When Prince appeared on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” a few weeks ago, he really didn’t have to be any good. He could’ve sat on a stool clutching an acoustic guitar and played “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” for a few minutes, and the crowd assembled, both in the studio and watching at home, would’ve given him rapturous applause regardless.
Instead of doing that, he premiered one new song, “Screwdriver,” and played ”Bambi,” from his second album. It’s rare to get to see an artist play songs that have a 34-year age gap side by side, but the songs weren’t all that different in execution. Both resembled the rockier parts of “Purple Rain” – specifically how much “Screwdriver” reminded me of “Computer Blue” – with the former being indebted to it, and the latter predating it.
At the end of “Bambi,” Prince threw the guitar he was playing into the air and it came crashing back down to the ground, breaking it. This would’ve been a fine moment of rock and roll showmanship if not for the fact that the guitar was being borrowed at the time from Captain Kirk Douglas of The Roots.
Prince could have easily begun his victory lap in the mid-1990s, but there he was playing, sneering coyly at the camera like he was still a young provocateur.
In 2004, the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he released one of his best albums and songs in “Musicology.” Ever since then, he has steadily been releasing albums to middling acclaim. Not that it particularly matters much to the man’s fans, who will gladly pack stadiums across the country to see him.
Presumably one of the great things about being Prince is that he can simply throw together a tour, whether there is an album to promote or not. One of the strange benefits of being an acclaimed musician with decades of experience is that you can release album after album for the same group of people for years without having to worry about achieving, or reclaiming, any sort of widely popular success. Of course, there are reasons for this.
Recently at South by Southwest, young bands strained ever harder for the great cereal prize that is general acclaim and acceptance by playing in bars and streets and any space they could fit into. As years have gone by and larger corporate sponsors and performers have steadily begun usurping newer bands, it becomes that much harder to think about the latter when someone like Prince – with openers A Tribe called Quest! – is on your itinerary. And not only did he show up, but he ‘showed up,’ playing a staggering 26-song set stretched over six encores. Six. It’s no small wonder that he was saved for last at the festival. How could anyone follow him?
For a man fast approaching 55 years of age with 34 released albums, where is the endpoint? Presumably, Prince will keep writing and releasing material, well, until he is on his death bed, and even after that, the supply of unreleased songs could flow out of his vault for years. To the general public, he’s the man that made “Purple Rain” and was responsible for painting most of the ‘80s in a thick sheen of purple.
To his rabid fans, he’s a messiah that requires careful examination at every turn. The space between casual Prince fan and mega-fan is a wide gulf, because trying to break through a discography like that is not an easy task. The beauty of having literally hundreds of songs littered across decades of time is that there really is something for everyone on an album-by-album basis.
For example, the pop-rock side of Prince shines brightest on his criminally short 1980 album “Dirty Mind,” with songs like “Uptown” and “When You Were Mine,” featuring a melodic bounce that can’t be denied. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s “Xpectation,” one of Prince’s many albums that was released primarily via download in the early 2000s as part of his NPG Music Club. Overflowing with jazz influences and neo-classical undertones, “Xpectation” is as far as Prince has gotten from “Purple Rain” yet.
Prince is a great example of a musician simply not knowing when to quit. He’s won nearly every accolade a musician can get, along with selling millions of albums. It begs the question – how long can this keep going?
How long can we just keep expecting new Prince albums to show up in the morning, sometimes literally with the morning paper as he did with the releases of recent albums “Planet Earth” and “20Ten”? Until that question is answered, we’ll be experiencing the same cycle of “Prince releases music,” “Prince is interviewed and says strange things about the Internet” and “Prince sells out new tour in minutes,” over and over until either he decides he’s written his last riff, or his fans decide that they’ve had enough. With any other musician, the former would seem like a more obvious choice, but Prince has never allowed himself to just be any other musician.
Five Under-Appreciated Prince Songs (Not including “Purple Rain” or “Sign O’ The Times”)
1. “Sometimes It Snows In April”
3. “All The Critics Love U In New York”
4. “Ronnie, Talk To Russia”
5. “Under The Cherry Moon”
Kevin Stairiker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.