“Always cry for love. Never cry for pain.”
From “Sometimes It Snows in April,” Prince, 1986
The first Prince song I heard was sometime in the early ’80s, on a tiny Realistic transistor radio that was a gift from my parents.
Growing up in Sacramento, much of my favorite music at the time – including Prince’s – was played on San Francisco radio station KFRC. Because of the station’s distance from my hometown, I had to pay really close attention through the crackle of static on my tiny radio to make out the opening lyrics:
I just can’t believe all the things people say
Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?
The song, “Controversy,” from Prince’s album of the same title, immediately grabbed me. It was 1981, and here was an artist talking about race, sexual identity and religion – all in one song.
Yes, the lyrics were a bit heavy for a kid who hadn’t even reached his teen years, but the soulful screams and poetic content were like nothing I’d experienced or heard on the radio. Even then, though I couldn’t absorb what it all meant, I knew this was something special.
Thus my lifelong journey as a fan of His Royal Badness began – a fantastic ride that’s continued more than 30 years.
Like fans globally, I am in a state of shock after hearing news of his death Thursday morning at age 57 – a terrible loss in an incomparable year of grief for the music world.
It was made even more unbelievable because little more than a month ago my wife and I were among the thousands in attendance at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, where Prince performed for his “Piano and a Microphone” tour.
During the show, which featured a solo Prince seated at a grand piano unplugged, the artist walked hand-in-hand with the audience through some of his most popular songs, all while relating his life experiences behind the music. He spoke of discovering his talent on his father’s piano, and the pain he experienced when his father left home. He reminisced about his love for former girlfriend Denise Matthews (known in the entertainment world as “Vanity”) and reflected on God and music.
Given the intimate, autobiographical nature of his Oakland performance, one can’t help but wonder if Prince knew, or had some kind of premonition or intuition that the final chapter was being written.
Unparalleled as a musical genius, Prince will be remembered alongside greats such as Miles Davis, Ludwig van Beethoven and Duke Ellington. He mastered dozens of instruments, and often played all of them on the albums he produced. He was a virtuoso guitarist and pianist who wrote, produced and performed his own material. He also wrote hit songs for other artists such as The Bangles, Chaka Khan and Sinead O’Connor.
Perhaps what struck me the most about Prince was his absolute fearlessness as a musician and performer. With the flair of Little Richard, the dance moves of James Brown and a voice that could reach heavenly notes, he picked up the proverbial freak flag Jimi Hendrix had mentioned in “If 6 Was 9” and waved it high, blazing into the stratosphere without fear of failure.
It couldn’t have been easy when he took the stage in 1981 to open for the Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, dressed in bikini briefs. He was booed by the audience, as recounted by Rolling Stone magazine.
But he pressed on, staying true to himself, ultimately becoming enormously successful. His music was loved by millions worldwide, and he dropped hit album after hit album.
Like David Bowie, who died earlier this year, Prince was one of the few musicians with the vision to create a new experience with every album. Some artists might try to mimic their success by copying what had worked before, but Prince was always onto the next creative galaxy.
And he wasn’t just into making hits. Songs like 1981’s anti-Cold War rant “Ronnie Talk to Russia” often spoke to socio-politics of the nation. There was also 1987’s “Sign O’ the Times,” which opened with a lyrical commentary on the late ’80s state of affairs: “In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.”
Years later, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in a rift with his record company, and spoke out forcefully for the rights of recording artists.
Prince also will be remembered as one of the greatest writers and singers of love songs. His song “Adore” from “Sign O’ The Times” ranks among the best love songs ever recorded, next to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
Perhaps the only solace for fans is the knowledge that Prince produced so many songs during his life – undoubtedly thousands – that his estate could posthumously release new albums for years to come. It’s no secret there are numerous recordings in his vault at the Paisley Park studios in Minneapolis that have yet to be released, heard only by Prince and possibly a few confidants.
Regardless, even if those recordings remain locked away for generations, the legacy of beautiful music he created will continue to entertain, mystify and enlighten fans for years to come.
As a musician, artist, composer and poet, truly nothing compared 2 Prince.
Victor A. Patton is an editor and writer for The Modesto Bee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.