Like many Minnesotans, I was struck numb this week at the news of Prince’s death. Because of the non-stop playing and replaying of his songs, memories the music has unearthed have caused me to pause and take stock of some of the things I’ve learned over the course of the forty years his music has been part of my life. Some of these life lessons have been driven home by having him as a role model over those years.
Let me preface this by saying that I’ve never purchased one song, album, or record of his music and despite that, I do count myself among his fans. It wasn’t necessary to buy his music because it was everywhere. It was the soundtrack of the last years of my life in high school and the beginning of my early adult years. I have fond memories of dancing to “1999” in my socks while I cleaned some wealthy lady’s parqueé floor. Buying music doesn’t make you a fan. Listening to someone’s music makes you a fan.
I am also fortunate that I got a chance to meet Prince in person once. When I was sixteen, I won a piano competition sponsored by the Mpls Piano Teachers Forum and had an opportunity to play at a recital at St. Catherine’s. He came to that concert and sat near the rear. This was before he was a household name, in ‘82 or ‘83. When the recital was over, he came up to me where I stood with a group of my fellow contestants and held out his hand. In a very low, quiet voice he said: “I just wanted to tell you that you were phenomenal.” I returned his handshake and said, “Thank you, Mister … uh, Prince.” When my mother joined the circle of people, he walked away. Of course, Mom had no idea who he was, and I had to explain it to her. In retrospect, it was an amazing thing that such an incredibly talented musician, one of the best of our era, had taken the time to tell me such a thing about my musical abilities.
There are certain lessons in life you learn. I won’t say Prince taught me these life lessons, but he lived his life in such a way that he certainly affirmed many of the things that I’ve questioned over the years. Here is only a small list.
1. Never settle for second best.
While some might say MJ was a bigger name than Prince, I don’t think they would ever argue about the quality of the music. Prince surrounded himself with nothing but the absolute best musicians he could find. That’s because he sought them out. He did weird things like going to high-school piano recitals in search of the very best. In that way, his music was beyond reproach … always.
2. Conformity is for suckers and food products.
You never saw Prince wearing the same thing twice. He made up his own style. He didn’t try to “fit in” in any way, shape, or form. His music didn’t belong to any genre. He made his own genre. He didn’t behave like other rock stars. He didn’t look like any other stars. He wore his sexuality on his sleeve and yet, he was androgynous. In short, he always kept people guessing, wondering what he would do next.
3. Don’t sell yourself short.
Though he grew up with nothing and got suckered into giving up his music rights, he fought back to get what he deserved and won. He refused to give in to the value of his work. He demanded to be compensated for his efforts and the success he found because of that hard work, even though the pundits and media made fun of him for it. Even in the end, he was still trying to make sure he and other musicians got every penny they earned.
4. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
In Minnesota, you would occasionally hear stories about Prince having a fit over something. You’d hear how somebody couldn’t find him enough purple carpeting (or some similar altercations), so he’d get angry and cancel a whole contract. This week many more of these stories have come out. I believe them. He lived by this creed, and I believe he was right. There’s no point in settling for anything but doing things the way they should be done. The finished product is the point of doing anything, so do it right the first time.
5. Be true to yourself.
Prince was the greatest oxymoron of his time: a private, reserved, quiet, riotous rock star. When he performed and was “on” he put out one hundred percent of himself, exuding raw sexuality and that made him millions. When he wasn’t performing, he was a recluse who carefully guarded his personal life and all aspects of it against the prying media, but privately he was hilarious. He didn’t change who he was for anybody, no matter what the circumstances.
In my mind, Prince will always be that quiet guy in his twenties sitting in the back of a piano recital, closing his eyes to let the music carry him away. I’m one of the luckiest people in the world, to have gotten a chance to play for him and to have him find pleasure in my performance.
Prince was a one-of-a-kind musician that the world will never see again and because of that, I am saddened at the loss. Thank you for validating so many of the important lessons in life. You certainly were no saint, but you played a mean guitar.