If there’s any celebrity you can be sure you did not know in any significantly real way, it was Prince. Shape shifter, name shifter/eraser, master of every style you can name. Intensely private and essentially flamboyant. Exhibitionist. Hermit. You don’t know him except in the ways you think you do, and that has as much to do with what you wanted him to be as it does with which little pieces of mythologizing he wanted you to see at any given time. Like the classic Trickster of legend, he could present multiple faces at the same time, and the face you got to glimpse, briefly, depended on which side of the road you were standing on. If Prince had been around then, Kurosawa could have made this pint-sized product of Minni-freaking-sota the centerpiece of Rashomon. That would have been cool.
What do I know of Prince? We’re roughly the same age. He’s probably the most under-appreciated guitar player in like ever. Over the years that I have been heralding him as easily the best thing since Hendrix and sliced bread I’ve received more than a few puzzled looks and dismissive chuckles about me just being a contrarian. This week, many people were surprised when Billy Gibbons described his playing as “sensational”.
But even that is only a piece of it. From his textbook knowledge and respect for those who came before him – JB, Sly, Jimi, Miles, George Clinton, &c. – to his savage dance chops and ultra-sharp fashion sense, to his early adoption and mastery of technologies like the Linn Drum; the guy put a package together that was both historically intelligent and, somehow, way out in front of the coming surge of hip-hop and Michael Jackson/Madonna style pop that followed him by a few years. The man had his gifts. Add in an almost incomprehensible work ethic, and you have Prince.
How Prince helped me know myself comes down to this simple question:
How could anyone possibly fail to recognize such evident talent?
Probably the way that I did.
Because instead of listening, I reacted to the packaging cues that came with the Prince product. And because he hit the scene in the late 70s with a funky beat, puffy shirts, lots of synthesizers, and a (deceptively) silly reliance on lyrics about fucking, I saw him clearly for what he was: just another callow Disco Boy, a Travolta, a Bee Gee.
It’s hard to remember (or, if you are a little younger, comprehend) the degree to which DiscoSux fever encompassed the world of funky music. Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown, P-Funk: all these and more took their share of unfriendly fire from people who were essentially painting the entirety of black popular music as beneath-contempt shit.
DiscoSux fever was a symptom of reaction against gay and minority encroachment into the historically masculine world of rock and pop. This music was aimed at gender-fluid communities and urban black folk. For a generation of mostly white, hetero-norm critics and fans for whom rock’n’roll equaled priapic guitar stroking and golden-maned Dionysi sporting socks stuffed into spandex trousers, this was music that threatened the natural order. 1The pulse belonged on the 1 and 3, dammit, none of this 2 and 4 backbeat shit. Whaddya, Disco Duck? It was outsider art storming the academy. And I was a privileged, by-birth member of the patriarchal academy, though I didn’t even know that such a thing existed; such is the blindness of by-birth membership.
Prince said fk all that noise, and it was pretty clear that he was throwing down on, well, people like me.
Look out all you hippies, you ain’t as sharp as me
It ain’t about the trippin’, but the sexuality
– All the Critics Love U in New York
Hey. I resemble(d) that remark.
So I could “listen” to When Doves Cry or 1999 and quickly sort this alleged genius off into the “just another over-hyped fraud” bin.
In that same song, this upstart had the nerve to sing:
It’s time for a new direction
It’s time for jazz to die
As a burgeoning jazz-bo, I tooks what I tooks and it was more than I could takes. I didn’t need to hear the music behind this pixie poppinjay. These crude insults told me all I needed to know! Pistols at dawn!
Later, when Miles compared him to Duke Ellington and Chopin, it was easy to dismiss the comments as Miles trying to glom onto the popularity of the younger phenom. Because come on: he’s really just another Disco Boy, and everybody knows that DiscoSux, so pass the bong and cue up some Coltrane or some real rock’n’roll. Dude.
One night in 1993 I watched a terrific Neil Young Unplugged on MTV2In those days, children, the M stood for “Music”. You can look it up!. The next show was Prince live in some mega-arena, and I watched it and thought, “Meh, pretty good” and then he walked offstage and into a limo that took him somewhere and he walked into a small club and took the stage and proceeded to melt my face with a yellow guitar and the most scorching Hendrix-style blues I’d heard since before Stevie Ray died. For the next hour I was slain. I’ve been listening to Prince ever since.
So what does the phenomenon of Prince teach me about myself? Every time I hear his music, even as I am digging it down to my toes, I am reminded that I am a fallible human being, prone to unpleasant bigotries and prejudices that cause me to stop paying attention to what is real and true. The impulses that put me on auto-piloting sort mode – this person is this, that music is that, I don’t like “those” kinds of people/music/movies/food/&c. – are the things that make me miss the My Favorite Worldness of life. It’s good to have a ready reminder – one that the iPod throws up randomly and often – that for all my pretense to erudition and discernment and such like, I am just as likely to react like a dope as I am to apply any kind of intentional awareness to, well, anything.
Which means, naturally, that any opinion I hold is inherently suspect and worthy of re-examination. Consider yourself duly warned.
The most delicious part of the irony is that the song I quote above, had I bothered to listen to it in 1983, would have delivered exactly the kind of face-melting guitar heroics that won me over ten years later. Check it.
Who knows? I was full of myself in those days3Unlike now, when I am extremely humble and enlightened., so I might have dismissed it anyway.
Thanks, Artist Who Formerly Bestrode The World as Prince. Somehow, having you be the constant reminder of my proclivity to dopiness ain’t all that bad. You sexy motherfker.