I had 31 Prince albums. It’s not unfair to compare collecting and obsessing over these records to war in that, by the time I finished, I was a completely different person when I started.
I will assume you’ve owned 31 albums by someone, that on your best days, music is this weird lifestyle or religion and, on your worst, just the thing you reflexively do for invisible reasons both molecular and societal, like turning on the television or kissing your children.
The first Prince album I bought was Dirty Mind, when I was 19. The last Prince album I bought was LOtUSFLOW3R, when I was 26. Those and the records between them didn’t necessarily help me through the four bands, two women, three jobs, and countless slices of gas station pizza I’d consumed, but they were there.
Sometimes, I think about the things I’ve had forever. My bones, the sun, the future. To consider life without them is impossible because it simply is. Prince came later, but it’s the same idea. Without him, I might as well just be a pile of skin or be in the eternal, cold darkness. I might as well be done.
I got into many fights with one of my English professors in college. Most of them were about how much of a chump Pip from Great Expectations is or why I should maybe not leave in the middle of class and come back fifteen minutes later with an ice cream cone. These mostly blew over.
I’m not necessarily upset she called Prince sexist, which is something academics say sometimes when they’re deeply frustrated by an unfair system but temporarily frustrated with certain students railroading a discussion about Evelyn Waugh, but I’m still not understanding what she was saying. I think she was claiming that he used sex to control women, which sounds more like stripper-positive logic than anything else.
Prince isn’t sexist. Prince is sexy. He’s a fucking caveman about it sometimes, just laying it all out there in “Soft & Wet” and “Head” and “Gett Off” and about a hundred other songs. I can see where that would sound crass. But being crass and being sexist aren’t the same thing. Especially when he can be so tender about sex, the remorseful want of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” the unburdened flirting of “Kiss” or “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.”
What about in “Bambi” where he tries to convince a lesbian to have sex with him? What about the entirety of the song “Sister” just being about fucking his sister? It’s an almost discretionless obsession on sexuality that exceeds bizarre, sure. But sexist? Prince would fuck a plucked cactus if it could give consent.
Of course, I said none of this. I didn’t know anything about what little sex I’d had. Have you ever tried to have sex while listening to Prince? It’s too much of the thing it’s supposed to be, a rush hour of blood to the head.
Musically, I don't know what to say about Prince. You can read about his genius anywhere or, better yet, listen to his music and hear bits of Ernie Isley, Joni Mitchell, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Jimi Hendrix, and a few dozen more godheads from funk, soul, blues, folk, and rock.
The fact that he kept doing it is one of the many the impressive parts, maybe the one that resonates the most with me. He even had time to write "Manic Monday" and "Nothing Compares 2 U" for other people. It's the musical equivalent of Stephen King publishing books as Richard Bachman or, in another dimension, Kirby Puckett deciding to hit home runs for the Brewers in his spare time.
As I dug deeper and deeper into Prince's catalogue, as it became clear that I would need to dedicate serious time and energy into listening to all of his work—to say nothing of actually digesting it. I began to think of the extended Prince discography not as a challenge or a treat or even an inspiration. It's simply a wonder, no different than standing at the foot of the Pyramid of Giza or the Lighthouse of Alexandria and seeing that, though these giant marvels are far from perfect, humanity is that much more incredible for laying claim to them.
The only celebrity musician death that could be worse for me than Prince is Neil Young. In 1987, Neil filmed—but, in a vintage Neil Young move, never released—a “documentary” called Muddy Track that was a bunch of handheld camera footage of bassist Billy Talbot trying to play his idiotic parts on a keytar, Neil eating a boiled egg with psychedelic music in the background, and the general chaos that led to Neil falsely proclaiming he’d never work with his longtime backing band, Crazy Horse, again.
At one point, after a particularly excellent European show, Neil goes to the back of the bus and begins taking off the shoes and several pairs of socks he was wearing during the performance. He’s going on about how great the show was, how the horse was really clompin’ that night. His longtime archivist, Joel Bernstein, is graciously listening, being the sort of person one would have to be to follow Neil Young around for a few decades. At one point, Joel interjects by saying, “Prince is going to be here next week.”
Neil stops for a very brief moment to think about that statement. Prince had just released a double album called Sign ‘O’ the Times. It was a mix of music from his personal vault, pieces of aborted records, and conceptual songs—“the one where the vocals are sped up” or “the one written to fool a friend who only likes hits.” It was not only a massive critical and financial success, but it’s the record where Prince learned to be Prince. I think that’s what clicked for me, listening to Prince be himself to such a degree that he became undeniably special and realizing that I could maybe do that, too.
At that time, Neil Young could barely figure out what Neil Young did, let alone who Neil Young was. He said, “Well, Prince better be pretty fucking good.”
Of course, we all know what Neil knew: Prince was pretty fucking good.