I can’t believe Prince died. I’m still reeling from losing Bowie, and now this. Why must our most talented, original artists live such ephemeral lives? I understand the drug ODs and the suicides and the murders for the under-30 set. It takes a certain depth of passionate feeling to make great art, and the aforementioned ways to die are part and parcel with a greatly sensitive and brilliant young life. I don’t expect those who have made it past, say, 35 to die of an overdose. And I suspect there aren’t a lot of data to support this expectation, but I’m shocked every time.
Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Like Bowie, I took for granted Prince’s immortality, and now he’s gone.
His music survives, however. Oh, how it survives. As I listened to KEXP, (my hometown radio station I still stream on my phone), last Thursday, I fell in love with Prince’s catalogue all over again. The DJs must have played six straight hours of his work and I did not hear a single song repeated–not in style, substance, or literally. He was that good.
While glued to my phone/radio, I was transported to many different states and scenes from my life, making me realize Prince’s music is woven into the fabric of my existence, to the center. Music is with us all the days of our lives, if we consume it, and that is the elemental magic of it for me. His verses go back to the early days of my childhood, ricocheting into the present.
I can remember being very small and hearing songs like “Little Red Corvette” and “Raspberry Beret” and loving them, because they were so descriptive. My little imagination conjured up beautiful women in slouchy pink hats, light-skinned men with tight curls peeling out of a parking lot, a crimson blur. I think between my folks’ records and MTV I managed to both hear and see Prince at an appropriately young age.
The next thing I knew, though, I was in middle school and we were starting to realize there was more to Prince’s lyrics…like maybe they were about, um, sex…? I can remember talking in hushed tones at age 11 with a couple of friends about “Cream”. We had discerned that part of the chorus included the lines, “get on top” and “don’t you stop” and we collectively wondered if it was about a guy named Cream getting on top of people to have sex. Had anyone seen the video? Were there any clues there? Well, there was a lot of grabbing and hip gyrating and Prince making sexy eyes into the camera, so…
And “Erotic City”, the name thrillingly said it all. He was a hot guy, spreading a lot more than sex-positive messages.
There was “Kiss”, a classic that lives in all bars, nightclubs, radio stations, all parties. It’s a song I’m sure I’ve heard a few thousand times over the years, and I never get sick of its litany of ideas for what makes someone attractive, nor its rather positive, affirming message to be yourself. That’s what turned Prince out, after all.
“When Doves Cry”, though. It really hurts when I think of “Doves” and all the moments of my life it touched. I would stare in fascination at Prince’s total and utter coolness on the cover of “Purple Rain”. The hair! The bike! The lace! The fog and the wet pavement. I’d listen to the album’s full version of “Doves” (I’m spoiled rotten to have explored that version before ever hearing the cut-up radio edit, as an elementary school kid), understanding it contained the true meaning of love relationships. I was concurrently obsessed with Franco Zeffirrelli’s “Romeo & Juliet”, and “Doves” seemed a modern take on the theme of inherited family drama keeping lovers apart. I just wanted Prince and his object to bridge their differences and get back to that steamy courtyard sex. Surely fucking in an ocean of purple flowers was more of an imperative than stubbornly acting out familial pathology?
In high school, the song continued to resonate. A hopeless romantic, I’d become obsessed with, you guessed it, Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo+Juliet” and was spending a lot of time in my room listening to lovelorn music and jerking off. “Doves” seemed to truly capture the essence of the romantic struggle–are love and sex parts of a whole or mutually exclusive? I was finding them to be mutually exclusive, in my experience with guys who wanted me to blow them, but wouldn’t consider me girlfriend material. What was wrong with me? Maybe I was just like my father. Or my mother. Either way, I never seemed to be satisfied. And so I’d start the song again, floating away on the opening guitar riffs, and Prince’s voice buzzing “yeahyeahyeahyeah”. He understood completely.
The most popular girl in my 1,600-student high school drove up to the curb of the school building, defiantly pulling the front end of her white Cutlass coupe onto the sidewalk, flinging open the door and simultaneously lighting a cigarette. “Doves” blasted from her speakers, as she tossed her hair and took a drag, looking over her sunglasses at we completely intimidated underclassmen. We were cool because we were on the side of the school that allowed smoking, which we were all doing, but she was cooler for pulling her car up into the middle of the action, blaring the perfect song. Suddenly, “Doves” was elevated to new heights of chic. Or maybe she was. I think that’s what it was–I think choosing Prince to play in that moment solidified her position as the ruler of all things worthy.
Because Prince was the ultimate in cool. He was innovative, and original, and extraordinary. He was weird. He was a Jehovah’s Witness from the Twin Cities, for god’s sake! He changed his name to an ornate symbol and forced us all to spit out a six-word mouthful when referring to him, and we did it. He was always relevant, though he owned the 80’s and early 90s. He was beautiful and sexy and made of velvet and lace. Or was it diamonds and pearls? And that was just the man himself.
A couple years ago he announced a show in Tempe at a mid-sized venue, and I jumped at a chance to get tickets. But alas, they were more than $200 each and I just didn’t have it. I missed it, and I know I will regret it forever. To hear him do “Let’s Go Crazy” live, well, I simply can’t fathom. I will have to content myself with YouTube. He left behind a voluminous body of work, and I will console myself knowing there is much to discover.
I’m going to go back to the music, and to Dave Chappelle’s 2004 sketch about Prince and The Revolution beating Charley Murphy and pals in basketball. I’m unable to validate whether the story was true, but I have no problem believing that Prince, in his lace cuffs and tight velvet suit could whip a bunch of jocks on the court. He was otherworldly and incomprehensible, and as his heavily-lined eyes narrowed, he sailed over the heads of the other players, a flash of purple, dunking on them.