Purple Rain, Purple Reign

The genesis of Prince’s musical brilliance was a story of forbidden fruit.

When his father—a musician in whose own stage image his firstborn would be named—split with his mother and left the family home, a ten-year-old Prince not only seized the opportunity to play the piano that his father had long forbidden him to touch but vowed to play it better than his father ever had. And in the years that followed, Prince taught himself how to master not only that instrument but countless others, including the most unique instrument of all—his own being.

Yet inasmuch as Prince was born to master, Prince was also born to slave. And he accepted both tasks as if he had been created with the purpose of fulfilling them. Because he was.

The epitome of dualities, Prince Rogers Nelson always stood with one high-heeled foot firmly planted on either side of the line that defined Mortality and Grace.

A devout Jehovah’s Witness, Prince actualized one of the most successful and financially lucrative musical careers of our era. His Watchtower was at once the religious tome and the Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. His journey did not knock politely on doors; it blew them. He brought himself into living rooms across this country and around the world, not by ringing our doorbells but by wringing our hearts and replenishing them with Purple Rain.

Earning the moniker “His Royal Badness,” his chosen color was that of kings and clergy, of the highest levels of human achievement. Bejeweled and beglittered, his tiny body leveled a leviathan presence.

Behind an impishly comedic wit and impatient intolerance for imperfection, his deeply resonant speaking voice diametrically opposed the shrill vocal punctuations that became his musical monogram.

Garish and softspoken, controlling and selfless, he wrote songs about sexual anticipation and God, and we consumed them all with equal parts of relish and adoration, gyration and genuflection.

His refusal to be controlled by an industry that would split his genius baby may have seemed adolescent—after all, he was a teenager when he first came before the corporate tribunal—but he knew the value and the power of his own gift, and he cherished the sanctity of its purity.  His refusal to dilute his energy entitled him to bottle it, to ration it, to channel it, to release it in precise pulsations, and to preserve the precious preponderance of it for such time as the world was (is? will be?) ready to receive it.

When other acolytes were tithing to their churches, Prince was tithing to his own higher purpose, banking the lion’s share of his wealth in a vault for safekeeping. He controlled his music to preserve its value so that he and he alone could direct its impact. And yet, as unwaveringly controlling as Prince was, he was controlling for a higher purpose, which made him twice as selfless. For the multitude of charitable organizations he created and the vast sums of money he donated to empower people in need, his anonymity shrouded his efforts, and only those closest to him knew of his dedication to the downtrodden.

Offered countless opportunities to promote his own fame (a star on Hollywood Boulevard, for example), he often refused them because it “wasn’t the right time.” These things would have to wait, some of them indefinitely. Prince had better things to do, and Time waits for no man.

[So can it be a coincidence that Prince produced The Time to earmark his early musical style while he went on to explore other genres in his career?]

He moved faster than anything the pace of this world encouraged, permitted, or comprehended, and this made him an untamable pariah in his industry. Branded a taskmaster, a rebel, a lunatic who would change his name to a symbol to deny a corporation control over his work, Prince’s vision was driven by a beacon invisible to the rest of the world. He crushed every moment out of his days, performing to packed arenas as a prologue to jam sessions at all-night venues, interludes which provided the fodder to his wee-hour return to recording studios in order to bank a preponderant percentage of his work in his own personal savings account.

Prince’s candle was a dynamite stick with a sphere of protruding wicks, each of them burning at both ends. Every single one of his earthly days packed TNT into that stick, racing the clock to provide the explosive material that would send his life’s work skyward.

In hindsight, there was no quirk or peccadillo that wasn’t in its perfect right place, setting the impeccable table for a feast the world would yet receive, the presentation of more than a lifetime of Princely final suppers. Had he not been early denied access to musical expression, he might not have acted in defiance to be unbound in his expression. Had his childhood bout with epileptic seizures not elicited in him an expression of brash outrageousness, he might not have taught himself to claim what others would refuse him. had his lifetime prancing in high heels and driving grueling production schedules not taken its toll on his physical body, and had his religion not forbidden certain curative medical interventions, he might not have resorted to inhuman levels of painkillers to withstand the daily pain his physical body visited on him. had he a living heir, the world might not be next in line to receive his bounty.

Above all, Prince was a paradox. He was taken too soon, but he worked twice as hard. He was known to the world but known by a precious few. His public persona belied that of an intensely private individual. He was universally unfathomable. No sooner would he arrive than he would disappear. He was an enigma. He was a ghost. He was a gift from God. And he left us each with a single shard of his passionate purple brilliance as he vanished in the April snow.