In the immediate aftermath of the death of Prince last week, you may have noticed a curious phenomenon occurring on social media and in the mainstream press. A video clip from the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in which Prince participated in a tribute to George Harrison suddenly popped up all over the web. It showed Prince playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with a band that included Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood and Harrison’s son Dhani. It’s a stalwart performance that's true to the original - until, as the extended outro begins, Prince takes over on guitar. Stepping from the shadows, he starts off slowly, but soon goes into overdrive, with flurries of notes and squeals. He’s dazzling but never overplays, and as the song concludes, he tosses his guitar in the air and walks off stage without comment.
For some music fans, though the clip had been on YouTube for more than a decade, the performance came as a surprise. It was as if they had never experienced Prince in detail before, though he recorded 39 solo albums, toured relentlessly, played the Super Bowl halftime show in 2007 and starred in “Purple Rain,” a showcase film whose soundtrack sold in excess of 20 million copies.
Regarding his instrumental pyrotechnics, last week CNN asked: “Is This Prince’s Greatest Guitar Solo?” No. It wasn’t even the best solo Prince played that night. Like George Harrison, he too was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2004 and he opened the ceremony with a medley that included his compositions “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Sign o’ the Times,” both of which featured tasty guitar solos. Anyone who had seen Prince in concert or heard his albums knew he could solo with anyone, including the ‘60s and ‘70s rock gods who remain the standard for fans of a certain vintage. That “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo might not have ranked in his top 500, as this clip suggests.
Earnest fans who posted the "Gently Weeps" clip did so in a genuine tribute to Prince, but inadvertently revealed how bound they were by the detrimental way recorded music was marketed and categorized way back when he broke through in the late ‘70s: so narrowly that many albums weren’t pushed across genres, though the music itself was entirely accessible to many tastes and up to, or in Prince’s case, exceeded the quality of parallel forms. These rock fans among us who admired the Harrisons, Winwoods, Pettys, et al. without knowing much about Prince aren’t Gee Bees – the generationally biased who ignore and disparage music they neither know nor care to – but were victims of the hegemony of rock marketing circa the late ‘60s into the mid ‘70s, a period in rock and pop that is beginning to settle as no more extraordinary than subsequent ones.
Many fans have yet to escape the rock-first silo. Thus, when Merle Haggard died on April 6, it wasn’t surprising to discover that many otherwise knowledgeable rock followers knew little about him beyond “Okie from Muskogee” and covers of his compositions by the Grateful Dead and the Byrds – even though Haggard had 22 number-one hits on Billboard’s country charts between ’66 and ’75. Similarly, when Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, died on February 3, it may have been a revelation to rock fans that the band, founded in 1971, sold more than 100 million albums. Would rock fans rank Haggard and Earth, Wine and Fire among the great American recording artists of the second half of the 20th century? For those who shook free of the rock silo, the answer is likely yes.
Today, those silos are crumbling. Streaming services make music available equally: Controlling the playlist, fans can listen to Harrison and the Beatles, Haggard, and Earth, Wine and Fire – as well as their predecessors and contemporary descendants – whenever they like and in any order they like, and music marketers can’t tell them otherwise. The relationship is between the fan and the artist, and while the commercialization of rock and pop is far from fully disintermediated – though Prince, via his record label, sold his music directly to consumers – it is increasingly democratized, as musicians’ race, gender, country of origin and chosen musical genre is increasingly less significant than their ability to deliver exemplary music. It’s now possible to ensure that the old silo-generating rules of selling and marketing do not apply, and the art of popular music and its fans are better for it.
As for Prince, since his death many clips have turned up online that further illuminate his prowess: his set at Coachella 2008, which includes a guitar showcase on a medley of Santana hits and a reading of Radiohead's "Creep"; a live version of Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow”; and, to show another side of his talent, a video in which he plays piano and leads his band through a version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The audio from his final concert, on April 14, was posed on Soundcloud and it includes his readings on piano of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” as well as songs by the Staples Singers and Bob Marley. These performances of standards and familiar tunes do not validate his skills – he’s done better elsewhere and often; thus they need no validation – but they address his willingness to reach outside the R&B and pop silo in which he was perceived to exist, even as he recorded heavy rock, blues and jazz albums throughout his lengthy and too-short career. His work on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is fine, but now music fans who did not know him well can leave their silos too and meet him on his own terms. If only we had been encouraged to do so all those years ago.