Changing of the Guard
PRINCE ROGER NELSON
1958 – 2016
While you’re sifting through all the “man, 2016 sucks” posts in your social media feeds, take a moment to put the shocking death of Prince in a larger context. We’re living in a transitional time. A time of real change. The old guard is gone. The template of rock ‘n’ roll that lasted for over 50 years is gone. Those of us whose souls are largely defined by that sound are in a panic.
Lemmy, Bowie, Maurice and Prince all died in the span of five months. That ain’t fair.
We’ve experienced something akin to what music fans lived through in the very early ‘70s – Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison all died within 18 months of each other back then and it seemed as if rock music as art would die with them.
Here’s some good news: it didn’t then and it won’t now.
We tend to try and place artists in a generational timeframe, but Prince wasn’t a once-in-a-generation artist. Prince was a once-in-a-century artist. He was like Hendrix, Mozart, Cole Porter, James Brown, Salvador Dali and John Lennon rolled into one pint-sized funk machine from the frozen wilds of Minnesota.
Dissecting Prince’s career and music is a pointless exercise. It’s been done to death and anyone who’s musically savvy doesn’t need a self-appointed “expert” to tell them what made him so singular. He was quite simply the greatest natural musician of the 20th century. Does anyone else even come close?
Creating impossibly great music for Prince was like breathing; it was effortless. It was something he couldn’t not do. That level of creativity, the sheer weight of communing with the muse that directly, must have been a serious burden for Prince. How do you live your life when every little jam that pops into your head is so amazing that you have a social responsibility to share it with the world? How do you brush your teeth, go to the store, eat dinner or participate in everyday life when there’s an endless river of Earth-shattering art running through your brain 24/7? How do you sleep? What do the rest of us do when that tap is turned off?
Between 1978 and 2015, Prince released thirty nine studio albums, five soundtracks, four live albums, five compilations and twelve EPs. That’s the mark of an artist so prolific, so full of ideas that it’s a personal burden. His celebrated “weirdness” was quite possibly just a defense mechanism for someone whose entire sense of self was deeply internalized. If he was less aloof, less insular and less weird, we almost certainly wouldn’t have the incredible body of work he released. The man had mystique.
Mystique in popular music is a dying art and it really is a crucial part of the elusive “cool factor”. Contemporary artists who find a way to take today’s instant access, always-on-camera reality and forge a true mystique from it will be the artists we’re talking about in 20 years; while flavor-of-the-month, fame-obsessed groups for whom art is product will be forgotten before the last reverberations of their derivative drivel fade from the 2017 homecoming dance. Prince was a master at creating that mystique.
With his incredibly wide-ranging gifts for songwriting, production, singing and image manipulation, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Prince was also one of the greatest lead guitarists who ever lived. His phrasing, his chops, his sense of reckless abandon – it all came together in a guitar style that was uniquely his own. The Hendrix influence was always apparent, but Prince was one of the few guitarists whose Hendrix fixation was a starting point rather than a goal.
And holy moly – that tone.
Prince’s guitar tone was a true thing of beauty. It was a thick, saturated, harmonically-complex noise full of overtones and lower-octave girth. In less capable hands it would have been a total mess, but Prince’s note placement and overall command of the instrument turned it into a joyous voice.
And now he’s gone. The architects of the classic rock era are aging out and, yes, dying off. It’s powerfully sad, but it’s also the way it’s supposed to be. Prince’s musicality wasn’t rigid and yours shouldn’t be either. The loss of Prince, Bowie, Lemmy and Maurice is the natural order of things. It makes room for the younger artists who have to struggle to survive in the streaming era – artists who are worth your attention. It’s a changing of the guard.
When change is real, it hurts. Birth is painful, death is painful. Change equals growth; it equals evolution. You’re not going to find an artist to replace Prince in your heart because such an artist simply doesn’t exist. Fill the hole created by the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson with a new favorite guitarist, a new favorite songwriter, a new favorite producer, a new favorite singer and a new favorite mystical pop guru. The death of Prince leaves all of those spots vacant. Go fill them.
JEFF NOLAN –Hard Rock International 4/21/16