Why We Struggled to Say ‘Goodbye’ to Prince
We said goodbye when there was still so much left to say.
Prince's heralded vault of songs is overstuffed with an unimaginable number of never-released tracks, demos, alternate versions of favorites, concert footage and live recordings. (He was said to have completed as many as 100 songs, for instance, in preparation for Purple Rain. Just nine were initially used.) Court papers have suggested this treasure trove is worth around $200 million.
We said goodbye in the most shocking, saddest of ways.
Prince's body was discovered in an elevator on April 21, 2016 inside his Paisley Park compound. He'd been dead of a self-administered overdose of fentanyl – a highly addictive painkiller said to be 50 times more powerful than heroin – for at least six hours. Apparently suffering from constant pain after decades of punishing career obligations, Prince had already overdosed on Percocet the week before his sudden death.
The authorities arrived after frantic staff members noticed that Prince had missed an early-morning appointment with a holistic doctor. Fentanyl pills were found inside an Aleve bottle that had been incorrectly hand-labeled as Vicodin. Paisley Park was later opened to the public as a kind of fan museum, but only after the elevator where Prince died was boarded up then covered with a commemorative poster from the Musicology tour.
We said goodbye when he was just 57. It's an age when a number of artists began crafting third-act triumphs.
At 57, Robert Plant had just released perhaps his finest-ever solo recording, 2005's Mighty ReArranger. When Paul McCartney was 57, he was prepping for a return to the Cavern Club to promote a nervy new record, 1999's Run Devil Run. At 57, Stevie Wonder was starting his first U.S. tour in 10 years. Eric Clapton was 57 when he served as musical director for the Concert for George, a gala event celebrating his late friend and musical collaborator George Harrison. At 57, David Lee Roth had just finished his first Van Halen record since 1984.
When Elton John was 57, he issued 2004's very well-received Peachtree Road, then was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors. At 57, Tina Turner had just released her two-times platinum comeback album Wildest Dreams, after roaring back into public eye with the main theme for the James Bond film Goldeneye. When Bruce Springsteen was 57, he was in the run up to his second platinum album of the '00s, 2007's Magic. At 57, Frank Sinatra was about to return from a brief retirement; his 1973 album Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back soared to No. 13 on the Billboard chart.
That overstuffed vault – not to mention the resurgent joys of 2015's HITnRUN Phase Two – tells us that just such a comeback was entirely possible, had Prince never found his way into that elevator. Fans were offered the briefest of glimpses into what might have been when a six-song EP featuring the soaring, gospel-fueled leftover "Deliverance" was posthumously released in 2017. Unfortunately, it was quickly pulled amid a messy legal dispute.
We said goodbye while still trying to come to terms with the rest of his legacy, beyond the well-trodden '80s triumphs.
Prince died too young for the inevitable re-evaluations that older artists typically enjoy. If this year-long series has taught us anything, it's that even the most die-hard of fans can still find new nooks and crannies to more fully explore in such a vast compendium of songs. Then there were those who got lost along the way: Many of his earliest followers wandered off during Prince's extended, name-changing battle with his label. Others lost the thread when he took a more spiritual turn after converting to the Jehovah's Witness faith. Both groups still have potentially huge swaths of unheard, officially released music left to discover.
We said goodbye before we wanted to, before we should have, before this frankly amazing, occasionally frustrating but always engaging musical conversation was anywhere near its conclusion.
Prince, however, had already said his own kind of farewell – with "Goodbye." Released as the final track on 1998's Crystal Ball, it actually dated back to a time when Prince was in a much, much different place. He demoed "Goodbye" during the initial 1991 sessions for the Love Symbol Album, while in the midst of a break up with former protege Carmen Elektra. The lyric makes it seem as if everything is still emotionally raw: "Why'd I ever let you in this morning? Why'd I let you come inside my door?"
He initially slotted "Goodbye" as the final track on a single-disc configuration of Emancipation, but as he kindled a new relationship with future wife Mayte Garcia, Prince changed his mind. Emancipation became a three-disc exploration of his post-Warner Bros. rebirth both professionally and as a husband and expectant father. Prince compared the period to "parting with the moon and the rain, and looking for the sun," in the liner notes to Crystal Ball. By then, "Goodbye" had been completed with the addition of gorgeous Clare Fischer-arranged strings, but it was nevertheless switched out for "The Holy River," a more timely piece of autobiographical work focused on settling into married life.
"Goodbye," with its turbulent sense of conflict, had simply become obsolete to Prince. But not, alas, for us. Forced to say our own goodbyes, many inevitably turned to his music for solace, for connection, for some weird sense of predictive comfort. It was all there.
"Spirits come," Prince assures us on 1997's "The Truth," "and spirits go." Similarly, 1996's Chaos and Disorder includes this rumination: "As sure as the candle burns, every soul must return into the light." Recorded in 1992, "There is Lonely" takes us inside those final moments. "Is it me, or did the room just get darker?" Prince asks. "Is it me, or did I just lay down and die?" He used 1981's "Controversy" to remind us that "some people wanna die, so they can be free." Then there's that shiver-inducing mention of an elevator in 1984's "Let's Go Crazy."
A lyric from "Goodbye" – and the song's original title, before it ended up as a shorter-named straggler on Crystal Ball – provided its own kind of catharsis, however, as we attempted move forward in a world without Prince: "Excuse me," he sings, matching everyone's stunned reaction, "is this goodbye?"
It was, of course, and then again it wasn't. We said goodbye to Prince. But, thankfully, we need never let go of these songs.