It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that the tears came. It was the first time since Prince died I’d allowed myself to listen to his music and I’d pulled one of the deepest cuts out of his catalog, a funky song about reincarnation called “Dolphin” that has special meaning to me.
Such is the meaning of Prince’s music to me, dating back to 1981 when I bought Controversy after reading about a crazy new R&B performer who could play every instrument. From 1994-1997, when I was music editor at NUVO, I was also the creator of one of the first and most popular Prince websites in the wild, crazy early days of the Web. It was a single HTML page I’d snuck on to the company’s brand new web server without asking and whose existence only became known to my bosses when they saw their bill go up due to its heavy traffic.
The ‘90s was when Prince had become passé to the world of popular music and to the buying public. It was a period of transition and change that culminated with his breaking free of his Warner Brothers contract and the birth, and two days later the death, of his only child.
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To me, that is still his greatest period of creativity and one almost criminally under-appreciated today, given the vastness of his body of work. Maybe it’s my favorite period of his music due to its omnipresence in my personal life. I liked the kind of girl who loves Prince music and I dated as many as I could, which means almost all of my uncomfortably personal stories of the ‘90s would have Prince as their soundtrack albums if they were suddenly turned into uncomfortably personal films or books.
I’ve seen almost all of my idols of music live – JB, Dylan, Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, Bowie, Elvis Costello and George Clinton – but Prince’s June 1, 1998 show at the Convention Center was the singularly greatest experience at a concert I will ever have if I live another 50 years. Prince, Chaka Khan and the key musicians from Sly and the Family Stone did a revue-style show that still resonates in my life after almost 18 years.
The setlist from that night shows clearly how collaborative a show it was. Larry Graham, aided by Family Stone bandmate Cynthia Robinson, started the show with “Thank You Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Agin,” Chaka sang “Tell Me Something Good” and “Sweet Thing,” followed by”Everyday People” and “Dance to the Music,” Prince joyfully working as a bandleader and musical arranger.
For all of the perfectly composed pop songs he wrote, he was in his element when in freewheeling jams.
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I attended many Grateful Dead shows and, in structure at least, Prince shows were similar. Anything could happen.
Much of the impact was also visual, since where I was sitting in the second row was no more than 10 feet from the stage. But I could have been outside and just as moved by this joyous, sweat-filled, leave it all on the field, three hour-plus show. He took extended guitar solos, smiled at the crowd and dug very deep cuts out of his songbook, such as “She’s Always In My Hair,” “Let’s Work” and “Do Me, Baby.”
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Prince to me symbolizes two of the values I treasure most in any human being: determination and consistency. That 1998 show embodied those characteristics to a level I’ve never before seen and likely never will.
The other thing Prince did that I love is to tell others “fuck you.” Michael Jackson got the middle finger when he asked him to sing on “We Are The World” and to collaborate on “Bad.” He’s said it over and over to bootleggers and pirates. He saw that R&B artists in particular were susceptible to getting ripped off and made sure he got paid. The Prince Pandora station contains zero songs by Prince. And I smiled watching CNN on the day of his death because scrambling producers could only find a few YouTube clips of him performing, so effective was he at scrubbing unauthorized uploads of his music from YouTube. (Emboldened by his death, dozens appeared over last weekend.”)
I could fill a 100,000 word story just naming the songs that touched me most by Prince. I’ll mention just one, well worth purchasing from iTunes: “4 the Tears in your Eyes,” an acoustic hymn recorded on film live in one take for the Live Aid concert. It tells the story of the life of Jesus in a low key fashion that is as uplifting as Mahalia Jackson, with ethereal backing vocals by Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin.
Not since my father died in 2014 have I felt such grief at someone’s death. But, similarly to James Brown, he was so prolific that I will never run out of new Prince songs to discover, even if nothing ever emerges from his literal vault full of unreleased material.
Prince didn’t die. He can’t. The peaceful and positive music he released will be studied and analyzed for centuries to come, just like Mozart and James Brown. My love for his music, like JB’s and Mozart’s, Lennon’s and Dylan’s, is ingrained in my DNA and cannot be removed even by my own death.
Steve Hammer was NUVO’s music editor from 1996-2006. He now works in the tech-support wells of Texas. His long-delayed memoir, Getting Rid of the Albatross, will be published this fall.