This month, a director’s cut of the iconic Prince shred-fest that took place in March of 2004 at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame ceremony that posthumously inducted former-Beatle George Harrison was released by Joel Gallen (the aforementioned Director of the ceremony). Harrison wrote the Beatles’ song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and on the original track, Eric Clapton (no slouch guitarist himself) played the solo parts for the album version. An all-star tribute band came together to perform the song that night on stage at the event, including Harrison’s son, Dhani, Tom Petty and two of the Heartbreakers, Steve Winwood, and Jeff Lynne.
And, oh yeah…Prince.
The original video clip of the performance has been viewed on YouTube over 100 million times (probably 300 of those by me), and it never, ever, gets old or loses its magic. The guy steals the show, outshines everyone, and proves himself a guitar virtuoso — a savant, even. It stands out as one of the greatest rock guitar performances I have ever seen, live or recorded.
I asked my uncle (a badass guitarist himself) for his take on it after seeing the new cut. He called it “extremely impressive,” and noted that, “Watching a guitarist like him simply go off on a tangent and have so much emotional fun doing it (and watching the smile on Petty’s face) is something to behold.”
On the occasion of the release of this new cut of the performance, I will break it down for you here, to hopefully help you understand its sheer brilliance, in case you have never seen it or appreciated it.
First, we have to start with the other lead guitarist on stage, Marc Mann. I cannot help but feel sorry for Mann throughout the performance. A member of Jeff Lynne’s band, Mann really does try, and makes some good runs/guitar fills early on, staying true to the original track almost note-for-note, all of which is accompanied by a serviceable classic rock guitarist pained look/exertion face. It is like Mann is trying to convey with his facial expressions, “Look, this is hard — and impressive — despite how easy Prince is about to make it look.” Do not get me wrong, the guy can play (far better than me, for example), but Prince he is not.
The 3:20 mark of the video is the epitome of Mann’s series of facial expressions, where for a fleeting second he looks like he is trying to say, “See, I was pretty damn good,” right before Prince starts his solo run and shreds every last thought and memory of Mann, leaving him in a depressing cloud of broken lead guitar dreams and not-quite-genius-enough soloing despair. Our man Prince starts his ascent to Guitar God status at the 3:27 mark, with a knowing grin and a “go get ‘em” nod from Dhani Harrison. It is like Harrison is saying with his smile, “Now is your time, you slayer of scales and fretboard-fingering madman!”
Back to Mann: he really does do his best throughout the first half of the song, but it is analogous to this author putting up an essay alongside a Cormac McCarthy novel to be given back-to-back public readings. Such a scenario would only result in being brutally reminded that McCarthy is an otherworldly artistic genius, while I am not that. I can see now in my mind’s eye the “He really did give it his best effort” looks, followed by patronizing nods and feelings of sorrow for my completely overshadowed and underwhelming effort. That is what happened to Mann that night, when Prince took off like a rocket through the stratosphere toward the end of the song.
According to a 2016 New York Times article about the performance (yes, it is that iconic), Mann played both the middle and ending solos himself in the rehearsal for the event, despite the fact that the director planned to have Prince play the ending solo. Prince himself was even there on stage to rehearse when Mann stole his part. Perhaps Prince took that personally (in true Michael Jordan “The Last Dance” fashion), because he proceeded to dismantle Marc Mann’s entire guitar manhood right there on stage during the live event itself.
Next, we need to pay close attention to Dhani Harrison, George’s son. In particular, we note Harrison’s face — at the 1:59 mark — as he looks over at Mann and seemingly thinks, “Yea, not bad, man, you’re doing a pretty good job. Keep it up.” Looking on more in disinterest and vague curiosity than anything else, it is as if Harrison is thinking, “This guy must have memorized the original song, and he is doing it justice with this rendition.”
Then, at the 2:06 mark, Dhani looks to his left (stage right), and sees Prince come on stage from the wings. He proceeds to break into a huge shit-eating grin as if he knows what is coming, and wants to tell the rest of us to buckle up and hold on.
Harrison is all of us throughout Prince’s solo. His face radiates pure joy and awe at what is transpiring, and he is clearly having the time of his life (despite the somber fact of his dad not being there). Dhani strums along on the rhythm guitar, just happy to be there, as Prince gets going. He gazes in wonder, admiration, and reverence at the skill on display, just like the rest of us who will watch it 100 million times afterward.
Meanwhile, both Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty’s faces throughout the performance convey a classic “we couldn’t give a shit” rock star vibe. That is, right up until about the 5:06 mark, when Petty breaks into a “Holy cow, Prince is slaying this” grin at the diminutive guitar god alongside him on the stage. Even the Petty cool cannot withstand the withering assault of this guitar fusillade launched by Prince. Rock legend Petty then himself becomes just one more astonished fan, like the rest of us, awed by the talent on display.
Not only does Prince shred, but he entertains us with countless facial contortions and a choreographed fall-back into the arms of a security guy/handler at the 4:47 mark. This tells us that he had some idea pre-show of what he planned to do up there on stage, and set up the fall-back in advance. The man was a showman of the highest order.
At the 3:30 mark, Prince begins his solo, in a slow-burning start that hints at what is to come. He is decked out in a blue suit, red fedora with matching open-necked shirt, and a red boutonnière in his breast pocket. We don’t know at first what is coming, but by 4:05 it is dawning on us that we are witnessing a feat of guitar wizardry and divine rock n’ roll kick axe-ery. At 4:28, Prince looks over to his right, smiles devilishly, and starts to make faces as he goes deeper into shred-town, like he has decided, “F it, Imma burn this stage down with my guitar fire.” And then he does.
Prince flashes one last victorious smile at the 5:37 mark — directed at Petty — as he knows he did what he came to do, and is wrapping up his magnificent solo performance. At 6:11, he lets go of the final sustained note, takes his guitar off his shoulder, and tosses it up into the air where it seems to ascend directly to heaven for God to store in a “cool stuff I made my humans do” lockbox — because it never comes back down. Prince walks off stage right, and that is that. The standing ovation is accepted by the rest of the musicians on the stage, who know without a doubt that they are accepting it on Prince’s behalf.
I imagine Marc Mann walked off stage in a sea of human regret at having challenged a God. I also imagine that that security guy/handler who caught Prince in his fall-back was up there in the rafters, holding on for dear life both to that guitar and to a steel beam, so as not to fall.
We may never see another performance like it again.
All images Youtube screen captures courtesy of Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame