Elvis and The Beatles had it in their decades. Elton, Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Springsteen, and the Eagles all had to split that pie in the '70s with their moments. But then in the '80s, there was Michael Jackson and Thriller; in the '90s, Nirvana had it with Nevermind; and you can argue that anyone who’s had a moment since then hasn’t had a bigger moment than any of those.
Prince certainly had "that indisputable moment" in 1984 when Purple Rain held the top album slot for 24 consecutive weeks. The joke was that they were running out of singles to pull from the album so they might have to release the poster as a single next.
Actually "Computer Blue," "The Beautiful Ones," and "Darling Nikki" all escaped release on a 45 but it hardly mattered since Prince followed it up in mid 1985 with Around the World in a Day, and soon started pulling singles off that. As per Prince’s decree, that appeared in record stores with little hype and no picture of him on the cover because he thought everyone was so sick of seeing pictures of him and only wanted the real thing. “If there was some way I could materialize in people’s cribs when they played the album,” he mused to Rolling Stone. That was the start of us thinking that Prince was somehow superhuman, or at least trying to work out a way to be.
That was an "indisputable moment," one that only a duff follow-up movie to Purple Rain put an end to — temporarily in some people’s minds, forever in some others. In retrospect, Purple Rain wasn’t all that great shakes of a film, but it worked because Prince's musicianship and artistry in the concert sequences made you overlook his acting, mostly a series of mumbles and hissy fits.
It’s hard to process the guy from "that moment" is dead. From the time he shaved a few years off his official bio to seem more like a genius prodigy, he’s been able to impress us with his supernatural abilities, and we were all willing to have him act on those superpowers. Like his sketchy religious beliefs, his devotion to the Almighty always waging war on his celebration of the flesh.
How could one guy wage that battle for so long and always convince you he was winning on both sides? What was one supposed to make of a record like his song “God,” on the B-side of the “Purple Rain” single? Or the backwards message that said “I know that The Lord is coming soon, coming soon” at the end of his filthiest song, “Darling Nikki,” a song that single-handedly led to Tipper Gore starting the Parents Music Resource Center and the slapping of “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” labels on records from then on? Like a badge of honor on every rap and metal record that followed, it is almost incalculable how many added sales in those genres were on account of Prince.
From the moment he became uber-famous, Prince has been trying to convince us that he is on the path of righteousness. Remember how he argued with himself and as the voice of God on “Temptation,” that love is greater than sex and how God was all too willing to smite The Purple One before the end of the record like a misbehaving child? And remember how he held back The Black Album because it was somehow less spiritually bankrupt than its replacement, the religiously affirmed Lovesexy with Prince as a nude lotus blossom on the cover and promises to dedicate himself to God in the grooves? Well, Little Richard stopped doing that in 1964; maybe it was time for another ambiguous holy roller in 1987.
Then there was the time that Prince tried to turn himself into a symbol, an unpronounceable symbol at that. Not content to just have typographers substitute a peace sign for the “O” in Sign o’ the Times, he then forced them to put in extra man-hours trying to figure out how to put that symbol on a line of type instead of "Prince," a handle he now referred to as his slave name although he'd just released "My Name is Prince" mere months before. In 1994, he entered a contentious battle with his record label, which is the reason none of his albums have been remastered to this day. When he returned to Warner Brothers with the release of Art Official Age last year, it was hoped that we’d finally get some sonic upgrade. Sadly that, and his proposed memoirs, The Beautiful Ones, might not see the light of day, at least not in the fashion he intended. One report said he was only 50 pages into the project.
Most superhuman was his musicianship. Prince has always gotten accolades from his musical peers from Joni Mitchell to Randy Newman to George Clinton, but you only have to watch Prince play “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of George Harrison in 2012 to see his superhuman-ness at work. He not only makes the guitar weep, he makes it fucking disappear like David Copperfield!
Add to the list of Who Else Does That the number of completed and unreleased albums reportedly kept in the Paisley Park vault for when this inevitable day happened. Only Bowie could rival that much unreleased back catalog, but even Bowie fell to earth many years ago when he got married, had kids, appeared on sitcoms, and talked about his drug years on chat shows. Prince would get married, divorced and appear on a chat show once in a cherry moon, and you’d hear very little about his personal life.
Any anecdotes we heard of him since, like Kevin Smith’s account of being hired by The Purple One to make a documentary about Prince and then being mystified at every turn by him, only served to reinforce what we thought we already knew about him. The more he resembled Dave Chappelle’s caricature of him, a guy who could whup your ass on the basketball court in high heels and ruffles, the more we loved him.
He surprised everyone when he recorded Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” on Emancipation in 1996. Not because he hadn't recorded a note of other artists' material before that, but because we knew he was not one of us and we were gonna keep it that way.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Except that he actually was one of us, kinda sorta. Around the time of Controversy, I remember seeing him walking quickly down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan with his bodyguard Chick in tow. On the other side of the sidewalk there were two black guys bouncing along at a much slower pace and one of them yelled out
"Prince? More like a princess if you ask me.” More indignant laughter followed.
At that moment, even with a burly bodyguard and cloaked in the famous jacket that would carry him through 1999 and Purple Rain, Prince seemed vulnerable. But he knew his moment, like the Lord, was coming soon, coming soon.@gmail.com>