It isn’t very often a musician or band comes along that changes music. Most musicians, songwriters, performers have talent, lots of it, especially if they consistently produce new music. We could spend a lot of time and make a list of all the performers we like that are considered “great,” or just consult a list from a magazine like Rolling Stone or Billboard and say, “yep, I agree.”
And then there are the true geniuses of the music world. I first became aware of music genius as a child when I heard a Duke Ellington recording my parents were listening to at the time. My oldest brother was into a trumpet player named Miles Davis, so at the age of seven I decided to be a trumpet player.
Then there were the Beatles. Although it could be argued that none of the Fab Four were geniuses in the strict sense of the definition, their collaboration as a band and with their producer George Martin was genius. The Beatles are, without any dispute, the most influential musical act in history.
David Bowie changed the look of rock stars, or at least expanded the look — as well as the sound — of rock and roll. Jimi Hendrix before him set a new standard for guitar playing that no one has ever matched, let alone surpassed.
How many times have we heard someone referred to as “The Next Jimi Hendrix,” and then responded with, “He’s good, but he isn’t anything like Jimi.” It’s a terrible burden to put on someone’s shoulders, the mantle of being the next true genius.
Then, in 1978 we were treated to an unknown artist, a singer/songwriter/guitarist/performer who, it was claimed, played all the instruments and provided all the vocals — “No way!”
In 1982 this guy, known only as Prince, released an album called 1999. The title track was about nuclear proliferation, but it became a dance and party hit. In 1983 Cheech and Chong released their movie Still Smokin’ and the song “Delirious” was featured.
Prince was a certifiable sensation. He appealed to a wide range of fans, with a wide range of musical sounds. He carried on the funk, R&B, soul and even hard rock. The man could shred on the guitar. And yes, he did play all the instruments and sing all the vocals.
But he had a band, a really good one, called The Revolution. He let that one go and formed another one: The New Power Generation. In all this time he never stopped creating music and performing it.
And putting it in movies. First with the very successful Purple Rain, followed by Under The Cherry Moon, Sign O’ The Times and Graffiti Bridge.
Somewhere in the late 1980’s he built his Paisley Park Studio, opening it in 1988. I remember because while at the Shepherd Express in Milwaukee, WI, I received an invitation for the grand opening open house. He actually invited people out to his private studio, not just for business like that, but for parties — for everybody it seemed. This past Saturday there was a party at Paisley Park in which people from his old hood were invited to enjoy his home.
This genius known as Prince also fought for civil rights, human rights and artists’ rights. Usually quietly so you wouldn’t know about it. He offered his resources to the family of Trayvon Martin and played a show in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was killed. He recorded two songs that went gold and all the money was used to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Prince did all of that.
In 1993 he took a stand for the rights of artists and stopped using his name. He gave up his name, rather than capitulate to Warner Brothers and he went by an unpronounceable symbol that became known as “The Love Symbol.” That was pretty radical.
“The first step I have taken toward the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol. Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros. …
“I was born Prince and did not want to adopt another conventional name. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was the Love Symbol, a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about. This symbol is present in my work over the years; it is a concept that has evolved from my frustration; it is who I am. It is my name …”
His albums weren’t selling very well at the time and there were constant disputes between the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and Warner Bros. over which songs would be released as singles. Some people thought it was ballsy on his part, others thought it was silly.
Once his contract with Warners ended he went back to using his name, but continued to use the love symbol and the love symbol guitar. He released more albums, a total of 39 over his career, not including the compilation and live albums. Prince was one of the most prolific musical artists of any generation.
In 2004 he released Musicology on his own NPG Records label, to wide commercial and critical acclaim. He continued to perform live, doing things with his body that made other people his age wince because, well, we couldn’t do any of that.
In 2007 Prince performed an outdoor concert that can be argued is the best Super Bowl Half Time Show in the history of the NFL. February 4 he and his band and performers did it in a downpour, as if he had planned it all to be that way. And he wasn’t out there promoting his latest recording (3121). He actually played covers from the Foo Fighters, Queen, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan and Creedance Clearwater Revival.
In the pouring rain, with live, electric instruments and microphones. He had electric guitars strapped to his body, he grabbed the mic stands — makes you cringe just thinking about it. The show ended with a smoking rendition of his hit, “Purple Rain,” his Love Symbol stage lit in purple, showering Dolphin Stadium with purple rain.
One of the few musical performances of Prince you can find on YouTube is the one from the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to George Harrison in which Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Dhani Harrison, Steve Winwood and others perform Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Prince is one of the others and delivers a scorching guitar solo to carry the song to its end. At which point you’ll ask, “What happened to his guitar?” A Fender Telecaster just disappears. It was the same year Prince was inducted into that Cleveland hall.
So it was very sad news this morning to read and then see on TV, Prince had passed away. We don’t know why or how, if it was related to him being sick with the flu and had to make an emergency landing in Moline, IL for medical treatment last week. People who saw him Saturday evening said he looked good.
Whatever the reason, the world has lost another great musical soul.
Prince Rogers Nelson, born June 8, 1958, died April 21, 2016.
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life
Electric word life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here to tell you
There’s something else
The after world
Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the elected government officials and business were so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that.