Farewell to a true funk soldier

Friday, May 6, 2016

A guitarist manipulates tension. She picks up six strings stretched to almost their breaking points and proceeds to squeeze them, snap them and caress them to produce as many sounds and emotions as her skill and soul can conjure.

As news of the death of Prince ricocheted across the internet on April 21, one of the many videos to go viral was his astonishing guitar solo during a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show performance of the Beatles' “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. The video showed a wider world what Prince's fans and peers had long known — that his guitar playing was as unrivalled as his songwriting, dancing and showmanship.

For one person to be a virtuoso at so many distinct skills can seem like an impossible coincidence, but in Prince they all stemmed from the same place — his mastery of tension in all its forms.

Play in your head the opening guitar solo of “When Doves Cry”. A ferocious opening lick dissolves into a searing note that lingers as the drums kick in. Nobody understood better than Prince the power that could be generated from the throbbing of a single thin string.

His guitar was an extension not only of his body but his mind, which crackled with the clash of love and rage, beauty and filth, God and the devil, rigid control and ecstatic release — and channelled all of that tension into the most potent sexuality any pop star has ever created.

Prince was a cauldron of creativity who released far more music than even serious fans like myself could keep up with — and there's even more that he didn't release. Similarly, there are far too many ways in which Prince mattered to do justice in one article.

He blew up the rigid music industry categories of “pop”, “independent” and “Black” (yes, that was actually a category). He cleared a path for future Black artists from Outkast to Janelle Monae to flaunt their individuality in all its freaky glory.

He sang, “I'm not a woman, I'm not a man. I'm something that you'll never understand” two decades before mainstream culture was talking about gender as a construct — and got a hit single out of it.

More than any other male artist I can think of, Prince surrounded himself with female singers and musicians. Some, like Apollonia and Vanity, veered into objectified eye-candy territory. But the vast majority were serious collaborators like Sheila E and Cat Glover, who could more than hold their own, musically and sexually, with the master.

Then there are Prince's homophobic statements in recent years, widely seen as a product of his becoming a Jehovah's Witness. These clearly contradicted the spirit and lyrics not only of his early music, but his current music too.

Even if you could take in all the tributes and insightful articles that flooded the internet after Prince's death, you would still find yourself no closer to solving some of his eternal mysteries.

How could an androgynous disco club cult hero become a Reagan-era rock 'n' roll hero — while still being an androgynous disco club cult favourite? How was Prince able to simultaneously take himself way too seriously, while always seeming to be in on the joke?

And how the hell is a song called “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” about having bathtub sex with a waitress while listening to Joni Mitchell?

Prince was famously a master of many styles, but he was first and foremost about the funk.

It is a celebration of sensuality and good times, but for the funk masters, the goal was always not just to throw a great party but to build a utopian community — whether it was based on the peace, love and racial harmony preached by Sly Stone or the doctrine of “Free your Mind, and your ass will follow” promoted by George Clinton.

But that was in the wild 1970s. Prince faced the burden of carrying the funk flag into the hostile decade that followed, with a rising Religious Right, disintegrating Black neighbourhoods and an AIDS-fuelled sex panic.

In the '80s, true funk was not about uniting one nation under a groove. It was a call for volunteers for a possible suicide mission. As Prince sang in “Alphabet St”:

We're going down, down, down
if that's the only way.
To make this cruel, cruel world
hear what we've got to say.

Prince was no pacifist in the fight for love and sexual liberation against repression and ignorance. In the years after “Purple Rain”, he fully developed his sound, and it was battle-hardened.

Early Prince hits like “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “1999” are wonderful and joyous, but perhaps some other brilliant soul could have been capable of writing them.

Not so with “Kiss” — a song so tightly wound that you can feel your lungs compressing when you let yourself get too deep inside it. Like “Housequake” or “Sexy M.F.”, “Kiss” wrings pleasure out of anger and pain. It is funk turned fierce.

As the '90s went on, Prince lost cultural relevance. He still churned out good and sometimes great albums like The Gold Experience, but not even his adapted version of funk could thrive in an era of ironic detachment and Clintonian cynicism.

His epic battle with Warner Brothers led him to famously change his name to a symbol that combined both gender signs — a mind-blowingly weird and bold move that in another era could have been legendary, like Dylan going electric, but in 1993 merely led to his being the butt of late night talk show jokes.

In the last decade, Prince enjoyed a renaissance in popular appreciation for many reasons. Dance music made a comeback. The gender binary came under sustained attack by a new generation. An era of endless war and recession forced irony to take a hike.

His longstanding model of having his own record label and relying on viral marketing also finally fit the picture of popular music more generally.

In all these ways and more, it felt like the world was finally catching up to Prince. Even his old eccentricities, like replacing words with numbers and changing his name to a symbol, turned out to be eerily prescient of an era of texts and emojis.

For his part, Prince was aging incredibly — looking just as cool as ever, mastering social media and seemingly invulnerable to all attempts to take celebrities down.

When the Chappelle Show did a skit about Prince playing basketball in a blouse and heels, it only made Prince cooler — particularly when he referenced the skit a few years later on the cover of Breakfast Can Wait.

When Black Lives Matter exploded, Prince was seemingly the only wealthy Black man over 50 who was completely at home in and embraced by the new movement. He wrote “Baltimore” after that city's uprising in the wake of the police murder of Freddie Gray.

Prince's death came too soon not only because he was young and seemingly healthy, but because at age 57, he was finally getting to see the world appreciate his genius and listen to his message of love in these scary times.

My favourite Prince album is 1988's Lovesexy, an orchestral funk opera about the battle between good and evil that is gloriously ludicrous, but damn if I'm not moved every time I get to the final words of the final song, which seem more relevant than ever as we face a future without him:

Hold on to your souls.
We've got a long way to go.

[Reprinted from Socialist Worker (US).]

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