Prince often came across as a kook, but mostly he worked and played and danced his ass off to help people get their heads straight.
When a contemporary artist dies, if we have carried that person's work along a span of our lives our reaction to that death is interwoven with our personal memories. The truncation of the artist's life cuts a hashmark into the branch of our own life. No new art will accompany our life as if the artist continues to compose with us in mind. There is past art to be reviewed, and perhaps art to be uncovered despite what may be the artist's intent to keep it hidden. But the living conversation with the artist stops. We engage the artist as a ghost, or pretend the ghost is there as we converse indirectly with ourselves.
1983 was a miracle year for me. Somehow, at the age of 14, I shifted from listening to Abba (dorky, but wonderfully crafted) and Air Supply (dorky, flat-out, though I try to make a case they are darker than you think) to Prince and The Police. As a pimply, gangly, 14 year-old with braces - being cool or, really, having any idea what the heck was going on anywhere remained far down the road. As a white kid in Eugene, Oregon chances I would be exposed to anything non-white or sophisticated were dim. I had a faint sense of Prince beforehand, mostly from an album cover that made him look like a Breck girl with a mustache.
I had heard the song "1999" and liked it. Then I saw the video and, well, rather than make 14 year-old-me seem more eloquent, my reaction was essentially: "What is going on? This is crazy! I think I like this. A lot." I got the album after latching on to "Little Red Corvette" and determining well, whatever this dude was doing, he did it two songs in a row and it was awesome and I should check it out more songs.
1999 was double album. Four sides of vinyl. His eye at the center of the platter where the spindle went. Music that was exuberant, horny, deep, wrenching, playful about lust and Armageddon and psychological complexes and visions of a better unified world that could come together even if it doesn't happen until the world's ending. I recorded the album onto a cassette tape, then listened to it over and over on my Walkman knock-off many nights when I should have been asleep. Soaked it in.
Then went backwards into his work and liked his albums Prince and For You, but really absorbed Dirty Mind and Controversy almost as deeply as 1999.
Conformity was oppressive in the 1980s. The Reagan presidency was both a product of it and fostered it. The nation was moony-eyed over the illusion that the 1950s was a great time. Not a good time to be a minority. Not a good time to be homosexual. In the 1980s tens of thousands of people were dying from AIDS in the U.S. as the President remained silent. His braintrust and allies sniggered behind the scenes, and sometimes in front of cameras and microphones, about the "gay cancer" as something the victims deserved.
Prince's strangeness, "Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?" in the realm of his music and performances all came across as entirely normal. That realm was a better place to be.
There were scarcely any black people in Eugene. Gender lines generally were strongly marked and never broken openly. Yet here was this person in a confident mid-point. Mixed-race, if that phrase has much meaning. A short guy who played junior high and high school basketball. A man dressed in bikini briefs, high heels, eyeliner, in touch with his feminine side and primped to within an inch of his life, yet one of the most masculine forces ever to take the stage. Like a tornado or hurricane. He seemed to say: "You know nothing, kid. But that's okay. Be yourself. Let others be themselves. Let's all mingle, we're all we've got, and let's all be funky."
Taking in all of his music up to 1999 primed me for Purple Rain in 1984. I got the album right away. And... the movie that came out in July 1984...?
I was stuck in Boise that summer, and at age 15 had no ride to a movie theater who could accompany me to a rated-R movie. I didn't see the movie until EARLY SEPTEMBER. The world had moved on by then, and I was a huge fan struggling to catch up in an almost empty theater. My frustration remains palpable to this day. Though feeling sly about getting into a rated-R movie alone gave some solace.
The movie was exciting, but clearly bags full of dumb that even I could detect at 15. However, it was electric that the world was catching on to Prince. Roger Ebert listed Purple Rain among his top 10 films for that year. When it came out on VHS, I bought a copy at my beloved Earth River Records in Eugene and watched it over and over. Especially during two following summers in Boise. I kept count and viewed Purple Rain over 50 times. I had no illusions about it being a great film, or even a good one beyond the performance sequences, but I was fond of it and absorbed it with adolescent intensity. It takes little to trigger my memory and start reciting minutes of dialog.
Yesterday, driving in rush hour the day of Prince's death, I recalled that once when my house was empty of family as a teen I put a black light bulb in a lamp in the living room, turned off all other lights, and danced & pantomimed to the entire "Purple Rain" album. I might have been in a t-shirt and shorts. More likely it was just in tighty whities (we lived in the country so passers-by were unlikely). I smiled in modern-day rush hour at this nerdiness. Then I realized this was probably at some point after I had started dating, against the odds and perhaps in defiance of Nature, one of the coolest girls in the high school. That I did this after having at least gotten to third base, possibly all the way around the bases, made it even funnier and I started laughing out loud. Skinny kid in white briefs, miraculously a player.
I stuck with the following zillion albums devotedly. Around the World in a Day, Under the Cherry Moon (and its esoteric and weirdly charming movie), Sign o' the Times, The Black Album (unreleased for years, snatched a bootleg), Lovesexy, Batman, Graffiti Bridge, Diamonds and Pearls, O(+>, Come. His side projects and protegees as soon as I heard of them. Of course, the fun Jill Jones album. Yes, I can also defend Carmen Electra's album. Apollonia had charm, but didn't her thin singing sound like she was yawning all the time?
In 1988 (or was it 1990?) at a summer camp job at a college campus, I was a dorm counselor who was also the camp dance disk jockey. In a dormitory loading dock (Carson Hall) on the concrete upper deck that I had to myself I did a rehearsed dance to "Alphabet St.". White billowy shirt. Tight black pants. Even did a hurdler's stretch split on the ground and bounced back up. It was fun. The kids really liked it, as they often liked seeing grown-ups let down their guard. I think fellow staff liked it. I know that I loved it, got lost in the song and let Dionysus take over with an abandon I have rarely allowed since.
I would not hazard a split like that again, but I do practice the other moves in private from time to time. Don't ask me, though, I'll probably blush.
As adulthood waxed, music became a less intense experience for a while. But I bought all the albums. Crystal Ball (a lot of past material from his vault), Emancipation, and The Rainbow Children remain favorites. 3121 and Musicology also stood out as albums I enjoyed but didn't absorb, though I couldn't tell definitively how much of this period was Prince phoning it in (he seemed to be conveying songs, not being within the song) or my not being as enthusiastic for music. Probably a little of both.
But Prince remained productive, even if his agon was not as strong, music was his essence.
The last couple of years were great ones for Prince. His heart was back into his music, and he was having fun and continued to challenge the forces of power. Art Official Age was playful. His 3rdEyeGirl project with three female musician partners was a blast. Hit 'n' Run Phase One and Phase Two had great spirit and social conscience. His song "Baltimore" last year to take on the beating death of Freddie Gray is among Prince's many career highlights. The energy behind it is strong.
His messiah moods irked me. Former bandmates are chock full of stories about him conferring blessings, pretending to have a pathway to higher existence he could confer to others. That he became a Jehovah's Witness was dorkily inevitable. But while listening to his music the day of his death, I realized that even his desire to be a conduit to magical experiences was driven to make things better for people. He wasn't trying to trick anyone for his material gain or terrestrial power as we see in so many others.
His songs on erotic matters were almost fully an interplay of equals. Perform for me, I'll perform for you. I like your mind, but let's not talk right now. Okay, I'll shut up, too, so you can do your thing to me.
After typing the last few sentences it may be fun to take one of his lust paeans and neuter it by translating the lyrics to be square:
Act ur age mama, not ur shoe size and maybe we can do the twirl.
U don't have 2 watch Dynasty 2 have an attitude.
Just leave it all up 2 me. My love will be, will be ur fool.
Behave at a level appropriate to your chronological attainment to assist our erotic compatibility.
To develop a sense of stylish self-possession does not require study of tony pop culture touchstones.
Delegate the burden to me, and I will engage you with respectful humility.
And, as autonomous as he was and often playing most or all of the instruments and many of his albums, he was a collaborator. He liked to share music, he liked cultivating other artists, and took joy in making music happen and fostering happiness.
Skimming over his 700+ songs of his that I have (all the studio albums, all the officially released live recordings, many Napster-era live bootlegs), it strikes me that Prince never mastered how to incorporate rap into his music. He tried as himself. He tried through male rappers. But tellingly he got the best flows from women. Two examples popped up while shuffle playing his tracks over the last day. Sheila E. in "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" and Cat Glover in the album cut of "Alphabet St." Of the lyrics encountered in the first day following Prince's death these fun but still sincere lyrics sum up a lot of Prince's ethos:
Talk 2 me lover, come on tell me what u taste. / Didn't ur mama tell u life is 2 good 2 waste? / Did she tell u Lovesexy is the Glam of them all? / U can hang, u can trip on it, u surely won't fall. / No side effects, the feeling lasts 4 ever. / Straight up, it tastes good, it makes feel clever. / U kiss ur enemies like u know u should. / Then u jerk ur body like a Horny Pony would. / U jerk ur body like a Horny Pony would. / Now run and tell ur mama about that!
This bootleg recording of him playing "Superstition" with Stevie Wonder in 2010 shows so much delight in his face as he jams with one of the few humans capable of understanding what it's like to be so talented. That Prince also has his longtime friend Sheila E. onstage to assist is also is a delight. Even an initially disconnected guitar does not dissuade him. The groove is going. He will add to it soon enough. Then he gets there and it's loose and terrific.
Prince has left us many grooves. And the word for decades is that he has a vast vault of already recorded tracks, alternate takes, and other songs. Unless his will legally locks that material up, we will probably be exploring new music from him for years to come. I am down with that.
All those scattered thoughts and words, and I'm still staring at the screen feeling hollowed out. I will miss this talented, prodigious, Muse-driven, caring, mad, skinny, sexy motherfucker. My life would be much poorer without him.