Strange Relationship: Prince and the mourning of celebrity

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By Matt Paolizzi, Co-Sports Editor

A morbid tradition

It’s become a sort of morbid tradition. Something we don’t necessarily look forward to, but something we expect nonetheless. This thing I am referring to, of course, is the endless flood of tributes, articles and reflections after the deaths of celebrities.

Bowie died and we were subject to a flood of sadness, a collective outpouring of shared grief. There’s a clear difference between the collective reactions to Prince’s passing and Bowie’s, however. Prince was less well-known to my generation. Always in the background, but never in the spotlight. Prince was of an older generation. While Bowie moved away from his genderbending Ziggy Stardust days as he created persona after persona, Prince remained the same. An eternal undefinable. While his music continued to evolve much like Bowie’s, Prince stayed elusive.

Very little is known about the man now and forever known as Prince. He rarely gave interviews. The few he gave often came with strict rules and guidelines. Reporters were not allowed to record and sometimes even barred from taking notes. They just sat there and took the madness in. The advent of the email interview gave hope to some adventurous writers, but Prince remained as elusive as ever. He would respond with pictures instead of words, emojis before emoji was included in the American lexicon. One of the few things that would elicit responses from him were sports related questions.

Yes, the man who legally changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and performed in ruffled blouses, was a massive sports fan. Whether he was repping his hometown Minnesota Twins or obsessing over Michael Jordan’s Bulls, the 5’2 superstar was a sports maniac. There’s a rumor that if the Bulls were playing during one of Prince’s concerts, he’d have tiny monitors installed on the floor of the stages. When he went for a lengthy guitar solo, the man would just look down the whole time. While the fans thought their idol was merely looking down, contemplating every note and chord, Prince was just watching his Bulls while he jammed out. But of course, that’s just like him isn’t it.

Prince was known as being quite the basketball player himself. He was a star on his high school team and would start pickup games with anyone he deemed cool, even at the zenith of his lofty fame. The infamous Charlie Murphy story—when Prince met Eddie Murphy’s brother and his friends at a club, brought them back to his place and proceeded to destroy his crew in a pickup basketball game in their frilled and ruffled club reaglie. Prince proceeded to make them pancakes afterwards in an act of solidarity. That’s just one of many. It seems as if every celebrity has a story about Prince. His knack for showing up at places, making a scene and then disappearing, is noted across Hollywood. He once invited Questlove to DJ at a party. Without warning, Prince kicked poor Questlove off and put on “Finding Nemo” instead. Every public action was met with little resistance. When he changed his name to the “love symbol” () the public merely took a collective sigh and went, “Oh, that’s just Prince!” Or when he kicked Kim Kardashian off his stage during a concert in Los Angeles, his legendary Super Bowl Halftime Show (the best one ever to be done, and it’s not even close). So many moments, it’s hard to do each one justice. His fans were mystified by his every move, as though he were some kind of extraterrestrial guru sent to enlighten us petty Earthlings, much like his predecessor Ziggy Stardust. Those who truly knew him loved him for him.

The stuff of legend

Of course, that’s all just part of the story. Prince’s music is what truly defined him. The man was easily the most talented musician of the past 50 years. A Prince could play everything. Prince’s voice contained so much soul, a voice that was a choir on its own. His voice was a crooning siren’s screech, a flashback to delta blues and a flash forward to modern day divas.

He would often give other bands and singers songs to use. Whether it was jumpstarting The Bangles career with “Manic Monday” or providing Sinead O’Connor a #1 hit with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Prince was a giver, if he thought you worthy that is. His hard to find cover of Radiohead’s Creep from Coachella 2008 is the stuff of music legend, only recently having been uploaded to YouTube. Not listening to it is self abuse. There’s a killer solo in it of course, something Thom Yorke’s original never had.

Prince intense sexuality was an always present factor. He was a gay icon despite not being gay. He may have been bisexual, but there’s no conclusive evidence. Afterall, Prince was a private man. But he never let anyone define him. The opening lyrics on “I Would Die 4 U”—“I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand”—give a clear picture of Prince’s attitude. The man dressed how he wanted and went out with who he wanted. Many of his best songs are intense bangers, sex-charged romps that trigger people to forget everything and dance. They sparked controversy during the uppity ’80s. One of his best songs, the track “Darling Nikki” off of “Purple Rain” even sparked the formation of the Parent Music Resource Center (we can thank them for the Parental Advisory stickers on music albums) due to the explicit sexual lyrics. Hell, that beat on its own is sexy in itself.  

Prince’s guitar skill is the stuff of legend. I recommend looking up the cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from the 2004 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony. Prince is seen paying homage to George Harrison with various other rock legends including Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne. Prince goes into a no-holds barred, bone jangling solo around the three and a half minute mark. He takes no pity on his other musicians, dominating the song from there on out. Prince was dynomite. He was the master, the warden of every stage he was on. The man took no prisoners.

Not even a warning

I cried when Bowie died. I found out midway through the school day and never really got back into the swing of things, retreating into my room as soon as I got home and surrounding myself in as much Bowie as I could muster. I cried a bit as well. Just a couple little tears. When I learned Prince had passed, I was in the middle of a three day fight against the stomach flu. I was browsing 6ABC, reading up on the latest incident at Conestoga. Up at the top of the screen was a flashing newsbar, cycling through the big headlines. Suddenly, I noticed a couple words dance quickly across the screen, darting out of sight. I saw two words: “Prince” and “dead.” Maybe Prince Charles had died or something? I became curious and walked downstairs to the living room. The TV turned to CNN as it fizzled on. Instead of the political brouhaha I expected to witness, I found that ugly headline. “Music pioneer and innovator, Prince, dead at 57.” I didn’t believe it. I felt numb. When I found out about Bowie, it was a quick realization followed by a brooding sadness, though an accepting one. Bowie had left his final masterpiece “Blackstar” as a sort of going away gift. I had something to help me accept it. With Prince I found no comfort. He had left me with nothing, not even a warning. My stomach grew weak. My sickness grew worse the next day. It hurt to get out of bed and I couldn’t keep anything down for more than five minutes. It was my body’s response to Prince dying. There’s nothing like puking into a garbage can while “1999” plays on your turntable.

It’s a tragedy when anyone dies. But we humans are biased, we mourn more for those we knew versus those whom we did not know as well. But how can we really mourn celebrities? We never knew them personally, they never knew we existed. What we do have from them is their work. Their music. Their art. Bowie and Prince were there for me when no one else was. They were key contributors to my life’s soundtrack, to many people’s soundtracks. Film stars, artists, writers. All these men and women we idolize will never know his. We, as stated before, will never know them. But we feel like we know them. Music is all about connection. The songs we jam to the most are ones that make us scream, “Yes! This is me!” They provide background ambience to meaningful moments.

I’ll never forget walking home in the rain after a basketball game. We had just lost a heartbreaker in the CYO playoffs and I was bummed. I hadn’t played well at all and took the blame for our poor performance down the stretch. I felt like walking home in the rain, getting soaked, was my punishment. I put on “Purple Rain” (by Prince, of course) and felt uplifted. Though the song is a sad one, it has a sort of spirituality to it. A calming feeling. How can I forget walking home after my 8th grade crush agreed to go to the fall dance with me and rocking out to “She Loves Me” by the Beatles? All my favorite artists are like old friends, reliable compadres that are always there when I need them.  

I go to Prince for comfort, for reality checks. My favorite song by him will always be “Little Red Corvette.” The immortal hit resonates with me. It’s a tale of love, but a love that isn’t really meant to be. Prince is begging the object of his attraction to just slow down and take a breather. If I’ve learned anything from Prince, it’s that. To just tune out from life once in awhile, settle down in some imaginary convertible, and feel the purple rain come down on me.

Matt Paolizzi can be reached at [email protected].