by David James
Prince was surely the most total musician and performer of the last 100 years. He did everything.
On his first album he played all 23 instruments, performed all the vocals and wrote all the songs. He was prolific as a songwriter, penning pieces for many other singers. He was a stunning dancer and choreographer and cleverly used costumes. He was a master of performance stagecraft and a clever actor – not so much on film, but in his musical introductions, some of which are haunting and profound.
He was a peerless rock guitarist, a skilled pianist and had an extraordinary range of vocal tones and techniques (jazz trumpeter Miles Davis compared his singing with the great tenor saxophonist, Sonny Rollins).
He created his own distinctive aesthetic and look, and his lyrics were rhythmically brilliant and allusive, even when they were deliberately trite. To top it off, the bigger the stage, the better he played.
On the other hand, he was apparently rubbish on the kazoo and we won’t even talk about his bagpipe playing (actually, we don’t want to talk about anyone’s bagpipe playing). But I digress. To all intents and purposes, Prince was the person most deserving of that awful cliché: “He had it all.”
Other greats of popular music possessed some of these attributes, and to a greater degree. The rhythm of Michael Jackson’s singing has never been surpassed and never will be. Duke Ellington wrote as many pieces and with more compositional variation. David Bowie was more innovative in his use of costumes and visual imagery. But no other musical creator was so kaleidoscopic. Jackson didn’t play an instrument or compose much, Ellington didn’t dance and Bowie couldn’t sing.
A Grammy tribute recently aired on Prince to celebrate his life, which prompts a closer look at his significance as an artist. When one looks closer at what he did, rather than just singing along with the hits, some odd things emerge.
There was an odd detachment about his approach to music, as if he was watching the world from a hundred miles away. Endowed with all the earthly talents available, he appeared to take his mastery for granted, bemusedly observing the whole thing from an unearthly vantage point.
Prince was mainly an absorber of existing traditions rather than someone exploring new terrain. This writer saw him perform in Melbourne and was struck at how, in some ways, what he was doing was rather like an R&B and funk show band. For music so effective, it was strangely derivative. But that was only the beginning of his art.
The word “spiritual” is much misused these days but it is not inappropriate to use it with Prince. He toyed with a kind of sacral sexuality, mixed with electric, percussive rhythms (his melodies are short and riff like, similar to horn lines, so are suited to percussive arrangements and fast dance moves). Consider his meditation on time in his 1999 performance of Purple Rain, live at Paisley Park. It is far removed from the usual vacuous noises from rock performers: “This is the trick of time. Man was never supposed to die, we were given life by the Creator.”
Miles Davis, who was fascinated with Prince, mused on that quality in his autobiography: “It’s the church thing that I hear in his music that makes him special, and that organ thing. It’s a black thing and not a white thing.”
It is instructive to compare Davis and Prince. Both looked at music from a distance. Miles, the supreme improviser, knew what the conventional jazz motifs were, so either played something else, or stayed silent. Prince knew what the R&B, funk and pop conventions were, so toyed with entire genres.
In his live performances he deconstructs his own songs, both musically and with a kind of performative knowingness. It was always an act, somewhat camp (Miles never acted, he just did); but it was an act with many layers, one of which was to mock his own acting.
And then there was his rhythm. Miles described it thus: “He comes in on the beat and plays on top of the beat. I think when Prince makes love he hears drums instead of Ravel. So he’s not a white guy.”
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.