Between the passings of David Bowie, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson and Glenn Frey, 2016 has been a rough year for older rock stars. But Thursday, death struck where it was not expected with word that Prince Rogers Nelson had passed at age 57.
Terrible as it is to lose both Bowie and Prince in the same year, it’s also fitting. Both were androgynous and hyper-prolific geniuses who answered only to their own muses, often to their commercial detriment. And both also specialized in reinventing themselves while toying with gender, genre and sexual boundaries, using sensuality as a prism through which to view identity.
“You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl,” Bowie sang in 1974’s “Rebel Rebel.” He could have been talking about Prince, who would ask a few years later in one of his early hits, “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? Controversy!”
What made Prince one of the biggest stars of the 1980s was how he presented edgy sentiments within a completely undeniable concoction of funk, rock, R&B and a half-dozen other base elements. He could sing high and pretty like Michael Jackson or low and dirty like James Brown, and also dance as well as either while playing guitar as fiery as anyone this side of Jimi Hendrix – a quadruple threat. His music was an eccentric spin on Sly & the Family Stone’s “Whole New Thing” from the hippie-rock era, familiar enough to be irresistible even as it took you into new and possibly uncomfortable territory.
For most of the first decade of his career, Prince’s albums were pretty much perfection. The span from his 1978 debut “For You” up through 1987’s sprawling AIDS-era landmark “Sign o’ the Times” was as brilliant a stretch as any musician managed in the 20th century, with signposts including “1999,” “Dirty Mind” and “Controversy.” When Prince truly broke out with 1984’s massive “Purple Rain,” it was a deserving coronation.
Since that early peak, Prince’s output grew spottier, although every one of his 39 albums has at least a few worthy songs. But Prince has gotten less attention in recent decades for his music than his ongoing feuds with the music industry, starting with a stretch in the ’90s where he protested an unfair contract by appearing with the word “slave” written on his face.
Through it all, however, Prince remained one of the best live performers out there. His set at the 2007 Super Bowl will probably remain the all-time gold standard for halftime shows, concluding with an epic rendition of “Purple Rain” during a ferocious downpour.
My best in-person memory of Prince is still the last time I saw him play Raleigh on April 24, 2004 – almost exactly 12 years ago. He had just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and that year’s “Musicology” album and tour put him back in the spotlight again.
Nobody was prepared for just how amazing he was. He put on a virtuoso display that night, leaving no doubt that he deserved his enshrinement in the pantheon. Prince paused just long enough during the show’s opening stretch to tease the crowd.
“Raleigh,” he asked with a sly grin, “did y’all miss me or what?”
We sure do now.