Prince’s Vanity, Vanity’s Prince — Now We Know

{SHIT — through some unknown fuckup of something, 90% of what I thought was a readable post has been deleted!! I’ll try to recreate from memory, but it won’t be as fresh or sharp. Goddamn.}

 

As they say, it might be a 10,000-piece puzzle — but the biggest outlines of Prince’s demise are understood now.

I’ve never been much fascinated by celebrity. Consider myself in the school concerned with the art of popular arts and the nature of its audiences. But you can’t ignore how performers deal with fame — it’s too dangerous a job. A very few have forged a path into advanced age while remaining creative — Duke Ellington, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen. But all have dived into the ditch more than once.

During my youth, and perhaps still, the most captivating exploration of how to be a giant star and remain a full human being belonged to John Lennon. It was not enough to be the brainy, arty Beatle or the avant-married man, or the political activist or simply the venerated music ‘n’ culture sage. Feels certain there were more fascinating chapters in the future.

The cliche is that Prince was the alternative Michael Jackson.  What’s certain is that the Purple One watched closely as the Gloved One lost control of his image and, eventually, his career and his life. Prince was going to stay in charge of his game no matter what. But there has to be some individual route between tighter and tighter control and out of control. Prince never found it. Neither did the Artist Known as Vanity.

Yet people who knew Prince wondered whether he was in a malaise, his ailments limiting his ability to tour, and battling melancholy after the death in February of Denise Matthews, also known as Vanity, a former girlfriend and collaborator. In Australia during a show on Feb. 16, the day after she died, he became emotional.

“Someone dear to us has passed away,” Prince told the crowd before dedicating the song “Little Red Corvette” to her, according to local news media accounts of the show. Later, he told the audience, “I’m trying to stay focused, it’s a little heavy for me tonight.”

Concerned friends said they had recently been discussing Prince’s emotional state. He had told some people that he was feeling depressed, and some suspected he was going through a period of professional stagnancy.

I was ashamed when I read this passage how little I had thought of Vanity when she was carried away in the torrent of deaths this year. Like the later albums by Prince, Vanity 6 is better than people remember. Part of my problem is that I find her story so sad and troubling. (Her GoFundMe campaign to pay for medical bills only raised $7,000 out of a goal of $50,000? Fook.) Yod knows, there’s reasons enough to feel remorse about excesses and addictions, but Vanity went so far as to all but suggest the PMRC was right to go after her. When any public figure does 180s that hard, it’s another triumph for pleasure-haters and censors.

All of this underscores for me that the true-salvation values of religion center on community, equality and aid, not purity, isolation and conversion. With his secret addiction, Prince realized he had set up a masterpiece backlash, and that may be the most tragic final note of all.

I’m still not ready to listen through Prince’s back catalog — though I am glad the final two released-in-his-lifetime albums came to me through Amazon and Newbury Comics. But I pulled out the Vanity 6 LP and it is now a very special part of the program.

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