Entertainment & Arts

Prince: No-one in the universe will ever compare

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Image caption Prince was one the finest live performers of his generation

"I am something that you'll never comprehend." (I Would Die 4 U, 1984)

Prince is dead.

I can't believe I'm writing that. I couldn't believe it when I got the phone call on Thursday on the train home from work. I couldn't believe it for the next 48 hours of writing, broadcasting and eulogising. I can't believe it now. I can't bring myself to listen to his music.

Prince was woven into the fabric of my life. My wife and I got engaged after one of his concerts in 2002. We had the lyrics to Joy In Repetition stencilled on our wedding invitations. We went to see him at the O2 on our fourth anniversary. He played Joy In Repetition. Imagine that.

At first, though, I was unsure of this moustachioed weirdo singing Purple Rain on Top of the Pops. He seemed untamed. Dangerous, even. I decided to keep my distance.

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Image caption Prince in 1984 - off-putting to an eight-year-old?

A year later, I conceded that Raspberry Beret was "ok" but it was Alphabet Street that really snared me. I begged Diana Hobson from school, older and cooler than me, to lend me her cassette collection, and an obsession was born.

Prince appealed to the drummer in me, first and foremost. I spent hours trying to replicate Sheila E's impossibly intricate percussion on Dance On (Lovesexy, 1988). Never managed it.

Later, I came to realise how ground-breaking Prince had been rhythmically. He owned and mastered one of the first Linn M-1 drum machines - that's the sound you hear on 1999, When Doves Cry, Little Red Corvette; the sound that made those records seem like nothing else on radio. Michael B's drum solo on Shhh... (The Gold Experience, 1995) is so good, Prince uses it twice. The trippy, cascading hi-hats on The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker (Sign O' The Times, 1987) still mesmerise me, 30 years on.

Rhythm is the backbone of funk, so of course Prince understood it instinctively. Funk was where he operated at his peak. Erotic City, Controversy, Let's Work - his dance tracks are amongst his best. But he could also bring you to your knees with a moment of tender vulnerability. Purple Rain is all bluster and bombast - and there's nothing wrong with that - but I prefer the tortured, conflicted Prince of The Beautiful Ones ("Do you want him? Or do you want me? 'Cause I want you.")

If I Was Your Girlfriend is even more outstanding - Prince, the unstoppable lust machine, literally embracing androgyny in an attempt to get as close to his girlfriend as her sister is. "If I was your girlfriend," he pleads, "would you come to me if someone hurt you, even if that somebody was me?"

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Image caption Prince's guitar work was a highlight of his live shows

What else? He was underrated as a guitarist. Everyone has been sharing that video of him soloing on While My Guitar Gently Weeps at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - partly because it's one of the only Prince videos available online - but I saw him play like that dozens of times. He could dazzle you with his virtuosity, sure. But listen to the last half of the solo on Purple Rain. It's just three notes and he wrings every last teardrop out of that fretboard. He just knew what to do for maximum effect. Music was his language and he was the greatest speechwriter of all time.

The other thing the obituaries all seem to have missed was his sense of humour. Man, some of those songs are FUNNY. Adore (Sign O' The Times, 1987) is a classic R&B ballad, which builds and builds to the point where Prince declares: "U could burn up my clothes, smash up my ride..." [Dramatic pause] "Well, maybe not the ride."

On Bob George (The Black Album, 1986) he refers to himself as "that skinny mother with the high voice", while later songs Prettyman (Rave Unto The Joy Fantastic, 2000) and Stare (Hit N' Run Phase II, 2015) satirise his status as a sex symbol. "First things first, we'd like you to stare," he chants on the latter. "We used to go on stage in our underwear."

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Image caption Prince on stage during the Sign O' The Times tour

I've spent years listening to his music and collecting bootlegs of material from the fabled "vault" (a lot of it is rubbish, by the way) but it's the concerts that will remain with me. He was incomparable on stage. His mastery of music, of movement, of the musicians, of the audience was instinctive. I never heard him sing a bum note. I never saw a bad show. I saw a man in his element. He loved to play.

One of the best was at Dublin's Point Theatre in 1995, right in the middle of his contract fight with Warner Bros. "Did you miss me?" he asked, before launching into a three-hour set. The show focused almost exclusively on the soon-to-be-released Gold Experience album, and you could tell Prince was glad to be playing something that wasn't Purple Rain or Let's Go Crazy for the first time in a decade. He was chatty, relaxed and back in love with his guitar.

At the end of the show, Prince ordered his band to ditch the sampled loops they were using and play a 20-minute jam based around the NPG single Get Wild. My dad came to that gig with me and, as the tempo ratcheted upwards, we pushed through to the moshpit and jumped up and down for half-an-hour. A few years later, he had to have surgery on his knees.

I saw him 11 times in total - for the last time at The Roundhouse in 2014. Now I'll never get to take my kids to see Prince. And that makes me saddest of all.

In his own words, "no-one in the whole universe will ever compare".

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