Learning of Prince’s death last week really shook me. This post is an attempt to express some of what he has meant to me over the years.
Albany, NY. May 1983. At a time when my experience of cities was almost nonexistent, my sister and I went to SUNY to help my mother pack up her stuff and return from her final year in residence at the university. The campus was warm and bright and full of people, and most important of all – there was a good radio station to listen to. (Back at home the only way I could hear rock & pop over the airwaves was to artificially boost the signal from a Burlington station by sitting on top of our console stereo.) I must have heard a lot of songs that weekend, but the only one I remember is “Little Red Corvette”. For me, it perfectly captured the feeling of being someplace exciting, new and bigger.
Spring 1984. The end of my first year at private school, on a trip to the Maine coast with new friends. I had a big crush on one of them, a fabulous boy with fashion sense and carefully styled hair. Like many of my crushes, this was a non-starter, not least because he turned out to be gay. But on this trip, I was still hopeful, and was thrilled the first night we were there when he took me up on the offer of a back rub. It says something about the naivete of youth that this did not play out as sexual at all, even though he had a copy of “1999” on cassette that provided the sound track for the experience. Of course, we were also in the middle of the living room with several other people present. There is a line in the song “Automatic” where Prince sings, “I’ll rub your back forever” which we all found very funny in the moment. Except my crush, who had become so relaxed that he fell asleep. (I give good back rubs. And to this day, my friend Beth and I like to trade them when visiting each other. Prince accompaniment is optional.)
Later on, I acquired my own copy of “1999” on vinyl. Back then, I would often listen to music as I was falling asleep. The key element of a slumber-inducing musical experience was to find a side that ended on a relaxing song – something in a minor key and/or slow and soothing. The gold standard for me was side two of “The Cars” by The Cars, which ends with the classic combo of “Moving in Stereo” and “All Mixed Up”. But side 4 of “1999” also became a staple. That record ends with the song “International Lover”, a crooning, soulful number that unhurriedly rolls out one of Prince’s truly bizarre love-making metaphors: the singer taking his paramour for a ride on the “Seduction 747”, which is somehow both his actual physical body and his well-equipped flying pleasure palace, which has taken his (female) lover inside itself and promises to fulfill her every bodily desire. If my parents had ever paid attention to what I was listening to (they didn’t), they might have been horrified by this song, but subsequently relieved to know that I never found Prince’s music to be arousing sexually – it was just too weird. But I did find it compelling, and in this case, strangely soothing, considering its subject matter. I think what really shone through for me in this song was that the narrator was fully focused on his partner. Not in a desperate or domineering way, but a generous, experienced and fully assured way: he was saying, “I’ve got this covered, baby. You can just sit back and relax.” It was almost like a lullaby, if you allow that a lullaby can contain a few orgasmic screams.
The record sleeve for “1999”’s second disc has a photo of Prince lying prone on a bed in a smoky, neon-lit boudoir, meeting the camera’s gaze with a brooding, come-hither look in his eyes. His shiny purple outfit has been removed and tossed to the floor; in its place is a sheet that covers most of his lower body, but leaves his ass exposed enough for it to be obvious that he’s completely naked – that is, except for the lavender gloves on his hands. Why is he wearing them? Who knows! And what is he about to paint with the watercolors beside him on the bed? A complete mystery! But there is no question that he looks FINE and very artistic.
More than a decade after this album came out, I read an urban fantasy novel by Emma Bull called “War for the Oaks”. It’s set in Minneapolis and focuses a lot on rock music, so it’s no surprise that Prince is mentioned a number of times. But he’s also inserted into the story as a character, in a way: one of the protagonists, a trickster faery named only “the phouka”, is described as looking exactly like Prince (when in human form, anyway). His clothes are also quite amazing. He even wears some paisley jeans at one point. But what really made me laugh in recognition was the moment early on when he pretends to be the main character’s one night stand for the benefit of her landlady. (It’s complicated.) Here’s the description of what she sees: “He was lying on his stomach, propped up on his elbows, facing the door. His brown skin was a shocking contrast to the rumpled white sheets, which were drawn across him to barely cover his buttocks. He wore absolutely nothing.” I thought to myself, “There is no way that that photo of Prince from “1999” was not the source of this image.” I was absolutely delighted to be in on the joke.
I have a feeling Prince would have appreciated it as well. Particularly on “1999”, there’s an atmosphere of playfulness and experimentation infusing everything, even the songs that aren’t downright hedonistic. With “Purple Rain”, he got a little more serious and (maybe?) autobiographical — there was a new sincerity and emotion in evidence that I found gripping. To this day, whenever I hear “When Doves Cry” on the radio, I get drawn in to its masterful layering of sounds and voices that somehow ends up feeling stark and raw, even though it’s produced within an inch of its life. And “Purple Rain” might be the most beautiful and cathartic expression of sadness and loss that I’ve ever heard. To me, this album is a true classic — despite the fact that I have no idea what doves crying or purple rain are supposed to be. Prince had an ability to put these obscure poetic images that had some personal meaning for him into his songs and make them convey something mysterious yet potent.
The album wasn’t all serious — the playful, impish element is still there on songs like “Let’s Go Crazy” (another “Apocalypse coming? Time to party!” rave-fest along the lines of “1999”) and “Computer Blue”, which begins with some coy hints of girl-on-girl action between members of the band (“Wendy?” “Yes, Lisa.” “Is the water warm enough?” “Yes, Lisa.” “Shall we begin?” “Yes, Lisa.”) But the real stand-out in terms of outrageousness is “Darling Nikki”, a story about the narrator’s night with a “sex fiend” who gets his attention by masturbating in a hotel lobby. Back in high school, this song was like catnip for naughty, rebellious types — hard to get a hold of (because it was never played on the radio and most people’s parents wouldn’t let them have the album) and still somehow shocking no matter how many times you heard it. It resulted in lots of nervous tittering. Over thirty years later, with the aid of a turntable that can play records backwards, I’ve gotten the real joke, though: the song ends with a reversed vocal in which Prince sings about how he’s fine because “the Lord is coming soon”. It’s a hilarious tweak to the noses of the conspiracy nuts who thought that Satanic messages were being subliminally added to songs with backwards masking. “Darling Nikki” is all about a sexy she-devil tempting and seducing a man for a night of strenuous toy-enhanced pleasure. It’s not a subliminal message — it’s right in your face! Instead, it’s God who’s hidden away. Good one, Prince.
His approach to gender expression was confusing, but in his usual way, bold. He wore makeup and outrageous outfits and seemed to identify with women, even as he was attracted to them. In adolescence, at a time when I was really having to reckon with the difficulty of being a young heterosexual woman who came across as “butch” gender-wise, he made me feel less lonely. I saw him as an example of what a male version of myself could be — a gender outlaw who didn’t care about conventional wisdom of “what goes with what” or traditional symbols of identity. By god, he was going to make his own image, on his own terms. And like me, he seemed to get a lot of crushes on people. In his lyrics he ran the gamut of sexual and romantic attitudes — sometimes dominant, sometimes submissive, sometimes confused, sometimes obsessive… jealous, uncaring, arrogant, heartbroken, loving. I don’t remember him ever expressing hatred or an impulse to violence, though. That might be his biggest challenge to masculine stereotypes, really — he was all for peace and love, and lots of it.
Prince fell off my radar for quite a while when he was in his “unpronounceable symbol” phase. And it gave me pause when I learned that he had become a Jehovah’s Witness. It seemed like such a 180 from his previous existence that I was a little concerned about what might be going on with him. So I was both relieved and impressed when I randomly saw him interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and thought to myself, “He actually seems pretty normal in person! And… nice!” I realized I had never seen him just having a conversation with someone before.
In the past few years, I started to hear stories about his mind-blowing and epically long performances in random places. No one knew until shortly beforehand when most of them were going to happen, and they’d often not even start until after midnight, then run until almost dawn. He seemed to be on a mission to lead people through musical rites toward some kind of revelation. Everyone kept saying that he looked like he hadn’t aged at all, so it seemed like he would just keep going into the foreseeable future. I hoped that someday everything would come together, and I’d get my chance to see him perform live. Now that will never happen, and I am sad. Even more so now that accounts of his philanthropy have begun to come out, and I’ve learned what a quietly good person he was behind the scenes all these years. He is full of surprises, even now. Prince Rogers Nelson, musical polymath, sexy gender-bender, force of nature, and fabulous human being: I salute you. You changed my world, and I will always remember you.