Prince’s Death Two Years Later: Our Writers Answer Five Lingering Questions
For the past year, our sister site Diffuser has been celebrating the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince. Every day for an entire year, a different song from his vast catalog was dissected in the 365 Prince Songs in a Year series -- which ends with the second anniversary of Prince's death. We asked the writers responsible for the series to give their thoughts on his life and music, and how being involved in this project has changed their views on Prince and his legacy.
After the initial shock wore off, was there a moment when it finally sank in that he was gone?
Michael Gallucci: Probably at the end of that year, when I saw a story about all of the artists who died in 2016. Along with David Bowie, this was a big one and a shocking one. Looking back on that crappy year, it finally hit me that Prince would never have the chance to make a career-reviving comeback album in his sixties like other legends have.
Nick DeRiso: I thought I had processed the whole thing. Then, hours later, I got into the car to go get my kids from school – and, of course, the musical tributes had begun. I happened to start my journey just as the wordless outro to “Purple Rain” began on the local station, and it hit me – harder than it had even when the awful truth was new. There are still other songs, even after all of this time, that take me back to that sadness – but nothing so deeply and so darkly as that one. I haven’t listened to “Purple Rain” again.
Matthew Wilkening: I was on vacation, my sister was getting married the very next day. I got called back into work duty for a little bit, but I just put mental and emotional blinders on and stayed focused on the family event as soon as I got free. In retrospect, it helped to have something that was personally more important to me going on. A few days later, when I was home alone with my stereo, the first thing I chose to play was “Let’s Go Crazy.” I’m not sure why -- maybe because it seemed like the most joyous, life-affirming song of his? Anyway, that’s when it hit me -- that the guy behind all that phenomenal energy was stricken down, just like that. I cried pretty much through the whole song, and I’ve been randomly caught by surprise waves of emotion like that a few more times in the past couple of years when one of his song unexpectedly hits me a certain way.
Dave Lifton: It didn't take long for me. As with Kurt Cobain's overdose a few weeks before he killed himself, the medical emergency on Prince's plane a week before was a sign that he was in trouble and gave me a chance to steel myself. But the day of Prince's death, I had just finished a morning shift here and went out for lunch. I checked Twitter while waiting for my food to arrive, saw the news, which hadn't been officially confirmed yet, and time just stood still. I was looking around at the other patrons to see if they had the same stunned look on their faces, but got nothing. It was very similar to when I found out about Michael Jackson's death on Twitter when I was on a bus. I ate, left and cranked up Sign O' the Times on the way home, and then it was like, "Holy crap. Prince is really dead." Then I realized, in terms of his output, quality, sexual appetite, image and everything, he was the closest to Mozart that any of us will ever see. That thought stayed with me for the next few days, and I simply felt glad that I was alive at the same as Prince, and grateful for the one time I got to see him in concert. On a side note, I haven't been back to that restaurant since, even though it's really good.
Keith Creighton: It just so happened it was a day after his death, when “The Grand Progression” rotated into my iPod playlist. I wasn’t that familiar with the song, but Prince sang, “And if I died, yesterday, it’s okay / For I have found the grand progression.” That hit me like a ton of bricks, and for the first time shock gave way to sadness.
Erica Thompson: It took me a really long time. I got the news at my job, which was a terrible place to be. My colleagues knew how much Prince meant to me, and it was almost like being in a fishbowl, with people watching your reaction (though they meant well). Although I shed a few tears over the next few days driving around with "Vicki Waiting" on repeat, I didn't break down until the BET tribute two months later in June. That's when it finally sank in, I think.
Mike Joseph: I don't think it's sunk in for me yet. When an artist you like is ill, or has a known history of treating themselves badly, their deaths can be surprising but not necessarily shocking (Michael Jackson, George Michael, Scott Weiland). Prince, for all I knew, was in perfect health and treated his body like a temple. That's the image he projected, anyway. His death came completely out of left field. So even two years after his passing, the fact that he isn't playing some show as I type this is mind-blowing to me.
Rob Smith: I was at a lunch meeting with some younger colleagues when my wife texted me the news. On the drive back to the office, I was, I suppose, uncharacteristically silent, and one colleague asked me what was wrong. I said, "Prince. Prince is dead." She didn't quite get it, and seeing her non-response and comparing it to my response -- I suppose the bottom fell out for me, and I began to grieve. I really thought, foolishly, he'd be around forever.
Are you surprised more “new” Prince music hasn’t been released since his death?
Gallucci: Sort of ... but these things take time. Give it a few years, and I'm sure we'll all be tired of the leftover studio jams unearthed from 2011.
DeRiso: Unfortunately, when I read that there was no will, I knew that it would be a long, long time – if ever – before things got sorted out. That said, I thought the released-then-rescinded song “Deliverance” was a terrific example of how that unheard treasure trove could yield amazing new things. I hope it happens one day.
Wilkening: Very surprised. There are some very obvious moves that could be made -- supposedly he had a live album of his Piano and a Microphone tour all ready to go, or close to ready at least. No matter how much squabbling there is about who gets what money (for art they didn’t create, let’s not forget), you’d think all involved parties could get on the same page to help keep the pie growing. I’m not upset about it at all though -- there’s plenty of great music from him that much of the world didn’t pay enough attention to, let’s all get caught up on that first.
Lifton: I'm not sure of this, but since he died without a will, he didn't leave any instructions for how the release of his archives should be handled, right? And with his siblings in charge of his estate, my guess is that they, and the lawyers, are all bringing their own agendas and opinions to the table. If that's the case, it may be a very long time before we see something.
Creighton: Not to sound morbid, but most Prince fans – the ones who were teens or older when he broke in the '80s – will be dead themselves within the next 30 to 40 years; so even if the vault contains enough material to release new albums for generations, the audience to buy it will decrease significantly in the years ahead. The casual fans are already satiated with the hits they own, hence the poor performance of the 4ever compilation. The die-hards, the people who will buy every vault release, aren’t that big of a pool. The Purple Rain Deluxe Edition moved only 52,000 in the U.S. in its first week. I can’t imagine radio jumping on any vault songs – the pop-cultural world is in a much different place these days. So if I were running the estate, I’d cater to the base ASAP. Perhaps adding an incentive to buy – every time the current release passes 100,000 copies sold, the next one comes out.
Thompson: I am surprised. I thought there would be a rush to get out as much material as possible, which would have been overwhelming to me, personally. I know many fans are getting antsy, but I don't mind being patient. It's likely because I haven't heard every single bootleg over the years, so I think there is still something for me to discover that is already floating out there on the internet.
Joseph: Yes and no. The fact that he died without a will was surprising. Once that became public knowledge, I had a hunch that it was going to be a difficult road ahead as far as hearing more of the music he left behind. Particularly with no direct next of kin and his catalog scattered across labels and services.
Smith: When it came out that there was no will -- that this man who had been so meticulous and guarded about his private vaults, and so defensive about controlling his music online had left his music with no mechanism of control -- I thought the floodgates would open. I think they still might, eventually, but we've certainly not seen it yet, and I am rather surprised.
What would you like to see done with his catalog? Any reissues or unreleased projects or concerts you’d want released?
Gallucci: The Deluxe Edition of the Purple Rain reissue got it right, so a similar project focusing on the productive mid-'80s period is at the top of my list. It would be great to have all those Dream Factory and Crystal Ball tracks, released and unreleased, in one place.
DeRiso: I’d like to see expanded versions of every album, with demos, live takes, B-sides and other related items from the period, similar to what’s been done with the Led Zeppelin catalog. There’s still so much to be learned from throughout his career. Just as one example, Prince apparently recorded 100 songs in the run-up to Purple Rain – and used only nine. I’d buy a 100-song Purple Rain Mega Box in a heartbeat.
Wilkening: At first I thought the best thing would be to just light the vault on fire. He’s got such an idiosyncratic style, I’d really hate to see anybody try and complete his thoughts -- not just on obvious “don’t you dare” stuff like adding parts to unfinished songs, but even on basic things like cover art or album sequences. But if there are completely finished unreleased albums in there, or if we really know exactly how say, the three-CD Crystal Ball would have been lined up, okay, let’s have that. Otherwise, at most, they should just open up something like Neil Young’s archives: “Here’s what Prince recorded in July of 1988,” and go as minimal as possible with the curation.
Lifton: I don't have anything in particular, but I only hope that it's done with the utmost respect for both his legacy and his fans so that the best quality material gets put out there. As a guitar player, Prince was often compared to Jimi Hendrix, and I would hate to see his archives treated the way Hendrix's has. The bottom of the barrel can only be scraped so many times, you know?
Creighton: I’d like to see experts take creative control from the estate and the bean counters: Engineers (Susan Rogers, Peggy McCreary, etc.), former band members, well-versed authors (Duane Tudahl, Per Nilsen, Matt Thorne, etc.) and the people who run PrinceVault. Considering how little the musicians made during their initial runs, they deserve a cut of the pie – they were much more Prince’s family all these years than some distant blood relations. I’d hate to see everything packaged as Deluxe Editions of every studio album; I’d much rather leave those be and see curated cycles of vault releases, plus official editions of long-rumored albums like Dream Factory and Camille. Warner Bros. could also do a box set of all the 12-inch singles and B-sides.
Thompson: I'd like to see it all released with one caveat: I want to hear his recordings as they were, without additional production. In my opinion, that gives me a closer look at what he was trying to achieve creatively, even if it was just an initial idea. I know that might not make for the best sound quality, so if the enhanced recordings could be paired with the original versions, that would be ideal. Another option would be to list what was added in the liner notes. As far as specific projects I'm looking forward to, I'd say any other acoustic guitar albums that might be hiding in the vault, and video from the Piano and a Microphone Tour.
Joseph: I think his '70s and '80s catalog could stand to be remastered, for sure. I also would love if the Time, Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 albums were remastered and given the deluxe treatment. Same for the Madhouse, Jill Jones and the Family albums. I feel like a full-on oral history of Prince's career with contributions from all the living major players would be a great project too.
Smith: I'm a vinyl fiend, so I think everything he released in his lifetime should see a beautiful 180-gram reissue. I would love to get my claws, in particular, on a new Crystal Ball box set and a remastered Black Album. And I would also like, simply for curiosity's sake, to have perhaps a special series of the albums he recorded but never issued -- the original Crystal Ball, Camille and others.
What’s his most underrated album or song?
Gallucci: Graffiti Bridge. It's another soundtrack, and another soundtrack after the not-so-great Batman, so it kinda gets lost in the shuffle. But, like many Prince albums from the era, some of the songs date back before Purple Rain. The album came out in 1990 and sounds like the perfect bridge between decades, styles and phases.
DeRiso: Lovesexy, an album that was written off for a number of reasons in its moment – not least of which was Prince's jerk-move decision to make the album a single-track compact disc – but feels like a lost gem now when compared with some of his more fragmented post-‘80s projects. Alas, this is still a signpost marking the end of his most dominant period.
Wilkening: The greatest Prince song ever is “Mountains,” and not nearly enough people realize this. Actually, I take back what I said about ‘Let’s Go Crazy” before; I can’t believe I didn’t listen to “Mountains” first. Maybe I thought I wouldn’t survive the emotional whiplash. Separately, this series made me realize just how great so much of Emancipation is. It was way too much to process at once when it first came out, but decades later, by focusing on it piece by piece, you get a better sense of its true scale and level of excellence.
Lifton: I love The Gold Experience, but I think that, because of everything that was going on at the time with the name change and writing "Slave" on his face, it overshadowed the quality of the songs. You've got a bit of everything that made Prince special in there. "Dolphin" and "Gold" have gorgeous melodies, "P. Control" and "Endorphinmachine" are great workouts, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" has that amazing falsetto and you've got social commentary in "We March." After that, he was still capable of delivering all of those, but The Gold Experience was the last consistently great Prince record.
Creighton: Around the World in a Day gets cast as the “interesting” album between two great ones, but when you fold in the B-sides and remixes, it was perhaps his greatest work and most fascinating era. My all time favorite Prince work is the live recording of the Sign O’ the Times movie, which I find much more enthralling than the studio version.
Thompson: I think his most underrated album is The Rainbow Children. Many fans and critics were turned off by the Jehovah's Witness doctrine, but the musicianship is superb. I always like to point to the live performance of the track "Family Name" on the Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas DVD. At one point, the entire band hits a long, rapid series of eighth or sixteenth notes in perfect unison. It floors me every time.
Joseph: I think The Gold Experience is his most underrated album, as well as his last album that stood up qualitatively to his imperial phase (Dirty Mind through Lovesexy).
Smith: "Anna Stesia" is my favorite Prince song and, outside the coterie of hardcore fans, I don't know that it's well known at all. Lovesexy didn't even hit the Top 10, so I don't know that the casual fan is all that aware of its deep tracks. The colleagues I was driving back to the office with certainly had never heard it; they asked me what my favorite Prince song was, and gave me some blank stares when I gave them the answer.
What was your most surprising takeaway from this year-long project?
Gallucci: I've always liked the Love Symbol Album, which I think is Prince's last great album, but never really paid much attention to the story that runs throughout it, which is easy to miss because a chunk of it was cut from the original concept before release. Writing about a few of the songs, the narrative that drives the album became more focused for me. It still doesn't make much sense, because crucial pieces are missing, but the concept behind it is more clear now.
DeRiso: I became confused and then angry and then disinterested as Prince’s continued his lengthy, very public battle with Warner Bros. Suddenly, albums were appearing under both his name and as a symbol. It became unclear which were officially sanctioned and which were just money-grabbing contract fillers, and the sheer volume – after such a long time away from the spotlight – made me question how much real effort was going into any of it. I bobbed back up for Emancipation, but then wandered away again when Rave Un2 disappointed and he subsequently turned toward more faith-based music. Ironically, I was finally back on board just as he died, but that gave me a chance to do a deep-dive into what I had missed with this series. It’s true: Prince never regained his remarkable ‘80s consistency, but I discovered that I had actually missed a lot. There are gems to be found in every era.
Wilkening: In retrospect it’s clear just how much pain he had been in -- and for such a long time. Soon after his death we assembled a gallery with a picture of him from every year we could find. At some point in the early ‘90s, his cane starts showing up. At the time you think it’s a fashion accessory, but then, as the years move forward, you realize it’s there again and again and again. And that makes you realize that the final tour wasn’t piano-based because he wanted it to be, but because it’s all he could handle. And despite all that, he kept putting out excellent and uplifting music for all those years. I wish he had let somebody reflect the smallest fraction of that energy back into his own life, so he had a better chance at getting the help he needed.
Lifton: Because I mostly lost track of his career in the late '90s, I didn't know that he continued to champion and work with up-and-coming musicians. Between that and all the philanthropic work he did behind the scenes paints a completely different picture of those last 20 years than my perception of a guy holed up in Paisley Park cranking out album after album, without regard for its quality and occasionally hitting the mark.
Creighton: I learned something new with every post in the series, both from other contributors to this series, and from the research I did for my own posts. Some revelations made me angry – like some of Prince’s digs at Mayte after their son died, or the fact he proudly never voted. Other revelations made me sad. But most of the stories shined new light into the fascinating genius of a complicated man. It’s strange to imagine all the places he went and likely never saw because of all the time spent in rehearsal or recording studios, or all of the human experiences most people have that he never did. I wonder if he ever swam in the purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka …
Thompson: A friend of mine once told me the perfect adjective to describe Prince: vast. This project reinforced that because I learned each song has a detailed story. Whether it's the gulf between its recording and release, its multiple versions, its multiple meanings, its controversy, the interesting facts about its personnel, there's always something that can be gleaned about Prince's career, creative process or life from each song.
Joseph: I don't know that anything surprised me. I think this project makes abundantly clear just how diverse he was. The songs we've covered traverse just about every music genre in existence. Funk, soul, rock, hip-hop, classical, jazz, blues. It's still remarkable how one person was able to successfully incorporate such a vast array of musical influence into his own repertoire. There will never be an artist like him again.
Smith: As a writer, I suppose I am surprised a bit by how much fun it was to write about him and his music. It could have very easily gone the other way -- we could have all been reverent and, you know, dearly-beloved-we-have-gathered-here-today-to-get-through-this-thing-we-call-a-catalog. But I think those of us who took on writing about these songs knew when to be serious and when to be playful. Prince was a playful cat. Plus, it was great reading some of my favorite music writers commit words to the screen about all this great music.