Prince to me was an anomaly. I first heard “Purple Rain” when I was in middle school in the Philippines, and at first I couldn’t understand his appeal. All the other cool kids had him in their Walkmans.
I was the contrarian and in love with hardcore and punk those days. I was constantly listening to bands like the Dead Kennedys and the New York Dolls. When one of my friends let me listen to Prince, I thought it was catchy enough. But looking at the cassette cover, I thought he was a bit too gaudy and showy. His purple motorcycle didn’t help.
My view of him started shifting when I saw the movie “Purple Rain.” He was performing the song and his rendition of it was, in short, revelatory. This was in the era of Betamax and tinny CRT TV speakers. But even with those limitations, the minute he started singing and playing the guitar solos, I felt like I was transported into the screen. It was as if I was there right in front of that stage spellbound. Needless to say, he became a staple, albeit a secret one. I sang Jello Biafra’s praises but Prince had pulled even with him in my eyes.
But it was his 1987 album “Sign O’ the Times” that changed everything for me. Yes, there were artists that helped define pop music. However, that album proved he transcended any kind of genre and explained why I thought I’ve never seen or heard anything like him. It was a rock and roll album, a jazz and blues masterpiece, a perfect set of pop recordings, etc. I’d be hard pressed to find a recording in that era that’s just as influential. In “Sign O’ the Times” he rocked, he partied, he danced, he loved, he got off, he was even socially conscious. The title track with the same name dealt with drug addiction, racism, and the difficulties of growing up in today’s world. Another song from it that I still listen to regularly is “Forever in My Life,” in my opinion, probably the most tender of his ballads.
His influence extended beyond music and continues to permeate the Western cultural landscape. I’ve always been an avid reader and I can’t count the times Prince was written about in some pretty prominent pieces of fiction. Bret Easton Ellis made his protagonist/sociopath Patrick Bateman debate the merits of Prince and his influence on music. One of my literary heroes, Jonathan Lethem, wrote about Prince’s pop sensibilities at length in “Motherless Brooklyn.”
But it was ultimately his live performances that made me the rabid fan that I am. I first saw him in the mid to late 90s when he unfortunately became “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” This was the time he dropped his nom de guerre and went by an unpronounceable symbol (even the greatest ones slip every once in awhile).
For me, it cemented his reputation as one of the greatest musicians of all time. His shows are some of the best I’ve ever seen. He had the whole stadium, about 10,000 of us, spell bound. You couldn’t stop looking at him. This was also when I learned that he was a genuine ax-man.
The last time I saw him live was in 2011, at a show at the Oakland Coliseum. The makeup of the sold out show’s audience just highlighted how wide his appeal is. There were teenagers, middle aged fogeys like me, and what seemed to be octogenarians. And all of us shook our booties, swooned, cried, sang our hearts out to one of the biggest sing-alongs we’ve ever been to. We didn’t know it would be one of the last few stadium shows he’d ever play. But for two-and-a-half hours that night, he made us pop believers.
And none of us wanted it to end.
Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business America show on CCTV America.
PHOTO Gallery: Prince – A life in music