I read comics books as a kid. As far as confessions go, I admit that’s about as revealing as saying I once peed my pants. Most kids did.
And, like most kids, I worshipped the super heroes in comics. Their extraordinary ability to save the day, restore justice to the world and make our world right again. Super heroes appealed to me, as I’m sure they did to other kids, because they showcased characteristics that I wish I had; steely eyed in the face of danger, ballsy enough to be a smartass with people you didn’t like, because you were confident you could back up your words, plus having the ability to fly yourself wherever you wanted also seemed pretty handy.
As I got older, I transferred my super hero worship on to athletes. Baseball players: Tim Raines then Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, Hockey players: Mats Naslund and Patrick Roy and Basketball player: Michael Jordan. They all represented an element of magic to me, how they could move their bodies in tricks and turns to score and win, or to put it in super hero terms – to vanquish opponents and make the world right again.
Still older now, I continued with my super hero worship, but now attached it to musicians. In the earliest days, I was absorbed by rock music and its rough attitude, but still liked pop music and didn’t want to stray too far from its predictable, safe patterns so I landed on an acceptable hybrid of “rock music”; namely, hair bands. Poison, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper, Guns n’ Roses, all filled out the list.
They were on the radio at the time, and easy to identify with, even though I wasn’t as forlorn as Axl sounded, it was exciting to listen to someone snarl about their frustrations, mainly because I could do it safely from behind a radio in my quiet, semi-suburban Ottawa home.
Who were these guys wailing about stuff and drinking and having sex with women? This wasn’t possible. Or was it? I was hooked. These musicians represented a vision of what I didn’t think was possible. Of course, at the time, I didn’t appreciate that, in the long run, it really wasn’t possible. Some of these guys were dying young or flirting with it from overdoses or would face major health problems from drugs and booze. Take Guns n’ roses: Slash now has a pacemaker, Duff Mckagan drank so much his pancreas burst, Stephen Adler had a stroke from too much cocaine – and that’s just one band. Anyone with an interest in rock music can cite a lot more examples.
But in the pictures I was looking at on album covers and rock magazines, where these guys were posing in mid-song, eyes wide, mouths open, frozen in what looked like to me, were moments of tectonic-sized emotion, while the crowd in front of them looked like they actually might be in the middle of an earthquake – these guys seemed to have the ability to summon other worldly powers. In my mind they were super heroes.
So, I continued my hero worship through high school, buying music magazines and trying my best to understand who these guys were by reading through articles filled with words I didn’t entirely understand at the time, like “incendiary”, “penultimate”, “sonorous” “excoriating” and “transcendent”. Of course, my inability to understand the music writer’s language only heightened a musicians’ mystery, further confirming in my mind that he was the mythological creature I’d imagined.
But gradually, over time, their heroic veneers began to wear away. I remember one moment when I was watching a documentary on the Red Hot Chili Peppers who were my role models when I was in high school. Whatever they said, sang or did was fine with me. But then it happened. Watching this documentary there’s a moment where Anthony Kiedis, the Chili Peppers lead singer, just started doing some scatting, razzmatazz language he was known for, and I paused having the thought: “He kind of sounds like an idiot.”
And that broke the spell. From there it was a slow but steady recession from rock star worship. I was losing that feverish need to find a singular personality I could invest my wholehearted belief into so that I could have a guide to follow.
Plus as I got older, and my perspective was shifting, I was trying to be an adult, focusing on adult things, which I was trying to convince myself meant conversations about the economy, politics, and wine.
While I still loved music, and would see some amazing live shows along the way and keep up with new artists coming up, I shifted music off my main dashboard of interest, just a little off to the side. It hadn’t disappeared completely, but the volume wasn’t as high.
Then I was writing an article about best Super Bowl performances of all-time, and I found Prince in 2007.
It wasn’t his song selection – in all honesty I hadn’t been a huge Prince fan to that point. Sure, I knew his major hits, Raspberry Beret, Little Red Corvette etc, and liked his songs Cream and Diamonds and Pearls, but otherwise, I hadn’t really dug any deeper.
I remember, as a kid, in the 80s seeing the album cover of Purple Rain and not really knowing what to make of him. Now I look at it and can understand some of the confusion: he was dressed like a 19th Century French aristocrat sitting on a motorcycle. But from the look in his eye, he might also be fucking the motorcycle’s gas tank.
Add to that Kevin Smith’s retellings of his bizarre meetings with Prince at Paisley Park, and Dave Chappelle Show’s story of playing basketball with him, and the image I had of Prince at that time, in 2007, was that he was a strange, effete artiste (with the “e”) who was beyond my understanding.
But here he was playing on a massive stage in front of a stadium of people, and he came across loud and clear. He played music. Well. Very well. Actually, exceptionally fucking well.
It sent me into a spin. This is Prince? He segued between songs on stage as easily as if he was crossing the street, in his case going from Tina Turner, to Jimi Hendrix then, was that the Foo Fighters? Holy shit. How is he doing this?
I was in awe. He was in full command of himself and fully committed to every note he played. He was there. Present. This wasn’t a dialed in job. Prince was really playing music. That sounds like such a simple thing to say. But seeing it felt unbelievable, because it was watching someone who knew exactly what he was doing without any gimmicks – okay, that erect cock in a silhouette? Well, yeah, grant him that.
But his playing. He worked through the notes like he cared. He did. He cared. And now I did too.
After this I added his music to various playlists I had, recycling new songs and trying to go through what I could find – not easy since Prince was pretty airtight on guarding his musical copyrights, and wasn’t then very open to music downloads through anyone but his own company.
Regardless, I persisted and regularly added Prince to music I’d listen to on my subway commutes and wanderings through Toronto.
Then in 2011, I had the chance to see him play live at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. I admit going in I was looking forward to it, but still, I only counted myself as a passing fan, far removed from obsessives I had previously met who had archived every second of his public appearances, albums, bootlegs and recorded inhalations of breath.
When I was younger, and musicians remained firm super heroes in my mind, seeing them play in large venues made sense, because they were meant to embody the “larger than life” personas which I ascribed to them. Four or five guys playing instruments in front of thousands was appropriate for a super hero.
Yet as I got older, I lost the magic I once felt for this carnival-like stagecraft that were part of stadium-sized performances. Mainly this was because of the yawning physical gap between the performers and me, which would sometimes be as much as 50 yards away or more. I’d normally have no problem closing this distance in my mind, merely by accepting that they were immortal, way down there on the horizon, unleashing their lightning bolts from Mount Olympus, as I, mere mortal, was simply lucky to be in close proximity to witness it.
But the fact was, I was losing interest in closing this gap.
Seeing someone play in a smaller intimate spot, meant less distance between singer and persona, and less of a gulf I’d have to fill plastering super hero qualities on to a performer. In other words, in these smaller circumstances, it was watching Clark Kent – another human being. This was someone I could more easily relate to.
Prince, however, filled something entirely different at his show. There were lights, smoke machines (as the Dave Chappelle show sketch had suggested), and visuals galore. His stage in various moments looked like a set piece from the movie Tron – blue outlines ringed the stage, as well as a giant screen above showcasing various up close shots of him and his band.
All of the elements were there to denote his mythical, super hero status – and he made a bid more than a few times, once crawling across the floor until he disappeared in a haze of dry ice as the crowd screamed or his co-ordination in seguing from one song to the next.
Yet for all of that, what came through again and again to me, was his playing. The energy he put into his performance was of the level that if he were a younger performer, it might suggest he was trying to win a record deal, or a musical competition. He was completely possessed of his own skills, and used every moment as a new turn to deliver himself to the crowd.
And the crowd delivered themselves right back. We howled like nothing I’d ever heard before at the Air Canada Centre – everyone seemed to be standing, the only people sitting I imagined had an injury or were in bad health.
The truth was, when he was done crawling around the floor and mugging at the camera, playing up his super hero persona that most people understood him for, when he focused in on playing his guitar, it felt to me he was no longer playing a character. It was like being able to hear what he sounded like without the big marquee name – PRINCE – in front of him.
All of Prince’s glitz, gyrating, winking and groaning, could not obscure that his devotion to his playing and his commitment to every note, (which he played as if he’d never done it a million times before) was a human impulse.
And it was this impulse, I think, that made the crowd roar. People could see it. To me it was a revelation.
After all my studying of the YouTube videos I watched of him preening on stage or whispering in interviews, I had locked him into my mind as someone beyond understanding that had some special place in the world.
But now, here I was, in the same room with no screen between him and I, and his humanness was on full display: whether it was seeing him wipe sweat from his forehead, kick twice at a guitar pedal to get it to work, or lean over and whisper to his band mate perhaps suggesting a tempo change to segue into another song, he was doing the same things I’d seen other people do.
And as I looked over at my girlfriend and friends in disbelief at various points throughout the concert, wondering how Prince was playing what he was playing, and giving a look on my face that said: “Can you believe this?”, it became clearer in my mind.
Prince wasn’t a super hero. He was a guy. An exceptional guy who committed himself completely to learning how he could express himself through music.
He was renowned for his secrecy and desire for privacy. This of course led to rampant speculation from fans wondering what was he really like?
And since the news of his death, there may very well be more revelations that come out about his life.
But the one thing I discovered that night watching him in concert was this: he was human. Flesh and blood.
He may well have worn a cape or two in his career, but it was his music that he launched into space. Prince, for his part, stayed on Earth, admiring its flight path.
And for one night, I was lucky enough to share the view.