“Writing is not your job: it’s what you do.” Timothy said over the phone.
“How am I supposed to write when I can’t even see?” I half-ass jokingly replied while I struggled through the heavy veil of tears that would not stop welling up. You see he, like a few others, had called out of concern after it was confirmed that Prince Rogers Nelson had died. Christopher Tracy. The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Joey Coco. Skipper. The Kid. Alexander Nevermind. Symbol.
His name was Prince and he was funky. And he was 57.
Part of me felt some journalistic obligation to take the importance of this particular artist’s existence – a man I’d never met – and form them into coherent words but I was struggling. Too soon. Too much. Plus, I couldn’t see. And I knew that everybody and their grandmother would be at their keyboards writing what would surely be the DEFINITIVE tribute or memorial compared to my noise in the echo chamber. But Tim thought otherwise. And my brother, John (also a writer), suggested that even if it’s not made public, it might be cathartic. Okay.
By the time Tim had called I’d been refusing to look at any text messages, let alone answer any calls, but when his name appeared on the screen it felt like 1983 all over again. He’s been many things to me over the years: classmate, friend, ex-boyfriend, fellow service member (his Marine Corps to my Army), person I’d lost contact with only to reconnect. And he was there during those formative Prince years during high school.
“You’re the girl who turned me on to Prince and I remember thinking, “This girl is crazy!’” he laughed, on the phone. “Only to go ‘This dude’s a fucking genius. I like this!’” I could almost see his face saying that. Now it was 1983 all over again.
Yes, Prince’s career defining movie and its soundtrack, Purple Rain, came out in 1984. But a mere three years earlier I’d discovered Controversy and – like a good little music fan – I back peddled my way from Dirty Mind (1980) to Prince (1979) to his very first and singularly impressive album, 1978’s For You. The very first song and title track, alone, is a STUNNING feat of a cappella harmonization. Every single instrument, vocal, handclap, finger snap, you name it that is heard on every of that album’s nine songs belonged to Prince. And he was only 19 or 20 years old. Between albums For You and Controversy, I grooved to funky songs of devotion (“Just As Long As We’re Together” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover”). But there were also songs about incest and oral sex (“Sister” and “Head”), songs about a lover on the down low like “Private Joy” (FUN FACT: that tune went on to be covered by LaToya Jackson. Not kidding.) and all mixed with finding his socio-political footing (“Ronnie Talk To Russia”). Words were strung together to form lyrics the likes of which I’d never heard before and soul, rock, blues, pop, jazz, and R&B were all having sex together and making extraordinary music babies. His majesty defied not only genre, but race. By the time Prince’s behemoth double album, 1999, rolled around in 1982: holy shit, the mind was blown.
I can pinpoint what I deem to be very specific, watershed musical moments in my young adult life:
- When Guns N’ Roses shook the world with Appetite For Destruction in 1987, I was probably the only Black girl in Brooklyn, NY singing “Mr. Brownstone” to the tape in her Sony Walkman while sitting on the stoop of her brownstone. Mind you, I was clueless to the song’s true meaning but what I lacked in understanding, I more than made up for in enthusiasm.
- When Queen gave the greatest live performance of all time and U2 became U2 before the world’s very eyes during Live Aid on July 13, 1985. My birthday.
- Seeing/hearing/feeling Purple Rain on the movie screen in 1984.
And it was a beautiful and mad descent into the world of the Purple One and all things Purple-related. Vanity 6 and Sheila E. The Time, Morris Day and the Revolution. Minneapolis and his basketball skills. Wendy & Lisa. The New Power Generation and Paisley Park. Ingrid Chavez and Carmen Electra. Candy Dulfer. The Family. Even Mazarati, which I have on vinyl, somewhere, and I’m not ashamed of that. Well, maybe a little.
High school was awkward and uncomfortable: Prince made it much less so when he sang to me. God, that man was beautiful. Actually he was a sexymuthafucker. Too pretty, too sexy, too talented, too everything to be a mere mortal. Androgynous and flamboyant, gender bent and romantic, sexual and sacred. The man was a fucking unicorn in high heels and could strut in them better than most women. And don’t forget the assless pants. I’ve lost track of how many instruments he could play; suffice to say, enough to record an entire album solo any day of the week at his Paisley Park Studio. How many songs has he written? Over 10,000 easily. You can’t name an artist who has developed over the past 40 years who has not been influenced or affected by Prince: by his music, his musicianship, how he controlled his image or even his defense against the exploitation of artists and their music. I’d love to just cue him up on Spotify, make a playlist of every album – all 39 of them – and put it on shuffle but I can’t because he pulled his music from all streaming services, save Tidal. I get it, Prince. I get you. This life? On your terms and no one else’s. I suspect it will be no different in the after world.
Eventually, this morning, I opened my iTunes to begin the mourning process but something was off. While I don’t claim to own every single recording he’s released – studio, live, greatest hits, rarities or otherwise – I counted only 12 albums. That was the first time that I laughed today: only 12. Who bemoans only having 12 of an artist or band’s albums because that’s a quality problem if ever I heard one! Then I remembered that I’ve always been a little haphazard when it came to ripping my CDs into my library because I just preferred to play the actual CDs… as I tended to do with Prince’s because his CDs were more than just something to listen to. They were always visual pieces of art. And with most of those CDs in storage, I only had 12 Prince albums to comfort me. Life is hard. I recalled how in 2011 he took up residency in Los Angeles at the Forum for a “21 night stand” playing the venue. I went. During that time, he segued with a date at the Troubadour playing two full shows in one night: I went and went home with his guitar pick despite him giving me the side eye and a finger wag of “Girl, don’t be stealing my stuff.” Who the hell does that? His name was Prince and he was funky and he could do whatever he wanted.
According to CNN media correspondent, Brian Stelter, at approximately 2pm MTV interrupted its normal bullshit programming with a marathon of Prince videos. Prince managed to make MTV play music: isn’t that something? Artists like Queen, U2 and Prince burned me to my soul: they are why I love music so much, why I do what I do. They are why I want to discover gloriously talented artists and talk about them, write about them, turn people like you on to them, help you find your new favorite band. Because someone or something turned me on to Prince and, once that happened, life was never the same. I was never the same. To me, the ability to have that kind of impact on someone, let alone millions of someones, is unimaginable. But that he had that kind impact on me is a stone cold fact and more precious than diamonds and pearls. See what I did there?
“I strangled Valentino / Been mine ever since / If anybody asks you / You belong to Prince” – “Private Joy”
Always, oh Purple One. Always.