Amidst all its other unsettling excesses, 2016 has become a year of collective mourning as musical icon after musical icon passes away. The names begin to sound like a list of battlefield casualties. Our latest loss was much more than a leader among men: he was royalty.
Prince’s death strikes me as a tragedy for so many reasons: he was too young, only 57. He was—as for nearly everyone of my generation—a fixture of my childhood, a figure of impossible cool; his loss feels deeply personal. Lastly, Prince seemed so above it all—above all of the ugly, petty crap the rest of us slog through every day, including death.
All pop stars seem like that to their fans.
But when it comes to Prince, it wasn’t just his forever young sexuality that made me think he’d never die, but the fact that he could do anything, and I mean anything at all as a musician. He seemed to have no limitations. Unlike many of this year’s lost stars, I was lucky enough to see him play. That show became the high watermark by which I’ve unfairly measured every other performer.
He played for three hours, then held an afterparty and played for two more. He tore through his catalog, then played everyone else. Members of his band left the stage one by one, and Prince continued, picking up instrument after instrument. The hugeness of the sound didn’t seem diminished one bit when he remained on stage alone with his guitar at three o’clock in the morning.
And that guitar, man.… Whether his trademark butterscotch Telecaster or series of unique, signature instruments—he played like no one else: he made the guitar cry, sing, howl, wail, and launch into outer space hysterics. His power and control were unmatched. Eric Clapton, when asked what it felt like to be the world’s greatest guitarist, supposedly said, “ask Prince.” Apocryphal or not, it’s believable. No guitarist can be anything but blown away by Prince’s prowess. Witness his solo at the end of the 2004 all-star Rock and Roll Hall of Fame George Harrison tribute performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (top), widely cited as one one of the best guitar moments caught on tape, and as evidence for why Prince belongs in the top ten of world’s greatest players. He’s accompanied on the stage by Tom Petty (RIP), Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison.
I don’t think there’s any hyperbole in saying that Prince may have been the greatest stage performer of the past forty years, as a total package: showman, songwriter, and musician. And though he dominated center stage, he wasn’t too proud to play the sideman. Check him out above, for example, backing Lenny Kravitz on “American Woman.” But when it came time for Prince to take a solo (see him tear it up at around 4:50), it was like everyone else had left the stage.
Rest In Peace, Prince. As a guitarist, singer, and general explosion of purple amazingness, he was in a class all his own.