By Daniel Ralston
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies are usually terrible. That’s why the performance from 2004 has always stuck in my mind. Prince’s appearance alongside Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, and Dhani Harrison — to celebrate the induction of George Harrison into the Rock Hall — achieves the kind of alchemy producers dream of when assembling a one-off supergroup. It is electric.
Anytime Prince comes up in conversation, I eventually say, “Have you seen the video with Tom Petty and George Harrison's son?" If the answer is ‘yes,’ we watch it eventually. If the answer is ‘no,’ we have to watch it immediately. Here it is:
You could start it at the three-minute mark, but you should watch the whole thing for two reasons:
1. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a great song, and watching Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne sing it with George’s son is nice.
2. It 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.
Let’s talk about that 3:24 mark. Prince has been onstage the whole time, but you can tell the director has been told not to feature him … yet. At 3:24, Dhani Harrison (who, it must be mentioned, looks strikingly like his father) smiles as he looks to the left:
For the next 30 seconds, you’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame normalcy zone. Keep going. Pardon the rock-dad parlance, but Prince starts cooking at 3:56.
At 4:01, Prince does this pinch harmonic solo that lets you know it is fucking on. These kind of solos are almost always bad, and if anyone else was 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:
At 4:33, he does this move with his guitar that feels like he’s reloading a shotgun. I’ve seen other people do it. I saw Springsteen do it during “Badlands” a couple weeks ago in concert. I’ve seen Slash do it in music 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:
Something happens at 4:39 and continues for the next 10 seconds that makes me well up with tears every time I watch it. Here is how I see it. I could be wrong, but this is what I choose to believe:
— Prince, mid-solo, turns back to Petty and Harrison and makes eye contact.
— Petty, for a moment, looks miffed. Maybe not miffed but not thrilled.
— Petty breaks and smiles as he sees what’s about to happen.
— Dhani Harrison suddenly becomes all of us. He is watching Prince solo while falling backward into the arms of a security guard. Harrison’s smile in that moment is everything you want from music. Admiration, joy, fun, and spontaneity. The kid is living while memorializing his father.
With our hero back onstage, he continues his masterful playing. During a lull at 4:56, Prince gives Petty a look that tells us he knows exactly what he just did:
At 5:05, deep down in a finger-tappy, Van Halen-y stretch of the solo, Prince gives us some of the best Guitar Face in history. He is feeling it because everyone is feeling it and he is everyone:
Because Prince took us up the mountain, he’s going to walk us back down. He was nothing if not a gracious host. After almost two minutes of hot-shit guitar playing that would make Steve Vai curl up and die, he goes into cool-down mode with these weird Jonny Greenwood–circa–The Bends strummed, ascending harmonic chords that shouldn’t feel right but fit perfectly in the pocket. They are pulling when everything else pushes. Here they are in GIF form. That’s not gonna do a lot for you, but it’s worth seeing:
The full chorus comes back in with Petty, Lynne, and Harrison on vocals. Prince accents the proceedings with some bended notes and riffs, just to let you know he’s still in charge.
As the song winds down and Prince runs off a closing flurry, the band finishes in unison. At this point — that’s the 6:05 point in the video — Prince does the coolest thing I have ever seen anyone do. I saw people posting it in GIF form yesterday, so maybe you saw it. If you did, watch it again. If you didn’t, here you go:
It’s hard to know when you're living in the good times. It’s hard to know what you’re gonna look back on and wish you could have been more present for. Maybe it’s a family reunion that turned out to be the last one 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 on tonight and think, God, that was so good.
In the last 10 seconds of Prince’s performance at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, it’s clear that Prince was fully there. He enjoys it and he knows it is transcendent. He finishes his final bended note, he takes off his guitar, he throws it into the sky, and he struts offstage like the “skinny motherfucker with the high voice” that he was and always will be.
More Prince on MTV: