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.