Beginning a career in music is like exploring an ocean. There are treasures somewhere out there, and there are a million ways it could all go wrong. You set sights on a lodestar, and with persistence and a lot of luck, maybe, just maybe, you end up on an island to call your own. Prince set his compass for James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix, and ended up discovering an entire world. When I was in music school, there were only two artists who could unite the fractious tastes of the student body: the late Miles Davis and Prince. The jazzers and composers appreciated the intelligence of Prince’s chord changes (I’m still not sure what key “Pop Life” is in). The rock freaks bowed their heads in reverence to his ability to reduce a guitar to shredded embers. Production majors studied, then copped, his idiosyncratic genre flourishes (only Prince could imagine a no. 1 dance hit with no bass line!). He seemed superhumanly talented. Possibly alien. And on top of his genius as a recording artist, he could tear down any room.
Very few artists manage to translate the full power of their studio recordings for live audiences. That wasn’t a problem for Prince. People talk about his live shows as if they were the labors of Hercules. They seemed to pass instantaneously into legend. Hey, did you hear? Prince played three shows in five hours somewhere in Belgium. … He celebrated the release of a book chronicling his unprecedented run of 21 straight sold-out nights at London’s 02 Arena by playing in a tiny NYC loft until the sun came up. The audience later discovered that they were all pregnant. … Prince played 60 songs (including covers of Michael and Janet Jackson, Graham Central Station, and James Brown) over four hours during an unannounced show in Los Angeles because he felt like it. … People’s ability to process time as a linear stream dissolved into ecstatic chaos because Prince played five encores at SXSW while wearing a hat in the shape of a lion. … The Dalai Lama wants to come back as Prince. … He fixed Lorne Michaels with that paisley stare and said, “I’m playing your show for as long as I want, and don’t you dare cut to commercial,” and Lorne barely managed to croak, “OK,” before blacking out. … He borrowed a 1961 Epiphone Crestwood from the guitarist from the Roots, then fucking smashed it live on Fallon’s show; everyone agreed it was wrong, but what can you do, it’s Prince.
Back in March, Prince sat courtside at Oracle for Golden State’s blowout win over Oklahoma City on national television. That was probably the last time most people got to see him. Partway through the game the camera panned across the front row, but Prince was gone. Back to whatever world he’d come from.
This piece originally appeared in the April 22, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.