Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering Legendary Musician Prince, A 'Strikingly Original' Icon


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker is one of the many people mourning the loss of Prince, whose death yesterday at age 57 came as a shock. Here are Ken's reflections on Prince and his music.


PRINCE: (Singing) When you were mine, I gave you all of my money. Time after time, you done me wrong. It was just like a dream. You let all my friends come over and meet. And you were so strange. You didn't have the decency to change the sheets. Oh, girl, when you were mine, I used to let you wear all my clothes. You were so fine, so fine, maybe that's the reason that it hurt me so. I know, I know, that you're going with another guy. I don't care, don't care, 'cause I love you, baby. That's no lie. I love you more than I did when you were mine.

KEN TUCKER: I could have started this appreciation of Prince with his most operatic hit, "When Doves Cry," or his most pop hit, "Little Red Corvette," or his most apocalyptic hit about partying like it's 1999. But the hits don't tell the whole story. Prince was at once strikingly original and very much the sum of his influences. In his music, you can hear his love for and deep knowledge of James Brown and The Beatles, of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, of a hundred one-hit wonders in rock, soul and every variation of rhythm and blues. He was the most inventive and prolific pop musician of his generation.


PRINCE: (Singing) She saw me walking down the streets of your fine city. It kinda turned me on when she looked at me and said, come here. Now, I don't usually talk to strangers, but she looked so pretty. What can I lose if I, uh, just give her a little ear? What's up, little girl? I ain't got time to play.

TUCKER: Prince's first two albums in the late 1970s established him as a falsetto-voiced, doe-eyed romantic. They did not prepare us for the liberating growl and lewdness of 1980's "Dirty Mind," which to my ears remains his most sustained masterpiece. It mixes rock 'n' roll with the soul balladry of Smokey Robinson with lyrics that echo the powerfully vulgar comic poetry of Richard Pryor. The music on "Dirty Mind" was startling not because so much of what he was talking about was dirty, but because no one before him had seized every strand of popular music and braided it together in quite this way.


PRINCE: (Singing) I never meant to cause you any sorrow. I never meant to cause you any pain. I only wanted one time to see you laughing. I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain. Purple rain. Purple rain.

TUCKER: In 1984, the film "Purple Rain" brought Prince to his largest audience. Its soundtrack overwhelmed conventional moviemaking. With the crazily operatic ache of "When Doves Cry" and the title song, with the frenzy of "Let's Go Crazy," "Purple Rain" is in no sense a realistic film. It's a piece of extravagant expressionism that uses the time-honored framework of traditional rock cinema - troubled, talented youth suffers and triumphs - as a jumping off point for the ecstasy of Prince at the height of his powers and influence. The film was a big hit, but, like Prince himself, no one could ever claim to have fully understood it.


PRINCE: (Singing) You walked in. I woke up. I never seen a pretty girl look so tough. Baby, you got that look. Call you peach and black. Color me taken aback. Crucial. I think I want ya.

SHEENA EASTON: (Singing) You've got the look. You've got the hook. Sure 'nuff do be cookin' in my book. Your face is jammin'. Your body's heck-a-slammin'. If love is good, let's get to rammin'. You've got the look. You've got the look. You've got the look.

PRINCE: (Singing) You've got the look.

TUCKER: Willful and eccentric, Prince sometimes found himself at odds with the business side of the music. His withdraw of what was called the "Black Album" in 1987, the decision in the early '90s to turn his name into a symbol - this occurred at a time when he was struggling with his place within the industry and with an audience more attuned to hip hop than his form of rock and funk. Yet he never stopped recording and he never stopped giving those long, extraordinarily complete, almost novelistic concerts that retold the story of his music a different way each night. These were some of the most intense, exhausting and satisfying shows I have ever attended.


PRINCE: (Singing) Hey, baby. Where you going? No, please don't rush off so soon. If you leave me like this, don't know what I'm going to do. Finally my eyes are open. I dream about you all night long. The only thing that I've been hoping for is before you go to work, babe, we get it on. I ain't tryin' to make you blush, but I just wanted to tell you I think you're great. I know you're late, but I need another taste. Breakfast can wait. Grits and gravy...

TUCKER: Acutely self-aware and meticulous, Prince strove to make his music sound spontaneous as though it was pouring out of him. A lot of people are going to honor Prince in his moments of success. I'm going to honor Prince in a moment of challenge. In 1981, Prince was the opening act for the Rolling Stones on some of their tour dates. I was in the Los Angeles Coliseum to review one of those shows and saw Prince jeered, taunted with racist epithets and pelted with garbage. This was a time when a black rock artist was unusual, mistrusted by some who felt threatened by the rise of funk and disco.

There were reports that he was booed off the stage, but I am here to tell you he was not. He played the full 20 minutes, exactly what his contract permitted him to do, and he played magnificently, his small body leaning into the abuse and turning it into a triumph. The shock of the death of Prince at age 57 is now matched only by the enduring shock of the vast scope and quality of the best of Prince's music.

BIANCULLI: Rock critic Ken Tucker saluting Prince, who died Thursday at age 57.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, an insider's look at the complex relationship between then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama. We talk with journalist Mark Landler.

MARK LANDLER: I really see the two of them as almost representing two poles of thought of America's role in the world.

BIANCULLI: Landler says, she often was the hawk, his approach, more restrained. Landler's new book is "Alter Egos." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


PRINCE: (Singing) Controversy. Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me? Controversy. Controversy. I can't understand human curiosity. Controversy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.