The artist born Prince Rogers Nelson died yesterday evening in his Minneapolis studio, at the age of 57, for as yet unknown causes. I would ideally like to add here that it is rare that musical figures of his stature die, but 2016 seems to be a year very much filled with such passings – and it hasn’t even yet gone May.
American comedian Dave Chappelle ran a segment on his show called “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories”, which would involve Eddie Murphy’s real life brother Charlie recounting some slice of L.A. life he had witnessed via being the sibling of a famous movie star. Chappelle and his supporting actors would act the tales out with Charlie’s voice overlaid as narrator. There was a Prince-related story, and in it Charlie recounts an evening out clubbing in which Prince approaches his brother and asks him if he wants to come back to the “Purple Rain” star’s Los Angeles abode. Eddie’s crew head up there and once they are all hanging out, Prince says he’s bored and wants to know if anyone wants to play basketball. At first Charlie and Eddie think Prince is kidding, but he provides the Murphys and their mates some basketball uniforms to wear, demonstrating his proposition is a serious one. So they get changed and head out onto the court – and Prince and the Revolution (his band at the time) join them, all of the musicians dressed exactly as they had been at the club, which is pretty much like how they dressed on stage.
Turns out that even in high heels, Prince was an incredible basketball player – all 5 foot 2 of the man. The Revolution stuffed the Murphy clan by an embarrassing margin.
I bring up the Charlie Murphy anecdote because it distills perfectly the way I always thought Prince: weird, mercurial, brilliant, unique. While his death yesterday wasn’t a tragedy for popular art in the same vein as say, the Hendrix death in 1970 (not because Prince was any less talented than Jimi – just that Prince was 57 as opposed to 27, so we got thirty more years of Prince material), his passing is very sad.
I will state this for the record – I preferred the guy’s earlier work, but that may be a testament to my age more than any other factor. What I always liked about his material throughout his career is that he brought a truly grown up sensibility to a usually adolescent art form. One of his early hits was “I Wanna Be Your Lover” in which the chorus ends with the memorable line “I want to be the only one you cum for”. The song was a catchy ditty, and in 1979 he probably could have cracked the Top Ten with it if he’d toned down the 18+ flavour of the lyrics (it peaked at Number 11 on the US charts). This is a riposte, incidentally, to those who always think the more bawdy something is, the better it will fare commercially. Only teen level smut tends to conform to this pattern – the real stuff is too close to the bone for truly mass appeal.
I remember when I was a kid, Prince’s music used to kind of scare me. I knew there was something going on in there that was way above my head – that’s because there was. I have grown to like Prince’s music more and more the older I get; that’s because the feelings, problems, themes of his lyrics were definably adult. Not just 18+, but usually 25+.
And it’s that which makes me most sad about his death. He really was unique, or at the very least, the last of a now dead species of songwriter. I can’t think of anyone who has managed to combine commercial appeal (and success) with an adult look at relationships in anywhere near the same way, with anywhere near the same artistic success. Prince R.I.P.