I was going to update my original post on Prince, but realized I had enough to say to write a whole new article…
Bob Lefsetz of “The Lefsetz Letter” blog is fond of saying that the true artists know that it’s about the music; that what gets remembered is the music; what penetrates through the masses is the music. Most of that is a cut against today’s music personalities who are known, not because of their music, but because of their image or how much money they make. But I’m not going to open that can of worms…
While I agree with Mr. Lefsetz on a lot of what he says, with respect to Prince, I don’t think even Bob’s arguments can really apply. Prince was an anachronism on so many levels. He gained fame from pop music, but his sound was so different from pop at the time. On the surface, he seemed part of the system, but his years-long battle against Warner proved that he didn’t buy into it. He was considered a pop star, but his musicianship transcended any definition of a pop star.
And he could play guitar.
Talk about the understatement of the year! When he played the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, et al, you could see Tom Petty in the background not at all pleased with Prince. George Harrison’s son loved it, but old, cool, BORING Tom Petty couldn’t deal with it. It was Prince’s anachronism at play, front and center. It was clear to me that Tom Petty probably saw Prince as a mere girlie pop star of yesteryear. But watching him – and listening to him – demonstrate his complete mastery over his instrument, and his depth of understanding of music in general, and his innate ability to connect with an audience, that it probably evoked massive internal conflict with Tom, which expressed itself in the reaction, “I hate this guy!”
Apparently, the backstory that I learned by watching a recent documentary on Prince was that in rehearsal he was a lot more tame. But when he got in front of an audience, all bets were off. He went for it with a vigor and a devil-may-care attitude that defied the reverence that the other rockers were attempting to convey by covering George Harrison’s song.
But that was what Prince could do. To me, he was the epitome of a Rock Star. He didn’t so much rebel against the mainstream as he walked his own path. So many people made the mistake of trying to pigeonhole him into a specific style of music. He played what he played, wrote what he wrote. Check out Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL, “She’s Always In My Hair:”
Can you say SHRED? Definitely elements of power funk in the song itself, but there’s no way you can call that guitar playing “funky.” The phrasing in his solo at around 2:06 in the video is decidedly rock, with what sounds like a mix of different modes. The song itself is an anachronism. You see Prince, and you expect funk, but here he is playing rock, and just rippin’ it up! And his final solo? It’s simply a work of rock and roll magic! So it’s not a surprise why ol’ Tom Petty might’ve appeared to dislike Prince. He wasn’t supposed to be able to do that!
And comparing his guitar playing back in 1985 to 2014 when the video above was released, he developed and evolved his playing where it transcended genres. Simply amazing!
Prince’s RRHF appearance brought me back to my early church band days when old conservatives would get on my case about being irreverent while playing. I used to say to them, “What’s the face of reverence? For you, it’s someone down on their knees, eyes closed, head pointed to the ground. That’s perfectly valid. But for me, it’s a loud, screaming electric guitar cranked up loud enough so God and the heavenly host can see how much I love my God. After all, what’s reverence.” That never went over too well with them… But they couldn’t argue with the number of people who’d attend our service so they could rock out for God.
Circling back to Bob Lefsetz, I think what set Prince apart and those people who have lived on in our memories like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Alice Cooper, KISS, AC/DC, The Who, The Beatles was not just the music. These people were true entertainers. This is in contrast to what you see today in pop. It’s all about “look at me” and “look at the money I make.” For the true entertainers, it is certainly about their music but it is also about how they presented it and touched the hearts of so many people.
Back in my old, much lighter days as a ballet dancer, the artistic director of my college dance company once told me, “You know, you started late, so technically, you’ll never be as good as the other guys. But you have natural stage presence which they don’t have. You just have to kick it up a notch, and make love to your audience.”
I laughed at the statement at the time, but I did get what he meant. As a performer, when you “make love” to your audience, it’s much like making love; that is, you’re fully present, in the moment, and willing to give all of yourself to your partner – body, mind, and soul – to form an intimate connection. And to me, that’s what sets true entertainers like Prince apart: They make love to their audience. When you watch Prince perform, he’s fully committed to his audience, giving everything he has. Even in “Purple Rain” all those years ago, I dug the performance scenes. While yes, it was acted out and part of the script, the execution of that script was all Prince making love to his audience. To me at least, it didn’t feel contrived, and was completely believable.
In any case, as opposed to lament the loss of Prince, I want to celebrate the influence he’s had on music, and quite honestly, the influence he has had on my own approach to performing. I’ll always remember him with a smile on my face!