The Old Man and the Purple One

Family vacation, Glacier Park, Montana, 1988. Noon. Ham and cheese sandwiches in a jammed restaurant just outside the park. After Dad paid the tab, I put $1 in the juke box, played Prince’s Raspberry Beret seven times, and headed for the door. 

Before I got there, Prince started. Loudly. The juke box was set at the previous night’s volume, when the place was a bar.

 

I am sure they turned the thing off in a hurry, but I still savor the thought of the diners’ reaction to the noise.

 

Raspberry Beret was from Prince’s Around the World in a Day, which I had purchased in LP form and quickly wore out. 

 

I kept thinking as I listened, “how come nobody thought up this stuff before?” 

 

When genius appears, it seems so blindingly obvious people forget it is completely new. 

 

Genius or not, Prince left me in the dust with his Diamonds and Pearls album in 1991. I bought the CD, but left it in its case. 

 

It was too raw. Prince wanted to liberate me in ways I didn’t wish to be liberated. So, I turned away.

 

I spent the next thirty years with J. S. Bach, the Rolling Stones, and Willie Nelson. What I had of Prince sat on the shelf, and I bought nothing more. 

 

It wasn’t a wasted thirty years: Bach alone is worth a lifetime of listening. But I did miss dozens of chances to see Prince play live.

 

Then, Prince died. The well-enforced embargo on the free distribution of his music on the Internet ended. Over the past few days, I listened again. 

 

There he was––the blazing talent, the panache, the verve, the weirdness—and the undeniable genius of his music. 

 

J. S. Bach died in 1750. A pop-star performer on the greatest, loudest, baddest instrument of the time, the pipe organ, Bach toured Europe like any rock star, challenging the local organists to contests. 

 

One reportedly overheard Bach rehearsing ahead of time and fled to the forest rather than be humiliated. 

 

For all his talent, once he died, Bach’s compositions were forgotten but by all but the geniuses (Handel, Hayden, Beethoven and Mozart included) who used him as a model. He was a musician to musicians, but his popular acclaim vanished. 

 

Bach left over 1,000 pieces in his vault, but the vault was leaky. Allegedly, one of Bach’s sons sold some of his original sheet music to a local butcher to use as fish wrap so he could buy beer. 

 

Each of those sheets would today bring millions.

 

One thousand pieces survived, but remained unplayed until Felix Mendelssohn orchestrated a performance of a Bach cantata in 1820. The crowd went wild, as we say now, and a revival of interest in Bach’s music began which has continued to expand to the present day. The sheer genius of Bach’s compositions propelled him to a post-mortem acclaim which exceeded his reputation for instrumental virtuosity while he was alive. 

 

Now, Prince: Yes, he was a great guitarist. Yes, he knew how to play all the instruments. Yes, he could steal a show and dominate a crowd like even Mick Jagger couldn’t. Yes, he was so spectacularly weird that stories about him will dribble out for years. 

 

But the real test will come from the vault. Reports have the number of unreleased songs in the thousands. 

 

What we have of his recordings reveals an intelligence, an innovative spirit and a compositional ability that may well be as durable as Bach’s. 

 

Forget the sex, forget the glam. Forget the crazily beautiful outfits, the dramatic appearances on national TV, the impromptu concerts at Paisley Park. Forget, even, our provincial Minnesota pride that Prince never left our snow-swept nerdland. 

 

The proof in the pudding will be in Prince’s massive vault. 

 

It may well be that Prince’s career, like that of Bach when he died in 1750, has just begun.