An Enigma? No. Prince Just Made Us Pay Attention

On October 20, 1988, Prince played deep into the night at Citi, one of a series of clubs that haunted 15 Landsdowne Street for the better part of four decades. The concert became an oft-recounted event in the history of music in Boston for a number of reasons. It was a secretive, late-night jam session after his arena show at the Worcester Centrum that evening. Though the show was a planned part of his tour that year — according to reviews, reports, and itineraries, he did the same thing in a number of cities — accounts from the evening, both formal (Jim Sullivan’s review in the Boston Globe being primary among them) and informal (the dozens of “I was there, man” stories from the same folks who corner the young’uns with tales from the Rat) tell of a loose set of jams that celebrated the musical curiosity and showmanship so many have lamented in the past week. More importantly, the show plays a role in the lore of our music scene because it is our story of the “hidden” side of Prince that many have tried to document in the past week. After a shocking accident in which Frederick Cameron Weber, a Berklee freshman, was struck and killed by a car at what was then Tower Records at Newbury St. and Mass Ave., Prince donated the proceeds of the Citi show to a scholarship fund in Weber’s name, who had been waiting in line to purchase tickets to the Worcester show. It’s not the surreptitious philanthropy that Van Jones has described and brought to light, but it was a modest and magnanimous gesture from a larger-than-life MTV star at a time when our pop idols seemed inaccessible and remote.

The word “enigmatic” has been thrown around in the scores of encomia published since last Thursday. But Prince wasn’t enigmatic; he was knowable. Prince’s contemporaries during the peak of his chart presence as a paragon of popular culture — Michael Jackson, Madonna, et al — were detached icons of commercial music. Prince’s own iconic nature was offset by an intimacy and engaging musicality that reared during performances. And his confident, yet self-effacing poise in the moments we heard him speak demonstrated a shy, yet self-possessed man. The problem for a lot of his audience and those tossing around the word enigma, is that Prince was knowable primarily through his music. He affected and mastered an aloof ineffability when speaking, but his music brought intimacy public, from its overt sexuality to its moving poignancy. When audiences expect their rock stars to offer an explanation of what a song is “really” about, and when personal lives are brought public — look no further than our current furor over “Becky with the good hair” — an artist who presented music with no commentary, the flair of a practiced showman, and who moved effortlessly from his own homaged presentations of Hendrix, Brown, and Stone to the sweaty grinds of “Cream” and “Kiss,” Prince could challenge an audience to listen, really listen, to the music, and to draw their own meanings from it. In that way, they could come to know him.

In the days since his death, we might look around to view the images and moments that have defined our public view of Prince. What has littered our Facebook and Twitter feeds over the past week? For some, the incongruity of Prince as hoops maven has resurfaced Charlie Murphy’s story from Dave Chappelle’s show. There’s also a reason so many screenshots of his tweets interacting with fans reminded us of his humor and love. And most simply, many shades of purple in the place of avatars and profile photos. Nate Bakkum, friend and Associate Professor of music at Columbia College Chicago, was the first person I saw who made the point that all of the tributes to Prince consisted of words and images. Following the deaths of other musical luminaries this year, the tributes were largely of music. But Prince managed unprecedented control over his music. It’s unsurprising, then, that the sounds he made spoke so loudly to who he was.

Prince spoke his private self musically, and in doing that, he gave us a reason to believe in what music can do and how it can speak to who we are. In the wake of David Bowie’s passing, many tweets and Facebook messages circulated around the theme of mourning Bowie not for who he was, but for his ability to help us know who we were. Bowie’s music and his performances told us we mattered. Prince’s music told us music mattered.

After the news circulated on Thursday, I dug up some of my favorite records and tracks as so many of us did. The first, and most immediate, was Prince’s searing take on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. So much has been written on that performance in recent days, including Rolling Stone’s account of it nearly not happening. That entrance, though. A shadowy, behatted figure stands stage left throughout the song, and as the band crests on the chorus, a lone spot steadily illumines the silhouette. Prince thrusts, holds, and drops a bluesy bend, gradually unfolding his solo. When Tom Petty and company recite, “Look at you all,” into a final chorus, Prince walks back his yearning statement to a precipitate mid-range attack, giving way to a breathless fluttering descent. And this in the first twenty seconds of a three-minute siege on the Beatles’ classic.

Takes on others’ tunes marked many of Prince’s most memorable moments. One of the reasons his Citi show is remembered fondly here in Boston is the freewheeling jam session. Find someone with something to say about that show, and the fact that Prince featured “Take the ‘A’ Train” in a late-show medley peppers every reminiscence. And it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always, “Let’s Go Crazy” or “Purple Rain” that defined a Prince performance. During his Super Bowl performance in 2007 which caused many of us to “forget there was a football game going on,” according to Jelani Cobb, Prince tore through versions of “All Along the Watchtower” and the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You,” tearing the latter from its alt-rock syrup, and turning into into a churning, bluesy, Stones-influenced burner.

A good song is a good song. And Prince took us through the whole of popular music history with every version of every work he dug into. His writing, though, is where we know him the best. His recordings are how we know music matters. From the simple gesture of dropping the bass line in, “When Doves Cry,” to the illuminating kitsch of “Batdance,” and the slippery chromatic color of “Planet Earth,” Prince forced listeners ready and willing to passively slurp on their pop music to think about what they were hearing. For that reason, it wasn’t always easy to know exactly what he was up to. But it was there if you paid attention. Prince was never an enigma. Prince was there in front of us, daring us to pay attention. Now that he’s gone, did we?