Jay Cridlin's tribute: It can't be; Prince seemed as immortal as his music

Prince performs in concert during the Purple Rain Tour at the Omni International Arena in Atlanta, Ga. on Jan. 3, 1985. {CHERIE DIEZ | Times]	
Prince performs in concert during the Purple Rain Tour at the Omni International Arena in Atlanta, Ga. on Jan. 3, 1985. {CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Published April 22, 2016

Prince is not dead. Prince cannot be dead.

How could police find his 57-year-old body at his Paisley Park estate in suburban Minneapolis on Thursday morning? How could his publicist confirm his death to the Associated Press, spurring one of the biggest outpourings of mourning the music world has witnessed this decade?

No. None of this could happen, because Prince Rogers Nelson is not supposed to die. Not in 2016, not in 3016, not ever. Prince is, was and ever shall be eternally among us, hallowed be his purple name.

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That was the cosmos' grand plan, wasn't it? Since the moment Prince shot into our lives in the late '70s — a violet-hued, sexually electrified supernova combining the most ingenious parts of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, James Brown and Michael Jackson — his lean, elfin body seemed as immortal as his music.

Just last week, Prince's plane made an emergency landing when he began suffering from intense flu-like symptoms mid-air. He was hospitalized. The very next day, he was spotted riding his bike around Paisley Park; that night he hosted one of his frequent all-night dance parties.

#FeelingRejuvenated, he tweeted on April 17. #FeelingInspired. #FeelingLoved.

"Time, I don't think, was ever a factor for him," said Eric Darius, a renowned, Tampa-born saxophonist who got to jam with Prince one night in Las Vegas. "He could literally play until 4, 5 o'clock in the morning."

And he did so every chance he got. He was a cipher, mysterious and mercurial, but never quite a recluse, touring extensively over the decades, delivering performances as endlessly energetic as his own mind.

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His last Tampa concert, in 2004, was a 30-song, 2.5-hour affair, replete with dazzling funk diamonds like Let's Go Crazy and Little Red Corvette. Last month in Toronto, he treated fans to two sets in one night, performing more than 50 songs with multiple encores, from enormous hits like Kiss and Raspberry Beret to a heartfelt cover of the late David Bowie's Heroes — a tribute that today cuts all the deeper.

It pains to read the human details of his passing — that his 5-foot-2 frame was found unresponsive in an elevator, that he was pronounced dead within half an hour, that police are investigating a cause — because as a performer, Prince was inhuman incarnate.

The son of a jazz pianist, Prince displayed a prodigious musical mind at an early age, hustling for gigs and studio time in the Minneapolis funk and rock scene. At age 19, he wrote, arranged, produced and played basically every note of his 1978 debut For You, including the minor hit Soft and Wet. By 1984, Prince was starring in a hit movie loosely based on his life, Purple Rain; its iconic soundtrack — When Doves Cry, Darling Nikki, I Would Die 4 U — would earn him an Academy Award.

On paper, it's hard to picture any of this happening. Prince was a tiny man, effeminate and androgynous, yet radiated lust and carnality in a way few male performers ever have. Maybe it was that voice, an impassioned whine interspersed with orgasmic groans and falsettos. Maybe it was his almost spiritual kinship with female performers, some of whom he nurtured as proteges (Sheila E, Vanity, Wendy and Lisa), others who just made his songs their own (Chaka Khan's I Feel For You, Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U, the Bangles' Manic Monday).

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Frank Ocean, the openly gay R&B singer, wrote on Tumbler that Prince "made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity."

Prince imagined the world in ways mere humans couldn't. In 1993, in protest of an unfair record contract, he traded his name for an unpronounceable symbol; his fans rolled right along with it. He would eventually release 39 mostly self-produced albums, a pace of more than one a year, and somehow sounded as amplified and energized on his last as he did on his first — his last album, December's HITnRUN Phase Two opened with Baltimore, a soulful plea for peace following the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

"The way I see it is, we'll spend the rest of our lives catching up to his musical genius," said saxophonist B.K. Jackson, 24, a Tampa native who has toured with Prince since 2013. "He was a mentor, and almost a poster for how to love music . . . The education that I got with him was the greatest education that any musician — any person in the world — could have received.

"'Icon' is not a good enough word. Prince is Prince. When you lose Prince, it's tough for anybody that loves music."

Prince achieved every honor a 57-year-old rock star can achieve. He made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, headlined halftime of the Super Bowl in 2007. Last spring, he popped up as a secret headliner at the after-party for Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary, and by all accounts blew every mind in the room — a room, mind you, that already included Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift and Beyonce.

"He had a special way of connecting with people that very few other people on this planet have," Darius said. His death "is just one of those things that you never fathom happening during your lifetime. Growing up, watching him and listening to him, he's truly been the soundtrack to so many people's lives. Hearing the news, you're first in shock and denial. You just don't think something like this can happen."

Ah, denial. They say it's the first stage of grief. On Thursday, the music world was stuck there.

Numb. Stunned. This can't be real, tweeted Justin Timberlake.

Not Prince, tweeted Ne-Yo.

There's no way, tweeted Zendaya.

I can't, tweeted Shonda Rimes. I just can not.

Nor can I. I play Let's Go Crazy, and I listen to Prince deliver his famous invocation at the outset, and I simply cannot.

"Dearly beloved," he coos, "we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life."

Life. Not death. Because Prince cannot be dead. He just can't.

Contact Jay Cridlin at or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.