This year alone, we’ve lost many cherished celebrities, including the likes of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and now, Prince Rogers Nelson.
The question posed, is why? To many of us, it seems they just keep coming. Others would argue that it’s an illusion, but a few statistics that bear this out. The UK’s Daily Telegraph (and yes, I read UK versus US papers) keeps a gallery of celebrity deaths. By this time in 2014, there were 38 names. In 2015, there were 30. There are already 50 names on the list this year.
The BBC’s Nick Serpell, who has the unenviable job of being their obituary editor, believes the phenomenon is real and posits a couple of reasons why:
“People who started becoming famous in the 1960s are now entering their 70s and are starting to die,” he said. “There are also more famous people than there used to be,” he says. “In my father or grandfather’s generation, the only famous people really were from cinema – there was no television. Then, if anybody wasn’t on TV, they weren’t famous.”
We’ve reached the era of Baby Boomer celebrity deaths. Stars from previous generations (as taken from the ghoulish http://deathlist.net) such as Zsa Zsa Gabor (99), Olivia DeHaviland (100), Herman Wouk (101), Nancy Reagan (95), Kirk Douglas (100, who’s on the list for the 14th year), or even early ’60s TV icon Mary Tyler Moore (80) have reached such advanced age that no one is really shocked when they die. They are survivors of the so-called Greatest Generation that preceded early Baby Boomers. These were celebrities before you could become world famous by appearing on TV, before the internet allowed us to watch your every movement. These were stars when celebrities were worshiped from afar, before we could connect on Twitter or Instagram and convince ourselves that celebrities were our family.
Sure, social media does amplify the number of deaths and perhaps the bar has been lowered by television, but I think the reality is generational. Go back 20 years– the names of the dead were just as staggering: George Burns, Dorothy Lamour, Gene Kelly, Ella Fitzgerald, Claudette Colbert, and a smattering of B-list others and the rare, tragic death, like Tupac Shakur’s. The 1990s were when the earliest TV stars, my grandmother’s people, began dying off in earnest. Now, the David Bowies of the world are in their 70s. Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and your author were all born in 1958. We’ve reached the point when the huge numbers of Baby Boomer stars are approaching their 60s, historically the start of the death ages of many stars. With the advent and explosion of popular music in the 1960s we have more stars than ever, and they succumb to drugs, poor lifestyle choices, and often, simply the wear and tear that stardom — that we — demand from them.
My Prince is in that group, and unlike any of the other deaths that preceded him, his is personal. I’m hurting. I’m angry, and there’s nothing I can do.
This is Prince as I first saw him live. This is the Controversy Prince. The For You Prince, garbed in bikini briefs, thigh-high leg warmers and a dirty man’s trench coat. I’d heard of him the way it always happens, when a friend asks, “Hey man, have you heard of this cat, Prince?” I’d say, “No,” because I never tell people what I know, in case I can learn more, and they’d follow up with, “Yeah, he’s this young dude, like 19. He plays all the instruments, does all the vocals, wrote all the songs, and produced the music.”
So I checked him out, sometime late in 1978 when I was still Deejaying and buying anyone hot and fresh. And lord knows, Prince was both. His music was at once different. It was as funky as a smoothed-out James Brown riff, as colorful as an of-Earth George Clinton, as pop-funky as Earth, Wind, and Fire, and as sexy as, well, only Prince. Sure, this is when ladies would throw their damp panties on the stage at Teddy Pendergrass, but women would have thrown themselves on the stage at Prince. He reveled in being one-of-a-kind. On one of his first TV appearances, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Prince appeared dressed as he was above, for the most part. He did a set, and as they went to commercial, pretended to kiss his bassist, high school bandmate, André Cymone. They weren’t gay; Prince lived with André as a kid, his mom pretty much adopting Prince when he was having trouble at home. But Prince knew his act would get him attention: “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?”
The answer never mattered. What mattered was that we cared about the question. He gave a voice to all those who fit between the cracks. He made non-conformity cool. That’s the word, isn’t it? “Cool.”
Prince was cool even before Morris Day, another high school bandmate, allowing Morris to add his vocals to the track and make it his own. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to praise Prince. I’m here to bury him. He could be as uncool as he was cool. Guitarist Dez Dickerson helped write “Cool,” as did keyboardist Lisa Coleman, but neither got credit. I doubt they got royalties either. Prince was, to a great extent, the character he played in Purple Rain. He was the first true divo of the 80s, following in the footsteps of Little Richard and James Brown, but with more common and business sense than either.
The period from 1978 to 1981 was filled with Prince’s masterwork, and then, in 1983, Michael Jackson gave everyone a reason to love him more and take the title away. Michael’s 1983 release, Thriller, allowed him to dub himself the Prince of Pop (although some of us thought him the prince of knowing how to let Quincy Jones fix your tepid music). I was in the Prince camp. Prince was still cooler than a Yeti eating frozen spaghetti, and cool got me through the hot nights and long-damned struggles of my life.
From 1980, when I graduated with a degree in Accounting and couldn’t find a job, until 1983, when I received two fellowships to attend graduate school, it was me, Bob Marley, and Prince. Sure, I listened to Mike on the radio, but I never bought his music. My little Sony cassette player was full of reggae and the dying remnants of funk. It was coughing up blood by then, choking in the vomitus of stars’ dalliances with cocaine and poor licensing decisions that cost them control of their music. Funk was little more than the unnoticed backbone of early hip hop, and no one bothered to do anything different. This was the set in the summer of 1984, when I, an IBM intern in Boulder Colorado, became the first in my group to buy Purple Rain.
Few now remember that the album was released before the movie. They knew we fans would go see his Purple Majesty if we heard what he’d put together. I don’t have to tell you about Purple Rain. If you haven’t heard it or seen it, you’d likely never have read this blog post. He lit up the screen; he filled the airways. He won an Oscar and Michael could kiss his hairy ass. My Prince was back on top, where he belonged.
Let me tell you this, if you’re a generation younger than me. What you saw on the screen paled in comparison to what we saw live. I saw Prince for about the 3rd time during that era. Prince would climb on top of the speakers, 10, 20 feet in the air, and then jump from one of the high stanchions to the hard stage below. He’d hop from speaker to lower speaker as if pain and gravity didn’t apply to him. And it didn’t … then. We were 25, at our physical peak.
But I’d injured myself playing ball at 15, and again (repeatedly) in college being a physically fearless dumbass. I’d hop down a 10-foot staircase because I could, spraining an ankle or two in the process. But I stopped, because I knew the long-term prognosis of such actions.
Maybe Prince didn’t know, or perhaps he felt he had to. He was James Brown and Little Richard. Michael was James and Jackie Wilson. They weren’t in competition; they were simply the only two genuine torch bearers and they took their responsibility to heart. Their willingness to torture their bodies, to spin, do full-length leg splits and jump again was torturous, as were the pressures of fame. Michael couldn’t sleep and took ridiculously dangerous drugs to cope. Prince was in constant pain from his hips and ankles. I have that ankle pain, and promise you sleepless nights and incendiary days because of it. In 2008, we lost Michael, and I almost cried. In 2010, Prince (reportedly but not definitely) had his hips replaced due to extreme arthritis. In 2016, perhaps, the pain became too much for Prince. Maybe we’ll find all those years of debilitating devotion to fame and music weakened him so much he died (prematurely) of natural causes. Or, horribly, maybe the meds he took for pain took him. He wouldn’t be the first, and he won’t be the last if that is true. In 2016, in April, as I was turning into my bank with my wife, I learned he’d died. I’m not sure why, but I wasn’t really shocked. This time, however, I have cried; I’m still crying.
But let’s put this in perspective. In the 80s I remember saying to my friend, as we sat in a Prince concert, “That dude is going to kill himself. You can’t jump off speakers that high in boots.”
My friend shrugged and said, “That’s Prince.”
I wanted to stand, silence the crowd, and warn him. I wanted Prince to not be so acrobatic or reckless, lest he be crippled by age 50. I’d stopped my own ADHD-driven recklessness by then because I’d researched my long-term prognosis and didn’t want to walk with a cane. I’m still in pain, every day, but I can outwalk you, I promise. Prince wasn’t so lucky. He yielded to his inner demon, to us, to his brilliance and energy, to the beautiful little man inside who needed to be prettier than most women, as graceful as a dancer, and as fierce on the guitar as any demon. He needed to be Prince, and life took him early, because bright stars burn fast. He was 57, the age my grandma was when I first decided she was old, the age I am now.
But 57 is too young. Hell, 87 might have been too young, but at least I wouldn’t have had to mourn him for the rest of my life. That man’s music got me through more shit than you can imagine. By 20, I’d talked kids out of suicide, talked a Moonie out of a religious cult, and wished I could die more times than I can say. I never tried, never would, because I had music, I could spin the turntable and I could dance my ass off. In 1984, I’d take long walks up the Rocky Mountain’s foothills with Purple Rain on blast and didn’t give a shit if I went deaf later.
Dude, we didn’t need you to go so hard. We only wanted to see you laughing … well, you know what I mean.