Prince passed away Thursday. I didn’t cry—I was in shock a little bit, but overall, I just felt…weird. I never knew the man, but I got texts and phone calls asking if I’d heard the news as if one of my family members had died. Prince was a rare artist who could be described as a musician’s musician, but one who also climbed to the top of the pop charts. Prince, like Bowie, was ubiquitous in popular culture—on TV, on the radio, and it felt like he was always going to be there, and it’s just strange to think that now he’s gone. Prince was the true king of pop: he could do rock, funk, power-pop, and hip-hop, and he even became a filmmaker, making so many realms of the pop culture landscape into his plaything like one of the girls in his songs. His image alone is immediately identifiable with the 1980s, as much as Ronald Reagan, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Freddy Krueger.
The current incarnation of my band, The Romeros, owes plenty to His Royal Purpleness. When I met Bob Sylvester at the furniture store where we both worked, I invited Bob to hang out with my friends one Saturday night. Pat O’Sullivan, then bass player for The Romeros, was saddled up on the couch, watching I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE which impressed our new friend, also a fan of genre cinema. Later that night, the subject of our favorite bands and artists would come up, as it’s prone to do after too many beers and arguably not enough whiskey. The haze of twelve years and mass quantities of PBR and Jameson have clouded my memory a bit, but I like to think it went something like this…
“Wait, you dig Prince too?”
And with that, Bob became the lead guitar player of The Romeros, and there’s no one else I would rather have in that spot. My band owes most of its career to rape/revenge films and to Prince.
Prince was a major influence on me in so many ways. While I simply wish I could play guitar like him, I never was able to. There’s something about his playing that seems so unapproachably cool and effortless, while I feel like I’m working hard up on that stage at shitty clubs around Chicago. Prince was talented, yes, but there’s something else in him… that man was gifted. He was born to play music. It’s easy to picture someone as legendary as Bruce Springsteen working in a New Jersey factory while playing with a bar band on weekends in some alternate timeline or any other musician working the dayshift at Guitar Center. But Prince had to be an entertainer. Prince needed to be Prince.
While The Artist was a phenomenal guitar player, it was his songwriting that really spoke to me. Prince knew how to craft compelling tale in these three minute pop blasts, even out Springsteen-ing Springsteen on “Little Red Corvette.” Prince mined classic rock ‘n’ roll tropes such as cars, girls, and love, and added that undeniable touch of sex and sleaze, without slamming you over the head with it like KISS would do. I attempted that in my songwriting — it was like writing fiction, short stories, but with a hook, a chorus, and considerably shorter. Prince even made being late for work sexy with “Manic Monday,” a tune he penned and eventually gave to Susanna Hoffs and The Bangles. It was the first time I became aware of a songwriter’s “style.” He peppered these sweet pop hooks with dangerous sexuality (“Sister”) and challenged preconception (“Jack U Off”). While Prince is certainly known for singing funky songs about being a sexy motherfucker, to only concentrate on that side of the man would be a disservice. I am very much a rock ‘n’ roller type, and I always dug The Artist’s more guitar heavy tunes. He could do punked-up political commentary (“Ronnie Talk To Russia”—a song The Ramones wish they wrote), slick power-pop, with heavy hooks and big harmonies (“When You Were Mine”) and could combine all of those together, as he did on a more recent track, “Baltimore.” He could sing rock ‘n’ roll like a hip-hopper, and he could do hip-hop like a rock ‘n’ roller, like on “Pussy Control” which was a standard for all the boys and motherfucking girls that would populate the smoke-filled kitchen of my old apartment after all of those Romeros gigs in my ‘twenties. With as much music as Prince put out in his career, if you didn’t like the Prince song you were currently hearing, don’t worry, you’ll probably dig the next.
Much has been written about Prince’s sartorial stylings, and while I never took to the stage in a New Romantic getup, similar to what Prince was wearing during the PURPLE RAIN era, he inspired me to dress however I wanted up on that stage. Prince was more than likely a narcissist suffering from megalomania, but how could he not be when he was that gifted. Someone who would come out on stage in North Minneapolis had to have balls of steel the size of church bells, but Prince had the chops to back it up and at the same time, he was known to actually be quite shy. Of course, being a great musician is only part of Prince’s legacy — he was truly a great performer, and someone who took so much joy in performing, particularly with a band. There’s no one else who can sing, dance, play funk, and play a blistering rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo, all during one song. He incited me to move around on that stage and to do all the jumps, and kicks… all while wearing 2-inch Cuban heels. He made me brave– some detractors took issue with the way I dressed in life and on stage, to imply I was less of a man because of some of my style choices, or that I couldn’t dress a certain way because I was just a singer in a garage band, but Prince dressed how he dressed… and he always got laid. I didn’t necessarily try to dress like Prince (be it his New Romantic look from the ‘80s or the assless pants from the ‘90s) ,but I wanted to capture that intangible purpleness. While I tried to knick as much as I could from the man, nobody could walk onto a stage the way Prince did… like he was on a mission, not aware of anything that was going on around him except the rock ‘n’ roll that was about to blast out of those amplifiers. Thankfully, I got to see him perform live on the 2006 Musicology tour with my sister.
Something that I haven’t seen in any of the pieces about Prince that have been flooding social media this week is anything about how funny the man was. Prince always had a (well deserved) reputation for being odd, but there’s a little moment in PURPLE RAIN when The Kid asks if Wendy and Lisa had served him with a subpoena, where the audience gets a little smirk from the man that’s quite charming, and shows a crack in the armor of a notoriously private artist. His underrated UNDER THE CHERRY MOON really shows Prince off as charming, funny, leading man, with its old Hollywood leanings and that great “Bela Lugosi look.” I think Prince did take his music and career very seriously, so seriously that sometimes people didn’t get when he was displaying a smug brand of humor, almost playing on people’s expectations about him and his reputation. Those little eye rolls you’d see when Prince was throwing shade, kicking Kim Kardashian off the stage, or pushing a lollipop in Quincy Jones’ face. Prince was fucking funny.
Two of my other favorite bands — The Replacements and Cheap Trick — like Prince call the Midwest their home. That’s something that appeals to me about the man. He wasn’t born of New York cool or L.A. glitz — he came from the hardworking town of Minneapolis, and you can see that stoic, Midwest work ethic in the man who would play all of the instruments on his debut album For You and then proceed to — as rumor would have it — to write and compose a song a day for most of his life. They say all the best bands come from the midwest—and Minneapolis in particular—because the winters are so cold, there’s nothing else to do but start a band in your basement.
Prince could do funk, rock, pop, and just about anything else he wanted to do… and he could do it better than everyone. I don’t know if one could necessarily hear his influence on the punkish power pop sound of The Romeros, but without him, we probably wouldn’t still be a band. When my brother — and drummer — Andy Vanderbilt suggested throwing a Prince cover in our set for our show this Saturday (with only one rehearsal left) the question wasn’t “Should we do a Prince song?,” it was “Which Prince song should we do/” After a playing a cover of “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” (Prince at his most garage rock, and a favorite of rock ‘n’ roll types) at a suburban fest, my bandmate in The Romeros Bob Sylvester simply stated “You gotta love Prince,” and that really says it all.
Prince was rumored to compose a song a day, so while we lost the man, the legend will live on, with the over 500 songs rumored to be in the vault at Paisley Park. Prince records will be released for years to come, probably long after you and I move along from this mortal coil.
And through his music, Prince will outlive us all.