Prince: Remembering the Rock Star, Funk Lord, Provocateur, Genius
How he created a world – but, in the end, could only go it aloneFeatures, News & Updates May 18, 2016
On Thursday, April 14th, at about six in the evening, a black SUV pulled up to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. It was an hour before showtime, but Prince didn’t need much preparation – this was the eighth stop on his Piano and a Microphone Tour, a series of unusual shows, mostly two a night, that saw one of the world’s greatest showmen scaling down his performance for an intimate keyboard recital. “He only soundchecked for a few minutes,” Lucy Freas, the promoter who’d set up this concert, tells Rolling Stone. As had been his habit for more than a decade – whether playing a 4,600-seat theater by himself or a 20,000-capacity arena with a full band – the shows were pop-ups, arranged on short notice. Freas had gotten an e-mail with the subject line “Prince” a few days before. Prince’s team was looking for an independent promoter – was she interested? She was on the phone 10 minutes later.
These Atlanta shows had originally been scheduled for April 7th, with tickets on sale nine days before (far more time than the 32 hours the Sony Centre in Toronto had to sell tickets for a show in March). The Fox Theatre sold out instantly, and Freas was already working on more dates in Philly, St. Louis and Nashville, as well as a Miami arena concert. But illness forced Prince to postpone Atlanta for a week, and when he arrived that night, he still wasn’t feeling well. “Don’t worry,” his tour coordinator told Freas. “Nobody will know. He’ll perform, and he’ll give it his all.”
When he came onstage for the first show, he seemed at ease, greeting fans in the front before he sat down at the piano and launched into a version of “Little Red Corvette,” dropping in bits of “Dirty Mind” and the Peanuts theme. It was a mesmerizing hour and 20 minutes. Piano was Prince’s first instrument – his father, John Nelson, had tried to make his way as a jazz pianist – so the night was a homecoming, a return to the source of all of Prince’s music. (“[My father] didn’t teach me that,” he joked at one point during a playful elaboration on “Chopsticks.” “I taught myself.”) Some moments it felt as if the songs were taking shape for the first time, brief hesitations giving way to new ideas. Others – particularly in the second show, where he played a driving version of “Black Sweat,” from 2006’s 3121 – felt completely realized, his voice and the rhythms ground out by his left hand filling all the space.
As with so many visionary artists, there was a period in Prince’s career – almost all of the 1980s – when he seemed able to look around corners, when his music seemed to live in the future, and then assemble that future around us. Perhaps because of that, there were moments at the Fox Theatre that feel now like premonitions. At the 7:00 show, he covered “A Case of You,” by Joni Mitchell, long one of his favorite artists. The year before, Mitchell had been found alone and unconscious at her Los Angeles home, having suffered a brain aneurysm. (She has since made a partial recovery.) He also played David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a tribute to an artist who had died just three months earlier, and who had been – as Prince himself always was – restless and deliberate with his art and image, and who challenged the norms of gender and genre. The song is about the wish to transcend – to snatch a moment of glory that can transform the impermanent into the eternal – and Prince embodied the lyric, starting each line with a vocal stab that then floated upward.
At the 10:00 show, his third and final encore began with “Sometimes It Snows in April,” from 1986’s Parade, a eulogy for the character Prince played in the film Under the Cherry Moon, Christopher Tracy. “Sometimes I wish life was never ending,” goes the chorus. “All good things, they say, will never last.” The show concluded with “Purple Rain.” Prince slipped in snatches from “The Beautiful Ones” and “Diamonds and Pearls,” then came back to the 1984 song that announced his ascension to megastar status. The audience joined him in the familiar wordless falsetto at the end, hands clapping, voices lifted. And then it was over. Three weeks before – following shows in Montreal and Toronto – he’d had afterparties at local clubs. At Toronto’s Everleigh club, the post-show jam came well after closing time. “It was three or 3:30 a.m.,” says promoter Rubin Fogel. “He had flown in on a private plane. He couldn’t fly back until 6 a.m. because of airport curfews. So he just decided to play. “ In Atlanta, there was no after-party. He went directly to the airport, and around 1 a.m., an emergency call came from the plane. The 1988 Dassault Falcon 900 was less than an hour from Minneapolis, but the jet put down in Moline, Illinois. Though it would be dismissed as the flu – the same cause given for the show cancellations in Atlanta the week before – reports have surfaced that Prince was allegedly treated for a drug overdose, possibly Percocet, at a local hospital, and left because no private room was available. His dynamic stage shows had not been without a price – sources say he had hip problems, possibly dating back more than 30 years to injuries sustained during the Purple Rain tour.
He seemed frail but in good spirits the next night, Saturday, April 16th, according to those who attended a dance party held at his Paisley Park compound. He showed off a new guitar, but left it in the case – “I can’t play the guitar at all these days,” he said, according to longtime Prince chronicler Jon Bream’s account of the night in the Minneapolis Star Tribune – briefly entertaining a crowd of 300 with his take on “Chopsticks” on a new purple piano. “Wait a few days before you waste your prayers,” he told them.
The following Thursday morning, April 21st, Prince was found in an elevator at Paisley Park. Sources say he had been living by himself in an apartment on the second floor in the back of the 65,000-square-foot complex, having torn down his nearby house in 2005, around the time of his second divorce. The last time he’d been seen alive was about 8 p.m. the previous night. A 911 call was placed at 9:43 a.m., but medics could not revive him and Prince was pronounced dead at 10:07 a.m. He was 57.
In Minneapolis that night, the streets around First Avenue, the club where the performance scenes of the Purple Rain movie were filmed, were shut down, as thousands of people gathered to dance and sing along to Prince’s music. They were not alone. They danced in Los Angeles and in Brooklyn, where Spike Lee rolled up the garage door of his 40 Acres and a Mule production company and a DJ blasted Prince tunes through the night.
They were gathered to enact the music, which has always been about community – the utopias of musical and sexual freedom he called Uptown, Paisley Park or Erotic City. He was rock’s greatest trickster figure, the trick being that he could become whatever you imagined a rock star to be. “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” he asked in one song. The only answer was yes. He shifted his voice from male to female, and shrouded himself in mystery and impeccably tailored clothing (when he chose to wear clothing), selling fantasy in his music and image. Those fantasies were outrageously sexual and passionately religious, sometimes at the same moment. Rock & roll had always crossed the sacred and profane, so he upped the ante to the apocalyptic and the pornographic.
More than any other Eighties star, Prince brought the dreams of rock & roll past into the present: He wore Jimi Hendrix’s coat, sported Little Richard’s mustache, mastered James Brown’s dance moves, and he did all this over drum-machine beats, showing how the impulses of history could be turned into the sound of the future. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” he intoned at the beginning of Purple Rain, turning the album that catapulted him to superstardom into a pop marriage ceremony. Whether the people listening were black or white, whether they were straight or gay, they were now bonded, their union consecrated by his music.
Now, he was gone, and so in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Brooklyn, they honored him in the only way that made sense: by dancing in the streets.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born on June 7th, 1958, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis. From the beginning, he carried the hopes and burdens of his father’s dreams. John Nelson led a group called the Prince Rogers Trio, though his day job was at Honeywell, a manufacturer of everything from thermostats to airplane parts. “I named my son Prince because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do,” John once said. His mother, Mattie Shaw, was a vocalist who brought to mind the wounded grit of Billie Holiday. She had sung with John’s trio, but let it go after they married – the couple already had five children from previous relationships. Mattie was 17 years younger than John, and their personalities differed. “My mom’s the wild side of me,” Prince told Rolling Stone in 1985. “She’s like that all the time. My dad’s real serene; it takes the music to get him going.” Wildness and serenity would be one of many contradictions he embodied throughout his life.
Music came to him young. “He could hear music even from a very early age,” his mother told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1984. “When he was three or four, we’d go to the department store and he’d jump on … any type of instrument there was. Mostly the piano and organ. I’d have to hunt for him, and that’s where he’d be – in the music department.” When he was no more than five, his mother took him to see his father perform. It was a burlesque show. As the dancers did their thing, the theater vibrated with screams and excitement. “From then on, I think I wanted to be a musician,” Prince later said. Eros and music were fused, the power of the combination imprinted on his mind. It would never leave.
Both of his parents were strict Seventh-day Adventists; Prince would say later that the most he got out of religion was “the experience of the choir.” He told Chris Rock on MTV in 1997 that the church’s message “was based in fear,” but he took much from his Adventist Bible study: The church focuses strongly on the Book of Revelation, and the imminent apocalypse that will precede the return of Christ. Prince would begin his breakthrough album, 1999, with a song that turned the apocalypse into a celebration. And his greatest album took its name from the Adventist magazine Signs of the Times.
When Prince was about eight, his parents separated. He’d later remember constant arguments, with his father’s music career as a fric tion point. His father “felt hurt that he never got his break, because of having the wife and kids and stuff,” Prince said. “I think music is what broke [my mother] and my father up.” John moved from their home in North Minneapolis into an apartment downtown. He left behind his piano, and this is when Prince gravitated to the instrument in earnest. “I had one piano lesson and two guitar lessons as a kid,” he told the Star Tribune. “I was a poor student, because when a teacher would be trying to teach me how to play junky stuff, I would start playing my own songs.” By the time he’d reached high school, he had already mastered keyboards, guitar, bass and drums.
Not long after the divorce, his mother remarried, and Prince moved in with his father. Their reunion didn’t last long. When Prince was 13, his father kicked him out, perhaps because of a dalliance with a girl. Years later, Prince remembered calling him from a pay phone, begging to come back, and being refused. “I sat crying at that phone booth for two hours,” he told Rolling Stone in 1985. “That was the last time I cried.”
He moved in with his Aunt Olivia, but his domestic exiles created longing and anger that played out in his career: He would build a community in his music and his band, but then cut off band members whenever he felt it necessary; he would most often record albums by himself. He was the only one he could count on. “What if everybody around me split?” he said to Rolling Stone in 1990. “Then I’d be left with only me, and I’d have to fend for me. That’s why I have to protect me.”
He was shy and quiet in public, but a cutup with his friends. At school, he was a disinterested student. Music and sports were his passions. James Harris III (later known as Jimmy Jam) met him in a junior-high music class. “As soon as the teacher left the room, we just started jamming,” says Jimmy Jam. “His keyboard runs were amazing – things I couldn’t dream of doing, and I thought of myself as a pretty good keyboard player.” Prince made the basketball team in junior high and freshman year of high school, despite being not much more than five feet tall. “He was a great basketball player,” says Jimmy Jam. “He would come up the court and girls would be screaming. He had a huge Afro, and if you had an Afro in those days, it was definitely a premium.”
His first band came at 14, named Phoenix, then Soul Explosion. Prince played guitar, his friend André Simon Anderson (later known as André Cymone) played bass. When his aunt tired of the band’s noise, Prince ended up living at André’s house. Soul Explosion would rehearse in the basement. “We used to have a philosophy that when everybody else is eating turkey dinner and watching football games and doing all that kind of stuff, we need to practice,” says Cymone. “We’re going to be superstars, and if we’re going to be superstars, we have to practice.” There was a 10 p.m. curfew on music, but Prince eventually moved from André’s room down to the basement, where he could turn down his guitar and play until 4 a.m. These nocturnal music-making habits would stay with him the rest of his life.
By 16, he was writing his own songs. The group became Grand Central (with Morris Day on drums), then Champagne. A demo session brought Prince to the attention of Chris Moon, who ran a local studio. When the rest of the band went across the street during a lunch break, Prince stayed behind. “I look out of the control room into the studio, and he’s playing the drums,” says Moon. “Then I see him wander over and play a bit of piano. And then he stops playing that and picks up the bass.” Moon wanted someone who could add music to some lyrics he’d been working on. He proposed a partnership, and eventually gave Prince keys to the place. It took him about six months to master the studio well enough to run sessions for his one-man-band adventures.
Moon played a demo tape for Owen Husney, a Minneapolis promoter. “Most artists, their sound would be derivative,” Husney says. “This didn’t have that. He was attempting to create something new. And when I heard that vulnerable little falsetto voice, it was like, ‘I want to protect this person.'” He signed on as manager and raised $50,000 so that Prince had new instruments and a place to live. Then he created an elaborate press kit to market his new artist.
Warners offered a three-album deal and signed a 19-year-old Prince in 1977. The label wanted Prince to collaborate with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire. “The ink wasn’t dry on the Warner Bros. contract, and he said, ‘Nobody is producing my album,'” Husney says. A session was arranged so that Prince could prove to the label that he didn’t need help in the studio. “He put down a guitar track and got it right,” Lenny Waronker, then head of A&R for the label, remembered. “Then he put down the drums – wow. You could just tell – the guitar was locked in, the timing was good, you could tell it was easy for him.”
As Waronker left the studio, Prince told him, “Don’t make me black.” Growing up, Prince had been bused to grade school in a white suburb, listened to the Minneapolis rock station KQRS and played Carole King covers in high school. He knew two worlds, and knew there was more power in controlling both, not one. He ran down a list of artists that inspired him: Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones. Warners may have thought it was signing a kid who could play and produce his own work like Stevie Wonder – which would have been remarkable enough. Prince was putting the company on notice that this was only a starting point.
It was not a smooth start. According to Ronin Ro’s Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks, Prince’s 1978 debut, For You, burned through $170,000, almost three times its budget. The music bounced with the hint of a new perspective – light pop melodies lifting up R&B grooves, rock guitar pulling them back down – but it felt airless, as if one man had locked himself away with these sounds for too long, which he had. Though the single “Soft and Wet” reached Number 12 on the R&B chart, the album sold poorly, and when Prince put a band together, Warners wouldn’t spend money to put it on the road.
He needed his next album to be a hit. 1979’s Prince was taut and expansive at the same time. Instead of typical R&B horns, Prince stabbed at his keyboards and guitar, and the music nodded toward the post-punk pop of the Cars or Blondie. Its sin-gle “I Wanna Be Your Lover” topped the R&B chart and reached Number 11 on theBillboard Hot 100, and would sell 500,000 copies.
His next album, 1980’s Dirty Mind, celebrated orgiastic pleasures, from simply doing it all night, to doing it in a threesome, doing it with a bride on the way to her wedding, doing it with strangers and doing it with your sister. There was nothing you couldn’t do, these songs said. The music was just as polymorphous. Ice-cold New Wave keyboards were heated by funk guitar, and though some of the melodies had a Sixties classicism, the sound was utterly new – so stripped-down it almost seemed like dub reggae, a music of subtraction. On the album cover, Prince wore a trench coat over black bikini underwear. What audience was he trying to appeal to? Black? White? Men? Women?
This would become the central dynamic of Eighties pop, as Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna used music and image to cross the boundaries of race, gender and genre in ways that electrified and united audiences. But Prince was there first with Dirty Mind. It peaked at 45 on the Billboard albums chart, but its impact was bigger than that. The critic Robert Christgau would call Prince “the first commercially viable artist in a decade to claim the visionary high ground of Lennon and Dylan and Hendrix.”
That vision could not be contained to an album a year. He’d need more. After the Dirty Mind tour wrapped in April 1981, he wanted to create a funk band, and he approached the Minneapolis group Flyte Tyme – including Jimmy Jam on keyboards and Terry Lewis on bass – with an idea: He’d write, produce and perform the material, they’d sing and tour it. Calling the new band the Time, Prince recorded the six songs on their debut album in two weeks. Then, in 10 days in August, he recorded his own fourth album, Controversy. Its October release coincided with an interesting invitation: The Rolling Stones wanted Prince to open their dates at the Memorial Coliseum in L.A., before crowds of 100,000, on October 9th and 11th.
Prince opened the first show – which also included George Thorogood and the J. Geils Band on the bill – at two in the afternoon. “He came out with the trench coat and bikini briefs,” says J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf. “When the trench coat opened up, the audience didn’t quite understand. People started turning on him, yelling, throwing things.” Prince was unable to finish his set. Two days later, things were even worse. Bottles flew at the stage during the first song, and Prince walked off in the middle of another.
It was the last time Prince would open a show for anyone. After this, he built his own world.
Prince began work on his fifth album, 1999, in early 1982. He was 23 years old and entering a golden period: For the next three years, it seemed like every waking moment yielded a song, and every song was a hit. He now had three groups: his own band, the Revolution; the Time; and a trio of women in lingerie he called Vanity 6. Before long, he would also be creating music for percussionist Sheila E. He was ceaseless, sometimes working for three days straight without sleep. “Do I have to eat?” he mused in Rolling Stone in 1985. “I wish I didn’t have to eat.”
By the end of 1985, he had made 15 albums in seven years – seven under his own name; three by the Time; two from Sheila E., and one each from Vanity 6, Apollonia 6 and the Family. Those albums generated 13 Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The Minneapolis sound – that synth-driven blend of funk, pop and rock which Prince pioneered – was everywhere, especially after Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, whom Prince had fired from the Time, began producing a string of hits for artists like the S.O.S. Band, Klymaxx and Janet Jackson. Then there were the Prince songs that became huge hits for Chaka Khan (“I Feel for You,” 1984), Sheena Easton (“Sugar Walls,” 1984), and the Bangles (“Manic Monday,” 1986).
Prince had gone after all this, but on his own terms. No one would have predicted that he’d break through with singles about the End Times or a sexually voracious woman, or that he could increase the power of his burgeoning fame by refusing to do interviews. Yet that’s exactly what happened with 1999. He started work on the album at the Minneapolis home studio he called Uptown, and then shifted to Sunset Sound in L.A., recording so much material that he insisted Warners release a double album. The label – enthused by a hit Prince had crafted for the Time, “777-9311” – agreed. The album arrived in October 1982, and when he went on tour behind it, Vanity 6 and the Time opened. His universe was taking shape.
The shows were ecstatic. He was a guitar hero who could dance like James Brown, then bounce out of a split and run to the keyboards to unleash another solo. And in the spring of 1983, radio and MTV embraced “Little Red Corvette” – his ode to a fast girl who kept condoms (some of them used) in her pocket – flipping the switch on platinum sales.
Prince wanted a mass audience as expansive as his vision for his music. Jackson, whose crossover juggernaut Thriller was released a month after 1999, was a rival. But “Michael wasn’t the biggest priority to kill,” Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin said. “It was everyone.”
The mixed-race, mixed-gender band Prince had assembled, the Revolution, was the first step: “His dream was that we’d be Fleetwood Mac mixed with Sly and the Family Stone,” said Lisa Coleman, who played keyboards. Said Prince, “I wanted community more than anything else.” Jams during soundchecks were beginning to yield song ideas. The next album would be more collaborative than any he’d made before.
Purple Rain wouldn’t be just an album. Prince wanted to make a movie as well. William Blinn, who wrote the first draft of what would become the script for Purple Rain, recalled how the story took shape when Prince sat at the piano to play Blinn some of his father’s music and began to talk about his dad. “It was as if he were sorting out his own mystery – an honest quest to figure himself out,” Blinn said. “He saved all the money on shrinks and put it in the movie.”
Director Albert Magnoli spent a month in Minneapolis hanging out with Prince and his band, the Time and Vanity 6. He rewrote the script to focus on the musical rivalry between the Revolution and the Time, and the domestic drama that Prince’s character, the Kid, endured at home. Hollywood studios weren’t interested, and Prince’s managers turned to Warner Bros. chairman Mo Ostin, who put up $2 million against future royalties. It was a shrewd move. On a budget of $7.2 million, the Purple Rain movie grossed $68 million. The album went to Number One and stayed there for 24 weeks, eventually selling more than 10 million copies.
Prince had understood, as James Brown did when he cut Live at the Apollo in 1962, that if more people could experience the power of his live show, they would recognize how unique his gifts were. The movie gave him the fame he’d craved. And as the wild success of the album showed, it was once again on his terms. “When Doves Cry,” the first single, was a more disorienting form of pop music than anyone had ever taken to Number One before – it had no bass, carried instead by strangulated guitar, the crack of Prince’s trademark Linn drum machine, and keyboards. And “Purple Rain,” which went to Number Two, showed how different he was from Michael Jackson – Jackson needed Eddie Van Halen to play guitar on “Beat It,” his rock breakthrough. The solo that blew Prince’s rock ballad wide open was his own.
The Purple Rain tour began in November 1984. “I really couldn’t liken it to anything other than the Beatles,” says Alan Leeds, Prince’s tour manager at the time. But those roaring crowds also marked the end of the golden period. Things would never be the same.
In April 1985, Prince announced he was taking a break from live performance and released his seventh album, Around the World in a Day. He refused to let Warners promote a single, or market the album in record stores. Thus did he begin a period of withdrawal that never truly ended. After Around the World in a Daydropped quickly from Number One, he relented and let Warners focus on “Raspberry Beret” as a single and video – it became a Number Two hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
His connection with his band began to fray. He had elevated Wendy and Lisa to star status, an acknowledgment of their abilities and contributions, and a welcome sign that he could treat women as more than sex objects. Yet they wanted more creative input, and would leave in 1986, after his next album, Parade, the soundtrack to the disastrous film Under the Cherry Moon, which Prince himself directed.
His last two albums had gone to Number One; Parade climbed to Number Three, and then no higher, despite its Number One single “Kiss.” When he told Warners his next album would be a triple album, the label refused. He had always gotten his way up to then, but Prince lost the fight. And so took shape a contradiction that had no undoing: The album that would prove to be his greatest work was also the proof that his power was no longer absolute.
He pared the triple down to a double: Sign ‘O’ the Times. It contained dreamscape pop like “Starfish and Coffee” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”; bedrock funk workouts like “Housequake” and “Hot Thing”; and a trio of songs that formed his most tender exploration of romance and gender: “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Strange Relationship” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” It stands as one of the best records of the 1980s, but he was no longer unstoppable. Sign ‘O’ the Times peaked at Number Six, and its fortunes might have been helped by a tour, but Prince refused to bring the production he’d mounted in Europe to the U.S. He opted instead for a concert film, shot mostly on a soundstage at his recently built Paisley Park facility in suburban Minneapolis.
In 1987, he delivered a raw album called The Funk Bible to Warner Bros., then experienced a late-night vision that convinced him the album was too angry to release. He asked the label to destroy more than 400,000 copies of what would come to be known as The Black Album. In return he gave them a more spiritually and musically uplifting collection, 1988’s Lovesexy, but wanted all the songs grouped into one continuous track on the CD, to control the listening experience. It failed to crack the Top 10 of the albums chart, his first album since Controversy, in 1981, to do so. Worse, the Lovesexy tour – his first tour in the U.S. in three years – lost money.
Angered that Warners would not let him release the music he wanted at the pace he wanted, he dropped his name for a symbol, thinking that his new glyph persona wouldn’t be bound by Prince’s record contract. When he found out there was no freedom from his contract, he took to writing the word “slave” on his face. He became a figure of ridicule. “You’re the only slave that owns the plantation,” Alan Leeds told him. But in his haphazard way, Prince was a revolutionary. The relationship between labels and artists has shifted drastically in the digital age, and Prince’s concerns about owning his masters and controlling his music are now common currency.
In 1996, he ended his contract with Warners. It should have been a time of celebration. But it was marked by stress and tragedy. On Valentine’s Day, he had married Mayte Garcia, one of his backup dancers, and the couple were expecting a child. He spent the spring working on two projects, his final album for Warners (Chaos and Disorder) and a three-CD set that would announce his freedom (Emancipation). According to Prince biographer Alex Hahn, on April 21st – exactly 20 years before his death – after what seemed to be one of his marathon three- day working sessions, Garcia found him passed out in the Paisley Park studio. He was brought to the hospital, but when he regained consciousness, he wouldn’t stay.
That October, the couple experienced an unimaginable loss: Their child was born with a rare genetic disorder and died within a week. In pain, Prince refused to address the truth in an interview with Oprah Winfrey just days after the child’s death. “Our family exists,” he said. “It’s only the beginning.” But this wish was not to be. The couple separated in 1999.
In 2004, Prince could claim something he hadn’t enjoyed for more than a decade: He was the center of attention, and once again it was for his music. On February 8th, he opened the Grammys in Los Angeles, performing a medley of “Purple Rain,” “Baby I’m a Star” and “Let’s Go Crazy” with Beyoncé, and throwing in a bit of her hit “Crazy in Love.” For five minutes, it was Purple Rain all over again, 24 million people watching in awe as he demonstrated his command of the stage. It would take the Grammys another six years to match these ratings.
Five weeks later, on March 15th, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in a ceremony held in New York. The night’s highlight came during a rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Harrison was posthumously inducted that evening as a solo performer, and the song was sung by Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty, who had known Harrison well. But the final moment went to Prince. It is a purposeful moment – in front of the keepers of rock’s legacy, he stakes his claim as a guitar god, edging the song from a solemn honor into something more thrilling. His playing is lyrical, but full of power, as for nearly three minutes he makes his guitar moan and strut. “They rehearsed a bunch of times,” says Paul Shaffer, the musical director for the Hall of Fame inductions. “Every time, you could see this was going to tear the roof off the place. But Prince kept a little something in reserve for the actual performance itself.” At one point, he shifts gears so quickly it sounds as though he’s trading bars with himself, a one-man guitar duel. Behind him, Harrison’s son, Dhani, plays acoustic, and beams with joy.
Shortly after the induction, Prince began an 89-date arena tour of the U.S., and released a new album through Columbia, Musicology. He now used the music industry for his own purposes. He released live albums and rarities through his website, and took advantage of the promotional power of major labels when it suited him. He functioned as a modern pop star, earning money reliably on the road and looking for revenue wherever he could find it.
He had remarried in 2001, to Manuela Testolini, the same year he became a Jehovah’s Witness. The faith lasted longer than the marriage. They divorced in 2006, shortly after he demolished the Minneapolis house they shared. He made Paisley Park his residence, when not renting L.A. mansions for $70,000 a month.
There were moments – like his majestic Super Bowl halftime performance in 2007 – where he was center stage in the culture again. There was also chaos, much of it self-generated. His Paisley Park label folded in 1994, and there were layoffs at the compound in 1996. At the time of his death, it had ceased being a full-time operation. There were no longer engineers always on duty if he got the urge to record in the middle of the night, or any security, for that matter. There was Prince, his assistant, and someone to care for and run the building.
On April 19th, Prince went to the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis to see jazz and R&B singer Lizz Wright. He stayed for the whole set, including the encore, a rarity for him, and left with a strut and his cane over his shoulder.
Two days later he was dead. Some have speculated that hip difficulties may have led him to painkillers. He is said to have had corrective hip surgery in 2010. At press time, the results of Prince’s autopsy had not been released.
On April 23rd, a memorial service was held at Paisley Park for Prince, whose remains had been cremated. “It was quiet and somber,” says Sheila E. “The lights were dimmed. Candles were burning. Just like Prince would have done. His music was playing at a low volume. There were very few people, and they’re in disbelief. You expect him to walk out into the room and greet you.”
But if he greets us now, it will be through his music. There is, by all accounts, a vault of unreleased material – an unimaginable number of songs and live performances, though their fate is unclear. It doesn’t really matter. There is already enough – an overwhelming amount. It’s said that there was a point when he made one song – at least one – every day, as if he was guided by that line in “1999” about how we’re all running out of time. And we are. But the music keeps going.
Additional reporting by David Browne, Patrick Doyle and Andy Greene.In January 2014, we spent an evening at Paisley Park with Prince, conducting interviews for a cover story that was never published. See excerpts below, and read the full story here.