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BENT NIGHTS Prince, June 7,1958 - April 21, 2016
by Vern Hester

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"My name is Prince and I am funky...

My name is Prince, the one and only..."

By the time Prince sang those lyrics in 1992, it was a fact and he was not just boasting. As vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, producer, quasi-movie star and shameless Svengali, Prince Rogers Nelson ascended from relative obscurity in such a short period ( 1980-1986 ) with such intensity that he managed the feat of seducing a massive worldwide audience seemingly without effort. The irony that Prince, who died on April 21, would do so within three months of pioneering artist David Bowie is impossible to escape, since both literally saved pop culture by shaking it up and remaking it in their own images.

Like Bowie, Prince broke out by challenging the status quo and freaking out half his audience on first glance. Where Bowie used theater and glam rock in his arsenal of performance, Prince displayed an arresting musical talent, an un-cynical embrace of God, and an in-your-face vulgarity that was disturbing for many who felt those subjects should not be on the radio.

Timing would prove to benefit him in mysterious ways. His first big hit, "I Want to be Your Lover," came within a year after the "Disco Demolition" event in Comiskey Park ( which was hailed as the end of disco ). If that anti-event smacked of homophobia, the arrival of Prince signaled an era that would break dance music out of its gay/Black demographic and take it back. "I Want to be Your Lover" was poppy funk with a hint of salaciousness that radio programmers missed entirely. They didn't quite get what Prince was really saying in that chorus when he chirped innocently, "I want to be the one who makes you come ... running!!!!!"

If Dirty Mind ( 1980 ) blew the lid off the vulgarity cap ( Tipper Gore did wonders for sales by publicly condemning it ), it showed that Prince was onto headier notions. The dance-floor smash "Head" gave him a faithful queer audience, while the single "Uptown" revealed his utopian musings. Controversy ( 1981 ) pushed the envelope further with a title song that featured him asking "Am I Black or white? Am I straight or gay?"—and then dovetailing into a segment of The Lord's Prayer.

The public and pundits largely missed the point, but since Prince liked performing in go-go boots, eyeliner and panties, they could not be blamed. At the time nobody knew whether he was gay or straight ( my gay friends at the time loved him for that ) and, by bringing it up in such a blunt manner and adding that prayer, he delivered the one message that would thread through all of his music: It does not matter whether I am straight or gay; we are all God's children and should love each other unconditionally.

By the time his blueprint for world domination had been revealed with 1982's 1999, Prince had all of his concepts honed and ready. Timing smiled on him again when Michael Jackson and CBS Records strong-armed MTV into including Black artists on its playlists for the simultaneously released Thriller. "Little Red Corvette" reignited the sluggish sales of 1999 while displaying how daring Prince really was. The song—which sounds like nothing before or since—got attacked for the racy imagery while many could not see that it was really a cautious warning against promiscuity and unsafe sex at a time when the AIDS crisis was heating up. "Corvette" hit number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for weeks.

It would be pointless to go from one album to another to talk of his development as an artist, since by the time Purple Rain ( 1984 ) made him one of the biggest stars on the planet, his agenda was set. The music flowed ceaselessly from him and his offshoots and, at one point, he seemed to be everywhere as producer ( The Time, Vanity 6, Sheila E. ), writer ( Chaka Khan, Sheena Easton, The Bangles, Stephanie Mills, Stevie Nicks ) or influence ( Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, who would create Janet Jackson's sound ). If all of that was not enough, he still made some of the most spectacular, original and unforgettable music ever heard ( including "Diamonds and Pearls," "When You Were Mine," "Erotic City," "Free," "Sign o' the Times," "Kiss," "Gett Off," "Take Me With U" and "Pope" ).

For the LGBTQ community, Prince always celebrated letting one's inner freak flag fly. Moreover, his utopian vision—which he seemed to have adapted from Sly and the Family Stone—made us a big part of that ( his visual style obviously, while band members Wendy and Lisa, in the film Purple Rain, look like lovers ) in unpopular times ( during the AIDS crises in the '80s and '90s ). But for all the dance-floor jams, there was a strong sense of sincerity, vulnerability and an all-embracing warmth for the entire world.

On any level, Prince made such a difference because with his music and in live performance, he always gave more than could be expected. The lyrics were often not about what they appeared ( i.e., "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" or "If I Was Your Girlfriend" ); his tendency was to favor experimentation over safety ( with clunkers like Around the World In A Day, Graffiti Bridge and Parade, the soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon ), and he was fearless in saying what he really felt.

The fact that he crossed over into the mainstream by aggressively fusing white hard rock with Black/queer disco funk actually prevented disco from being reduced to a fad. The amusing part is that he made staunch anti-discophiles love him and dance music, unwittingly, in the process. The irony that he pulled white audiences as well as Black, straight as well as gay, and old as well as young together with his single-minded ambition, talent and personality is hard to miss.

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