The purple thread that wound through my life – Prince, in memoriam

The year Purple Rain came out, my family had just moved across the country, north to south.  I was nine years old.  After the seemingly unstoppable succession of hit songs from that record seemed to take over the world, I bought the cassette with my allowance money.  As soon as I had more saved up, I bought 1999 too.   In our basement, we had a blacklight and strobe light, the kind you would buy from Spencer’s Gifts.  I used to play air guitar to Purple Rain blasting from start to finish several times a week, with this low-budget stage lighting set up for ambiance.  My older brother Tony caught me doing it once and laughed himself silly.  He also gave me shit for being so into Prince.  Tony was a metalhead but also liked his fair share of pop.  Like the rest of the sane universe, we were both crazy for MJ’s “Thriller” which came out a year earlier.  But he wasn’t feeling Prince and mocked me for it, at the beginning.  Maybe it was Prince’s Elizabethan sartorial choices that put him off, but that would be ironic coming from a guy devoted to Motley Crue.  Perhaps it was the androgyny, which on the surface also seems ironic since one of the most common man-in-the-street disparagements of metal (especially glam metal) was the “the guys all look like chicks.”  Maybe the difference was that in that otherwise hyper-masculine music, the eyeliner, mascara, and hairspray were played for theatrical effect and shock value.  Prince was coming from somewhere else, maybe a whole other dimension, combining this joyful sense of mischief with an unironic seriousnes.  For my part, I hadn’t even hit puberty yet and didn’t understand half of what he was singing about, but it didn’t stop me from thinking these were the coolest sounds I’d heard anyone make.

A few years later I caught Tony listening to Sign O’ The Times in his bedroom.  He had apparently seen the light.  Nowadays, I would have rightfully ripped into him for giving me such a hard time before.  But he was my big brother.  I did say something about it, I don’t recall exactly what. All I remember about his response was that he mumbled something about Sheila E. being a great drummer and then changed the subject.  As we grew older and our tastes diverged further and further apart, Prince became one of the handful of artists we could agree on, for the short time we had left together.  I remember he bought the soundtrack to Batman before I had a chance, so I made a copy of it.  I now have his copy, and even the original cardboard “long-box” it came in, which he saved.

Those records were like bridges between people and ideas and time periods, gateway drugs to worlds of undiscovered music. In my 5th and 6th grade classes, I bonded with the only Indian kid in my school, who also lived in my neighborhood, over Prince.  Listening to tapes in his room, I think he introduced me to Midnight Star’s “No Parking On the Dance Floor” and probably some other music I’m forgetting.  I started a new school in the 7th grade and was having a hard time with it, in part because I didn’t know anybody there.  One of the only pleasant memories I have of that year was a party thrown at a rich kid’s house, who I didn’t particularly like because he used to tease me pretty bad.  I didn’t have the right kind of basketball shoes, or my clothes weren’t nice enough, or whatever.  I thought he was a preppy asshole.  But at his party – which I suspected I was invited to only because his parents made him invite everyone in our class – I remember the music being changed at some point to 1999, and actually having a friendly conversation with this kid while the song D.M.S.R. played in the background.  We had something in common, apparently.  He stopped teasing me after that night and I guess I thought of him as a bit less of an asshole, but still a preppie.

 

When “Around The World In A Day” came out, I bought it on vinyl instead of cassette, with money from my job delivering newspapers in America’s favorite contravention of child labor laws.  My mind was blown all over again.  I swear it felt like Prince had been prowling around in my cerebellum, as that album pushed the psychedelic edge of his music, already present on the last record, into new territory just as I was discovering scores of classic records from the 1960s and 70s.  I realized his guitar playing owed far more to Carlos Santana than Jimi Hendrix, to whom he was compared in a knee-jerk way when people couldn’t think of other famous black men shredding a guitar and didn’t know the name Eddie Hazel.  Prince’s 1980s output basically set the template for my musical interests for the rest of my life without my being conscious of it.  Here was a guy who played guitar like Santana, danced like James Brown, and dressed like Liberace.  It’s probably because of Prince that I was able to buy new albums by the Talking Heads, De La Soul, and the Grateful Dead all in the same year with no cognitive dissonance.  He’s why I can listen to Parliament and Joni Mitchell in the same sitting and find the space between the notes where they share a vision of being in the world.  He made me want to play and write music and learn about how to record it, and gave me that feeling that the only limit is your own imagination. Even when I decided I no longer wanted to play or write music, that feeling persisted, and I think that was the important part.

In 1996, I moved to Chicago.  One of the first women I dated there was an artist and dancer, who was completely livid when I stated that Prince was the Stevie Wonder of my generation.  She just wasn’t having it.  At that point, the Purple One’s records were in fact kind of losing my interest. But with output so prolific, there was always something worth hearing even if I didn’t rush out to get every new release (and there was so many new releases, my God).  But I believed adamantly in the analogy and still do.  We had an actual heated argument over this Prince vs Stevie Wonder thing.  I broke it off not long after, deciding she was a fool.

Live experience addendum:  I only saw him perform once, at the Uptown Theater in Chicago (an appropriately named venue).  It was one of those situations where he announced the show a week before the date and tickets sold out within minutes.  This would have been 2000 or 2001, I think, and I had trouble finding anybody to go with me.  Didn’t have a date to bring and my friends were hesitant to pay for what seemed like an expensive ticket at that time.  And it was a weeknight and people took great shows for granted there.  I’ve never been shy about going to shows or films or anything else alone, so I figured I would just resell the extra ticket on the street.  Except there were no paper tickets; in typical control-freak fashion, Prince had a plan to prevent scalping that involved having all 4000 tickets being treated as “will call” names on a list.  After proving your identity, your name was crossed off the list and you were pushed inside the theater immediately.  No leaving, no readmission. This laborious process results in a line of people snaking around the corner and extending for three blocks in the freezing cold and snow of a Chicago winter.  When I figured out that this was how things were happening,  I borrowed a cell phone from somebody in the line behind me (I didn’t own one yet) and called my friend Tim, who had only turned my ticket because he’d already seen Prince a handful of times.  I told him I was going to lose the ticket if nobody was there to claim it, and so forget about the money, just get his ass up there and let’s see this show.  I remember Tim was worried about his car having problems in the weather, and his drive from the South Side all the way to the Uptown Theater was going to be a long one, but I convinced him to try it.  Unfortunately, he didn’t arrive before I was pushed into the lobby of the theater and out of the cold, and not having a cell phone made it impossible for me to know if he was on his way, or had given up from the snow and mistrust of his old car.  I hung out in the lobby for as long as they would let me just stand around, hearing the band start a groove and missing Prince’s grand entrance while I looked out the frosted glass doors, trying to tell if my friend was driving around out there somewhere.  All these rules seemed bizarre and arbitrary, but the staff was getting kind of hostile and telling me I couldn’t “loiter,” and had to either take my seat or leave.  At that point I decided Tim must have decided he couldn’t make it and I went inside.  Turns out he was out there, trying to find a parking spot.  Sorry Tim.  It was easily one of the most scintillating live performances I’ve ever been lucky enough to witness, and my irritation at the logistics of it all melted away after the first ten minutes.  I would have liked to share the memory with someone.  I need to see if there is a bootleg of that show out there somewhere.  There are really no words left to describe it.

Prince had some periods where his music became less compelling to me, but it seemed like he was always searching, and even recently seemed like maybe he was finding what he was searching for again.  It’s really hard for me to imagine a world where he is no longer obsessively working out his artistic whims and occasionally allowing us all to share in them.  His body of work was like the loose purple thread from my favorite garment, the one you are forced to leave dangling, because to pull on it would unravel it all and leave you naked, and to cut it off would somehow be dishonest.

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26 Comments

  1. beautiful text. thanks for sharing your memories, that way we all fel less alone.

    • Thanks man, and that's the truth. I've been somewhat amazed at the amount of public grieving that has gone on, and continues, over the last two weeks, but I guess I'm also not surprised.

  2. Well said — very nice piece of writing.

  3. As far as can I see it, Prince's passing was such a personal loss for you, as was Chris Squire's death for me.
    Sincere condolences, my friend.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing these beautiful words about such an immense talent and my favourite musician Flabbergast, it's hugely appreciated at such a fucking horrible time. I remember you mentioning your love of Prince in your post on the Led Zeppelin bootleg Destroyer, and given your eloquence I hoped that one day you might write a longer piece on him, and because of that I'm immensely grateful for you taking the time to share your memories of him. Hope you're doing okay during these depressing times, the words you and others have wrote have been immensely helpful in coming to terms with this terrible shock and for that I can't thank you enough.

    • Thanks Oliver. Yes, this continues to be pretty unsettling for me. Waking up every morning with a feeling like all is not quite right with the world is, unfortunately, not an unfamiliar feeling for me in a general sense. So this shock – and that is the proper word for it – has left me in a daze for much of the last two weeks. I appreciate your comments here, as always.

  5. Great tribute. Unfortunately I never saw Prince live but I guessed that it would have probably been something special. Hope you locate film of that show in Chicago.

    • No film yet, but an audio recording surfaced 3 days ago of that show, apparently circulated for the first time ever. I got hold of it but haven't worked up the nerve to listen to it yet.

  6. Made me weep. Thank you, Flabber. Prince lives on.
    Cheers from Brazil,
    Walt

  7. This looks like biographical short story.

  8. This looks like a autobiographical short story, Imean.

  9. Just watched an interview with Stevie Wonder talking about Prince's passing and he could hardly fight back the tears. He considered the Purple One every bit his equal and peer. I thought about your story, and how right you were all those years ago. Thank you so much for sharing your memories with us, you put into beautiful words what so many of us have been feeling these days.

    • Thanks Roxanne. I watched this interview over the weekend. Interviewer was clueless and rather insensitive but Stevie was gracious. Speaking of grace, I also watched Prince's interview with Larry King from 1999 and it's a trip. King seems so out of touch at times and his questions come off as blunt and clumsy, but Prince is adorably patient and kind with him. Maybe he appreciated the directness and lack of music-business posturing or something, because he seemed to be really enjoying the interview. And Larry Graham pops in at the very end.

  10. Love this piece. Written with heart. (I, too, recognized strong James Brown influence on Prince's performing style.) Sorry I never saw Prince live in concert, but happy YOU did! Thank you for this beautiful tribute. (Tip of your iceberg) 🙂

  11. Very nicely done, I enjoyed reading this. Prince incorporated so many influences from other artists into his music and made it his own, in turn, he influenced so many others with his sound. The beauty of it is, his legacy will live on in the music he created and the music he will continue to influence by others 'til the end of time. Prince esta muerto? Nah! Prince esta vivo!

  12. That was beautiful. After such tragedies, and as sad as it is having to do so, it is often therapeutic to take the time to express these feelings, to find closure. Thank you for sharing your stories with us.

  13. Just re-read this. Such a great post. Thanks

  14. Dear Flabber
    I have been a long time but random visitor to your wonderful site. I have taken advantage of your generosity some times but not everything. I have a large vinyl collection and still that is my main listening format. All of that time I had no inkling that, like myself, you were a devoted P fan and that the love of his music and approach only enhanced other music rather than a either or situation. This is my first visit here since our shared loss and it has come as a lovely surprise and a feeling of connectedness. Dirty Mind was my introduction to P and I quickly went back two LPs to his first and have purchased everything since then. While there are a couple I rarely listen to, and one, 2010 that I have only ever listened to once! But I pretty much dig it all and he is on constant rotation since his passing. I first saw him in 1992 in Australia (twice) and have seen him every Australian tour since then. 7 times in all, including his recent solo performance which was amazing and showed just how powerful a grasp he has on his audience. I got to see an aftershow after a stadium gig in about 2003 and that will always remain the ultimate live music experience for me. Prince, Maceo Parker, Larry Graham, Greg Boyer, Chance Howard and the rest of the band (about 9 or 10 people) crammed on to a tiny stage in a small club jamming until 4 in the morning. I lost my older brother only a month before P died and it created a strange grieving experience for me. All rolled into one somehow but obviously very different – a brother I had grown up with and someone I’d never met but who meant so so much to me. I actually felt a bit guilty about how I was feeling. But loss is loss. I see you have ripped Mountains which is part of the little LP cover shrine I have made since his passing – the two B&W images of the Parade LP and the two singles, Mountains and Kiss – all B&W in a row on my record shelf. It is incredibly depressing to think I will never see him again but I’m so thankful for all he has given me in my life.

    Thank you for sharing your story and for all of the funk you have spread through your site. I have always admired your dedication as much as the music.

    Purple Peace and Paisley Love 4eva.

    • Thanks for leaving this comment. I’m sorry to hear about your brother. Your situation is like some odd mirror image to my own…. I’m not sure if you caught the subtext in this post, but I also lost my older brother, all the way back in 1991. I don’t know you, but I think it’s safe to say we all feel some form of “survivor guilt” after these kinds of things and you can expect a lot more of it to crop up. But I think I also know what you mean about feeling guilty for grieving over somebody you “didn’t know” as well. If you poke around the fan sites and forums, there are lots of us feeling like other people must think we’re nuts or infantile or whatever. But like you said, loss is loss. For me personally, Prince’s passing was like opening up an old wound, and – in a way I’m hesitant to admit in public – truly grieving again for the first time in twenty-five years. After I lost my brother (and being only sixteen at the time), it was like a kind of wall went up regarding death and mortality. I mean, I could (and did) break down about all kinds of other shit, but whenever somebody in my orbit passed away since then, it’s like somebody just flipped an “off” switch, and I wouldn’t feel anything but numb. I suspect that being able to turn it all ‘off’ was what enabled me to eventually, inch by inch, start living life again, and I think I also probably felt I had to “be strong” for my devastated parents which meant swallowing it all and keeping it bottled up. For twenty-five years, it seemed like I didn’t shed a single tear over anyone else dying, whether distant or close (but, truth be told, the latter is not much of a problem, because I rarely let anybody get that close to me for very long). For whatever constellation of reasons – the memories shared in this post, the importance his music had for me in the years leading up to 1991, as well as a kind of “strange relationship” I had with P’s music in the following years, during the times when I felt like I was losing him (or like he was deliberately trying to alienate fans) – his passing away on April 21 (only five days after we always commemorate my own brother’s birthday, in fact) was like getting kicked across a room. There was a vertiginous feeling of things just not being right with the world. There was a familiar sensation of waking up in the morning, submerged in semi-consciousness, and for a few brief seconds you think maybe it’s not true, maybe he’s still with us and you dreamed it all, until the buoyancy of waking reality drags you back to the surface. I never wanted to feel that again, ever. Some people are just not supposed to ever leave us, right? I already carry around an overflowing sackful of regret and now I can add one more thing to it, that I didn’t take the initiative to see P perform more than that one time. I was genuinely too young during his heyday, and then I was limited by the fact that I refused to drive a car for over a decade due to how my brother died (and then often lived in the ass-crack of nowhere for years at a time). I spent most of the 90s in a kind of daze, in fact, and didn’t see nearly as much live music as I should have. I avoided large shows. I think I developed some kind of agoraphobia. You’re very blessed to have seen him so many times. As rare a genius as he possessed, maybe there is also a bit of Americans being spoiled by our embarrassment of riches in the way of musical talent, and the feeling that some of these people will always be around. If I learned no other lesson from this, it’s been a reminder not to take anyone for granted. That applies to everyone and not just musicians, of course, but there is an ever-shrinking number of ‘national treasures’ whose music truly shaped my life and how I’ve sworn not to pass up the chance to see when I have the chance. Well, I’m broke AF and dealing with financial insecurity and an uncertain future, so I won’t be flying across the country to find out whether or not Sly Stone decides to grace the stage at his next planned appearance, but if he comes somewhere near me then sure…

    • also, Richard, if you ever want to just chat you can drop drop me a line at admin@flabbergasted-vibes.org. I won’t say “stay strong’ but rather “be well.” peace.

      • Thanks man, and yes I did pick up on your loss and I’m very sorry for you and that is what prompted me to write. And now that you have written about it again I can see why you would pull down the shutters so to speak. At such a young age we are just not equipped to deal with such things and they just sit there in the background. I guess they always do anyway. People say “get over it” and other banal shit but I believe that no ever gets over anything – that’s what experience is. Thanks for the offer and I would like to do that. AND – thanks for the music. I can see another couple have gone up and are coming down to me as I type 😉 I regret not seeing Stevie Wonder when I had the chance – given up on ever seeing Sly but There’s A Riot Goin’ On will always be my favourite album of all time. Peace.

  15. Very nice write-up….I’m still grieving over the loss of Prince. Not to play one-upmanship, but I’m from St. Paul, and his death is like a death in the family. I agree with you completely that Prince’s music bridged people and ideas and time periods. Me and my brothers were introduced to Prince by some friends in the neighborhood in about 1982, who had secret knowledge of this dude over in Minneapolis that was making incredible funk music. By the way, these guys were the neighborhood tough guys, the weed-dealing bad boys who otherwise were probably listening to Iron Maiden and such. I remember the rocker guys at a restaurant I worked at: “I don’t like Prince that much, but man, that guitar solo on ‘Let’s go Crazy’ is great though….” That’s what is so beautiful about the man–I don’t believe there is anyone that can say that they don’t like him. Okay, maybe some religious fundies or bigots, but they don’t count anyway. Anyway, I enjoy your blog and appreciate what you do. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comment Tee. Man, everyone in St.Paul/MNPLS absolutely lost a family member, there’s no one-upmanship about that. Regarding there not being anybody who doesn’t like him, I wish that were true, but I’ve come across a few people since he passed who apparently just don’t get it. I think there is definitely some musical bigotry and racism out there. There are certain kinds of white music fans who can only appreciate black music once black people themselves have stopped listening to it and it’s at least a generation or two in the past. It’s mind boggling, really. And these can be people who are ‘politically conscious’ (I won’t say “correct” because that phrase has become a slur), aware of their privilege and whatnot in many other respects, but musically they seem to have an astounding lack of self awareness that their tastes are, I dunno, rather stereotypically white. And we can add to this blind spot something that George Clinton said when somebody interviewed him by phone within the first day of Prince passing away. He said something along the lines that Prince was churning out so many hits, so quickly for a while, that if you weren’t paying attention, you might be tempted to dismiss them as bubble gum if you didn’t slow down to see how brilliant the writing was. I could imagine there was some truth to that during the time period when he was most hyped, but if you hadn’t figured out that he was a genius by 1986 or 1987 than you were either living under a rock or just musically hopeless. Then I guess there are people who grew up after his career peaked and his output became more insular and self-referential… I suppose I would cut some of them some slack for not “getting it” but it actually seems like they do, I think maybe there is something intrinsically youthful about much of his music that makes younger people more receptive whenever they encounter it. It’s stimulating on so many levels at once, tantalizing your mind as well as your booty. It was above all a lot of FUN, something that I think is missing from a lot of music, and yet he kept it fun without ever underestimating his audience’s intelligence or receptiveness to new ideas. On my more optimistic days, I like to think there will always be a large subset of young people who strongly resent being pandered to and treated like mindless lemming-consumers, they can sense when they’re being manipulated and targeted with a sales pitch tested out on focus groups (a big reason why so many are unmoved by Hillary Clinton, if you can forgive the digression). Say what you will about his occasionally rocky relationship with fans, but nobody can ever accuse Prince of pandering to them with paint-by-numbers, formulaic clones of his own “brand” or albums designed by committee with 40 ghost writers. I think there is something uniquely appealing about never quite knowing what you were going to get when the next release came down the pipeline, and the confidence it takes to stay that true to your own vision, even if you the listener might be disappointed with the results of any given experiment, and that left his integrity intact to the end.

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