Monday, February 5, 2007

Prince: Relic

"I hear the distant echo of an electronic drum set... "

In the middle of a somewhat bizarre Super Bowl (such sloppiness! So many turnovers!), viewers were treated to a fully bizarre sight in the form of that '80s holdover, the formerly nameless one, the purple one himself, Prince. Kelefa, of course, already beat me to this ...

For my age group, the decade in which we were born is pretty well summed up by leg warmers, Cyndi Lauper, Jacko and Prince. For whatever reason, some peiple still like leg warmers (and Cyndi Lauper, for that matter). Michael Jackson is of course a full-out laughinstock for ... well, we all know why; but his best music remains iconic and enjoyed. You can't help but smile when that opening chords of "ABC" start clanging out. Your feet move automatically to that snaky, tricky bassline on "Billie Jean." And I saw a whole crowd of people dancing to "Thriller"--zombie moves and all--last night, so that's obvi got some staying power.

But Prince is another matter. With the exception of the inimitable Teague Allston, my roommate last year and the owner of a copy of Purple Rain, no one I know is into Prince; it seems he just hasn't transferred well over the years, and when I read the likes of Greg Tate and Miles Davis talking about his genius and influence at one time, I'm incredulous. That's all well and good, but not really the point of this post, or the reason why I say that Prince is a relic.

On that absurd symbol-shaped stage tonight, Prince played a Telecaster (a nice one!), some kinda Stratocaster (above) and naturally that absurd guitar shaped like The Symbol, an axe that looks really uncomfortable to play for my tastes. Virginia Heffernan, in a Times blog, wrote, "Also, why is he EVER left out when people talk about African-Americans who play electric guitar? Never again." Well, yes, that's a good point. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he plays corny-ass eighties riffs ... whoops, sorry. The point is that Prince might be the last great guitar-playing star. There are huge guitarists today (most of whom I dislike)--Mark Tremonti of Creed, or Tom Morello of RATM and Audioslave, and so on and so forth--but they have a defined role inside the band. Less offensively, we see the same thing with Johnny Greenwood in Radiohead. The result is the same: the (technically) best players in rock music don't front their own bands.

But it seems to me that Prince fits in a much older tradition, and he helped to reinforce that by playing a song that Hendrix made famous ("All Along the Watchtower"). This a sort of half-baked idea, dreamt up on my way back from the Chronicle office, so I may be overlooking someone obvious, but Prince's biggest disconnect may be that he belongs to the older (whiter?) musical tradition of Hendrix, John Fogerty (yeah, he covered him too, but I hate goddamn "Proud Mary"), Eric Clapton, Neil Young and many other lesser or more obscure talents--accomplished guitarists who are also idols because they're singers.

There are older bands that weren't fronted by singer-lead guitarists: Jefferson Airplace, the Dead (for the most part), Steely Dan kind of, The Byrds in the Clarence White era. But I'm inclined to believe that the newer trend has to date to something like that other '80s abomination, Van Halen--Eddie's name was on the band, but he wasn't the singer, of course.

I don't know really who we have to blame for this--maybe it's EVH--but I would like to have a few words with him or her. 'Cause although I may not get Prince (But I must say, "Purple Rain" was fantastic!), I can dig the fact that he plays a Tele and can respect his hilariously dated hammer-ons and tapping. And I can respect the fact that he is a man of many talents. Eat that, Brandon Flowers.

(This post could really have used a copy-editor; if you got this far, you get my sincerest apologies.)

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