. George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Shirley Horn, Tom Jobim.
Thinking about the composers and performers we’ve lost definitely made me a little sad this week.
But then again, look at all the songs they left behind. And who they left behind. Let’s start really talent while it’s still around to be appreciated. And hope it’s a while before another genius is taken far too soon.