I want to take tonight to talk about genius. Everyone knows someone who is smart and everyone knows someone for whom the appellation “genius” applies in their personal lives. I know a few people who fit this category to a “T.” The people that I refer to in this vein are talented above and beyond the norm for our society. They include an Israeli nanotechnology physicist and a great former military leader of the IDF. And then there are those that create something that outlasts their own lives. In my opinion, there are four individuals that meet these criteria whom the world recognizes. Because it is the 400th anniversary of his death, in first mention is William Shakespeare. Following the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon is Albert Einstein; then George Gershwin and finally, Prince Rogers Nelson.
Because Einstein died two months after I was born, I cannot really comment upon his life in the way that others might simply because I am not a scientist. Nor was I around while George Gershwin was giving people a reason to love music and dance.
I have known musicians all my life, some of them acknowledged masters of their chosen genres. But what I really am is a devotee of Prince. Folks will say, “but how can you possibly equate a scientific genius of Einstein’s stature with that of a popular musician?” To which I will reply: “That’s easy.” Both men were at the pinnacle of their lives in their chosen fields. Granted, it is not easy to describe the influence of a genius, least of all someone who broke every boundary and every single obstacle in their path, but Prince is the person of the 20th and 21st centuries who did precisely these things and made it look easy. His hyper-sexualized shows that border on the spiritual of which I thankfully was once present for, were great shows. His lyrics have stood the test of time. His words were prescient, to the point and often humorous.
His lengthy and legendary fight with Warner Brothers Records is the singular reason that musical artists today take greater care with their product in the Internet Age where anyone can hear your music with the click of a button without paying for the privilege. The Beatles sold their entire catalogue to Michael Jackson. A month later, you could hear Beatles songs in ads for Nike shoes. Prince made this practice end with the purchase of his catalogue from Warner, truly a day of liberation, and not just for him.
Prince was the personification of charity and more importantly, he did so without any fanfare or need of recognition. He was a Jehovah’s Witness and they imitate the Jewish belief that giving should be anonymous, or it is not truly giving. He donated untold amounts of money for relief efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He gave back to his community and he paved the way for new artists to follow in his footsteps without their having to endure the usual sacrifice and hardship most musicians face. His generosity towards fellow musicians was legendary. They were all over the various news services and not one of them could speak without tears or without choking them back. Prince had often acknowledged Stevie Wonder as one of his musical mentors and idols, but it was Stevie who could not speak thoroughly of his affection for Prince without crying. Prince’s crossover effect means that even solid rockers like Bruce Springsteen added a Prince song to his live concert yesterday, and it was a stellar performance at that.
One of the things that makes a musician into a “musician’s musician” is when they come along, take a song and by virtue of their active participation, make it a better song and better audience experience. Prince simply blew people away when he showed up at a concert or recording studio and plugged in his guitar or sat at the piano. Only Duane Allman and a few other musicians were able to do this.
The first time I ever heard Prince was from his first album, “For You” in 1979 where he plays all the instruments on it, a feat very few have ever achieved. He did it as if to say “this is my music. Who knows better how it should sound than me?” He was so right. His musical styles were so fluid that the torchy love songs were as danceable as his funky numbers. And then he put out “Controversy” and all musical hell broke loose. He released this album in 1980 and the things he was singing about then are still being argued over decades later. “I just can’t believe all the things people say. Controversy. Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? Controversy. Do I believe in God. Do I believe in me?…. Some people want to die so they can be free.” Followed by excerpts from the Biblical “Lord’s Prayer.” It is the funk paean of all time.
And then there was the sex. I am a child of the 60s. I have watched television since Jackie Gleason’s variety show graced the screen. To this day, I have never seen anything to equal Prince’s act at the “MTV Video Music Awards” show in 1991. His performance of “Gett Off” is the dirtiest, funkiest and sexiest thing I have ever seen on a TV screen. It is “Dante’s Inferno” set to music. He choreographed it all.
Prince’s music is precisely what led then-Vice President Al Gore’s wife, Tipper,, to charge onto Capitol Hill demanding that sexually-explicit lyrics to music be either banned outright or annotated on album covers warning children to stay clear. And yet Prince could write some of the most beautiful music about relationships ever recorded. He refused to be categorized and I am thankful for that every time I turn on his music. It is said he sold over 100 million albums, CDs and tape cassettes during his career that began when he was 17 years old. Without his tight control later in his career, it could easily have been 200 million. What is mind-blowing is knowing that Prince had a “vault” at his Paisley Park compound in Minnesota where he stored the music he hadn’t gotten around to releasing yet. It is estimated to be in the thousands of hours of music — enough to lead us into the 23rd Century.
When people live at the same moment in history as an influential genius, they can count themselves fortunate that they were there to experience it firsthand and to benefit from the exposure. The rarity of such individuals should make us appreciate them all the more. Their refusal to go along in a conventional way without knocking down doors during their artistic process and fighting for their right of self-expression is part of their genius and 4 that, I thank U, Prince.