Friday, April 22, 2016

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today ...

Thus go the first seven words of the album Purple Rain, Prince's soundtrack to his 1984 movie of the same name. The soundtrack is justifiably more famous than the movie -- I'm not a Prince aficionado, but I can't see how it's not his best album -- but the movie itself has some indelible moments, especially its rousing climax. The soundtrack would not be half of what it is if it were just a regular studio concept album. It needs that movie to give it a sense of context, a sense of place.

I have been feeling out of place within myself ever since I woke up this morning to discover that Prince -- the man, the myth, the legend, the guy who temporarily went by a symbol that magazines had to import into their computers in order to write about him -- had died.

I didn't even know he was sick, though it was supposed to be just a bad flu. He was found unresponsive in an elevator at the complex where he lived. I hope we don't learn more about the circumstances of his death. I hope it was just that a man who always seemed slight, always seemed small of frame, had succumbed to something just a bit too powerful for his slender physique to handle.

But however small he was, his talent was prodigious. His voice was malleable, ecstatic. His guitar was ferocious. His songwriting was legendary. He was legendary.

Purple Rain the movie was something I discovered out of a prurient interest, rather than a musical or cinematic one. Somehow I learned that you could see the boobs of the movie's ingenue, the single-monikered Apollonia (who actually has a last name in IMDB, Kotero, which was heretofore unknown by me), in a scene where she strips to jump into a lake. When I was 13 or 14 and just really starting to get into the opposite sex, I discovered that my mom had recorded the movie off cable (The Movie Channel) and that, hey, I know how to use a fast forward button. But at some point I watched the whole movie, and even though it's cheesy and overwrought in spots, it's also incredibly satisfying, especially that ending. It didn't only lay claim to my loins, it laid claim to my heart.

I haven't seen Purple Rain in something like 25 years, but I've listened to the soundtrack dozens of times. It begins and ends with my two favorite Prince songs, "Let's Go Crazy" and the title song, "Purple Rain." ("Purple Rain" is not actually the last number in the movie -- both "I Would Die 4 U" and "Baby I'm a Star" follow it -- but it quite fittingly closes the soundtrack.) It's the epic quality of both songs that really transport me, one an ecstatic celebration (which is, interestingly, also a contemplation of life and the afterlife), the other a melancholy ballad. "Purple Rain" runs 8:41, and I luxuriate in every last second of it, down to the strings that fill the final minute but are never actually heard on the radio. "Let's Go Crazy" is somehow only 4:39, though it feels like double that, given that sermon opening, the places it goes within the song, and that amazing guitar solo it ends on, which of course is Prince strumming that axe himself.

And even though those songs have far surpassed the moment of their origin in that movie, when I hear them, I still see Prince scurrying around on that stage, a man possessed by the power of music. Those songs circulated through his body like a bolt of electricity. He was a consummate performer, even if he wasn't a great actor. Simply put, he brought it.

No other Prince work really had the same effect on me, though I do own several of his other albums, including his famous soundtrack for another movie, Batman, without which you could argue that that movie would only be a fraction of what it is. That album also has at least two great songs, "Batdance" and a ballad that always teared me up, "The Arms of Orion." But his creative pinnacle was reached five years earlier with Purple Rain. I only saw him as an actor in one other movie, Graffiti Bridge. The less said about that, the better.

The more said about Prince, though, the better. He was a Michael Jackson-style superstar. Much has been written about him, but he has always remained at a bit of a remove from us. Now that he's actually been removed from us, my heart aches.

On a day like today, I think it's appropriate to print the whole opening "sermon" of "Let's Go Crazy." Here it is:

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life

Electric word, life
It means forever and that's a mighty long time
But I'm here 2 tell u
There's something else
The afterworld

A world of never ending happiness
U can always see the sun, day (day) or night (night)

So when u call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
U know the one - Dr. Everything'll Be Alright
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left
Ask him how much of your mind, baby

'Cuz in this life
Things are much harder than in the afterworld
In this life
You're on your own

And if the elevator tries 2 bring you down
Go crazy

Prince was brought down in an elevator this morning. Here's hoping that he can now see the sun, day or night.


Wendell Ottley said...

Absolutely! I was introduced to Prince years before Purple Rain, but that album is him at the height of his powers. I'll listen to the argument that Sign O' the Times was better, but I still side with Purple Rain. Hate that the world lost another magnificent artist, especially since this one was closer to me than the others. Thanks for a great tribute.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Wendell. My heart is pretty heavy. I compared him to Michael Jackson, but really, he meant more to me than Jackson. His impact on me was more personal. Almost got a bit emotional watching a live performance of "Let's Go Crazy" earlier on Youtube.