I discovered Prince accidentally, on a trip to visit my uncle in Ohio when I was 16. Songs by African American musicians rarely got played on radio stations in Edmonton, Alberta, where I lived, and I was determined to bring some of the latest R & B home with me. I had no idea who Prince was, but as I flipped through the record bin, I was drawn in by his doe eyes, his eccentric clothes, and the title of the album: Controversy. The “rude boy” pin on Prince’s lapel, which appealed to my inner Jamaican, was the icing on the cake.
Having noted that one of his songs was called, “Do Me,” I wisely chose to listen for the first time when my parents weren't around. Instantly I was hooked. There was no Internet back then, so I had to buy magazines to read more about my new obsession. I also bought the next six albums and went three times to see Purple Rain, the 1984 film that made him a superstar.
Prince's musical style couldn't be pigeonholed or controlled by any force except the Almighty. “A strong spirit transcends rules,” he once declared, and Prince broke many of them: refusing to conform to one musical genre; singing with equal passion about God and sex; freeing himself from his record label, then becoming the first artist to pocket all of his profits by releasing music directly to the public; driving up album sales by including his new CD as part of the price of a concert ticket; controlling access to his music by taking down or disabling posts on YouTube; and, most amazingly of all, wearing eyeliner and androgynous clothing while maintaining his status as a sex symbol who, to paraphrase the producer LA Reid, could take away your girl friend while wearing high heels. David Bowie crossed gender lines, but even he couldn't do that.
Still, Prince's death last week at 57 was less of a shock than Michael Jackson's at 50 in 2009, probably because losing MJ so young made all subsequent things possible. While the cause of Prince's death hasn't been officially determined, it would be a sad irony if these two icons, inextricably linked by their incomparable talents, were both felled by medications they started taking as a direct result of sharing those talents with the world. Michael Jackson's drug addiction apparently started after he burned his scalp while filming a Pepsi commercial; rumors now circulate that Prince overdosed on Percocet, which he allegedly started taking to deal with chronic pain in his hips, the result of performing his high-energy marathon shows in stilettos. I had thought the cane he'd started using in public was a fashion statement. Now I wonder.
I admit to drifting away from Prince as time passed. His tastes were so eclectic that his records, post-Purple Rain, always contained songs I didn't like. As I became more responsible for paying my own bills, the investment required to keep up with Prince’s prolific output was more than I was willing to make. Still, I followed him faithfully on TV, and he never disappointed my efforts, either in performance or interviews, where he showed an impish, witty sense of humor and a willingness not to take himself too seriously, even as he acknowledged his own greatness.
As he got older, Prince spoke freely about his sexiness and especially his musical gifts, but he kept very quiet about his philanthropy. I knew about (and wish I had attended) his concert in Baltimore to support Black Lives Matter. But I had no idea about the many ways he supported music education and other causes. Almost everyone who remembered him spoke about his kindness, generosity, and love of mentoring young musicians.
Although I’m a classical pianist who never knew Prince personally, he will always inspire me. His virtuosity was not just dazzling but joyful, even playful. Watch him take over the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of “My Guitar Gently Weeps.” You don't have to like rock music to appreciate his mastery.
But you do need the maturity to listen to some of his lyrics. When my daughter turned 17 I figured she was finally ready, so I sat her down to watch Purple Rain. She didn't share my infatuation, but she loved “The Beautiful Ones,” for years my favorite song from the movie, along with “When Doves Cry.” While both of these titles were used to eulogize Prince, the song that sums up his death best is the first one we hear, “Let's Go Crazy.” He says, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called life,” going on to mention his certainty that there is an afterlife, and acknowledging that we're all going to die, so we'd “better live now, before the Grim Reaper come knocking on your door.” Live he did.