The year 2016 has claimed another artist, in the truest and grandest sense of the word. Prince died yesterday at the age of 57 after 37 or so years in the music business. He wasn’t slowing down, nor would anyone say he was past his prime either as a composer or performer. It is hard to say a man with that many years under his belt is still in his prime, but the facts in his case say otherwise. Prince was as relevant to pop music today as he was in the 1980s. This was largely because there was no one like him.
As a performer, he was an All Planet All Star. As Reverend Al Sharpton (whose expertise stems from 20 years of working for James Brown) put it, no one could believe a man could play a guitar like Jimi Hendrix, do a full split on the stage like Brown and still keep playing and singing. From a nightclub in Minneapolis (which had a killer music scene long before Seattle happened), to the Super Bowl to a global presence, he was a showman first, last and always.
While the stage persona of purple and lace, eyeliner and high heels was a huge part of his performance, it was incidental, perhaps even irrelevant, to the sounds. Simply put, he was made of music. In his 37 year career, he cranked out 39 studio albums. David Bowie is being mentioned in some places as a comparable artist, given his gender-bending and influence on other performers. Mr. Bowie’s career was longer than Prince’s and produced a dozen fewer studio albums. The comparison of two originals quickly falls apart, though, because each varied from the norm in his own way.
Where Prince truly stood out was in his feud with Warner Brothers. Having signed a $100 million contract for 10 years, which included six albums at $10 million each plus royalties, he refused to give Warner Brothers the kind of control over his work that the record company believed it had purchased. He was writing a song a day, an incredible rate of productivity. The company wanted to hold off releasing much of it for fear of flooding the market and killing the purple goose that was laying golden eggs and producing platinum records.
Prince effectively went on strike. He would perform with the word “slave” written on his cheek. He dropped his name in favor of an unpronounceable symbol (which he recently referred to as Love Symbol Number Two). He played out the clock on the contract. He met his obligations in a passive aggressive way, even distributing music through a competitor of WB. His complaints sound like the whinings of a pampered musician. The injustice of the situation is clear when one considers that he made, according to him of course, that he made more money from a work downloaded on the internet than he did from “Purple Rain.” The fact that this is even plausible speaks volumes about the music business. When the contract expired, he took back his name and continued to write and perform.
The king is gone, and now so is Prince — at least physically. He had an odd sense of spirituality about him, even becoming a Jehovah’s Witness at one stage. The only known immortality is fame, and all too often infamy. Prince kept his personal life very personal, and so, it may be that he hurt some people and treated others badly out of the limelight. What will go on was what he cared about most — the music.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” Prince did far more than just get through it.