To the Purple Born
"We are only four months in, but it's already been a dark, dark 2016," opined an article on the BBC News website, and who can disagree? Celebrity deaths have come with mind-numbing regularity since Natalie Cole passed away on New Year's Eve. The list of writers, actors and musicians we have lost--many of them appallingly young--grows longer and more depressing by the week. There was Merle Haggard, the king of authentic, down-and-dirty country music. There was Garry Shandling, who reinvented the sitcom in ways that made possible the careers of a whole generation of comedians, from Jerry Seinfeld to Lena Dunham. There was Patty Duke, a phenomenal child actress who fought her way back from bipolar disorder to become a staunch advocate for the mentally ill. There was Doris Roberts, the archetypal annoying-but-loving mom, and Ken Howard, a magnificent Thomas Jefferson in "1776." There was Jim Harrison, poet and novelist most famous for "Legends of the Fall," known as much for his fond appreciation of food and wine as for his bracing stories of the wilderness, the most underrated man of letters of the past half-century. There were Pat Conroy and Earl Hamner Jr., creators of vastly different but complementary portraits of the American South, which were in turn complementary to that of Harper Lee, who passed just before them.
And now, there is Prince.
Prince can be compared with another artist who died just a few months before him, David Bowie. Both were brilliant musicians and consummate showmen, capable of whipping even the most skeptical crowd into a screaming frenzy. But Prince stood out simply by virtue of his astonishing musical gifts, which can be said, appropriately and without irony, to verge on the Mozartean. His first album, released when he was still a teenager, featured 27 instruments--all played by Prince himself. Countless videos making the rounds of YouTube and Facebook attest to his incredible accomplishments and thorough command of his art. (One Facebook posting tells of a reporter asking Eric Clapton what is was like to be the greatest guitarist in the world. "I don't know," Clapton reportedly answered. "Ask Prince.")
Prince and Bowie were different in another way. Both men were constantly reinventing themselves on stage. When Bowie reinvented himself, he was a brilliant actor trying out new roles. When Prince reinvented himself, he was simultaneously a poet, psychologist and playwright, exploring and expressing new aspects of his mind and soul. No matter how outrageous Prince got, audiences always knew they were getting the real man. That is why affectations that would have been unbearable in another artist--such as changing his name to a combined male-female symbol, or titling an album "Lovesexy" and adorning the cover with a naked picture of himself--were taken in stride with him.
Bowie was Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet; Prince WAS Hamlet, an authentic, tortured prince of his own making. The spontaneous worldwide outpouring of grief over Prince's passing is both deeply moving and absolutely appropriate. Just as the world grieved for a princess nearly two decades ago, now it grieves, with even more justification, for a Prince.