sometimes it snows in april…

IMG_20160417_095124Like today… the last day of April (and now into May, as of this writing). It has been snowing here since early Friday morning and yes, it is the title of a song by Prince that closes his 1986 album Parade.

2016, four months into it, has been a brutal year for iconic musicians and their fans as we have witnessed the passing of so many of our musical heroes. Artists who made a deep and lasting imprint on popular culture and made significant contributions through their music. David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Dale “Buffin” Griffin, drummer for Mott the Hoople. Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson, guitarist/songwriter and original singer for Jefferson Airplane (both died on the same day), Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, Dan Hicks, Vanity (singer Denise Matthews, Prince protégé); Keith Emerson; George Martin, the legendary producer; Merle Haggard. And now, Prince himself.

Where to even begin?

The 21st of this month was just an ordinary Thursday. I had come back from lunch and was settled in at my desk. I go online, onto Twitter, and see Prince’s name is trending – not a good sign for musicians in 2016, but I knew he was on tour, the Piano and a Microphone Tour, and he was relatively young (hell, I turn 60 this year). I also knew his private jet had had to make an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois last week, but surely he didn’t…

And now it’s been 9 days since his death. I still can’t believe Prince is gone. Though some in the press sometimes referred to him as “the diminutive one”, he was truly larger than life. A musical force of nature we will not soon see again, if ever.

The day after he died, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam said, “If there was anyone I thought would be playing when he was 80 or 85, it was gonna be Prince.” I would second that and thought so too, which is what makes his death even more shocking.

I had seen him and his various bands six times over the years, beginning with the Purple Rain tour, and I would say at least 3 of those concerts are among the best 5 concerts I’ve ever seen by any artist. Watching him onstage you just saw pure joy and virtuosity in his playing that seemed effortless; listening to his recordings you just hear pure creativity and talent and that same joy.

His arrangements of his songs are amazing. Hey, when the record company said “there’s no bass part on “When Doves Cry” – no problem. He just simply told them it sounded better without the bass so he took it out. Reminds me of the renowned photographer Ansel Adams: when people questioned his work he would just say, “I’m the artist and I know how it’s supposed to look.” Prince, who produced his debut album (“For You”) when he was 19, and all albums thereafter, could have said the same: “I’m the artist; I know how it’s supposed to sound.”

This video has been making the rounds on the Internet for the last week or so. Very much worth watching. Just beautiful… effortless.

I think the first time I remember seeing – or even hearing about – Prince was on TV, on an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1981 which featured Todd Rundgren as the musical guest but also included Prince who sang “Partyup” off of his album Dirty Mind. I also remember being kind of pissed off about it ’cause, as a huge Todd fan, I wanted to see more Todd; I had no idea who this Prince guy was (though I, along with the rest of the world, would soon find out).

In 1982 you started to hear Prince on the more mainstream radio stations in Dallas; I remember KVIL-FM and longtime, legendary DJ Ron Chapman would refer to “Delirious” as “the baby song” probably because that’s what listeners called it when they phoned in to request it. I first heard the album 1999 over at my friend Annie’s house on Richmond Ave. near where I worked at Balloon-o-Grams after we had moved down to Lower Greenville. Heard it a lot actually, especially side 2 (“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “D.M.S.R”), as she would play it before we went out and hit the clubs – Cafe Dallas, Confetti, Tango – during those “run-amok” days.

After 1999 I went back and bought all his albums that I’d missed – both Dirty Mind and Controversy were amazing. There was nothing else like these albums out there at the time – truly groundbreaking.

And then came Purple Rain

Near Conchas Lake, eastern New Mexico, 1984...
Near Conchas Lake, eastern New Mexico, 1984…

In mid-September of 1984, Prince was king. Seriously. He ruled the airwaves – radio, MTV, and in the movies. You couldn’t go anywhere in America, even a small town like Las Vegas, New Mexico and not know who he was. I had moved out to Santa Fe by then, tending bar downstairs at the Plaza Ore House where we played Prince constantly on the weekend nights, and traveling twice a week through eastern New Mexico, through towns named Roy, Springer, and Tucumcari, with my girlfriend at the time, trying to hold onto a relationship that was doomed from the outset. Purple Rain was the lion’s share of the soundtrack to all that craziness (“Let’s Go Crazy”), driving around in the empty spaces and flat-topped mesas, meeting up with her whenever our schedules would allow.

Favorite songs from that album: “Take Me With U” and “The Beautiful Ones”.

Roy, New Mexico, 2009...
Roy, New Mexico, 2009…

She and I saw Purple Rain in Las Vegas, a town that was proud of the fact that the movie Red Dawn – featuring Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, and Lea Thompson, and also released that year – had been filmed there. Loved everything about Purple Rain, and I remember afterward she said a very interesting thing about Prince: “He’s going to be the one people remember.” Will never forget that… this at a time when Michael Jackson was at his peak popularity, Bruce Springsteen had released Born In the U.S.A., and Madonna had just released her first album.

32 years ago…

Still from the movie "Purple Rain"...
Still from the movie “Purple Rain”…

I hope that whoever is in charge of Prince’s estate and entrusted with his music, will – sooner than later – release an expanded, full edition of Purple Rain, with all the musical interludes that he recorded and that were recorded, the rough versions of the title track for instance, including where he plays it on just the piano. Give us the whole enchilada… please.

I love the fact that even after the phenomenal success of Purple Rain, Prince did not move to Los Angeles… or NY, or anywhere else, and stayed put in his hometown of Minneapolis… where he was so much a part of his community and the primary architect of the ‘Minneapolis Sound’.

I love it that after Purple Rain he didn’t try to duplicate it or just rest on the success of it and continually pushed himself further musically, exploring, taking risks, and staking out new musical territory for himself, his band, and his listeners all over the world. That is what a true artist does.

And the albums followed, year after year, tour after tour…
33 of them in all, continuing on through this past December, 2015 with the release of HITNRUN Phase Two. I’m just now catching up with the HITNRUN albums… and they are both excellent.

I love the fact that when he was recruited to be on the “We Are the World” studio sessions in 1985, he chose to record his own song instead – “4 The Tears In Your Eyes” – as his contribution with his band The Revolution. At the time he caught a lot of flak for it, but his song is by far superior. Go check it out on The Hits/The B-Sides album here (scroll down to song 55). It is one of his best and most affecting emotionally.

Essential Prince albums… by decade:
1970’s
Prince (1979) – includes “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad”

1980’s
All of them…
Dirty Mind (1980)
Controversy (1981)
1999 (1982)
Purple Rain (1984)
Around The World In a Day (1985)
Parade (1986)
Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Lovesexy (1988)

1990’s
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
Love Symbol Album (with the New Power Generation, 1992) – includes “Sexy M.F.” and “7”
The aforementioned Hits and B-Sides album (1993)
The Black Album (1994)
The Gold Experience (1995)
Emancipation (1996)
Crystal Ball (1998)
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)

2000’s
N.E.W.S. (2003) – all instrumental album
3121 (2006)
Planet Earth (2007)
Lotusflower (2009)

2010’s
PLECTRUMELECTRUM with 3rdEYEGIRL (2014)
ART OFFICIAL AGE (2014)
HITNRUN Phase One (Sept., 2015)
HITNRUN Phase Two (Dec., 2015)

All titles in all caps… his.

Essential songs?… Too numerous to list here. To me they’re pretty much all essential, even from albums I didn’t list above.

Most Underrated Prince album: Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, 1999

Best Prince Song you’ve probably never heard: “Da Bang” from Crystal Ball, 1998 (also love “Crucial” from that album – check ’em out)

Best Prince Song you may have heard but not necessarily on the radio:
“P Control” from The Gold Experience, 1995

For better or worse, and probably forever, people will say that Purple Rain, the soundtrack and the movie, was his magnum opus and what he will be most remembered for. It’s an excellent album to be sure – the 6th album in his discography – but I’m not sure it’s his best (Sign O’ the Times would be a strong contender). But Purple Rain achieves its greatness not just from the songwriting and musicianship and the performances, but also from hitting the collective consciousness at just the right time, right place, with the right cohesive image – so much so that it became mythical. It was a game-changer.

Erin and I watched the movie the day after he died (it will be playing at ‘Film on the Rocks’ at nearby Red Rocks Amphitheater on May 12th… we will be there). The weirdest thing about it was that through the entire movie it didn’t seem like he was gone at all… until the final song “Baby I’m a Star” that closes the movie, when he turns around and the camera freezes on him, and it was a clear reminder that yes, he was gone. Which absolutely sucks…

Some have called Prince the “greatest recording artist of our time” – I think that’s true, at least in my book, and to answer the implied rhetorical question of whether there will be another like him… no, there won’t be. He was one of a kind, his talent singular, and with the music industry as fractured and splintered as it is now, there will never be consensus around any artist in the same way no matter how hard the industry might try to manufacture it.

Prince had said he had hundreds of songs “in the vault” and that he hadn’t always given the record companies his “best songs”. I look forward to hearing those songs as they are released (hopefully… certainly?) in the coming years, but that’s small consolation. I’d much rather have him still with us here on Planet Earth.

A couple more articles/blogs on Prince:
from Matt Taibbi… http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/goodbye-prince-you-were-the-best-of-us-20160422 Includes video…

and Moe Berg (Pursuit of Happiness)… http://moeberg.ca/?p=297

Follow Craig and Nights on Venus on Twitter (@xlntsky), Facebook, and Instagram.

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Author: nightsonvenus

Musician and producer with the band Nights on Venus.

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