I keep updating Google News, waiting and praying. ‘Please.’ I think, ‘Don’t let it be Prince.’ Of course, the odds are stacked against my prayers. Only days before, Prince’s private plane made an emergency landing in Illinois on account of the singer complaining of flu symptoms. I followed the incident closely and was relieved to hear that days later His Royal Badness was throwing a party at his studio compound, Paisley Park, just outside Minneapolis. The Prince had returned to his castle, and all was right with the world.
Now. April 21. A death is reported at the Park. Identity not revealed. Police and ambulance arrive. It’s the Internet Age, so of course, the world knows. I wait with baited breath. Then, the final blow is struck. The body belongs to Prince Rogers Nelson. Social media feeds flood with everyone and their mother posting their quick eulogy. It’s all too much for me. I close all windows. I need to be alone to think, to mourn this man who brought me so much joy and made it seem okay to feel, and hurt.
I first fell in love with Prince my senior year of high school. My first girlfriend had just dumped me and the winter was cold in Indiana. My older brother, rather offhandedly, recommended I give him a listen. I’d been aware of the man, as any pop-culture conscious young man. His big, radio friendly hits, the Chappelle Show sketch wherein he’s portrayed as rather eccentric yet quite proficient at basketball. Like most people, I saw him as a bit of a joke. So strange and hyper-sexual that it seemed like all you could do was laugh.
But upon listening, I found myself connecting on a profound level with this short, interracial young man with artistic aspirations from the Midwest. This was someone who probably had been laughed and picked on his whole life and still wore his heart on his sleeve. He carried with him a supreme confidence, battle-tested from years growing up weird in the Heartland, while at the same time revealing an unabashed vulnerability and passion through his music. One need only listen to “Why You Want To Treat Me So Bad?” or “If I Was Your Girlfriend” to see a man reveal how powerless he is in the face of love.
My viewing of the film Purple Rain that spring was a revelation. Prior to this, I had seen Prince only in fragmented formats such as music videos and the occasional cryptic interview. Now I got the full context. Here was a feature film where Prince was able to put forth his history, sense of humor, and general philosophy about life. The film is less a straight autobiography than Prince self-mythologizing his own struggles to find himself musically and spiritually. A lot of people laugh at the film’s 80’s camp quality, and rightfully so, but they shouldn’t overlook the complex relationship between Prince’s The Kid and his love interest, Apollonia, nor the small moment of redemption Morris Day’s villain/comic relief receives in the final act. It’s a film that treats every character as a thinking, feeling, changing human being.
By the time I graduated, I’d performed an interpretive dance to “When Doves Cry” at my high school talent show and submitted a Young Entrepreneurs proposal for a Prince-Themed Picnic Basket. To put it another way: I was an unapologetic Prince fanatic. Now I was headed to the University of Iowa, not knowing a soul, and wondering if I would find any kindred spirits who shared my passion for Mr. Nelson. The closest thing I had to an acquaintance was my best friend’s old junior high acquaintance. We’d never met and I didn’t know what to expect. Fortunately, one of the first messages I received from him on Facebook included, “Good to see a fellow Prince fan.” And from that moment on, I knew I’d found an important alley in the good fight.
The first year of college was a crucial time in my Prince development. I dove deeper into his discography, the “unreleased” albums, and was now able to intellectually discuss, at great length, the finer points behind his unique fusion of funk, pop, R&B, and avant garde. We held private screenings of Prince’s two cinematic directorial efforts, Under the Cherry Moon(1986) and Graffiti Bridge(1990), both unique if nothing else. Most important, a deep friendship was formed, built on the foundation of an unbridled, and most important, un-ironic love of the singer-songwriter. Perhaps the only people we hated worse than Michael Jackson fans were the ones who followed their devotion to Prince with a knowing smirk.
Even today, when someone asks me my favorite musician and I say Prince, it is often met with a laugh. Why? Many still find his whole persona to be ridiculous, which seems unfair considering Bowie dawned equally bizarre lifestyles and both men were essentially doing the same thing: following their instincts, tastes, and passion while merging it with those of the mainstream. I guess its easier to swallow a tall, handsome blonde man as a sex symbol, but damn if Prince isn’t sexy, shirtless and oiled-up during the “Darling Nikki” performance in Purple Rain.
The other argument against Prince tends to be his lyrics, specifically their melding of new-age spirituality with overt sexuality. It certainly is refreshing to hear a musician singing about more than their own interior heart-ache and bring the notion of love and sex into a larger context of the universe. “Sexy M.F.” is an extremely sexualized song, yet never strays into misogyny territory that so many other “sexy” songs tend to do. So often in his lyrics Prince is asking permission. He was a man who cared about humanity, even while indulging in its filthier side.
Many of his more esoteric lyrics do reside in light, party grooves, but they never distract from the overall celebratory nature of his music. 2014’s exceptional Art Official Age ponders the ability of mankind to connect with each other in the Digital Age and it’s one of the most danceable and sexy albums of the year. His single from the album, “Breakfast Can Wait” even featured the image of Dave Chappelle as Prince holding pancakes, proving the man didn’t take himself too seriously.
Even if you aren’t fond of his lyrics, any listener can’t resist his unmatched skills as a musician. Besides playing an undeterminable number of instruments, he was, without doubt, one of the greatest guitarists we had. Jack White and countless others have gone on the record to praise the man’s skills with a 6-string. His guitar solo work at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” is perhaps the best testament to this fact, embracing the anarchic nature of the song’s lyrics yet never straying from a danceable beat.
Prince was all about bringing people together, often throwing parties at Paisley Park that were open to the public, although I’ve heard one was never allowed to actually look at Prince, lest they be expelled from the premises. Yes, he was an eccentric man, but by all accounts, also a very kind and charitable man. He would have his limo driver take him around the neighborhoods of Minneapolis, performing his Jehovah’s Witness duty by going door-to-door talking to people about their faith. I can only imagine what that Saturday was like for some lucky homeowners.
Now Prince is gone, but he still is working his magic. When news of his death came out, I received a text from John, my old college Prince friend. We’ve drifted apart in recent years, both living in different cities, but on this mournful day, we consoled and commiserated with each other. Most important, we reminisced about the good times, listening in a basement dorm, listening to Prince. That’s how he would of wanted it.