Thursday, April 21, 2016
Rest in Purple
I almost posted something when I heard the news of Prince's death this morning but I stopped myself. I was at work, entering long strings of data into a spreadsheet and trying to jar myself awake by listening to Iron Maiden on my headphones. During the resultant trance-like state two things happened simultaneously: first, just as one song ended and another was about to begin I overhead two of my co-workers talking in a vague way about what sounded like a celebrity death. Second, a text bubble popped up on my phone. It was from my friend Ray. Without stopping my typing I looked down and saw this:
Now, I am not a the biggest Prince fan. But I am a Prince fan. Especially the Prince who helmed the Revolution for the iconic record/movie Purple Rain. As for his other music, there's lots I like and some I could never hear again and not care. As Tommy from Heaven Is An Incubator laments in his own post pertaining to this momentous loss for the music community, because of our age Prince's music was something of a backdrop to our generation's entire childhood. Growing up in the 80s Prince was EVERYWHERE, literally. And it wasn't just the songs he performed, it was also the material that he wrote for other performers: Sheila E., Sheena Easton, The Bangels, Morris Day, Stevie Nicks. As I got older the extremely unique sounds Prince made with his music followed me, often in sneaky or almost subconscious ways. The first song on Public Enemy's masterpiece Fear of A Black Planet, "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" is loaded with samples of Prince's guitar. Skinny Puppy's bleak and brilliant Last Rites has snippets of Prince's weird, over-flanged percussion laced throughout. Later still, one of my all-time favorite bands - Ween - covered Prince, lovingly lampooned him and downright homaged him on many, many occasions. But the older I became the more Prince's influence on my musical life remained peripheral; the cassette copy of Purple Rain that my cool, older cousin Jim gave me for Christmas the year it came out was worn out long ago and the only Prince I'd had in the collection through my thirties was a beat-up copy of Sign O' The Times on vinyl and a double-disc greatest hits my ex-wife had brought with her to our twelve year sharing of a music collection. When she moved out all that went away. Luckily though...
Every year from Memorial Day to Labor Day Hollywood Forever Cemetery hosts something called Cinespia - an organization that projects movies on the side of a mausoleum in the cemetery's enormous - and beautiful - grounds. Ray and I, along with several of our other friends, go to as many of these Saturday night screenings every year as possible. Two summers ago Cinespia showed Purple Rain. I hadn't seen it since the 80s and Ray's a fan so we went and it completely re-inspired me to love Prince. Again, not all his music, but for that album in particular. I've long said that when he's gone Prince would be remembered as probably the single greatest driving force in the Pop music of the 80s. After watching Purple Rain and then re-buying and binging on it hardcore for a few weeks I had an even deeper realization about this record:
As far as records go, Purple Rain is the Philosopher's Stone of the 80s.
Now, when I say Philosopher's Stone I need to quantify what I'm talking about. I've approached this concept previously but in less specific terms. Obviously in every decade or 'era' of music there are movements, fashions, trends and scenes. And somewhere within all those dark and incestuous nooks and crannies I believe there is one album that perfectly sums everything else up. For the 80s I would argue that album was Purple Rain. Prince's 1984 masterpiece is a microcosm of nearly everything musical that surrounds it; there's elements of Funk, Soul, New Wave, Metal (that serpentine guitar lick in Computer Blue? Those blast beats in the last third of Darling Nikki that I never noticed before I reengaged with it? Metal baby); Purple Rain has it all and what's more all of those seemingly disparate elements are perfectly synthesized into a coherent whole. That's the key. For perspective I've argued elsewhere that the 90's Philosopher Stone album was the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head, another synthesis of the musical world around it.
(Incidentally, I don't think we have enough distance from the 00s yet to determine what might be that era's Philosopher's Stone, but I'd also argue in a few years we might look back and say that because of the democratization and decentralization of music that particular era ushered in there actually might not be one).
With all of this said I need to end this diatribe before I become any more grandiose. Not possible you say? Believe me, it is. So to finish I will leave you with a video a friend showed me a couple years ago. This thing just blew me away. No matter how you feel about the musicians that are on stage to begin with, watch this all the way through because at approximately 3:28 this rendition of what might just be my favorite Beatles song becomes god-like. And Prince? Rest in Purple sir. Rest in Purple.