The name on the masthead says American Songwriter, and yet I feel like a lot of people don’t think of Prince in those terms. I would argue that he’s probably the most important American songwriter to come along since the ’80s. Whole genres of music wouldn’t exist without the guy.
A fellow Minnesotan named Bob Dylan set an early example that Prince followed, as both artists seemed to inherently understand that personal mystery not only enhances interest in the music, but it also allows folks who have never walked in the artist’s shoes to relate to the songs as if the experiences within were their own. This revelation dawned on me when I was 16, when a buddy of mine who was shunned by a pretty girl at a party put on a cassette of Purple Rain on our way home and proceeded to scream out every word of “Beautiful Ones” as he burned down the highway. My first thought was that I should have driven; my second was that Prince, whose romantic exploits were the stuff of legend even then, had convinced my buddy that they were kindred losers in love.
Let’s count the list of things that Prince did better than anybody else. He wrote the most convincing songs about sex. He invented the most and cleverest euphemisms for sex in song. He had the best signature color. He recorded the most hypnotically funky track to not have any bass on it (“When Doves Cry.”) He developed the most charismatic production tics for his music (the percussion effects he used in so many songs that made the drum sound sometimes like a firecracker that popped off in your hand, sometimes like the creaking hull of a ship.) He fought with record companies in the most bizarrely charismatic manner. He did the best Super Bowl halftime show (and it’s not even close.) He created the best post-Beatles “Hey Jude” (“Purple Rain”) and the grooviest Sgt. Pepper’s homage (Around The World In A Day.) While we’re on the topic of albums, his streak in the ’80s from Dirty Mind to Sign O’ The Times, seven albums in eight years, leaves behind anyone else in the decade in terms of prolific brilliance, including his chief rivals at the time, Michael, Madonna, and Bruce. And none of them were self-contained entities, writing, producing performing, sometimes playing all the instruments. On and on it goes.
If it felt weird to say that David Bowie died, saying that Prince died is just nonsensical. Not just because he never seemed to age, so that you could imagine him at 97 still doing splits in between solos, but because his inherent coolness seemed impervious to any kind of intrusion on his body and soul. Death should have bounced off him so he could start the next set.
Back to the songwriting though. I don’t know if Prince will ever get enough credit as a lyricist, partly because the music that surrounded the words was so vibrant. Yet singular lines keep popping up into my mind, lines that other songwriters just couldn’t ever compose because they couldn’t approach the idiosyncrasy or command of that aforementioned coolness: “You don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude”; “She walked in through the out door”; “War is all around us, my mind says prepare to fight/ So if I gotta die I’m gonna listen to my body tonight”; “Sister killed her baby cuz’ she couldn’t afford to feed it/ And we’re sending people to the moon”; “He tells me in his bedroom voice/ C’mon, honey, let’s go make some noise”; “I only wanted to see you bathing in the purple rain”; and pretty much all of “When Doves Cry,” especially the refrain (“This is what it sounds like when doves cry”) and “Touch, if you will, my stomach.”
I find myself making lists of all the things Prince has done and done well because the alternative is far too depressing to contemplate. So let’s just end this by hoping that he was right about the Afterworld. If he was, there will be one hell of a show starting there at about one A.M. tonight.