When we lose those truly iconic musical figures, there never seems to be any adequate way to address it. The standard obituary feels like an obligatory listing of factual achievements. The “greatest ever!” statements start to lose their meaning. The inevitable tweets feel way, way too small. So here’s another way, albeit one just as insufficient as those others: looking through that artist’s career, picking out a few little moments that shine light on their personalities and their powers. We’ve done pieces like this for Adam Yauch, for Lou Reed, and for David Bowie. And now we have to do one for Prince.
I have to stress here that the moments listed below aren’t the Purple One’s best moments. That would be an impossible list to put together. Instead, they’re Prince-related moments big and small, selected because we thought they were, for one reason or another, interesting. These are also presented unranked. With Prince, a list like this gets extra-tricky. That’s partly because Prince lived most of his life in private, rarely showing up at big industry functions or making cameos on forgotten sitcoms or whatever. (In fact, a few of the items in this list are simply Prince refusing to do things.) And it’s partly because Prince was diligent about having his stuff taken down from YouTube, which means some of the only embeds we could find were from sketchy Eastern European video sites. Watch them while you can, and leave more moments in the comments.
1. THE JAMES BROWN STAGE INVASION
A decade ago, when YouTube was first a thing, this was one of the first clips that my circle of friends passed around. It’s from a James Brown concert in 1983. Brown notices Michael Jackson in the crowd and invites him to the stage. Jackson sings a few notes and dances a few steps, and it’s fucking sensational. It’s magnificent. A few seconds later, Brown tries to introduce Prince. He squints into the crowd, confused, and yells Prince’s name a few times. Prince keeps him waiting, but he shows up, riding the shoulders of his enormous white-bearded bodyguard. Prince steps onstage, grabs a guitar, and bangs out a near-atonal solo, like something you’d hear at a no-wave show. Then he peels off his jacket. There is, of course, no shirt underneath. People scream. He steps to the mic stand, does some dancing I don’t have the words to describe, and then lets out one sound: “Owwwwwweeueeeuehh!” It’s the sound of a horny jaguar who’s suffering from a deep depression. And then he takes a bow, knocks over a stage prop, and rides off on his bodyguard again, having just upstaged Michael Jackson and James Brown in the same night.
All three of those guys are dead now. Fuck.
2. THE FOUNDING OF THE P.M.R.C.
Prince’s Purple Rain soundtrack, one of the greatest and most popular and most important pop albums of all time, included “Darling Nikki,” a very sexy song that includes a line about masturbation. Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Senator Al Gore, noticed her 11-year-old daughter listening to the song, and she freaked the fuck out. This led to Congressional hearings, widespread concerned-parent hysteria, and the founding of the Parents Music Resource Center, the group that pressured record labels into slapping parental-advisory labels on albums, which made life harder for millions of music-dork kids like me, and maybe like you too. None of this was Prince’s fault. He’d just freaked out the squares to an unprecedented degree.
3. THE ASSLESS PANTS AT THE 1991 VMA’S
During MTV’s 1991 Video Music Awards, Prince gave an absolutely staggering, ridiculously theatrical performance of his single “Gett Off.” “Get Off” isn’t even that great in the grand scheme of Prince songs, but it sounded like the apocalypse that night. And he did it while wearing a leopard-print jumpsuit thing with the ass ripped out. He wasn’t shy about showing it off, either. Nobody else could pull that off. Nobody else (except Fartman) would even try.
4. THE “SLAVE” ON PRINCE’S CHEEK
In 1993, when Prince and Warner Bros. were publicly at odds with one another, Prince would famously perform and appear in public with the word “slave” artfully scrawled across his cheek. It was an inexact metaphor, sure, and it probably didn’t make most of America sympathetic to his plight. But you have to respect one of the world’s biggest stars looking at his exploitative record deal and absolutely refusing to abide by it, willing to publicly make a spectacle of how pissed off he was. He was out of that deal a few years later.
5. THE “WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS” SOLO
Everyone is passing this one around now, and with good reason. During the 2004 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony, Prince joined an all-star group of haggard rock legends — Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne — to pay tribute to George Harrison by covering “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It was all very nice and respectable until about three and a half minutes in, when Price played a solo so blazing and idiosyncratic that he made all those other guys look like weekend-warrior dads fucking around in their garage. It was just savage. When he was done, he threw his guitar in the air, and the camera never caught it coming back down. You can just imagine those other three guys getting backstage and immediately telling their managers to never, ever put them up on a stage with that guy again.
6. THE SOUL TRAIN AWARDS SPEECH IN 2000
Look how uncomfortable Russell Simmons looks when Prince talks about record labels.
7. THE 1995 AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS SILENCE
Get away from Prince with that microphone, Quincy Jones! He’ll sing when he wants to sing!
— Anthony Osei (@illionaire) April 21, 2016
8. THE SUPER BOWL
Super Bowl halftime shows aren’t supposed to be good or memorable. It’s just not a format that’s built to encourage musical excellence. When, say, Madonna dies, nobody’s going to talk about her halftime show. It was fine. It did its job. But Prince didn’t do things like that. He went in and fucking did it. His halftime show is the greatest halftime show of all time, and there’s no close second. And he ended it by playing “Purple Rain” in the rain. It was so beautiful.
9. THE HAPPY FEET STORY
Happy Feet, the 2006 animated movie from Mad Max director George Miller, opens with a penguin singing a mashup based around Prince’s “Kiss,” with the genders flipped. Prince had to approve the change for it to be included in the film. He wouldn’t do it at first. But then he saw the movie, loved it, and ended up writing a whole new song (the Golden Globe-winning “The Song Of The Heart”), for free, for its end credits. And you know what? Prince was right. Happy Feet is a great fucking movie. That, combined with the story about Prince firing ?uestlove mid-DJ set and putting on Finding Nemo instead, suggests that Prince had great taste in feature-length animated movies about aquatic creatures. It sucks that he didn’t make it long enough to see Finding Dory.
10. THE CARLOS BOOZER RENTAL SITUATION
In 2004, Prince rented a house from the NBA player Carlos Boozer, a guy I always sort of hated. Without Boozer’s permission, Prince completely redecorated the house, knocking out walls and making it so the water in the fountain outside was purple instead of blue. He put his glyph symbol on the front gate and turned the master bedroom into a hair salon. Boozer sued and reportedly wanted to beat Prince up over it. But Prince wrote Boozer a million-dollar check, and Boozer immediately stopped being mad. According to a former teammate he told the story to, “Booz was like, ‘This little man is cool as hell.'” Only question here: Why would you be mad about your house being Princified? I feel like this would be the best thing that ever happened to me.
11. THE PASSPORT PHOTO
Look at this picture. Then dig out your passport and look at yours. How could this man be dead?
PRINCE ROGERS NELSON::PASSPORT PICTURE 2/11/16 pic.twitter.com/lgdLCXQ9y2
— Prince (@prince) February 11, 2016
12. THE PERFECT MORNING SHOW CAMEOS
In 1997 Prince appeared on Bryant Gumbel’s final Today Show episode in a Bryant Gumbel costume.
In 2010, he was at it again, surprising Sherry Shepherd on The View. Him getting lost on his way backstage makes it even better.
13. THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL PERFORMANCE
In 1980, even before his famously badass/awkward interactions with Dick Clark on American Bandstand, Prince made his first national TV appearance doing “I Wanna Be Your Lover” on the live-concert show Midnight Special. It’s a remarkable performance, evidence that Prince was a rare and ridiculous talent from the absolute beginning.
14. THE TIME PRINCE KICKED KIM KARDASHIAN OFFSTAGE
It didn’t matter how famous you were. If Prince invited you onto his stage, you had to be able to do something.
15. THE “WE ARE THE WORLD” SNUB
Nearly every one of music’s biggest stars showed up for the all-star charity single “We Are The World” in 1985. But Prince didn’t want to sing on it. He offered to play guitar instead. Quincy Jones, who produced the song, offered this response: “I don’t need him to fucking play guitar!” So he didn’t show up to the session, later feigning illness, and Huey Lewis sang the lines that had been written for Prince. Ten years later, we got that lollipop incident with Jones at #7 above.
16. THE BANGLES’ GIFT
Prince, of course, wrote so many hit songs for so many artists that it feels weird to pick just one. “Nothing Compares 2 U” is an all-time masterpiece. So is “I Feel For U.” So are “The Glamorous Life” and “Jungle Love.” But my favorite of Prince’s contributions might be the Bangles’ “Manic Monday,” in part because it’s the least obviously Princely of them. Prince had actually written the song for the Apollonia 6, but they’d never recorded it, and he ended up giving it to the Bangles a couple of years later. And it turned out to be an absolutely perfect fit for their whole spangly folk-harmony new-wave aesthetic. I loved the song for years before I knew Prince had anything to do with it, and the only place his fingerprints really show up is the line about “kissing Valentino.”
17. THE “PARTYMAN” SCENE IN BATMAN
Prince did the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s 1989 movie Batman, which was sort of a weird look for all involved. But the one moment where it made a perfect sort of absurd sense was the scene where Jack Nicholson’s Joker and his goons walked into an art museum, slashing and defacing priceless works while dancing to Prince’s “Partyman.” It’s the scene from the movie that I remember most vividly, and it wouldn’t have worked with anyone else on the soundtrack.
18. THE DISCOVERY OF THE INTERNET
Prince’s already insane career hit a new level of lunacy when he got out of his Warner Bros. contract in the late ’90s. Case in point: The release of 1998’s Crystal Ball, a five-CD set of unreleased music. To buy all five CDs, you had to order Crystal Ball from the internet, and this was in an era when only a small chunk of the world even had access. The rollout was an absolute mess, but it did make Prince the first major artist to recognize the potential of the internet as a way to sell music. Eighteen years later, it’s practically the only way to sell music.
19. THE OUTWITTING OF BILLBOARD
Prince’s 2004 album, Musicology, maybe the best of his late-career LPs, ended up going double platinum, selling more than any Prince album in more than a decade. The secret: You got a free copy of the album if you bought a ticket to any of the shows on Prince’s titanic arena tour. After Musicology, Billboard and Soundscan changed their rules so that sales like that wouldn’t count as sales.
20. THE “CREEP” COVER
Prince was a late addition to the Coachella lineup in 2008, and during his set, he busted out an absolutely incandescent version of Radiohead’s “Creep” — as in, probably the best-ever version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Prince’s version of the song became more and more legendary as he’d yank down YouTube versions of it as soon as they’d appeared. There’s a good chance that you’d heard about his take on the song for years before actually getting to hear it for yourself (thanks to Thom Yorke it was unblocked in 2015). But when you finally do get to hear it, it holds up to any possible expectations.