Photo by Lia Kantrowitz
My fondest memories of childhood in the 80s and early 90s are of sound and color, of radio hits and their immaculately dressed vessels. Madonna and the Police whirr by, tornadoes of blonde hair and pastel accessories, Janet, a militaristic vision of Rhythm Nation black and her brother Michael, the frozen Super Bowl XXVII statue of regal black and gold. Prince lingers in the white tunic and knee-length bedazzled purple trenchcoat he donned for the climactic closing performance sequence in 1984’s Purple Rain, a film I’ve fixated on for as long as I can remember.
It’s a bizarre scene: Purple Rain’s nameless lead “The Kid” has come from home—where his long-suffering mother has run off and his unstable musician father has attempted suicide—to perform at First Avenue, a club whose owner has no faith in his band and whose sniveling rival act the Time has drafted his girlfriend Apollonia as a protégé. He shouldn’t trust anyone, and he certainly shouldn’t be seeking these people’s approval. He shouldn’t be there at all. But he gives the crowd the performance of a lifetime, buzzing through “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Baby I’m a Star,” ending the movie on a moment not of triumph but of dogged musicianly perseverance.
I think of that resolve when I think of Prince. He gave us nothing but music, scores of groundbreaking albums and singles that skated across boundaries of genre as though they were little else than intellectual constructs, live performances that satisfied audiences and set the bar dizzyingly high for the competition, films that mixed narrative and performance into a blur of creativity that inspired peers and future luminaries alike. He kept many of the details of his personal life purposefully obscured, opting instead to be the purest vessel for the psychedelic sights and sounds his music and impeccable, gender averse sense of style would unleash on the world.
For a time, the radio was Prince’s, through his own formidable work and that of the bevy of acts he gifted golden tracks—singles and albums written and produced by the legend under pseudonyms—as well as a host of imitators who found the mutant funk-rock of the Revolution irresistible. In measuring Prince’s early impact, consider the fact that the campaign of 1982-83 singles that launched him into the stratosphere included not only his own “1999” and “Little Red Corvette,” but also the Time’s funk bombs “The Walk” and “777-9311” and singing group Vanity 6’s randy, euphoric “Nasty Girl” and robo-pop sex anthem “Drive Me Wild.” His chops and range were unbelievable, a fact borne out as his Paisley Park Records imprint released records from ace percussionist/singer Sheila E., Time offshoots the Family (best known for the original version of Sinead O’Connor’s signature Prince-penned hit “Nothing Compares 2 U”), jazz fusion excursion Madhouse, George Clinton, Mavis Staples, and many more.
Prince’s musical endeavors stretched well outside of his own catalogue, and his cinematic ones didn’t end at Purple Rain. Though they’re more appreciated now for the accompanying soundtrack albums, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge both offer endearing snapshots of the artist’s singular style and charm. And the underrated Sign ‘O’ the Times live film deserves leagues more respect and exposure for its documentation of the turn-on-a-dime precision of the post-Revolution band that would carry Prince into the 90s. He directed himself in the last three, as was the case for many of his own music videos, starting with the unforgettable white dove and smoky bathtub reverie of Purple Rain’s “When Doves Cry.” It’s a rare bird that writes, records, produces, and directs. When early 90s label troubles coerced Prince to change his name to an inscrutable symbol, and the media took up the shorthand of calling him “The Artist” (short for “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”), the title proved just as fitting as his born name.
Prince was a dream, unknowable, immovable, and immutable. For the better part of a week I’ve been eyeball deep in the movies, music, and performances in utter disbelief, not so much at him being gone but at the fact that he ever happened in the first place. His impact on the sound, structure, and presentation of music is indelible, his style, unforgettable, his interviews, his shade, his side eye game, his rivalries, his restless creativity, his early push to free funk and R&B from the “Black Singles” box, his advocacy for women, his pliable sense of male sexuality, his innovative interaction with the growing world of the internet, his resistance to the major label machine, his quiet altruism, his quick, sharp grasp of social media and memes, his demand for more writers of color in the music press, all of it was a revolution, the likes of which we would be lucky to live to ever see again.