In Memory of Prince, 1958-2016

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Prince performs at the Coachella music festival in 2008. Photo: penner/Wikimedia Commons

We’re only a third of the way into 2016, and have seen the deaths of what feels like a higher number than normal of musicians. That may not be true, I haven’t checked the statistics. But it feels true. We’ve lost Paul Kantner, from Jefferson Airplane, and Glenn Frey. We’ve lost Maurice White, of Earth, Wind, and Fire, and George Martin, who put The Beatles on the map. Keith Emerson, the virtuoso keyboardist, and Phife Dawg, from A Tribe Called Quest. The bassist from Harvey Danger, and Merle Haggard, and Richard Lyons from Negativland.

And, of course, David Bowie, along with his drummer and collaborator Dennis Davis.

Vanity passed away, earlier this year, and now her former musical mentor, Prince.

And many more, some much less celebrated or mourned, some more, some probably only among their friends and family, despite major contributions to music and art throughout the years, because that’s how it goes sometimes.

Prince is being celebrated and mourned, with people dancing in the streets of Minneapolis while they weep, and social media is exploding with the connections people have with all things Prince right now. MTV played music videos again, even, which is as sure of a sign of the apocalypse as I’ve ever seen.

And rightfully so — there is no way around it, Prince was a Major Bad Ass.

No one has been like Prince before. He sort of fused James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone, but upon fusing them together, he took a long, hard look at that and said, “There is not enough Prince here,” and he corrected for that. And then just kept creating himself after that.

No one will ever be like Prince again. Oh sure, many try, and they may succeed at certain levels, but we’ll always look at them and think, “Pretty good, a lot like Prince.” Because Prince went out of his way to not be like anyone else. This is a man who famously renamed himself as a symbol and scrawled the word “slave” on his face because his record label wouldn’t let him release two albums a year, the pace that suited his creative output, but which in today’s marketing-driven world, made him an alien.

There are lots of stories about Prince, and more circulating right now than ever before, while we all try to figure out what his loss to the world means. This is my story, about getting to see him perform live once in Ames.

I probably had the same introduction to Prince that many small-town Iowans had — he seemed kind of strange, and my high school self didn’t know what to make of him, but when I heard that end guitar solo to “Let’s Go Crazy,” I was completely won over, and had a hard time believing it was the same guy who could do that for some reason (I was young and stupid, I like to think I got better, what can I say?).

And I always loved his music after that, even the stuff I may not have understood as well. I could tell this was a guy really going for it, and doing a lot of different things, and nearly all of them he was doing extremely well.

Fast forward to 2004. It was announced that Prince would play Hilton Coliseum in Ames, as part of his Musicology tour. Anyone who bought a ticket got a copy of the album, which seemed like a good deal, but my wife and I were broke, so we glumly decided we couldn’t go. We worked in the same building, though, and the day of the show a co-worker, whose son worked at Hilton, sent out an email to the office saying that they were giving away free Prince tickets. I jumped in the car and hightailed it to Hilton, blaring “East Bound and Down” for some reason and driving too fast out of excitement.

I couldn’t believe I was getting free tickets, so I asked the guy giving them to us what the deal was. He told us that the show had sold well, but hadn’t sold out, and that “Prince likes to play for a packed house.” Which completely blew me away.

The show was completely amazing in every way, which is probably not a surprise — besides being an incredible musician and songwriter, Prince had a flair for the dramatic, and was a consummate performer. He began the show with a recording of his speech from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which he had just been inducted into that year. This is a small excerpt from that speech that had me thinking about music and performance long after the show was over:

“I embarked on a journey more fascinating than I could ever have imagined. But a word to the wise. Without real spiritual mentoring, too much freedom can lead to the soul’s decay. And a word to the young artists … a real friend or mentor is not on your table. A real friend and mentor cares for your soul as much as they do the other one. This world and its wicked systems become harder and harder to deal with without a real friend or mentor. And I wish all of you the best.”

The set was incredible, diving into hits right off the bat, taking a short break, another long set, then a solo set on guitar (he did a solo “Little Red Corvette” that had the whole audience enthralled and utterly silent). And a couple of encores, finally ending on “Purple Rain” when his signature guitar appeared on a small elevator and rose up to him.

The band was one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen, and Prince gave everyone a solo section to show off in. The show was “in the round,” with a stage in the middle of the floor, in the shape of a giant X. Prince would run back and forth on the X and play for different parts of the audience, and began having applause contests between audience factions, at one point telling our side, “They’re all kicking your ass over there” with a smirk on his face that felt like he was just Some Guy, giving you shit.

A friend of mine brought his young son, and at the end he asked him, “So what did you think of that?” His son excitedly said, “My Prince danced for me on the X!”

The show remains one of the best I’ve ever seen, and I’d heard he was doing some shows lately with just him and a piano, and I was hoping to get a chance to catch that. But I’m glad I had the experience to see him live even once in my life.

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Bryon Dudley is a writer and musician from Ames. He has written about music and other topics for a number of local publications and blogs. When not playing music and putting out albums with groups such as Strong Like Bear, Liana, and Rockets of Desire, he is helping other Iowa artists record their music at his studio, The Spacement, and releasing it on the Iowa label he co-founded, Nova Labs. He has a tattoo of an aardvark and is adjusting to bifocals.