Prince is gone. I apologize for being so blunt, but I’m still coming to terms with it all, and declarative, wiggle-free sentences like that help. To be honest, it hadn’t really even dawned on me that Prince could die. It’s not that I thought he was some sort of immortal comic-book character or anything, even if he did have a lot in common with comic book characters. (A set of skills far outside the range of most normal humans, a giant purple compound covered with his own personal symbol, an affinity for brightly colored skin-tight outfits that sometimes included capes.) It’s just that he was such a star that it almost felt like he’d be around forever.
There’s a difference between being a star and being famous, even if we tend to conflate the two, especially when we talk about people who act in movies. For example, I would argue that Ryan Gosling is famous and not “a star,” because it feels kind of like you could bump into him in a Whole Foods if you timed it right, and stars do not scoop their own olives from the olive bar. Same with Jennifer Lawrence, despite all the magazine covers and much-deserved awards for high achievement in her chosen profession, because she seems entirely too down-to-Earth to be a star, and stars belong in outer space. Even George Clooney might not quite be a star in the way I’m talking about, if only because he pops up at dinners now and then and yells at people about politics, like he’s the country’s very handsome uncle. He probably even shows up to the dinners on time. That just won’t do.
Being a star requires some level of disconnect, almost as though they’re behind the glass at a museum. Maybe they’re holding something back on purpose, or maybe it’s the way they carry themselves. Sometimes it helps to have something a little kooky or mysterious going on. Frank Sinatra was a star. Mariah Carey is a star. (If you question Mariah’s star status, please note that she just threw herself a birthday party at which all the guests were expected to dress up as their favorite version of Mariah Carey throughout history.) Tom Cruise is a huge star. And Prince was probably a bigger star than all of them.
Is this where we tell Prince stories? It feels like a good time to tell Prince stories. Not that there’s ever a bad time, really, but still. What’s your favorite Prince story? Is it the thing about his fantastical magical roller skates? That’s a good one. Is it the one about the vault in his house filled with unreleased documentaries he commissioned, or the one about the time he invited Michael Jackson to Paisley Park and then trash-talked the King of Pop as he dominated him at ping pong? Also great. There really isn’t a wrong answer here, but if I had to choose, I think I’d go with these two:
- The time Prince went to a diner during the lead-up to the release of Purple Rain and ordered spaghetti and orange juice, a combination so outlandish that the only way it even begins to make sense is if you picture Prince consuming it like it’s perfectly normal.
- The time former Utah Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer rented — rented — his house to Prince and Prince proceeded to paint like 75 percent of it purple upon moving in. Although, like, what did you expect Prince to do, Carlos Boozer? Live in a non-purple house? Gotta think this one’s on you.
Point being: Prince was the greatest.
But as fun as it is to tell wild Prince stories, let’s not forget the reason he was allowed to get away with all of that: Prince was a once-in-generation musical prodigy, kind of like a tiny leather-clad Mozart on a motorcycle. As the legend goes, Eric Clapton was once asked what it was like to be the best guitarist of his generation, and his response was, “I don’t know. Ask Prince.” And Dave Grohl once insisted that Prince was not just a better musician than him, he was a better drummer. You could make a really strong argument that the best band of all-time would be one where Prince was cloned to front and play all the instruments. So think about that, and then look back at the string of albums he released in the early-to-mid-1980s, and the string of hits that flew off them. And then think about the fact that he also sometimes just gave away number-one hits, like he did with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” because why not, right? The factory was producing them faster than he could use them anyway.
Here’s where it gets crazy, though, and borderline unfair to anyone else who has ever picked up an instrument. It’s not like Prince was some studio nerd, meticulously crafting songs and then sending them off to someone with more charisma to perform in front of millions. Prince was also — inarguably, I would argue — the best showman of his generation, too. Ask anyone who has ever seen him in concert. He was a master of the technical and the dramatic. He was a hip-thrusting Steve Jobs. Nowhere was this more evident than during his halftime performance at Super Bown XLI in 2007.
Let’s briefly run down what happened here. The Super Bowl was held in Miami that year, and the weather forecast was not good. A classic, drenching South Florida storm sat directly over the stadium for a substantial chunk of the day, taking all the pizzazz and pageantry out of the Super Bowl and replacing it with a series of puddles. The fans were soaked and miserable, having spent hundreds or thousands of dollars to sit there in miserable plastic ponchos. The game was a sloppy mess. Any halftime performer could have been forgiven for feeling a little deflated by it all. But not Prince. Oh no. For Prince, this was a moment.
That video up there tells the story of Prince’s halftime show that night, but if you can poke around online and find a fuller, less interrupted version from some shady non-YouTube streaming site, I really recommend you do that. At the very least, watch the end of his set. I can’t possible stress this enough: Prince played “Purple Rain,” in the rain, during the most-watched television event of the year, and the only thing that stopped him from blowing the roof right off that stadium was the fact that it was open-air to begin with. You couldn’t have written it up better. It was so perfect, in fact, that there’s a tiny part of me that suspects Prince personally conjured up the storm that day, just to give his performance a little extra push.
(The performance was also notable for the guitar solo during “Purple Rain,” which began with Prince politely asking the question “Can I play this guitar?” and culminated with Prince standing behind an illuminated flowing screen with his guitar held in such a way that his silhouette looked like a 20-foot-tall monster with a giant ornate phallus. I repeat: Prince was the greatest.)
But maybe that’s stacking the deck a little. Prince was basically all by himself on that stage. Of course he came off like a star. What would happen if you put him up there with a slew of other famous musicians? Would their bright, shining lights dim his at all? Glad you asked.
This video is from the 2004 Rock and Rock Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. You’ve probably seen it. George Harrison was being inducted that year, and to honor him the show put together an all-star group to play his song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which included Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, and Harrison’s son, Dhani. It’s all very nice and sweet, until about the 3:30 mark, at which point Prince emerges in a red hat and proceeds to physically assault everyone in the room using only a guitar solo.
Here’s what I love about this video: Prince is on the stage the entire time. Go back and watch from the beginning. That’s him over there way on the far right, just strumming along while lurking in the shadows. It’s like he’s a jungle cat, hiding out in the weeds, stalking his prey (in this case, the audience), waiting for the right moment to pounce. And wait he did. Prince, a man not accustomed to standing at the far end of the stage while other people bask in the spotlight, hung out over there for three and a half minutes. And by doing so, he made what came next — a three-minute guitar solo so powerful that it probably shifted the tectonic plates under Cleveland — that much more memorable.
That’s what I mean when I say Prince was a star unlike any other. He had the talent, and the sense of the moment, and that quality that made it impossible to take your eyes off him. It didn’t matter who else was in the room once Prince walked in. It was Prince’s room now. And it didn’t hurt that he did star stuff constantly. A few years ago he showed up at the French Open carrying a scepter. A few weeks ago he showed up to a Golden State Warriors game and wore his sunglasses pretty much from the first quarter to the fourth. He once changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and then attempted to explain it to the Muppets. Prince was definitely a star.
And the shame of it all is that we’re rapidly running out of real, proper stars. Losing Prince and David Bowie in one four-month span really depleted our resources there. Couple that with the constant accessibility and mystique-deflating of social media and tabloid sites like TMZ, and this next generation of celebrities isn’t stepping in quickly enough to take their place, either. I mean, who would you even consider to be a star from that group? DiCaprio, maybe, but even he’s over 40 now, and the vaping thing is weird. (Not “spaghetti and orange juice,” weird. Just, like, weird.) It’s really just Beyonce at this point, right? Don’t get me wrong, Beyonce is great and everything, but that’s a lot of pressure.
The bottom line here is that there is now a Prince-sized void in the universe. And even though that void is only about 5 feet tall (maybe 5-foot-4 if we account for a pair of custom-made jet-black leather platform boots), when you factor in his talent and everything else that he was, I don’t think we’ll ever really fill it. I don’t see how we can. And in a way, that’s fitting.
When a star dies in space, it burns up all its remaining fuel, and then the weight of its own remaining gravity causes it to explode into a supernova, leaving nothing but a black hole behind. I think if anyone could have appreciated that kind of cosmic spectacle, it would have been Prince.