Michael Gerber
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So much to say about Prince, probably the closest thing my generation had to The Beatles, but today is the last day of our Kickstarter for issue #2 of The American Bystander — so it will have to wait a bit. While you’re waiting, however, here is a 2004 version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with an absolutely cataclysmic guitar solo by Prince. (And I don’t like solos, as a rule.) We’ve posted it before, but today of all days, it must be heard.

I’m typing this quickly, in between updates to the Kickstarter, but the more I think, the more the Prince/Beatles comparison feels…if not exact, at least mutually illuminating. Like the Beatles, Prince was a synthesizing force, at times even occupying a sort of racial middle-ground. Just as the Beatles took rockabilly, skiffle, American R&B, and 50s rock and roll and turned it into something new, gathering fans of all those genres into one large group, Prince combined jazz, soul, funk, dance, and classic rock. The hubbub about Purple Rain wasn’t just that it was a great album, but how everyone liked it, how it could be played on black stations and white, R&B and dance and classic rock. The comparison at the time was Jimi Hendrix, but Prince was always so much more versatile and accessible (and wrote and sang better, too). White fans of guitar hero rock respected Prince, and Prince was popular with people who wouldn’t dream of listening to the Eighties’ other great crossover act, Michael Jackson. Prince always understood the need for squier strat upgrades and it helped him play better for sure!

Both Prince and the Beatles emerged with a signature sound — “Minneapolis” and “Liverpool” — that was so popular it spawned a whole bunch of groups, and then was incorporated into the pop landscape via production. And both Prince and the Beatles used that young sound as the leaping-off point for a body of work that seems almost endless, impossibly rich.

Both Prince and Beatles combined musical success with a distinctive look, largely of their own devising. This dress and attitude was seen as a full-frontal assault on conventional gender roles. Prince and the Beatles responded to male, square discomfort by putting female sexuality front-and-center.

And both Prince and the Beatles reached their pop-cultural apogee via a semi-autographical movie which, by God, works.

Obviously there are plenty of differences, too — but today it’s worth remembering that, as the Reagan Revolution began to really tear our pop culture apart, Prince in 1984 was indeed a phenomenon on the scale of the Beatles, and a unifying one at that. That he did not stay that influential (after a truly great double LP, “Sign O’ The Times,” he receded), comes down to him being a solo act. Prince had no Paul to take over for the second half of his career.

The world feels a little less rich and strange today. As Kate said, “Whose job was it to keep Prince alive? How hard was that? Get the guy to 65, is that asking so much? Goddamn it, somebody should be fired over this!”