I’m unprepared to write about the death of Prince.
Even having to write the words “death of Prince” is draining. I wiped away a few tears writing this piece.
It shows no lack of imagination to call the musician, who died Thursday at his home in Minnesota, a legend. Four of his albums topped the Billboard 200, he won multiple Grammy Awards, including a nomination for album of the year for his career-defining magnum opus, Purple Rain.
But those accolades don’t give the whole picture. His music defined the 1980s with hit after unforgettable hit: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Kiss,” “U Got the Look,” “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” “1999,” “Little Red Corvette.” I could go on.
Across more than 40 albums and on stage, he was a musical shapeshifter, effortlessly moving from rock to jazz to soul to even an electronic-influenced album last year. He wore sexuality on his sleeve, unabashedly penning songs about love, lust and passion in all its details.
He exuded cool. The word unique has come to be synonymous with being rare or unusual, but Prince personified its true meaning — the only one of its kind in the world.
More than many other artists, what distinguished Prince was his steadfast commitment to his artistic vision. He was known for his “hit and run” shows, announcing gigs days before they happened. He was a champion of the Internet in its early years, selling his 1998 album Crystal Ball via a website back when many users had dial-up Internet. But he soured on it during the past decade, known for fierce copyright enforcement on YouTube and declaring the Internet “over” in 2010.
In 1993, during a dispute with his record label, he changed his name to an unpronounceable sign dubbed “the Love Symbol.” It led to him being known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince for most of the 1990s.
He leaves behind a catalog of hits and so much unreleased material in his vaults that Consequence of Sound reported last year there could be a new album each year through the 22nd century.
That would be nice.
But what I’d really love is to see him perform one more time.
I chased him for a long time. He sat at the top of my concertgoing bucket list for more than a decade because of his unpredictable way to announce shows and the difficulty to get tickets when he did. He was my white whale.
In 2014, finally, I got to paint the town purple in Oakland. With his all-female rock band 3rdEyeGirl in tow, The Artist kicked off a two-hour show at The Fox Theater with a revamped blues rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy.” The front of his mic stand bore the Love Symbol. During the bridge of the song, he stepped back from it and cut into a fiery solo. Wearing bell bottoms and sunglasses, he looked so effortlessly, essentially cool.
The show ended with “Cool,” but the house lights stayed dark for more than 15 minutes, blaring a recording of the then-unreleased “Funknroll.” The mic stand stood, waiting for him to return. Even after the lights came on, both the fans and the microphone stand stayed.
It wasn’t until after 1 a.m., more than 45 minutes after Prince had left the stage – and, likely, the building – that a stage hand came out to dismantle the gear, beginning with the stand. That’s how passionate his fan base is. And how unpredictable Prince could be.
The second and final show I saw came just last month at Oracle Arena in Oakland. This time, it was just him and a piano. I had doubts that even an artist with the performance pedigree of Prince could pull off such a show in such a cavernous venue.
But he left my mouth agape. In retrospect, of course he did.
For two-and-a-half hours, The Purple One held thousands of fans in the palm of his hand. Without a band to back him, he was free to follow his whims, using one song’s ending as next’s beginning. He took breaks to strut around the stage and rile the crowd, but there was no doubt he was in control.
Without hyperbole, it was one of the best shows I’ve seen. Considering the challenge of one person entertaining a crowd of thousands and doing it so well that he exceeded expectations with a set of hits and favorites spoke to how captivating, beguiling and intriguing he could be. It’s what made him great.
It’s why Prince was unique.
And why we'll miss him.Videos and Links
Let's Go Crazy from February 2014 with 3rdEyeGirl:
Prince plays The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison's son Dhani and others: