As anniversaries go, three years isn’t really noteworthy. If it was a wedding anniversary you’d be getting something leather. Which is kind of cool, maybe even kind of sexy I guess, if you go that way (leather pants? Really? Okaaaaaaay.) but not exactly how I picture Prince.
Lace? Sure. Satin? Yes. Barenacked? Let’s face it, yeah, definitely – I always imagined it as his natural state. In any case, not a huge landmark. But this week three years ago, Prince Rogers Nelson kicked on elsewhere, and it still feels wrong.
Here’s an unashamedly personal perspective on him, first published in 2016, from someone who never met him but listened to him obsessively for years, wrote about him whenever possible, and measured parts of his life by the intersections with Prince.
I always claimed Prince as mine. My discovery. My inspiration. My link.
It was weirdly personal - with equal emphasis on the weird and the personal. It resonated through my life at different times for nearly 40 years without ever becoming “real” in the sense of meeting the man. But it was very, very real.
In 1979 when I first heard what I assumed was his first album, I was devouring music by the container load, of every variety possible. And much of it was coming from my even more obsessed friend John Encarnacao who had brought me to Talking Heads and The Residents, the Monkees and Brian Eno. I didn’t offer much in return: just hoping I could keep up and not look gauche in his company.
Then I found this self-titled record with a simple but powerful photo of a bare-chested, long haired figure whose wispy moustache said “boy” but whose intense gaze said “man”. He was funky but easy for a suburban boy to move to without feeling, well, not-black, or worry that he might be sprung for still liking disco.
I Wanna Be Your Lover was sweetly needy; Still Waiting was just sweet; Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad was urgently needy; and Bambi ... well Bambi, multiple guitars and multiple desires, was just urgent.
These songs had pop tunes not just rhythms; guitars that scorched like some rock bloke, not just danced across like some cool Nile Rogers type; and sex was front, centre, on the sides and up the back. Even more so when his third album, the horny-handed and appropriately named Dirty Mind, arrived soon after with forget-about-subtext titles such as Head, Do It All Night, Dirty Mind and Sister (yes, he went there).
You bet this 14-year-old paid attention, even if you weren’t going to see me in jockstrap, suspenders and stockings under a trenchcoat any time soon.
And when I could bring these albums to John and find he didn’t just like them, he approved (!), I was just that little bit more grown up, a little bit more equal in my own eyes. Nothing mattered more. Thank you Mr Prince Rogers Nelson.
Now that Prince was mine I had to know more, and have more. There was an album before Prince? Ace. Was it true he made that album, For You, at 18, just a few years older than I was then? (Not quite: he was 20 when it was released, but still, wow.) And did it all himself? (True: “produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince” the back of the record said.) In Minneapolis? Where the hell is that? Can I go there?
That hard to get – in Australia anyway – For You, was another revelation. Softer and more clearly in debt to the early ‘70s soul I was starting to discover myself, it had an outrageous opening of an all-vocal gospel “choir” of his voice, it was a bit dirty (Soft And Wet) and it was so good.
Why didn’t we know about this at the time? Why, three albums in, wasn’t he the biggest thing around? Who could I tell about this? And what about his “offshoots” like Vanity 6? The man could do anything for anyone and kill it, people. Pay attention!
That sense of proselytising was there late one Saturday night a few years later as I was listening to one of my favourite Double J announcers, Annette Shun Wah, play some Prince and back announce the track as being from his “self-titled debut album”. What? No!
I had to call. More people had to know. So I sat on hold for quite a while – I had the time: after all I had no dates. I wonder why eh? - to tell her about For You, to gush about him and to bond with another Prince fan. Luckily I didn’t sound like a “you know nothing stupid radio person” ranter. Luckier still, she was not just tolerant but interested. One of the longest friendships in my life was born. Thanks Prince Rogers Nelson.
Through this time Prince remained someone I listened to and watched on TV, his concerts raved about as one of the best things you’d ever see, but no closer to me than the equally lauded, and equally long, stage shows of Bruce Springsteen. He remained metaphorically and physically elusive.
Even when my girlfriend and I were backpacking around the USA and Europe in 1988 and ‘89 as he toured the world (but not Australia even though he got as close as Japan) we would regularly reach towns a week or two after he had been or a week or two before he would arrive for shows sold out long before we left home.
So when an Australian tour finally arrived in April 1992, damn straight I was there. Second-to-last row at the Entertainment Centre, from where the stage was a postage stamp. And he was an even tinier figure than he famously was already.
But we could see him descend on a suspended bed. We could see him do those James Brown moves, those Nicholas Brothers stunts, those Al Green seductions. We heard the guitar squeals and felt the dirty little smirks. We were, to quote a favourite throwaway Prince song, delirious.
Though maybe not quite as delirious as 11 years later as the Entertainment Centre usher took us (us being that girlfriend who was deprived of him in 1988, had become wife by that 1992 show, and who had, in 1986, received her first mix tape from me with When You Were Mine on it) further and further forward on the floor.
Right forward. To the front row. Centre. Under his microphone essentially. Holy mother of god.
By this stage he wasn’t doing some of those licentious old favourites, any more: religion had got to him. The great band of his peak years wasn’t there – no Wendy or Lisa or Sheila E. And not everything he’d done in the previous decade had lasted on my turntable like his songs once had.
But oh boy could he still dance and sing and play whatever he turned his hand to. Nor did he lack for songs, having brought back some hits not seen on his setlist for a while. And did I mention he was about two metres away and shining like some exploding star?
We saw him again, less spectacularly and far less satisfyingly, a few years after that at Homebush, and I was overseas for most of those soon-to-be-fabled shows at the Opera House. It didn’t matter though. He had already changed my life a few times, stuck a pin in my experiences a few more times and I had a stack of records and CDs and memories to feast on for the rest of my life.
Thanks Prince Rogers Nelson.
TOP 10 ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVELY CHOSEN, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER, PRINCE SONGS
The multi-layered, vocal-only, baroque-meets-gospel-meets-soul title track of his little-known debut album was audacious for a first record, bold in the post-disco, post-punk, post-funk late 1970s, outrageous for a teenager allowed free reign in the studio and both impressive and captivating. The stage was set.
I Wanna Be Your Lover
Falsetto, mid-pace tempo, sexy groove and lyrics like “Don’t wanna pressure you baby, all I ever wanted to do/I wanna be your lover, I wanna be the only one who makes you come” that were not macho demands. He was going to seduce you, not dominate you. And you were going to let him.
When You Were Mine
Bliss. It had a funky bassline and pop drums with swirling keyboards against neatly choppy guitar. He sang with a flavour of vulnerability and backing vocals that were on the border of classic girl group. The lyrics were pleading and open and was that a hint of a ménage a trois? Then the tune lodged itself in you like the best pop always does. Bliss.
Immediately slinky and tremulous, it has a machine-tooled rhythm track and a very human desire. Boldly it doesn’t expand beyond a few vocal trills, working its narrow sound hard, until a simple little guitar figure prepares the way for a wah-wah guitar solo.
When Doves Cry
Fuller sounding but built around the keyboard not guitar, its sound was dominated by the upfront drums as the vocals sank a little further back. Once again he didn’t get “clever” but let the repetition and simplicity do the work.
You could slide all the way across the room on this sleek, brief and barely dressed song that hooked itself to your hips and tugged you this way and that with every bass note. Modest but potent.
Sign O’ The Times
A rare foray into social commentary that wasn’t sophisticated but worked better for that as he sang of drugs, AIDS, astronauts dying mid-air, presidential follies and existential crises. Low-slung rhythm, quirky synth “congas” smacked by live snare, funky guitar interruptions and judicious pauses. “September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time, now he’s doing horse ... it’s June”.
When he got devotional he could also get grand, if not grandiose. This builds from almost nothing, edging into view as if he’s been coming over the horizon before filling the screen and then galloping full tilt at you. Drums and guitars and feedback and sitar and straining vocals – this wasn’t a passive hymn it was a full bodied commitment.
Sexy M. F.
The saddest thing about his religious reawakening mid life was that he dropped the most outrageous of his songs, like this one whose full name can’t be printed here but let’s say the M.F. rhymes with mothertrucker “shakin’ that ass, shakin’ that ass”. Heavily vamped keyboards, rising trumpets visited by a low, honking saxophone, bassline all louche-all-the-time and then a little George Benson groovy jazz guitar solo. “I like it, I like.”
Not much more than a jam on a basic rhythm and spare chords. About nothing more than sex. And you will wonder why anything else matters as your brain switches off and your body operates independently.