Welcome back to the roundtable, in which Treble’s writers engage in a casual discussion on music, pop culture and our relation to both. Got a question for us? Feel free to send it over to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Roundtable topic.”
This week’s topic: Once again we find ourselves in the position of trying to make sense of the loss of one of our collective musical heroes. After we learned of his death, we came together to share our observations and memories of Prince.
Adam Blyweiss: I was going to follow up Alex Zaragoza’s opening salvo in our Long Purple Goodbye with my own praise of Prince’s part in my pubescent development of a sexual identity, but I can’t muster more than a “thanks, bro” on that right now. Other words come to mind instead: “He spoke to and for countless fringes: fluid sexuality, sci-fi geekery, studio nerddom, the yin and yang of hermitage and idolatry—this makes him emo before emo was emo, I guess. [He] was not on the cutting edge; [he] was the cutting edge. [He] was more than a mere renaissance man. His life was ongoing renaissance, constant reinvention and retrieval and re-reinvention, an epoch from which unknown creative pleasures and mercies have yet to spring.”
I wrote those words a little over three months ago. For David Bowie. If we’re allowed to stretch the “sci-fi geekery” point to include the conspiracy theories Prince would occasionally embrace in interviews, they fit the erstwhile Mr. Nelson to a T as well. In these days after his fatal collapse I (and other fans and pundits) have taken to calling Prince the American David Bowie. They shared musical genius, embraced alter egos to make creative points, quietly supported worthy artists and causes regardless of spotlight, and were comfortable flying various freak flags and encouraging listeners to do the same even in the face of larger, disapproving society.
Now these glorious bastards dig similar holes in my heart, and I can’t imagine how many others. Bowie and now Prince are gone without my having witnessed their skill live, in concert, and I feel something of a lesser person for that. Both are gone in a year already quickly littered with celebrity obituaries that shock and sadden—the Grim Reaper’s in full-on debt-collection mode, folks, you better get ticket insurance for that “Oldchella” festival in October. Both are gone with no clear successors and, to twist a lyric from another dead legend, it’s alright but it’s not OK. Both are just fucking gone, man, and suddenly nothing feels right or safe anymore.
It’s the beautiful ones you always seem to lose.
Giovanni Martinez: These last few days, I’ve been asking myself why I grieve the loss of an artist I’ve never met before. When David Bowie died, one tweet summed it up perfectly. While I have never met any famous person I truly admire, they are responsible for my own self-discovery. Even though I wasn’t a Prince fanatic, his music has been a very big part of my life. My earliest memory of hearing Prince’s music for the first time comes from watching Batman. I can recall the one ridiculous scene where The Joker trashes an art museum to “Partyman,” a scene I often found myself imitating in my living room after repeated viewings. As I got older, Prince’s music permeated my environment; Family parties were always littered with the hottest Prince tracks: “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Erotic City”—songs I found myself dancing to among my family members and later on with closest friends. It wasn’t until recent years that I would begin to start investing in his catalog: Purple Rain, 1999, Sign ‘O’ The Times, Dirty Mind, all essential records I grew to enjoy. With the advent of social media, Prince maintained an infamous and polarizing personality that was often too bewildering and strange to be true. Despite his attitudes, he remained (and still does) a beacon of hope for many. Constantly, Prince was always reinventing himself and created a catalog of diverse material. He showed that he wasn’t afraid to experiment with different styles of music. Critics would argue that some of it worked and some of it didn’t, but Prince hardly gave a shit about opinions. Prince’s influence cannot be exaggerated. Much like Bowie and Michael Jackson, he became a multigenerational figure who challenged the conventions of pop music. Prince gave way to embracing and expressing sexual freedoms, something often strongly opposed here in the States. Though he kept his politics private, Prince was certainly no stranger to society’s problems. Like many other great musicians, Prince has been often imitated but will never be replicated. Because of such a fruitful career, he became a unique icon amongst his musical peers. His absence has left a big void in the world that will be impossible to fill. Somewhere in the next life, he’s probably driving a little red corvette into the sunset. So long Purple One.
Wil Lewellyn: It was on Christmas of 1984 that things changed. My tape collection consisted of Kiss, Ozzy, Alice Cooper and Twisted Sister, but was suddenly broaden by Prince’s Purple Rain. It was the guitar playing that drew me in, and the transition from “Detroit Rock City” to “Let’s Go Crazy” was not a huge leap. If you recall in my review of his last album Hit N Run Phase 2, I mentioned that the Purple One and I grew apart after “Crystal Ball” so it didn’t hit me as hard as Bowie. I saw him on the Emancipation Tour in 1995 and then again on the 3121 tour in ’06, and he continued to be one of the best, if not the best guitarist I have seen live, so I still stand by my decision to pass up his last show when he came to Atlanta on the “Piano and Microphone Tour.” I wanted to remember him as having his guitar in hand.
Butch Rosser: Secondarily, fuck you, 2016. You better pray I don’t catch you out in these streets. Primarily? What can you even say at a moment like this? The myth and the reality were both almost hilariously outsized and yet more or less true at the same time?
We lost a singular polymath just weeks after losing another awesome one, and like his Starman counterpart he deified everything he touched. Any instrument in his hands melted to his will through sheer talent. Pretty much every song he wrote was a transcendent moment of either glee, raw sexuality, a modified bow to the higher power he came to believe in or all of the above disguised as an recently filled ATM exploding. Even if your grandma didn’t know the man, she probably knew the cadence to at least a couple of his songs, and if your momma hadn’t heard him you probably wouldn’t be here right now. He redefined sexuality and fashion and pop music and pop culture, for a start, and we got flat-out robbed out of him and whatever ludicrously awesome future he would’ve delivered us all too.
Like his skillset, unbelievable. Literally unbelievable.
Reign In Purple, Your Majesty.
Jeff Terich: Prince always represented a kind of artistic ideal for me. His flashy rock star persona and insane guitar-playing ability appealed to rock fans, while his undeniable funkiness and knack for perfect hooks made him a pop dynamo. He was the artist that everyone could agree on. Maybe not everyone wanted to listen to The Cure or Madonna or Springsteen. But Prince? He transcended genre or niche. He was everything and anything. And it’s that ability to reach into so many far corners of pop culture—while simultaneously remaining something of an enigma throughout his career—that made him uniquely Prince.
You could write a 30-volume tome on Prince, his contributions to music, culture and sexuality, and still leave much unsaid. But it’s hard to detach from my own personal experiences of Prince when discussing him. I never saw him live, unfortunately, though he was always near the top of the must-see artists in my lifetime. Yet, like Bowie, the presence of his music in my life was nearly ubiquitous. Purple Rain played in my car regularly during the last summer before I went off to college, and ended up being spun frequently in my dorm room—one of the few artists my roommate and I could agree on (see?). One of my earliest vinyl finds was the “Let’s Go Crazy” 7-inch, with “Erotic City” as the b-side. And yeah, there was a lot of Prince at my wedding: My wife and I, our friends and family all doing the requisite choreography to “I Would Die 4 U,” and losing ourselves in a silly moment of fun on the dancefloor.
But I can also thank Prince for helping me come out of my shell in college. At a holiday party for the staff of the school paper, we frequently went to a San Diego dive called Etta’s Place, which always involved karaoke. After a few drinks I fancied myself bold enough to do “When Doves Cry,” and I went for it—rising out of the bathtub and everything. I felt like a rock star, and for at least the next hour I think I kind of was. At the risk of belaboring a point already mentioned above, it seems utterly cruel to lose both Bowie and Prince within months of each other, and it hurts—more than the loss of a celebrity ever really does. But “When Doves Cry” lives on, and “I Would Die 4 U” and “Erotic City” and “U Got the Look” and “Little Red Corvette” and “Uptown” and “Sexy MF” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” With a list of songs like that it only makes sense to continue celebrating the man long after his time on this earth. Go crazy—punch a higher floor.