Prince was a once-in-a-generation artist who never rested on his laurels
MINNEAPOLIS — Prince was the most complete rock star ever.
That might sound like a preposterous overstatement that begs for some qualifier. But none is necessary. He was singular in stature.
Who else in pop history could sing, write, arrange and produce music in a variety of styles, play a wide range of instruments with remarkable skill, shine onstage and on screen — and create an alluring mystique while being a visionary musically, visually and commercially?
Many Minnesotans didn't see Prince that way, however. To them, he was an eccentric — the guy who changed his name to a symbol, who feuded with the record label that had just signed him to a record $100 million contract. He's the high-heeled dandy who always called attention to himself but demanded privacy with his phalanx of bodyguards.
Last days: Prince, 57, died early Thursday morning at Paisley Park, the home and studio he built in Chanhassen, Minnesota. He was hospitalized briefly last week in Moline, Illinois, where his private plane made an emergency landing after he played two concerts in Atlanta.
On Saturday night, Prince made a brief appearance at Paisley Park, his studio complex in Chanhassen where he also lived. During what was advertised as a dance party, he played "Chopsticks" and a brief classical passage on a brand new custom-made purple piano. He also held up a shiny new purple guitar and explained he couldn't play it because he was concentrating on his solo piano tour.
He also made a typically cryptic statement to show that he was alive and well: "Wait a few days before you waste any prayers."
Prince was last seen in public Tuesday night at a concert by jazz/soul singer Lizz Wright at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. He sat at a table in the balcony with members of his band. After the show ended, Prince — cane in hand, thrust over his shoulder — exited through the Dakota's kitchen.
Paradox: Prince was a paradox, which is partly why he was so enticing. He made a career out of shocking us while still keeping us riveted.
Back in 1980 when he was a rising R&B star, he wore bikini underwear and a trenchcoat while singing deliciously catchy rock songs about incest and oral sex. In 2004, he donned a conservative (for him) purple suit to open the Grammy Awards with a rousing medley from "Purple Rain," upstaging his 22-year-old duet partner, Beyonce.
In that brief moment with pop's It Girl, Prince reminded us that he's the most dazzling performer of his generation, more so than Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson or Madonna.
"I'm always floored every time I've seen him live," Rock Hall of Famer David Bowie, another revolutionary who died this year, said back in the '00s. "There's very few people to touch him."
Ask anyone from John Mellencamp to Alicia Keys, who inducted Prince into the Rock Hall of Fame in 2004, and they will tell you that Prince is the most widely respected musician of the past 35 years.
"To see without all the trappings of the imaging and see him as a pure musician, it's my greatest thrill ever," his contemporary and sometimes protege Jimmy Jam said in the early '00s.
'Higher power': Prince's gifts were once in a generation.
"He's a rare individual touched by a higher power," said Ron McCurdy, a trumpeter and chairman of jazz studies at the University of Southern California who spent the 1990s at the University of Minnesota. "I would put him up there with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
"I always measure greatness by staying power — the Stevie Wonders, the Billy Joels, who are able to write songs that stick, that people remember, that touch people's soul. And certainly Prince will be one of them."
It's not just his enduring songs but his influence as well. His imprint has been heard on recordings by others for the past three decades.
Numbers: Numbers bolster Prince's credentials. He had chart-topping songs in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. He scored 14 top-10 pop singles (including four at No. 1) in the '80s and five more in the '90s (including another No. 1). His U.S. album sales have topped 36 million; "Purple Rain" alone has sold more than 13 million. His most recent album, "Hit N Run Phase Two," was released last fall via Tidal, an artist-friendly streaming service. Prince resisted streaming services because artists were not compensated fairly. He had his lawyers chase after anyone who illegally posted his works on YouTube or other Internet sources.
Oddness: The numbers speak more loudly than Prince did. While he could be charming and even outgoing, the image that jumps more readily to mind is of his first TV appearance in 1980 on "American Bandstand."
When host Dick Clark asked how many instruments he played, Prince wordlessly held up four fingers.
That indelible oddness made him the Andy Kaufman of rock, Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas once commented: "Sometimes he'll do things, and he'll be like, 'I don't care if you get it. I dig it.'?"
Minnesota: The mad genius is one of us. Prince Roger Nelson was born in Minneapolis, grew up on the South Side and the North Side, and moved to Chanhassen when he became rich and famous. Minnesotans saw him at Timberwolves games, read about him in gossip columns and generally took him for granted.
But to non-Minnesotans, he was a franchise like the Vikings, Garrison Keillor or the Mall of America. He was our most famous export, known from Tokyo to Tivoli Gardens.
Prince had certain similarities to the state's other idiosyncratic Hall of Famer, Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, he had a healthy ego, craved his privacy and maintained a home on the western fringe of the Twin Cities. Both starred in self-styled autobiographical movies, but while Dylan's "Renaldo & Clara" was a self-indulgent flop, Prince's "Purple Rain" was an unexpected sensation. And he made one of the most compelling concert movies ever, 1987's "Sign o' the Times."
Where Dylan forged the role of the modern singer/songwriter, Prince set standards for musicianship, stagecraft and business innovation. He created spectacular arena tours and broke all modern records for prolificacy, cranking out albums faster than Warner Bros. could (or would) release them, all the while spinning off side projects and helping neglected heroes get a new start.
As his commercial fortunes waned, Prince articulated ideas that would revolutionize the record business, including selling CDs through such alternatives as private music clubs, the Internet and one-shot deals with major labels.
To be sure, his track record was checkered. The same could be said of Dylan or any other musical giant. Whatever his hits and misses in the studio or elsewhere, Prince's next move always demanded that serious followers of popular music pay attention. Because he would never rest on his Hall of Fame laurels.
Star Tribune music critic Jon Bream has covered Prince since his very first record in 1978.