Prince and Soul Killing Isolation

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Submitted by Bill King

At this juncture it is difficult getting a read of what caused music pioneer Prince’s untimely passing at 57. Did he stay up 154 straight days – was he addicted to hard core opiates – I suspect we’ll get answers to this and more about the reclusive artist’s other life soon.

Much has been said about Prince’s stage fright and uneasiness around people. I’ve thought about this being a musician who has played a side role in many bands – some front line, others just common neighborhood gigs. There is a strange bubble that slowly wraps itself around those who climb up the tower of success. One top-ten recording can quickly elevate and suddenly all eyes point your way.

I remember interviewing Diana Krall in 1998 and her expressing how intimidated she felt playing in front of a large audience there to see her – a far different setting than hiding behind a piano in a hotel lounge. Suddenly, all eyes on are on you. In fact, examining your every move, the cut of your hair, the fit of your clothes, your mannerisms and possible gaffes.

Barbara Streisand waited 27 years before performing live fearful of forgetting lyrics – Sinatra dealt with the same anxiety. Cher had well placed large screen monitors for lyric security during her last world tour – I saw words scribbled all over the stage when Phil Collins played Toronto a few decades backs – this stuff is unnerving.

Truly, isolation is probably the most destructive and soul killing self-induced affliction. Human beings need contact and not just the contact they choose – we need to be energized by the world outside our self-imposed world. We need to participate – see that person across the aisle and be curious enough to speak to them or stand aside as they exit a bus or streetcar.

I was a shy kid absent people skills. I could laugh and comedy my way out of uncomfortable situations but it was my late Italian grandmother who in her actions changed me. Everyone was her friend wherever she traveled. Nellie had no fear. In a meat store, she had to know the person behind the counter – the family history and “how goes their day.” On the subway she’d leave her seat and sit by another woman of or near her age and strike a conversation, then return and tell me all about that person. I was astonished. Nellie was comfortable anywhere on the planet and the planet was at ease with her.

I get the isolation thing, the fear people want too much of you. The narrative has always been – people just want a piece of you, your money, your connections, and your winning lottery numbers.

The history of the creative class is one of struggle, seclusion, adoration and addiction. You can’t write, woodshed, compose or think in a crowd – it’s a private affair. You have to go inward for days and weeks at a time – for some, years.

I always admired the great writers that paused in their day and inhabited a café and participated in conversation. Renewed membership in the world outside and engaged others.

I remember nights with Janis Joplin when bassist Brad Campbell and I along with Janis hit a few pool halls around San Francisco. Janis walked in ready to kick our asses. She was loud and full of cheer. Nobody beat Brad – a Canadian boy bred on snooker – corner pockets the size of walnut shells now popping balls in half-size eight ball tables, pockets like small doorways. We’d take time about and goad each other, trash talk and get down home human. I saw in Janis a people side the same I saw in my late Grandmother yet an artist trapped by  success craving normalcy and willing to step beyond the oppressive demands of celebrity and just be that person in or outside.

I saw Ronnie Hawkins reach out and pull in anyone who would listen to his cornpone humor and sit there for hours rolling in laughter. I saw Craig Russell wrestle with life beyond his hotel room – rarely witness daylight – struggle with chemical dependency.

Truly, it’s how you handle fame. It will devour or it can motivate.

Love is a powerful thing. To sing about and crave is one thing. To fully embrace takes action and willingness to trust.