When I heard the news last week that Prince had died it just didn't seem real – friends were struggling to come to terms with it, conspiracy theories were flying around that it must be some sort of hoax. It has been a year full of celebrity deaths, and we're not even through April yet, but you compare Prince to Bowie (who we lost in January) and you'd be forgiven for thinking The Purple One was in rude health. Bowie had withdrawn from the live arena long before his death but Prince was insatiable. His output of albums never slowed and it seems like only yesterday that he was guerilla gigging in London on the HITnRUN tour, announcing shows at the last minute, playing several concerts a day. This did not appear to be the behaviour of a man on his last legs and Prince looked, sang and played like a man much younger than his 57 years with his doe eyes and razor-blade cheekbones. A week before his death I was looking up live shows on YouTube and stumbled across his 2007 half-time Superbowl performance – it was phenomenal. A torrential downpour would have sent most artists running, but Prince wasn't like other artists – he asked if they could make it rain harder and finished with an appropriate and mind-blowing rendition of 'Purple Rain'.
The strange narcissism that we've come to expect from a celebrity's untimely demise was on full throttle that week, met by an equally alarming backlash. Those who loved Prince felt a profound loss and filled their social media feeds with tributes and personal memories – so many people had their own Prince stories and everyone who didn't seemed enraged by what they considered over-share. My newsfeed was a confusing spectacle; I was a fan but not a true devotee, although I did find myself far more upset than I ever would have expected. I found myself in the midst of a war of rant and counter-rant, even in death the man had the power to polarise. I had speculated with friends that Prince may have been suffering from AIDS, for, although he seemed youthful he was also undeniably slight and he was well known for being promiscuous during a time when the disease was rife. Sadly the news emerging today seems to be confirming those fears. It's alleged that Prince was diagnosed with AIDS six months ago, apparently refusing treatment as it was against his faith as a Jehova's Witness. So at a time like this, when the music world is in mourning, it's worth asking that question – what made Prince so special?
The simple and most obvious answer is talent, a truly ridiculous, unprecedented amount of raw talent. Few artists alive or dead even come close to Prince in terms of what he could do and how regularly and consistently he did it. Prince's début album For You is a case in point – Prince played every instrument on the album – 27 instruments to be precise, he also did the majority of production, arrangement and engineering and designed the dust cover. He was only 19 when he did that and from that moment onwards he never let up, in the 38 years of his career that followed Prince recorded another 38 studio albums at the same time as countless live performances, collaborations, production and writing credits. Compared to The Bealtes, Prince was John, Paul, George and Ringo, yes, but he was also virtuoso keys man Billy Preston, producer George Martin, engineer Geoff Emerick and, certainly to artists on Prince's own label, manager Brian Epstein too. Music flowed out of the man. He seemed to be an unstoppable creative force, something that brought him into a war with the record industry throughout much of the 90s. A war which, you could argue, Prince won.
Purple Rain was surely the peak of his mainstream commercial pop career, at one point he simultaneously held the American chart positions of number one album, single and film. His label Warner Brothers had really stuck their necks out for Prince, gambling on the potential of all the talent, his first album cost something like $170,000 dollars to produce, and it took another five to reach that unprecedented zenith of success. From what I can gather this is where things started to turn sour, the industry wanted to put a cap on his output, consolidate and control his releases to ensure he kept at the top of his commercial game (and ensure a healthy return on their investment). At the time it seemed to me, a young impressionable teen, a strange pantomime indeed as Prince became a bit of a figure of fun in the music media – writing 'slave' on his cheek in lipstick for TV appearances and changing his name to a symbol, referred to as 'The Artist Formerly Known As…' or 'Symbol'. I didn't really understand what his problem was. It was often presented as a precocious rock star making a selfish unprincipled stand – whereas in reality he was fighting for musical artists, and not just his own, rights for creative control and freedom of expression. It was telling when Prince passed that, if you hadn't invested in a few of his albums, you couldn't feast on the smorgasbord of material freely available online as you could with Bowie. Prince refused to have his material on any streaming services (apart from the artist controlled Tidal) and his lawyers chased down any illegal uploads at lightning speed. Prince took what some might consider to be an anachronistic stance against internet piracy and an industry led stranglehold on musicians rights – those ridiculously low pay-outs from services like Spotify, restricted by undisclosed back-room deals with the major labels, just wouldn't float with a guy like Prince.
All of this would have been impressive enough if Prince turned up to work in a t-shirt and a comfortable pair of jeans, but I'd be remiss if I didn't also discuss what a huge style icon he has been for a generation. Prince was undeniably sexy, he embraced an androgynous, gender-fluid, racially ambiguous cultural role – wearing make-up and women's underwear despite his clearly heterosexual and promiscuous leanings. This desire to stand out, as an effortlessly sexual alien had come early on as Prince and his cohorts made a big impression in the Minneapolis music scene he came up in – a stark contrast to everything around them it helped put him on the map. This wasn't a case of playing dress-up in a cynical marketing ploy though, Prince's style stayed with him right up to the end. He allegedly had a team of tailors on call at his Paisley Park studio complex, tasked with making fresh new outfits for Prince and his friends every single day. The cultural effect of an artist like Prince hitting the mainstream whilst being completely sexually and racially ambiguous cannot be denied; he should also be remembered for championing female instrumentalists in a rock and pop industry dominated by male players. Prince's work with women is a far cry from the exploitative image the miming, pouting cast of Robert Plant's 'Addicted To Love' video presents. Sure, Prince wanted to have sex with as many women as possible, but he didn't put them on stage just because they looked good. Prince's backing band being populated through the years by virtuoso players like Sheila E, Wendy & Lisa, and more recently the trio of players in 3rdEyeGirl, has as much to do with sound as it does with looks – Prince managed the unlikely achievement of being a male sexual icon who simultaneously championed the feminist cause. I can't think of anyone else who has done that, let alone so effortlessly.
Prince's legacy is coming to light now, of course. The man refused to sign a will so a protracted legal process has begun as lawyers try to work out who is entitled to a share of his estate. With this messy business comes confirmation of the legendary Prince vault, it was said in the 90s that Prince had enough material tucked away in that vault to release a studio album every year until his death – seeing as he went on to actually release a studio album every year after that claim we can only speculate how much material he had stored up by the end. Prince's Minneapolis studio complex Paisley Park is a legendary space; it's interesting he settled in his home town close to his roots, but also kept a recording facility running on a constant basis – apparently he even had scouts running ahead when he was on tour to ensure studio space was available in whichever town he stopped in. If inspiration struck in the twilight hours after the fifth encore he would take his whole entourage to the studio and capture the moment. Film-maker Kevin Smith has recently stated that he visited Paisley Park, with a view to making a documentary about the place which never came about, but he was given a look into the Prince vaults and confirmed there are literally thousands of recordings, and many singles even have promotional videos already recorded for them. It seems when the legal dust settles, if things are played correctly (the way he would have wanted), Prince's output will not slow down, even in death. There could well be at least another 39 studio albums yet to come, which is quite staggering really.
Furthermore it has recently been revealed by Anthony 'Van' Jones, the American political activist, who has been a Whitehouse Special Advisor for Green Jobs (among many other accolades), the phenomenal extent of Prince's charitable work. Like his musicianship, his vegansim and everything else he took to, Prince took his Jehova's Witness faith very seriously, as much as he was compelled to do charitable work he was also not permitted to make a public his contributions, with an eye on Green futures and opportunities for young people. Prince had approached Van Jones to be the front-man and organiser of a whole bunch of charity schemes, including Green for All which helped to create green jobs in disadvantaged communities, putting solar panels on the roofs of Californian houses. He helped to create #YesWeCode, a scheme that taught kids from poor backgrounds how to write computer code with an eye to getting them careers in silicon valley to promote diversity in the tech industry. Besides these he also helped causes as diverse as public radio, the Harlem’s Children’s Zone and Black Lives Matter to name a few. His charitable works ranged from these large scale social schemes to the smaller more personal scale, for example when Lauren Hill went to jail Prince's mind turned immediately to her kids, to make sure they were taken care of financially while she served her sentence.
If his musical prolificity is anything to go by these charitable works that are coming to light only now are the tip of another iceberg that all goes towards painting this picture of a man whose achievements seem superhuman. I watched that Superbowl performance again last night and it blew my mind once again. He effortlessly flows through a range of pop and rock classics, sitting beside his own hits: 'We Will Rock You', 'Baby I'm A Star', 'All Along The Watchtower' (the way Jimi played it, of course) and the Foo Fighters 'Best Of You' sit so comfortably alongside 'Let's Go Crazy' a snippet of '1999' and, of course 'Purple Rain'. His vocals are insane, I'm particularly amazed by his incredibly powerful and high pitched gospel falsetto, and nobody, nobody could play the guitar like Prince. He struts, he salutes, he flings the guitar around him like it's nothing but a cool prop, and yet every note is so deliberate, so perfect. It's confusing when something can be so tightly choreographed and yet appear so effortless and off the cuff, especially when you consider the chaos of that downpour; Prince is in towering platforms, his dancers in perilous stilettos. There's some kind of dark magic at play preventing anyone from making a single slip up. He defies genre as he plays old classics next to new hits and makes every one his own; in his hands there was no line between hard rock, funk, pop, soul – any of it: it was all one effortless musical flow. The more I look into it, the more I'm amazed and the more I regret not making an effort to see one of these legendary live performances myself. I guess I thought he would be around forever but now he's gone what he gave us remains and I'm afraid we may never see a talent like this again, at least not in our lifetimes.