Of all the prominent people who have died in the last few months, the one that most shocked me was Prince. Not because I was a huge fan, though I always respected his talents and achievements, but because 57 just seemed too young to die. Not as bad as 27, the age at which Jimi Hendrix and several other musicians died in the late sixties, but still too soon. Reading about him shows that he was even more talented than I knew.
Not only was he a great guitarist, but a great drummer and keyboard player too. He and his musician friends got into the habit of constant practice very early, and he seems to have continued that most of his life.
Not only was he a great instrumentalist, but a great songwriter too. According to the Rolling Stone article, he wrote a song a day for many years. No doubt he didn’t just write, but laid down the tracks too, something he was able to do from before he got his first record contract. The article said he would stay up days at a time and not even eat (he never looked fat–this may be part of the reason why), and quoted him as commenting that when the body realizes it’s not going to get anything the sensation of hunger goes away.
Although he could lay tracks down all by himself, he also put together good bands. I remember seeing a concert film built around his Sign of the Times album, which I found pretty impressive. It turns out not to have been an actual concert, though it seems to have been shot mostly live.
Besides being a great artist, he inspired and supported a lot of other artists, mostly musicians, and mostly African-Americans. Nature had generously given him talents most people can only imagine having. He was generous in his turn, giving people time and attention to help them rise to their potential.
He also listened to a variety of music. James Brown every black musician of that time listened to. One person commented that Prince didn’t just listen to Brown’s greatest hits, though, but to his later music too, some of which he rearranged into songs of his own. I wouldn’t have suspected that Joni Mitchell was one of his favorite musicians to listen to, or that Carlos Santana had influenced his guitar playing even more than Jimi Hendrix, if he hadn’t said so. I saw the video of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps (from more than a decade ago, I think) which he performed after Harrison’s death with Tom Petty and Harrison’s son Dhani. The main body of the song is pretty lugubrious, but at the end Prince takes a solo and tears it up. He finishes, tosses the guitar up in the air, and walks away. I was pretty amazed.
With all his accomplishments, there were hints that he wasn’t too happy. Not because he was particularly unfriendly, according to much testimony, since he threw parties and had after-concert jams, but the Rolling Stone article at least insinuated that he also isolated himself, and that he had abandonment issues after his father threw him out of his apartment in his early teens. Perhaps he feared that if he became too close to musicians in his bands he would be hurt if they left. The insinuation became more plausible when I found out he’d been married twice (I don’t think he publicized it much) and that neither had worked out. After the last one the article said that he’d shut down a large portion of the Paisley Park complex he’d built near Minneapolis. He had had a studio which he’d kept staffed so he could record any time he wanted, but he got rid of the staff and operated it himself when he wanted.
His refusal to eat for days at a time signals possible deep unhappiness too. Anorexia is always a serious problem (possibly even more for males), though it also signifies a powerful will, which Prince obviously had. He seems to have channeled his unhappiness into motivating himself to achieve. To his credit, he certainly did that. It sounds as if there are hundreds of hours of tape in his vaults, at least some of which may be released at some point.
Together with all this, came rumors that he was (or had been) addicted to Percocet. Although he apparently had been very against drugs, he’d been introduced to this one after having double hip replacements, the result of dancing in high-heeled shoes, supposedly. Opioid drugs can be temporary cures for psychic as well as physical pain. The possibility of his addiction and unhappiness was amplified when the results of his autopsy were announced: an accidental overdose of Fentanyl.
Fentanyl is another opioid drug. I’m familiar with it from the nursing home I worked in, where it comes usually in patches that are placed on skin and changed every three days. I don’t know if anyone can definitively say that any overdose is “accidental”, except if the overdose is small. I guess this one was.
I just think it’s a shame that someone who accomplished so much should have been unhappy enough to be tempted by a narcotic. But even those who seem most to be positive forces also experience pain, and sometimes it’s really bad pain. Maybe that’s what Prince experienced. I still wish he’d stayed around longer to produce more great music.


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