When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain
Before high piled books in charactery
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain
When I behold upon the night's starred face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
That I shall never look upon thee more
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love--then on the shore
Of this wide world I stand alone and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do think.
That is a poem by John Keats, the most poetic of English poets. Others were more important, more popular, or more often studied, but John Keats made English more beautiful than any writer has before or since. He gave us the Odes (to a Nightingale, to a Grecian Urn, and my own favorite, on Melancholy). His poetry is the most vivid, most sensuous, most alive poetry I've read, and to read it is to celebrate being alive.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
John Keats died before his 26th birthday. The poem above meditates on how fleeting his life might be, and his fear that his death might come before he had written out all the poetry churning in his brain, which is exactly what happened. To love John Keats is to be forever teased by the would have, the could have, of a poet whose poetry reached heights few other poets ever could, but who was robbed of the chance to write more, just as we are now robbed of the chance to read it.
I woke up on Friday morning to the horrible news that another perfect artist, another artist whose work transcends time and language and genre, whose art, at its best, skips blithely past our defenses and strikes something deep within us like a dart, has been taken from us too soon. Prince is dead. How can we go on? Prince is dead.
I did not grow up in Minnesota, like a few of my friends on Facebook, whose grief I cannot imagine. I did not know Prince personally, and I can't imagine what his loved ones are feeling right now. I did not even grow up on Prince's music: I was just a little too young to catch him at his apex. My musical taste's development caught the end of his prime as an absolute world-straddling hitmaker, and I have "7" on the mix-tapes I made by listening to the radio with my fingers hovering over the "record" button, but I was too young for Purple Rain, Sign O'The Times, and Kiss, all the more for 1999 and Little Red Corvette. I was around for a few of the "Prince or Michael Jackson" conversations, and for the Love Symbol replacing his name. Prince didn't belong to me: his activism, name-checking Black Lives Matter, naming the first song on his last album "Baltimore" and singing that if there is no justice, there is no peace: the struggles he sings about are ones I care about, but they are not my story. I admit it is impossible for Prince to mean as much to me as he means to other people.
There is no reason I should be quite as distraught as I am about Prince's passing: Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson and David Bowie didn't make me feel this way. Pressed to it, I can't think of a single artist whose death would make me feel the same way Prince's has, and so I sit a step removed, and watch myself grieve, startled at how hard this hit me.
Which other celebrity could have the lights shone on public monuments turned purple, and for everyone to know exactly what it meant, and who it was for? What artist was talented enough to claim an entire color for himself (and not even an obscure one like puce or chartreuse, but one of the big, "in-every-crayola-box" ones), and for everybody to go "Yeah. OK. You can have purple from now on," like they did for Prince? What artist was big enough that you said "Prince" and nobody said "Prince who?" (even my royalist sister-in-law)? Nobody.
I play every version of Purple Rain I can find again and again, I plumb my friends' Facebook feeds for articles, tracklists, videoclips and bootlegs, I watch interviews and tributes, I read distraught articles by people who loved Prince like an uncle. In the absence of a friend who can come over, maybe this is how I can feel connected to the mourning: by sharing in the videos and articles that all the other mourners are also watching and reading. Thank you Michael, Regina and Jane. The links you've been sharing on your Facebook pages have helped me feel like I'm sharing with someone. And that poem by John Keats runs through my head when Purple Rain does not.
I am listening to what nobody knew would be Prince's final concert, on Soundcloud.
To impress upon my wife how important Prince is, I explained that for much of the 80s, "Who's better: Michael Jackson or Prince?" was a legitimate question. It seems Purple Rain didn't make as big an impact here in South Korea as Thriller did, but that seemed to be a good frame. But what that comparison doesn't cover is that Michael Jackson hadn't been relevant as an artist for a decade by the time he passed on. Until the end, Prince was recording music, performing, mentoring other artists, writing songs, producing, creating, and supporting communities and activists. That longevity (as well as staying out of tabloids) is why I don't think we can argue anymore that it's a contest between Prince and Michael Jackson. Jackson probably had a higher peak in terms of popularity, but Prince's footprints are deeper and wider spread.
And then I think that, like John Keats, I am sure that Prince had more music in his head, that we will not get to hear. I realize that this is a selfish thought, and also that Prince has done so much that it is right to celebrate him, and not to cheaply wish we could have yet more. But the world is poorer. Music is poorer for his passing. He had more young artists to mentor. He had more albums to make of his own, and more collaborations, and more stages to crash and songs to raise to a new level with a perfect guitar solo. His talent and his ability to perform stayed with him right until 2016.
I did not like Prince right away. In fact, for much of my 20s, I had an out and out prejudice against music from the 80s. My music taste developed in the early 90s (they say the music you liked around age 13-14 is the kind of music you will like for all your life), and at that age, grunge music was backlashing against the synth pop sounds of the 80s, so my distaste for keyboards and that "Hungry Like A Wolf" sound kept me away from 80s music entirely for years.
Prince is the one who brought me back. The song Purple Rain, specifically, was the song that went right past my guards and defenses, and convinced me to give the 80s another listen. It is the ultimate confessional song. It is the very sound of a person pouring their heart out in music, it is an absolute show-stopper, yet so moving and personal at the same time. How a man could create that song, which holds so much meaning for so many people, hits them so deeply, amazes me. It is one of the greatest songs I know, from beginning to end. It is a song that owns its greatness, wears its ambition on its sleeve, and actually achieves its moon-shot. Starting with the undeniable Purple Rain, Prince's music slowly, irresistibly grew on me, and he steadily climbed in my esteem, until now, when he is one of my top two artists, and every song I can ever hope for from him is already in the bag, or the vault.
Prince is gone. I am sad, and I want to be around other people who loved him. But I also celebrate him. I celebrate his humanitarian work. I celebrate his genius. All those perfect solos and all the different personas he sang with. The way he could be passionate and confessional, fun, goofy, sexy, dirty, silly, whimsical, experimental or as "pop" as pop can be, without ever ceasing to be Prince: that he could contain so much inside him, still inspires and awes. Prince is the John Keats of music: a pure genius, unsullied even when he sings about ugly things. A perfect conduit of joy, grief, love, of all the emotions we have, making us all more alive, helping us experience the world more vividly and sensuously and abundantly, then taken from us too soon. So, thank you Prince, for the gift you shared with us for your time on the planet. Thank you for giving 80s music back to me, for moving your fans in so many different ways, for making my kindergarten students and my son dance, and for connecting everybody who is now sharing purple-themed grief on their websites and facebook walls. Music brings people together, and now, even in our grief, we are not alone, because we love you, and we will miss you.