Just a little before noon today, I was standing in the locker room at the Wheat Ridge Rec Center. I had just finished a swim, so I was dripping wet and I still had my suit, cap and goggles on when I opened my locker to pick up my towel and noticed that I had a text message from my wife. “Prince!” was all it said. This is the time when the Colorado concert schedule is being revealed so my first thought was, “Oh, is Prince coming to Red Rocks? That would be great to see him.”
Unhappily, I soon found out, Prince is not coming to Red Rocks, or anywhere else.
Like most of the rest of the known world, I was shocked and saddened when I learned the truth: Prince, 57, was dead. I kept checking my phone for hours, thinking I’d get a New York Times feed telling me it was all a hoax. Sadly, it’s not.
This all got me thinking, though, about that other great American artist, Ralph Ellison and, in particular, his late essay, “What Would American Be Like Without Blacks” (1970).
There, Ellison argues that the tragic vision of American letters and thought can be directly traced to the story of American slavery and the story of black America. So, in that regard, we wouldn’t have Melville, Twain and Hemingway without the story and the history of black America. And, as Ellison goes on to explain, white America’s anxiety over it’s own identity, its way of creative expression and its political history was influenced and shaped by the black experience.
The same holds true for American music. Think for a moment—and this should send a shiver down your spine—what would our music be like (except a wasteland) with out the likes of Robert Johnson, Hudie Ledbetter, Ma Rainey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and, yes, Prince.
I grew up in a solidly white, upper/middle class, conservative small city in eastern Pennsylvania and, for me, listening to Prince was a kind of guilty pleasure. I felt comfortable expressing my deep, and abiding, love for the Kinks, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, XTC and the Clash, but I was much more circumspect about my feelings for Prince. When Prince came on the radio though, and if I was solo driving in my 1982 Audi Fox, I would crank up the stereo as loud as it would go and sing along.
In the late 70’s and early 80s, white kids like me were listening to mostly Woodstock-era classic rock (Jimi, The Dead, Credence), British Invasion stuff (The Who, The Stones) and melodic post-punk (The Clash, Elvis Costello).
Much of that music was heavily influenced by African Americans, in fact, you could say that it was stolen from earlier black musicians. There would be, for instance, no Led Zeppelin, no Rolling Stones and god knows, no Elvis Presley, without American blues. Despite that, though, most kids like me really didn’t listen to black music. Jazz (pretty much all I listen to now) was outside my realm of understanding. Motown was what our parents’ listened to, and Michael Jackson was for girls. I’m not proud of this, and I’m glad I came around to a deep appreciation and love for African American contributions to American music, thanks mostly to public radio and the great, vibrant, wacky college radio stations on the east coast in the 80s.
FM radio stations at that time, the golden age of classic rock, did virtually nothing to help listeners make those connections from a Keith Richards guitar lick to Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy.
I used to listen to WMMR and WYSP out of Philadelphia and I don’t think they ever played any classic blues. They certainly played “Stairway to Heaven” over and over and, Prince, well, he was cast to the dance/pop/disco stations. That’s a shame, I think, and it took me quite some time to figure all that out. But, basically, what I had to learn was that when I was listening to “Sweet Virginia,” “Ventilator Blues,” or “Sweet Black Angel” from Exile in Main Street, I was really hearing Broonzy or Howlin’ Wolf behind it all. It’s cultural appropriation, of course, and Richards has been much better about acknowledging his sources than, say, Page, I think.
The genius of Prince, though, is that he took that all back–he turned rock and roll back on itself and instead of hearing or watching white guys ripping off black culture, in Prince, we got to see a smooth, sexy, black man who also played all his own instruments and owned his guitar solos. Prince, in other words, brought us the joy, the sexiness and the urgency of American blues. So, yeah, what I am saying here is that at his very core, Prince was a blues musician, and one of the best, too.
Because the first thing you realize about Prince is that he rocked. Michael Jackson did that a little bit, but he had great studio musicians and, to me, the rockin’ part of Michael always felt like more of a come on and a tease. When Prince laid into a guitar solo, he meant it and behind all that, I hear the urgency and the beauty of the great American blues guitarists.
And, even the most popular tunes in his catalog call up those older, largely forgotten traditions of American blues. Take “Little Red Corvette,” for instance. Released in 1983, the year I graduated from high school, that song remains one of my favorite Prince songs. When I first heard that song, I didn’t catch the classic blues signifyin’ that Prince was doing—the corvette becomes another, more poetic and sly, way of talking about sex—and in that way, “Little Red Corvette,” picks up on sexual themes in the songs of Bessie Smith, Big Bill Broonzy, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolfor any number of blues tunes that talk about one thing, but mean something else (sex, joy, being a human). Beyond all that, the tune has a great guitar solo that’s often overlooked.
And, lastly, place matters here. As a transplanted Midwesterner, I appreciate where Prince came from, Minnesota, the state of the headwaters of the Mississippi, Nick Carraway’s “middle west”—that old fashioned and, to me, preferred way of speaking of the middle of our country. It’s not the middle east or the middle of the east and the west, it’s the middle west. And Minnesota, one of the states at the heart of the middle west, is home to some of our best writers and musicians. This is Fitzgerald territory, and it’s the home of Sinclair Lewis, Robert Bly and Louise Erdrich as well as the Talking Heads, The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Low, Husker Du, the Replacements and, yes, that foremost of American tricksters, Bob Dylan.
Happily, Prince was not under appreciated as an artist, musician and performer. Today, his life and his contributions to American music and culture are being celebrated, as they should be for a long time to come.