But his eccentricity began eclipsing his artistry, and that's when he started to lose me. By the time he'd had his falling out with Warner Bros. and written the word "Slave" on his cheek, I didn't get where he was coming from -- and neither did a lot of other people. When he changed his name to the unpronounceable androgynous symbol, I stood as befuddled and disillusioned as Jimmy Swaggart's flock the day they learned of his philandering ways. Prince later reasoned that "changing my name and using it to my advantage has helped me to conquer time," but he didn't seem to be putting that time to good use.
Once he'd extricated himself from Warner Bros., he started churning out albums at a rate that no reasonable fan could keep up with. Few of the songs from 1996's Emancipation, an overwhelming three-disc set, struck a chord with me; I thought that the Bros. were probably right when they told him they wanted to limit the number of releases. Now I realize that was as impossible for Prince as it would have been for Michelangelo to start painting as instructed rather than as inspired.
A few years later, things really unraveled. I remember the exact day Prince ceased being relevant to me: December 31, 1999. You might remember that as the night before Y2K, the apocalypse that never was. An extremely rare Prince performance, dubbed Rave Un2 the Year 2000, was available on pay-per-view that evening; although my interest in Prince had waned, I thought that watching the show with a dozen of my closest friends would be a better way to embrace the impending chaos than to party like it was, um, 1999. By the third cut, though, the music had disappeared into the background, drowned out by conversations we've long since forgotten. I couldn't help thinking that just a decade before, everyone in the room would have been speechless.
"This album combines everything that you would want from the artist," Clive Davis had promised in the infomercial prior to the Rave Un2 New Year's Eve performance. "You want it to be cutting-edge. You want it to avant-garde. You want it to be ahead of the other musicians of today. And yet, speaking from my point of view, you also want it to be melodic and accessible."
But accessibility was becoming a problem. Before, Prince had been an elusive, enigmatic figure, like the shadow from a passing motorist moving across your wall. In the new millennium, however, he was ubiquitous, granting interviews to anyone who asked, even playing on daytime talk shows, fer chrissakes. The untouchable was now well within reach. And the newfound prominence chipped away at his mystique; it was like seeing Mike Tyson get knocked-the-fuck-out by a parade of no-name bums. When folks saw the once-feared and revered Iron Mike kiss the canvas, armchair tough guys in gin joints across the country began to brag, "I think I can take Tyson" -- even though Tyson could still put a dude in a coma. Likewise, even if Prince quit writing songs, as a guitarist he could still take out each member of the G3 collective: Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. As a bassist, he'd level Les Claypool and anyone else stupid enough to set foot in the ring. Yet to this day, Prince's musicianship is often overlooked because of his amazing ability as a songsmith.
Invariably, the immortal somehow became mortal. In the minds of many, myself included, the player was played out. And the formerly faithful were even further alienated when Prince found God; his dogma quickly became a stigma. "C'mon, Prince, deities don't need religion," we all thought. "They are religion."
But now, after seeing Prince up-close and personal, I'm convinced that he didn't find Jesus: Jesus found him. And this past weekend, backed by the stellar NPG ensemble -- a horn section comprising Maceo Parker, Candy Dulfer and P-Funk's Greg Boyer, bassist Rhonda Smith, keyboardists Renato Neto and Chance Howard and drummer John Blackwell, all extraordinary players in their own right -- he gave us a religious experience. "I'll never forget it," said Mocha Solomon, one of the many ladies hand-picked to dance with his Purple Majesty on stage Friday night. "I'll remember it forever."
So will we, Mocha, so will we. The show was epic. "This is real music," Prince declared. "This ain't MTV." From the acoustic musings of "Little Red Corvette" to the regal encore of "Purple Rain" and "The Beautiful Ones," it was clear that his songs are timeless and have aged much as he has -- in short, not at all. And his masterful version of "Nothing Compares 2 U," the syrupy ballad he penned for Sinéad O'Connor, showed us what that song is supposed to sound like. Some complained that the concert's strength was also a weakness; those expecting to hear each song in its entirety were disappointed by the medley treatment given to the hits. It was a little Vegas-y, sure, but the non-stop music really showcased the players' showmanship and stamina. And even though some of the more lurid tracks were conspicuously missing from the set list, somehow we all managed to get off.