There are too many stories to tell about Prince Rogers Nelson and his sudden passing on April 21, 2016, at the far-too-young age of 57. Stories of the dazzling star selling 100 million records, the explosive entertainer, the incendiary guitarist, the prolific composer: genre-blending, gender-bending, deeply spiritual, incorrigibly carnal, fiercely humble.
There are stories of deep, diverse yet quiet, often anonymous, activism that are only now emerging. There are many other stories we will never know.
So how to parse all this?
We felt these conflicting impulses ourselves. We're Prince fans ourselves, here in the meadows of Creative COW, each with stories of the ways he's touched us, but we didn't know how to talk about them with you in a way that was a) manageable, and b) generally on-topic for the kinds of things we typically talk about here.
It all snapped into focus when a Prince video crossed the Facebook timeline of retired Creative COW co-founder Ronald Lindeboom. It was posted by Steve Purcell, General Manager of Hollywood post house Chainsaw, part of the SIM Group, whose new 65,000 sq. ft. facility at the historic Eastman Kodak building in Hollywood will be opening any day now.
Steve has been around since the 80s, as one of the founders of The Post Group, which started as five guys, and grew to become one of the biggest houses in town, with over 200 people. Steve rose to the top, and after 10 years as Senior Editor, left in 1989 to start SLP Productions. Over the next 20+ years, before arriving at Chainsaw as the GM in 2012, he has picked up an Emmy, a Grammy, and an astonishing array of clients and projects as an editor, director, and producer: Paul McCartney, Elton John, Barbara Streisand, Van Halen, BB King, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, James Brown, Blink 182, Yanni, Mavis Staples, Meatloaf, The USC Shoah Foundation, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and yes, you guessed it, Prince.
"I edited a concert for him, and established a relationship through that," Steve tells us. "I was his go-to guy for anything music video-, concert-, or behind the scenes-related, for six years." This included editing Prince's films Sign 'o' the Times and Graffiti Bridge, music videos including "Kiss," "Batdance" (both of which were #1 US singles), "Diamonds & Pearls," and many more.
It also included extensive touring with Prince, which led to this jaw-dropping video. Simple enough – Prince and a few members of his band during a soundcheck in Osaka, riffing on George Gershwin's "Summertime," from the musical Porgy & Bess.
It'll take you about 5 seconds to see why this video has racked up over 9 million views in its first four days. A casual Prince at the piano, fingers dancing across the keys with what might be described as "playful authority," calling out the changes as he shifted keys every few lines: fluid, organic, mesmerizing.
Enough introduction. Behold.
You've never seen anything like that, have you? Neither has Steve Purcell, even after years of working intimately with Prince on so many musical projects. "I've never seen footage that he's allowed to be shot showing him rehearsing. It may exist, but I've never even heard about it."
I was astonished, as much as anything, by the simple fact of Prince doing this. Of course, the tour interrupted by a medical detour and his unexpected passing was called "Piano & a Microphone" – but still! It seems to me, I tell Steve, that Prince could just as easily be remembered as one of the great pianists of all time, every bit as much as he's acclaimed as one of great guitarists, if only we'd heard him do it more.
Steve reminds me that Prince is a trained classical pianist. Even around the house, it was his first instrument. In fact, Prince composed his first song on the piano, "Funk Machine," at age 7.
(Wait, Prince wrote a song called "Funk Machine" in 1965?!? Not just precocious, but prophetic. Even further ahead of his time than you thought.)
"You've seen him play the keyboards on stage for many years, like the Hammond organ," continues Steve, "but he was really a trained pianist. The side of him being a musician in that video, instead of being a rock star, I don't think most people ever saw that.
"He was all about the music, and not at all about being a rock star. I think he recognized that he had an exceptional gift.
"I think with a lot of musicians, or rock stars, it becomes a business to build their careers, and build their public awareness, whereas in Prince's core, he recognized that he didn't need to do any of that. He just needed to do what he did: play his music, write his music, and the rest would fall into place."
"He lived music 24 hours a day."
Steve offers a remarkable, literal example of what it meant for Prince to live music 24 hours a day.
From November 2006 to April 2007, Prince was in residence at the Rio in Las Vegas. "He would do a show at 8 o'clock," says Steve, "but he would come into the venue at 2 o'clock, and he would rehearse until six. Then he would break for dinner, the show would go on at 8, and he would play until midnight.
"Then he would take an hour break, and he would go into a bar – a bar that would hold maybe 30 people – and started playing at 1 or 2 AM, and play until 6 AM. Then he would go to sleep, and repeat that for months: up at 1, rehearse 2 to 6, concert 8 to midnight, play in this nightclub from 1 AM until 5 or 6.
"That was his life.
"Any time I was around, it was music-related, so I'm sure there were other things that were going on in his life, but in my experience, it revolved around rehearsing, writing, performing, and recording."
Prince being a startlingly accomplished pianist is really just the start of it. He played over 2 dozen instruments, all of them at least "really well," and, obviously, some considerably better than that.
One of my favorite quotes floating around these days is from Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighter in chief Dave Grohl. Like Prince, Dave played virtually all of the instruments on his early albums, and when asked by Howard Stern if Prince was a better musician than Dave, Dave replied, "Dude, Prince is a better drummer than I am."
(Here's something you probably don't remember from Prince's legendary 2007 Super Bowl show: he played a Foo Fighters song! "Best of You," right before "Purple Rain" no less.)
Perhaps a bit rhetorically overstated, a tendency I appreciate, but in fact, Prince was often the best performer on every instrument in his bands. Not because he worked with slouches. Quite the contrary. His expectations were high, because he himself was just that good.
This extended to an area where Prince's peers indeed included Michael Jackson, James Brown, and, uhm, nobody else – but Prince still found a way to excel.
"When you see him perform, and you saw his choreography, everything was motivated," says Steve. "It wasn't just dance.
"In one of the concerts we worked on together, he was dancing and he spun, and he did the splits, and he moved from stage right to stage left, and whatever it was. I asked him, 'What's going on there? What are you doing?'
"He said, 'Well, I'm in my house, I'm going across the living room, and I'm pulling an LP off the bookshelf. Then I took the LP out of the sleeve, and I put it on the turntable. Then I took the needle, and put it on the album. I put the sleeve for the LP back on the shelf, and then I walked away.'
"That's how he thought about everything. Everything was motivated. It's almost like he was a mime in his choreography.
"That shows how deeply he immersed himself in his performance and his music. He thought of it as theater. It wasn't a concert he was doing. It was a play. You'd SEE it as a concert, but it was always a play in his head."
Prince on Listening, Part 1
Prince was compelling, almost hypnotic as a performer, but he was always listening. Certainly as a bandleader, as evidenced in Steve's clip above. He knew what everyone was doing, and while he obviously gave loose rein to the band, he also knew where he wanted them to go, and he expected them to be listening to each other too.
I thought about this in the context of Prince as a drummer, and discovered a quietly tucked-away little 2005 interview in Modern Drummer, whose theme was listening. The whole thing is very much worth reading (and actually not that long), but here are some brief excerpts.
MD: What would you practice [when you practiced the drums]? Would you play along to records?
Yeah, no kidding.
Last story about Prince drumming, and it's a doozy. The only source I've been able to find for this is the user forum at Prince.org, and to be honest, I'm inclined to trust user forums as information sources. I've found over the past 20 years in our particular forum that bad information gets challenged almost immediately, typically within minutes. There's simply no place to hide.
It could be exasperating as a listener, because each of the two sides of the album was presented as a single unit. Even though there were clearly separate songs (four on Side 1, five on Side 2), they were run together, with no visual indication on the grooves where one ended and the other started. Once you started, you weren't supposed to stop.
And here's the actual story from Prince.org: that, as was his habit, Prince recorded the drums first, and in this case, he recorded the drum tracks for all four songs on Side 1, in one pass, straight through, in one take.
To go back to the first quote in the Modern Drummer interview above, "I'd play while singing songs in my head": that's a lot of music to be listening to in your head, and an almost inconceivable level of skill to actually get it all in wax, back to back, on the first try.
Prince on listening, Part 2
Here's another previously unseen clip I'm pretty sure you haven't come across yet. It comes courtesy of a childhood friend of my wife's, Peter Stroud. Pete's a remarkable guitarist himself. The first place you likely heard him is on Sheryl Crow's records, starting in 1998. On the road, he's also been Sheryl's musical director for a few years now.
Live and on record, he's also played with gazillions of folks including Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Dixie Chicks, Sarah McLachlan, and, yes, of course, Prince.
This clip is from the 1999 Lilith Fair, and is remarkable because Prince is neither the bolt of lightning thrown down from Olympus, nor the lightning bolt shot up to Olympus from Prince himself. He's a member of Sheryl's band. Maybe even more than listening to him in this clip, watch him. He's got his eye on everyone on stage (and there are a bunch of 'em), and you can clearly see him listening.
Right after you see Sheryl at the beginning of this video (wearing a David Bowie t-shirt!), you'll see our boy Pete, playing slide on a black Les Paul. Nearing the one minute mark, before you see him, you can hear an absolutely filthy country lick coming from Prince, who, when we see him a few seconds later, is wearing one of the most casually glamorous purple outfits I've ever seen, a gigantic hoop earring (just one), with one of the most spectacularly shiny purple guitars I've ever seen him play (remarkably, there's more than one candidate for the top prize in this category), and actual glitter in his hair.
Since this is Sheryl's song ("Every Day Is A Winding Road"), all Prince's licks have a bit of a twang, and because he's a member of the band, he spends most of time either trading licks with Pete, or sharing the mic with Sheryl on the chorus. He's not the star.
I get the distinct impression that Sheryl wouldn't have minded him taking more time in the spotlight – who wouldn't? – and we're all rewarded with a tasty solo that I'll betcha is unique in the Prince canon, because of that unmistakable country-fried flavor, in a way that still manages to sound like only Prince could sound. And he plays part of it one-handed! Afterwards, he shares one more chorus, then steps to the mic and says, "Sheryl Crow, y'all!" – and leaves!
You'll note that Sheryl refers to him as The Artist, because that's where he was in his life. The whole "Artist Formerly Known as Prince" thing turned into a meme, and Prince was as playful about it as anyone, but he was also deadly serious. He was Mozart-level prolific, not only turning out some of his own best music in the late 80s and early 90s, but some of the best songs for a whole lot of other artists, including Chaka Khan ("I Feel for You"), The Bangles ("Manic Monday"), and Sinead O'Connor ("Nothing Compares 2 U").
He wanted to put out more records, but the label said no, you've already got records on the chart. Wait. So he replied, "Okay, I'll put them out on my own." To which they replied, "Oh no you won't. We've trademarked the name 'Prince.' It's ours, not yours, and you can't just do what you want with it."
So he found himself in the position of having no rights to the name his mother gave him. No Prince.com website, either. The label had locked that down too. With no legal access to his name, in 1993, he simply stopped using it for the next few years. It wasn't his, so why should he?
He went with something unpronounceable – call me what you want to, he said, just not a name that I don't own – that required its own font, which of course the record company had to pay no small sum to distribute to a huge number of print outlets around the world, on a shiny yellow floppy disk.
In 1993 Prince changed his name to what became known as "The Love Symbol." Courtesy of LogoDesignLove
Feel free to continue to joke about it, but the part about him having no access to his name was no joke.
Anyway, this joyous clip reveals none of that. He's clearly having a blast NOT being a rock star. Just a working musician. But he's Prince, so "working" looks like play.
In case you haven't seen them, here are two clips of Prince at peak wattage. And if you've seen them, you definitely to watch them again from the perspective of these new insights into Prince as a musician.
The first is at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for George Harrison as a solo artist – an artist only a year older than Prince when he passed away at age 58.
It's a fine performance by a lot of fine folks, but feel free to skip ahead to 3:27. Prince had been onstage all along, in the shadows at the very edge, but that's when the spotlight hits him and he makes himself known.
Don't just listen. Watch his hands, and watch his face. He's not just playing, he's listening. To the other musicians, and to the song playing in his own head. He stays locked in to the song itself, and locked in with the rest of the band, but he's acting out the drama that Steve Purcell described earlier.
Did you see what he did there, right at the end? He takes off his guitar, throws it up into the rafters, and it doesn't come down.
Did you see that?
Check it out again if you don't believe me. I've watched it a dozen times and I still don't believe it. At 6:09, he tosses the guitar in the air, then turns to walk off stage, like, "Where else did you expect me to put it? That's right where it belongs."
And yeah, for all that I want this article to be about how Prince wasn't primarily interested in being a star, yet brilliantly still was, that last clip was nothing compared to this one: the justly-legendary Super Bowl XLI performance in 2007.
I mentioned that you'd probably forgotten that he covered the Foo Fighters. You likely also forgot that he opened with Queen's "We Will Rock You," and played bits of "Proud Mary" and "All Along the Watchtower" (a version closer to Jimi's, but not that far from an electrified version of Dylan's) on his way into the Foo Fighters "Best of You"...
...which sets up the reason you forgot about all that, a brief, indelible excerpt from "Purple Rain," the title track to his Oscar-winning soundtrack (for Best Original Song Score, the last artist to be awarded that prize), with 25 million copies sold worldwide.
(It was the first CD I ever bought, if I may say, all the way back in the summer of 1984. Since then I've bought the better part of 40 more Prince albums, including, as is the way with such things, a couple more copies of Purple Rain.)
And you know what's NOT in that Super Bowl set? Anything from Prince's latest record at the time! Not a note! He wasn't there to promote sales. He was there to play.
A wonderful little short from NFL Films telling the whole story of this performance comes and goes from YouTube. It was here when we first posted this article, it's gone now, but I'll share my favorite story from it. It was pouring that evening. Torrential. Absolute buckets. The clip I've currently found for you instead is of that climactic "Purple Rain" excerpt. Because the camera was zoomed in on Prince, you don't often get the impression of just how hard it was coming down, but you can see it when the camera catches the beam of a spotlight. Pouring.
As showtime approached, the director insisted that he speak directly to Prince. It was going to be hard to even see out there, much less be dancing on a rain-slicked tile stage in high heels (this was Prince after all), with multiple guitars, microphones, and other live electrical devices one spark away from disaster. Neither party could afford the least bit of miscommunication. Each had to understand the stakes, and understand what needed to happen next. When given all the details, Prince calmly replied:
"Can you make it rain harder?"
Which I think, as much as anything, speaks to the joy of his life as a performer, a composer, a guitarist, a singer, a dancer, and yes, above all, a musician.
Good night, Sweet Prince.