While his guitar gently weeps
Excerpted from TIME’s Prince: An Artist’s Life, a 96-page, fully illustrated commemorative edition. Available at retailers and at Amazon.com.
I invite you to witness two minutes and 50 seconds of Prince’s life from 2004, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You can see the moment I’m talking about on YouTube, where more than 24 million people have watched him perform the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in honor of George Harrison, who was also being inducted, posthumously. Prince’s appearance alongside Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and George’s son, Dhani, achieves the kind of alchemy producers dream of when assembling a one-off supergroup. It is electric.
Anytime Prince comes up in conversation, I ask, “Have you seen the video with Tom Petty and George Harrison’s son? If the answer is “yes,” we eventually rewatch it together. If the answer is “no,” we watch immediately. We could start at the three-minute mark, but we watch the whole thing for two reasons:
1. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a great song, and seeing Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne sing it with George’s son is nice.
2. The full watch draws into sharp relief the fact that a true god is entering your life at the 3:24 mark and doesn’t leave it until the video ends.
3:24. Let’s talk about that mark. Prince has been onstage all along, but the director has not featured him . . . yet. Then Dhani Harrison smiles as he looks left, and Prince steps forward. For the next 30 seconds, you’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame normalcy zone. Keep going. Prince starts cooking at 3:56.
4:01. Prince does this pinch-harmonic solo that lets you know it is f—king on. These kind of solos are almost always bad—if anyone else were playing over a Beatles song, it would be straight trash. But this is Prince, so it’s incredible. Then he heads into these bended notes that echo the original version’s solo. It’s haunting and sweet and distinct. With that behind him, Prince turns to Petty and Harrison and gives them a look. It’s almost like he’s saying, “You have no idea what you’re in for.” He’s right.
4:33. He does this move with his guitar that looks like he’s reloading a shotgun. I’ve seen other people do it. I saw Bruce Springsteen do it during “Badlands” in concert. I’ve seen Slash do it in videos. It’s a cool move if you are cool. Prince is the coolest, so no one will ever look cooler doing it than this.
4:39. Every time I watch the next 10 seconds, I well up with tears. This how I see it:
• Prince, mid-solo, turns to face Petty and Harrison and makes eye contact.
• Petty, for a moment, looks miffed. Maybe not miffed, but not thrilled. Then he breaks into a smile as he sees what’s about to happen.
• A grinning Harrison suddenly becomes all of us. He is watching Prince play the solo while falling backward toward the crowd and into the arms of a security guard. The moment is everything you want from music—admiration, joy, fun, spontaneity. The kid is alive while memorializing his father.
4:56. During a lull, Prince gives Petty a look that tells us he knows exactly what he just did.
5:05. Deep down in a finger-tappy, Van Halen–y section, Prince delivers some of history’s best guitar face. He is feeling it because everyone is feeling it—and he is everyone.
5:15. Prince took us up the mountain; now he’s going to walk us back down. After nearly two minutes of blistering riffs that would make Steve Vai curl up and die, he enters cooldown mode with a few screaming single-note string bends, followed by weird Jonny Greenwood– style ascending harmonic chords that shouldn’t feel right but fit perfectly in the pocket. They are pulling when everything else pushes.
5:45. Petty, Lynne and Harrison come back in with the chorus. Prince accents the proceedings with wailing notes, just to let you know he’s still in charge.
6:00. Prince fires off a final flurry, and the band finishes in unison.
6:10. Prince does the coolest thing I have ever seen anyone do. I’ve seen people post it in GIF form, so maybe you saw it. If you did, watch it again. If you didn’t, go watch it now.
It’s hard to know when we’re living in the good times. It’s hard to know what you’re going to look back on and wish you could have been more present for. Maybe it’s a family reunion that turns out to be the last, or a low-rent rendezvous with a sweetheart in another life. Maybe it’ll be tonight when you get high and watch Purple Rain. You might look back and think, “God, that was so good.”
There’s no question that Prince was fully there that night. He’s enjoying it, and he knows it is transcendent. In the last 10 seconds, he takes off his guitar, throws it into the sky, and struts offstage like the “skinny motherf—ker with the high voice” that he was and always will be.