It’s been more than a week since Prince Rogers Nelson died. It’s been a heavy year for celebrity death and yes, we’ve lost what seems like more than our share of beloved performers so far. And the year’s not even half over. I usually don’t get too messed up over the death of a celebrity, but Prince’s death has hung on me. I haven’t been able to shake it. I’ve listened to almost nothing but Prince since he died. Last night I went to a Prince karaoke night and sang “Let’s Go Crazy, ” which I hoped would be cathartic, but instead I spent today in a haze.
It’s been rainy today, which got me off the hook for a lot of what I would have done with the day, so I spent a lot of it sleeping. I spent a little time roaming around the mall with my son, but tonight after everyone’s gone to sleep I find myself still thinking about Prince. I just watched his 2004 guitar solo on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock Hall of Fame. I’ve watched this video over the past 10 years maybe a dozen times and every time it dumbfounds me.
I’m not big into music as spectacle and the guitar solo has never really been my favorite part of the rock song. I like solos when they aren’t so flashy that they overshadow the song itself. They too often become showcases for dexterity more than musical expression. But Prince’s performance on that tune in 2004 is something I think we will show to students in decades to come to show not only how brilliant and under appreciated a musician Prince was, but how effortlessly he could walk the line between spectacle and transcendent mastery.
The man was able to put on a show, but as I learn more about who he was behind the purple curtain, the more I realize he was more than the show. He had two personas, like so many brilliant people. He was a showman. He could redefine and reinvent himself almost at will, but he was also somehow introverted and hid himself away from the world and that’s where he really did his work. I don’t know if we’ll ever know who he really was behind that curtain, who the man was, how he thought or approached his work or what drove him. And it’s clear something drove him, because you don’t master art the way he did without being driven beyond reason.
But what was it exactly that he did? I’m pretty confident that what we saw as fans and consumers of his work was barely a glimmer of what he really was as a performer and artist. That’s what the Rock Hall performance gives us a brief glimpse of, the man who’s guitar vocabulary and his ability to synthesize his influences and his own language were beyond that of all but the most rare performers. If you watch the video, as he steps into the spotlight and begins the solo, you hear him briefly quote the original guitar line, but after that brief grounding, he strikes out and proceeds to run through nearly ever guitar style from the moment Harrison first recorded the song to the moment those men stood onstage honoring George’s work.
Prince could somehow express history through his guitar and at the same time his raw emotion, respect–maybe even reverence–for the source material was never lost. He at once took over the entire proceeding, asserting his place on that stage as the best musician in the room, but he also reached out and brought the others along with him and the entire moment transcended the realm of flaccid all-star floggings of hits from days gone by. Prince found a way in that moment to bring the crystalline brilliance of The Beatles forward into the present day and let us feel it again in a way none of the originators have since the group disbanded. In a way that for a brief few moments reminded us why that song and those moments were so meaningful and have continued to have such a lasting impact.
That it was Prince who achieved this defies all expectations. We like to put our stars in neat boxes, labeled with the ingredients we expect to encounter each time we open the box, even if the mixture loses its potency over time. But Prince somehow never did lose his potency, nor did our attempts to define him really ever stick. I don’t know what we would have heard from him if he hadn’t passed away last week. I don’t know if he would have ever aged in the way the rest of us do. Maybe we’ll be able to glimpse more of the entire circumference of his genius if his hundreds of unreleased works make their way into the world. Reports say they drilled the locks to his vault yesterday.
But we lost not just an iconic performer. We also lost one of the rarest of birds in this world: a true virtuoso, one we never appreciated because our expectations for our stars are so low. Popular conception could have never embraced the full ability of Prince. As I watched footage of him over the past week I realized his ability was so much beyond what we saw and what we could have ever appreciated. People like that don’t come around very often. In some ways his life mirrors that of savants like Mozart in that he was preternaturally gifted and the world could only appreciate a fraction of his ability. And now we’ve lost him before we had a chance to really understand what we had.
Maybe that’s why his death won’t let go of me. I wish I knew what I was losing before I lost it, just like the rest of us. We woke up last Thursday in a world where Prince existed and we had filed him away, but as the day wore on we all came to realize what a grayer place the world is without him. But there’s no going back.