Prince -- The Music Icon Remembered

  • by Dave Ford
  • Thursday April 28, 2016
Share this Post:

Like all great stars, Prince Rogers Nelson, the artist forever to be known as Prince, who died April 21 at the age of 57, was physically short (he stood five-feet-two) but large where it counted: In talent and in effect.

He was a guiding light in the 1980s to societally disenfranchised young people, who saw in him a gender-fluid, sexually free, rules-defying fellow traveler. But to those who reviled deviations from the Caucasian-dominant heterosexual norm, he was terrifying and enraging.

This much was on full-throated display when Prince opened for the Rolling Stones on October 9 and 11, 1981 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, shows your correspondent, then 24, attended.

Although Prince was three years and three albums into his career (within days of the Stones shows he would release his fourth LP, "Controversy"), he was largely unknown to the Stones crowd. His style of surging, soul- and disco-inflected funk-rock differentiated him from the two middlebrow blues-rock bands also opening the shows.

The fans might have tolerated that, except that Prince appeared onstage in a see-through plastic raincoat, black bikini briefs and thigh-high black boots. The sozzled and sadly conformist throng expressed displeasure first by booing and screaming "Faggot!" Then, in the manner of sophisticates the world over, they pelted the stage with beer bottles.

Did they object to the third of the four songs in Prince's aborted twenty-minute set, cheerily titled "Jack U Off"? Likely we shan't ever know. But Prince that day was a true radical: A pint-sized, half-naked, androgynous black man who sang and danced like James Brown and played guitar like Jimi Hendrix. Looking into that mirror, faux-rebel Stones fans evidently regressed into infantile hysteria.

Dispirited by the reaction, Prince left the stage "emotionally distraught and crying softly," according to a Wikipedia item, and flew home to Minneapolis. Stones singer Mick Jagger and others convinced him to return for the second show. Predictably - the simple-minded are nothing if not predictable - that audience reacted as had the first.

Prince nevertheless finished his set, a victory of sorts. Later, the same Wikipedia item notes, he dismissed the crowd as being "tasteless in music and mentally retarded." (For "retarded" insert "regressed" to get the gist of what he was attempting to express.)

To the sensitive observer, the Stones audiences' shocking response to Prince's otherness, let alone to his obvious talent, seemed ominous: Dare to be different and you will be killed, figuratively at least.

But then, the 1980s were dawning a cold, hard decade in America. At the time of Prince's Los Angeles humiliation, President Ronald Reagan and his stick-figure wife, Nancy, were but ten months into what would become their eight-year reign of horror.

The sociopolitical tumult of the '60s (including the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn, in New York, presaging the Gay Liberation movement) and the grungy derangement of the '70s had passed. The '80s would become the decade of re-ascendant materialism, of yuppies and Wall Street. By the middle '80s, homelessness and crack cocaine would plague American cities and AIDS would begin to cut a deadly swath across gay communities.

Pop music in the early '80s, newly throbbing with synthesizers, revealed itself in performance videos on the then-recently launched cable channel MTV. It was this universe that Prince would come to own, alongside Madonna and Michael Jackson. He turned the tables on the Stones show boors - some of whom no doubt later hypocritically claimed him as their own - by releasing a dizzying streak of brilliant hit songs, albums, videos and movies as the decade advanced. (Except in 1983, he issued an album each year between 1978 and 1992).

His live shows, dazzling spectacles of which he was the whirling-dervish center, married soul-revue shtick to rock-dude excess with wit and a camp wink. Gifted musicians comprised his bands, many of them women in more than decorative roles.

His local concerts at venues like the Cow Palace, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, and the Fox Oakland (where he played Feb. 16) consistently sold out. He delighted in surprising fans with after-show jams at such intimate clubs as the DNA Lounge.

He performed as recently as March 5 at the Great American Music Hall after his "Piano and a Microphone" show earlier that night at Oakland's Oracle Arena. He opened the Oracle show, his last formal Bay Area concert, with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and departing fans were given CDs of his latest album, "HitnRun Phase Two."

Such was his musical talent that anything he did could have constituted a single career. He was a multi-instrumentalist with a flair for the electric guitar. His songwriting was such that even seeming toss-offs, like the 1986 hit "Kiss," proved perfect pop constructions. He sang in a falsetto or throaty basso, punctuating vocal lines with shrieks, whoops and grunts. His onstage dancing had a precision that nonetheless hinted at abandon, and as a front man he could hold an audience of thousands with a single teasing leer.

But Prince was more than just a collection of talents: He became an icon. As with all icons, controversy surrounded him. In the 1981 song "Controversy," he sang, "I can't believe all the things people say... Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?" It was a good question, and one that put audiences on notice that Prince was ready to toy with binary notions of, well, everything.

At the very least, his early songs offered hints of same-gender love. In the heart-wrenching "Sometimes it Snows in April," from the 1986 album "Parade," Prince sang of a male friend named Tracy who "died after a long-fought civil war." The melancholic six-minute piece, which opens with haunting Joni Mitchell-style piano (Prince cited Mitchell as a huge influence), can be heard as an elegy for a friend (or lover) lost to AIDS. So it seemed, anyway, to those of us in the '80s who spent as much time attending memorial services as dancing to Prince hits in clubs.

Like David Bowie before him, who exploded gender and sexuality norms in the '70s, Prince in the '80s was an icon to LGBT people who felt rejected by a society that refused to help the (literally) sick among them and to embrace difference.

Like Bowie, Prince peppered his work with spiritual themes: In "Controversy" he sang, "Do I believe in God, or do I believe in me?" Like Bowie, he later renounced the queerest aspects of his life and work: In 2001 he converted to the Jehovah's Witness faith, and thereafter downplayed the carnality of his early work.

And like Bowie before him, Prince took leave of Earth in early 2016: Two daring, culture-shifting artists gone in the American year of violent demagoguery and LGBT rights yet again under attack.

Happily, Prince leaves a legacy as an adventurous, playful, witty and brilliant musical and cultural nonconformist. His restless body, which danced across the stages of the world - if not, indeed, seemingly across the heavens themselves - is now at rest; so, too, is his once-restless spirit.

Leave us, then, to wish Prince, after his full if sadly foreshortened time here, a long good night. May flights of angels sing him to his repose.

"Life is death without adventure, and adventure only comes to those who are willing to be daring and take chances."

- Prince, accepting the Best Album nod at the 1985 American Music Awards

Related Topics: