03 May 2016

RIP PRINCE ROGERS NELSON, 1958-2016

Author | Neil Kulkarni

Neil Kulkarni

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” – C.S.Lewis, A Grief Observed

Of course, what you mourn at first, is yourself. Too soon to reassure myself by recounting Prince’s importance, or his place in the canon, too soon to contextualise something that feels like a personal attack, by death, upon your reason. Right now, things are a little too raw because what you recount when you hear this kind of news isn’t just the person you never met, who you’ve lost – you recall the people who you’ve been with, the nights when he saved you and the mornings he woke you, that first flush of first love when Around The World In A Day tangled you to sleep nightly for a year, the kids you lullabied with those songs, the person you were when those songs first kept you intact and kept you alive. This isn’t about adding up marks, checking the legacy, nailing anything – rather you apprehend just how concretely and spectrally someone’s art can inhabit your life, your everyday – not just soundtracking it but dwelling with you, in your kitchen and your bedroom and your living room, colouring things, taking your hand, lifting you up. You recall, with the habitual focus of an adult, times and places and specifics but more evocatively you remember how your senses flared, your synapses sparked, how prior to your current deadening you were still so up for grabs, there to be made. You recall hope seen through tears, pictures you played on a constant mind-reel, sounds that are now cellular, inside you, part of your own unique visceral balance between idealism and despair. What you’re mourning is yourself. Because you wouldn’t be yourself without him. From the off, he was too much to simply apportion affection to. He was a burning bright filament of your animus that has now been extinguished. This isn’t over-reaction. This is what music can do.

Inconsolable shock, a numbness that waits for the deluge to come but truth be told, ever since David Bowie’s passing I’m not sure I’ve been feeling anything. Of course, every generation suffers from delusions of uniqueness. Have been reading Kenneth Williams diaries again of late, a reminder that celebrity-death has always been a shocking rupture in our assumptions of star’s immortality. What’s different now is the visibility, the echo-chamber of reaction. When those who made you, die, you’re reminded of how close you are to life’s ultimate fulfillment, how the dwindling time you have left can be plotted with a little bit more accuracy. And you apprehend a future if this process accelerates (which it will) that may be nought but a dumbfounded reckoning of famous death. us pop-culture fans of a certain vintage bearing increasingly appalled witness as everyone who made us disappears, leaving us adrift in a world populated by skinny posh actors, twitter-legends, perma-grinned vloggers and autotuned mediocrities. Battling through the dazed loss, walking out into a Prince-less, Bowie-less universe, walking under skies that seem a little less real, on ground that feels a little too real – you’re told, by events, that this thing you spent your life chasing, pop – the conversation between black and white – is kind of over. And really all you are is an enthusiast, at the end of the platform with your binoculars, taking increasingly weepier notes as you’re left more and more alone in the universe. You didn’t need these deaths to tell you your stars are weak, have bodies as structurally prone as everyone’s, aren’t as impervious to time as you believed when you first engulfed yourself in their world. We believe in stars because, too broken for God, we need to believe in something that believes in itself – when those people go we genuinely think about how we can carry on, perhaps more so than we do with family bereavements. When family dies, those who are left give you a reason, an intractable reason, to continue. Even then, things can swing perilous at any time. When someone who gives you so much beauty dies so suddenly, it’s all about you, about how you’re able to continue in a darker, emptier world you never imagined. As soon as Prince entered my life with such force he darkened this future but I didn’t know that then, wasn’t damn fool enough to realise he was mortal. The colours seemed endless, the songs indestructible. I won’t contextualise him, put him in a lineage, because it’s too soon. All I feel is that a part of my metabolism has been removed wholesale from every cell, the sunlight winked out, every happy memory tinged with sadness now. Appalled not that I could be so changed by someone but that the man who saved me couldn’t save himself.

If I can pinpoint the moment for me, although aware and aroused by Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain and Around The World In A Day, it was Parade that was MY Prince epiphany, the first orgasm of identification and immersion. The ‘Kiss’ video had hipped me my life was about to change. I was, at the time, fairly horrified by what was going on in music, alienated massively from the mid-80s aspirational politesse and rolled-up pastel linen sleeves of yuppie-directed ‘professional’ pop. Far more intoxicating to anyone similarly alienated was seeking out the past, the 60s and 70s in particular. So you did old drugs and listened to old music. To the mainstream’s slick, white, deodorised and closed-off world of pop, Prince not only provided an immolating deeply sensual alternative, he reached through and grabbed you and told you that your story, your isolation, your difference, could also be a starting point for a solution to the problem that was your life. He whispered in your ear, hey, I’ve created my own universe, perhaps you could too. And crucially, he kicked your retrograde despair out the window by showing how you could do this NOW, for THIS time. This suggestiveness flooded from everything he did. And the tiny details of his dreams’ realisation were as essential to the whole as the broader over-arching narratives of playfulness with your outer identity emerging from a ferocious inner strength. Seems like a daft detail – he always knew that pop bliss is all about daft detail – but easy to forget how the flares that Prince wore in the ‘Kiss’ video were such a gigantic fuck you to pop in 1986. A focus on pleasure through style, where elsewhere was all fashionable appropriateness. His moves directly touched upon the same sexuality Jagger had in the Gimme Shelter Madison Square Garden footage, had that same eye-intoxicating grace between the buttons. What that video suggested was that the past could be used to make a future, that the diktats music seemed to want to limit itself with could be ignored so long as the prevailing impulses were pure delight and liberation. And when I’d saved enough sponds to buy the album it utterly shook my world. With its honesty about his dishonesty, its utter disinterest in proper-ness, it’s fascination with itself. Struggling with ambivalent feelings about sexuality, about race, about how I could get this face and mind I was cursed and blessed with taken seriously by anyone – Prince (unlike even that black pop and rap that spoke to my nascent political consciousness) advocated total freedom with his music, an almost-indisciplined waywardness (that as you grow older you realise can only come from the most intense self-discipline). A total contrast to the way Public Enemy insisted on a marshalling of consciousness, or contemporary pop advocated a shallow self-awareness i.e an endless celebration of your selfishness.

If you were a kid and you were brown, or black, in the 80s you were told by all kinds of pop to be a certain way. To hide your geekism, to be tough, to look like this and to act like that and struggle to find the best way to hide. Prince blew all that out of the water (and who knew WHAT he was? Brown? Black? White? There was that confusion there, and he played on it brilliantly). He said if you want to be camp as christmas AND black/brown, feel free, if you’re going to be tough, be tough as only a geek can be, whatever you want to wear, say, think, be, sing, play – DO IT to the UTMOST, do whatever you DAMN WELL LIKE and do it YOUR WAY. That message of freedom was so powerful it’s fair to say he saved a hell of a lot of lives. I know he saved mine though of course this wasn’t a message only I received. Think of exactly how different black pop would be without Prince – difficult to imagine Outkast, Kanye, Busta, PE, Wu-Tang, Missy, Timbaland, Pharrell, Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo. TLC, Puff Daddy, Beyonce, Jay-Z or ANY black-pop star of the last 30 years not being massively affected by the promise and the power of Prince’s music. Parade said that all the previous rules about being non-white and being an artist were out the window. It sewed life-long lessons in survival that you couldn’t spell out but that galvanised your soul and still do. It didn’t reach out to you to give you that message, you reached out to it because it was presented so ravishingly, even if you could only dream of such poise and self-possession. It taught you crucially that not-fitting could be a way of life. It suggested to you, where everything else suggested the opposite, that you, you strange twisted confused little fucker, could have a future. Could make your own Eden, and guard it and nurture it and wander in it forever. I know that without him, oblivion would have beckoned with irresistable strength. I thank him now. And quietly, selfishly, curse his dereliction of duty.

If Parade lit the fuse, Sign Of The Times was the bomb, the ultimate, the endless explosion you surrendered to, so ravishing you never wanted to walk from the flames even though you knew you would do so utterly changed, transformed back to your soul and spirit, armed to the teeth with beauty. Unlike Parade, Sign Of The Times looked outwards, extended a hand to the world, pulled you into its new steps, led you into a life in which romance and sex and redemption and politics and rhythm and Joni were always close, always threatening to spill into his ability to focus and derail it. Where Parade felt like a transmission from an alternate reality, Sign Of The Times sounded like the world taking its revenge, a whole life and afterlife in four sides of plastic, his past as much a part of the record as his busy scratching at the upholstered door of the future-party. Like any great double album, where you decided to start listening would change everything. But wherever you started listening you always had to hear it all, because the puzzlebox would only fit together if you did, would only give up its truths about the horrors and heartaches out there if you allowed it to create heaven in here, in your home, in your head. Fixed you up for the battle as sharply as any of the more strident revolutionary voices in hip hop at the time. We lost a soldier yesterday, a general, important as Mandela. Not an over-reaction. This is what music can do.

Nearly 30 years on Prince saved my life again. Finally, through craven begging, got to see him live. Birmingham, 2014. Me and my wife, on the short drive up from Cov find ourselves following a massive limo, doubtless just some gig-goers who decided to make a night of it, but we convinced ourselves it was Mr.Nelson himself, hid in the back with nothing but a few copies of The Watchtower and his make-up artist for company. Something about the limo, blacked out, no decals about ‘available for hire’, had us following, stalker-like, from a safe two-second-rule distance. Eventually, halfway up the A45 it pulls into a Texaco. We debate pulling in as well, surmise rightly that if it was the Purple One stopping off for a snack it’d be his driver who he’d send in for his Ginsters Spicy Slice, so stay on the road, get to the LG, park, walk, judging our fellow fans on whether they’re wearing purple. A crush, and we’re in, and we’re waiting, heart trembling, listening to the smartly-chosen ‘Big Fun’-era Miles Davis that’s got everyone tenser and tenser, and we still can’t quite believe that we’re here. We’re gonna wake up in a minute. This can’t be real. These memories are now a part of me and my wife’s life. He never stopped being a part of us. Our mutual love of him was one of the first things we had in common. You know of course that shared taste has nothing to do with love. But a shared hope, which is what Prince was, can mean everything.

There are those great gigs you go to. Those good gigs you go to. Those bad gigs you go to. All seem to exist on the same scale. When I saw Prince, for the first time it was off the scale in every way. So good, halfway through your mind was making cast-iron assurances that tomorrow you’d quit your job, quit your life, quit everything just to dedicate the rest of your paltry existence to chasing… this, this night, these feelings, this turning of yourself inside out. So good you started seeing your life from the moment you stepped out trembling into the night, at least in those rare moments where the palpitations stopped, in two distinct stages—your life up to that night and the second phase that starts now. It felt like my pre-seeing-Prince years were gone, that nothing I learned in them could help me now. I never got to see James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Earth Wind & Fire, T.Rex, My Bloody Valentine, Kraftwerk, This Heat, New Order, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Sly & The Family Stone, Merzbow. Doesn’t matter. I saw HIM. At various points that night Prince recalled all of them, smart enough to leave enough space to let the funky moments really get inside your bones and make your toes curl, genius enough that when he plays guitar he really does recall Hendrix/Hazel but still puts across nothing but his OWN blend of what he’s listened to. Still a brilliant, bewitching dancer. In a sense, Prince was the last living relic we had that directly touched back to those aulden times in music, crucially though every time he played a note that night he propelled us into the future. ‘Musicianship’ is something it’s become incredibly difficult to defend or respect or acclaim anymore – so often does it mean the tedium of wanky solos, empty showboating. In Prince the whole concept got opened up to the full possibilities perhaps only Miles & Jimi ever touched before – every moment of Prince’s guitar playing that night was a juddering jolt of electric wow that pushed your jaw just that extra inch closer to the floor. Never frowning or sweating, looking like the coolest motherfucker you ever saw in your life, looking like he was ENJOYING it as well, just as turned on by the sheer psychedelic outrageousness of what he was conjuring from his battle-axe /magic wand. Two utterly astonishing moments as well where he entirely slipped the rock-god leash and transmogrified into utterly contrary identities- one a gorgeous medley of songs where he’s at the piano, pure Donny Hath/Joni style and you realised his voice is somehow older, but still immortal, his voice this thing that, like his playing, can seemingly DO ANYTHING, flying from the most sultry depths to the most shattering falsetto in the space of a syllable. Another moment where he stepped behind what looked like a straight-up DJ set-up (samplers, decks), and pushed buttons and ‘Hot Thing’ and ‘Sign Of The Times’ happened LOUDER than you’ve ever heard ’em, heaviest harshest electro beats you’ve ever heard live and you danced and you screamed and entirely free of gimmickry or hoodwinkery he stirred you and yours and the thousands around you, timed it, paced it, built it, like no-one else on earth. Greatest showman I’ve ever seen in my life.

It was only on the way home that I thought “man, no ‘Dorothy Parker’ or ‘Girlfriend'” but by then, like everyone else, I was a sticky sated mess with his name in my heart and rattling in my brain with the ear-ringing deafening frenzy of a new-convert. Beforehand I was thinking – there’s no-one alive or dead I want to see play for 3 hours. At the end, I wanted to go see him again. And again. And again. NOW. Simply couldn’t sleep afterwards, still buzzing, my head full of undeniable inarguable HIM. It struck me that the most important thing about what I’d just seen wasn’t about skill or technique or songs or showmanship, nothing you can learn or fake. It wasn’t about virtuosity, it was about generosity. Generosity of spirit in your music. At all times Prince did the incredible things he did FOR the people. At no point is this merely flash. If it was, my god WHAT flash. But there’s something about the way Prince put his music across that was about love, about love for us, and our love for him – he never scowled, he never moaned if the crowd didn’t sing back as loud as he wanted them to, he never made us feel like we had to do anything. He started a party and he kept that party going and it’s the greatest party you’d ever been at and you felt blessed and honoured to have been there, borne witness, got DOWN with the man. That’s the thing, perhaps the only thing, that links all true artistic immortals, that deep intrinsic instinctive unselfishness, and Prince exuded it out of every pore. There were moments that night where it was if he actually WAS music, made out of music, in some way a living avatar of music’s true liberating spirit, the openness, the freedom, the suggestiveness, the abstractness, the horniness, the transcendence that has us all hooked our whole lives made flesh. He was everything. In a time where it’s become orthodoxy that there’s nothing new under the sun, Prince always gave you back a new you, under a new sun, dancing a new dance. He made your life, in seeing him, feel that big, that worth it. An incredibly rare and precious gift, to be able to make people feel that life is worth pushing on with. Now he’s gone, we need him now more than ever.
No one ever told me grief felt so like fear. I fear the world a little bit more now, feel, just as I did before I heard Parade, that perhaps it’s not for me, will never be my home again. Accept that inward retreat. Stay in your home. Hold what you’ve got close. It will take you a while to realise that the reason to go out the door, to carry on, is to try, no matter how impossible & doomed, to be as beautiful.

Until that penny drops again remember – this isn’t an overreaction. This is what music can do. RIP x

Cross-posted with permission from F.U.N.K .  Neil Kulkarni is currently writing a book for Repeater.