Every Prince concert was like a big party, your best-ever birthday party, with a charismatic master of ceremonies who would load you up with more gifts than you could carry, then heap some more on top. Prince was a most generous showman, who never left the stage till he had had his full say and played every note that needed to be played. It seems doubly wrong that his last exit, at age 57, should have come so soon, without the usual long goodbye of several blazingly good encores.
My feelings about those shows were always complicated, like the man who ruled over them. It was nothing unusual for him to go for three hours, never lagging or sounding less than inspired, always making me feel lucky to be there to hear it all happen. He really did seem to be pouring out all the treasure he had just to please me, and those few thousand others who were probably feeling the same way. And yet there was also a strong sense that he needed to put everyone in thrall, to seduce and overwhelm us, just to be assured, once again, that he could. He kept his lordly distance, even when he invited a fan up on stage.
I never heard anyone play guitar the way he did, not just as a master of the instrument but as someone who seemed to be able to pluck one off the stand and play out his thoughts completely and spontaneously. A lot of players can find the great stuff in the studio; Prince always had great stuff right there in his hands, waiting to come out. He could sing a verse and chorus, in his piping falsetto or raspy midrange, and dance around the stage with silky smoothness, and then blam! – he would hit you with a crushing big guitar solo, intricate and moody.
He was a showy performer who liked to stretch and manipulate his songs into new shapes and grooves, often through revelatory medleys of 30 minutes or more. The prospect of rehashing a song in its straight recorded version would probably have been like hell on Earth for him – though as a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince didn’t believe in hell. His concert performances were like hypertext versions, laden with incredible jams, unexpected segues and harmonic puns.
He was also a master of concision, as you have to be to write so many hits. His song writing showed, in a more concentrated way, the same kind of 360-degree thinking that so animated his concerts. He had a perfect knack for shaking out the right combination of elements from rock, pop, soul, jazz and funk – his personal playground, it sometimes seemed. We could visit him there, getting close but no closer, always remaining outside the private turbulence of a man who had great evident faith in God and purity, but also a tremendous affinity for temptation and sexy ways.
His mind had a hard edge, which did not bend easily when he felt that someone or something was crowding him. He got into a legendary stew with Warner Music in the 1990s that did nothing good for his career, and he was inclined to sudden, drastic decisions about what to be called or whether to be a presence on the Internet. Feeling his wrath could not have been pleasant.
I never witnessed his humility, except when he would introduce Maceo Parker, the veteran sax player he used to call The Teacher. But Prince was said to go door to door occasionally as a Jehovah’s Witness, which from a worldly point of view was a huge step down from the pedestal he occupied on stage.
What would I have said if I had opened my door and seen that slim, self-conscious figure, for once without his shades and sequins and heels? I hope I would have found words to thank him for what he had already shown me, not as a doorstep evangelist but as a musician of enormous spirit and great gifts. We won’t see another like him, not ever.
The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Apr. 21, 2016 5:46PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Apr. 22, 2016 7:14AM EDT