Gene Seymour: Prince flouted convention, got under your skin even as he kept you at distance
He says he seemed to be in on some universal secret, some as-yet-unknowable key to finding harmony
Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
He contained multitudes, flouted convention and ruled his world.
He was a physically small person who spoke softly and still dominated every room he inhabited. At any given moment, he could brandish the contents of his “dirty mind” without apology or explanation and, in the next moment, convey the power of religious faith with the righteous conviction of an evangelical firebrand.
His eyes were deep dark pools that devoured your resistance – and prepared you for anything.
James Brown and Joni Mitchell were his idols and, under their seemingly disparate influences, he could throw down the thickest, hardest grooves of any rhythm-and-blues musician of his generation while weaving some of the most enigmatic, indelible imagery in pop music. (I hear doves cry as I write this, but they don’t make up even an eighth of the memories swarming in front of me.)
He got under people’s skins even while he seemed to keep them at a distance. His devotees took his impudence for an invitation. The weirder and more outrageous he got, the more convinced people were of his honesty. “He tells the truth,” a teddy-wearing fan in Philadelphia told me when I asked why she devoted Thanksgiving Day 1984 to his concert – and her waking life to his music.
When writing about Prince Rogers Nelson, whose death at 57 seems to have shaken the whole universe to its knees, you becomes aware after a while that you’re compiling an inventory of contradictions, all of which he wore with as much nonchalant swagger as the electric-purple, gold-fringed tunics he wore in the mid-’80s, when he was at or very near his peak as a pop star.