If you are, say, thirty-five years of age or older there is a 99% chance that you are no good right now. Not merely sad, but irreparably despondent. Verily, Shakespearean in your grief. Depending on how old or weird or gay or starstruck or black you were in 1984, Purple Rain was either an awakening, a testimony or an affirmation.
Current mood: I am hating anything that does not recognize this moment, that would dare advertise anything – ANYTHING – while this mourning is taking place. This is not just another stick on the pile of celebrity deaths. This is the end of a way of life, of a sound, of real genius. There are plenty of famous people left to love, even musical geniuses, but there is no one left who better epitomized what the Complete and Free Artistic Creative is capable of. Prince composed music in the way DaVinci unlocked the secrets of motion and the body and the universe. Prince was musically motion, body and universe; this funk drum plus that rock riff times this classical string quartet. There was nothing he could not do musically, nothing he could not create had he but the will. He was as close to Pan – in art, in gravitas, in appetite – as man will ever come.
Some of these emotions are not sentiments Prince would approve of, so in his honor I am trying to keep a lid on the emotional hyperbole, but it is difficult. Setting aside that there is almost nothing you can say about musical genius in the abstract that does not apply in the specific to Prince, I grew up with him in a way I did not grow up with other artists. Prince has been a presence in my life since I was a child, since I was able to discern what a record was for. Everybody liked Prince, though he represented different things to each interested party. Speaking from experience, what he represented to many little weird black boys was the strength inherent in a sensitive and self-knowing cool, particularly boys who knew more than they should at the ages they embodied by circumstance, nature or both. I was a “both,” a child acting out and acted upon, and at every turn Prince was there, breaking into my life with a lesson or challenge. Lost your girl? Prince was there. Questioning your faith? Prince was there. Needed to unpack why your sensitivities made you a target? Prince was there and had packed a lunch. His music was not just a soundtrack to my existence; it was life skills coaching, and that kind of thing went on for the first twenty five years of my life beyond my record collection. I would do/want/need something and Prince would step in as consigliere, drop the appropriate tarot card, then spin off in a flush of purple smoke and distorted rim shots.
Prince reinvented himself so frequently and thoroughly that I discovered or re-discovered him at least four distinct times in my life:
– 1979, aka The Pre-Purple Genesis. Prince was how I knew going through my oldest brother Tim’s record collection was wrong. I had been told to stay out of Tim’s room, but that was an edict from a brother, not a parent. Parents have to be negotiated with; brothers may be disobeyed. Rifling through his numerous rows of records, I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Prince record, 1979’s Prince. The cover was typical 1970s fare – no shirt, straight pimp hair, no smiling. No big deal there: everybody on albums in the 70s was shirtless. Even the jazz artists were shirtless. Flipping to the back to ascertain what kind of music might be contained therein, I came to discover the magnitude of my crime. Prince was on a horse – a Pegasus to be exact – all fuzzy lens, hair in the wind, fantastically black…and naked. Only God knew what to make of that back cover, and that’s how I knew it was wrong. The Ohio Players covers that littered my brother’s collection were soft porn naughty, but the back cover of Prince was salacious to me. The titles didn’t help matters: “Sexy Dancer”, “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow”, “Bambi.” That album got played immediately in an attempt to crack the code of homeboy’s agenda. Needless to say, I liked the record, but was too young to get all of the implications. The lyric sheet helped, and “Bambi” became a bit of a sexual clinic.
– On what was surely a Wednesday in 1982 my mother abandoned my baby brother and I at church one evening. A weeknight drop-in at Brentnell Ave – I’m sorry: Church of Christ of the Apostolic Faith – was a rare occurrence. She worked multiple jobs so we were consummate latchkey kids. This, however, was a special occasion: a church-initiated talk about the evils of secular music. This awkward after school special was delivered by my favorite Sunday School teacher, Brother Ragin, who, in his trademark soft-spoken but don’t-play voice, showed us slide after slide of the album covers of popular music from the time and the symbology embedded in them that sought to abscond with our childhoods, far from the warm embrace of Jesus (who had exactly zero hit records in 1982). Outside of the slide for Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast (which I knew was a softball even at that age), I will never forget Brother Ragin pointing out the numerous sexual and satanic references on the cover of 1999. “Here,” he pointed out with a white wand, “is the number 1999, which, when you turn it upside down (slide, image now upside down) is the number 666 with a penis in front of it. You can see the veins in it.” I was never sold on the 666 part (and as it turns out, neither was Prince) but the D was real. Quite real. And obvious, quite obvious, upside down or not. It was some slick business. I was hip enough at that age that the speech had the unintended effect of making me seek it out. I hadn’t owned the album at that point, but I did soon after. It wasn’t about the veiny 1 specifically. It was about what the veiny 1 suggested might be behind it, inside it, underneath its odd crotch. As it turns out it was heralding one of the best albums of the twentieth century, and the most Prince album in his entire oeuvre, before or since.
– In 9th grade I dated a hardcore Prince fan. She was the first girl I had met that was a hardcore fan of a celebrity, and her worship of him was so thorough I feared for my relationship. I besmirched the clearly gender-suspect posters of him plastered all over her bedroom. Her single-shoulder studded trenchcoat draped over a chair we screwed on, all of the albums posed cover out, her Princeoglyph-adorned learner’s guitar judging our teenage curves…all of it made me suck my teeth at him, questioning his sexuality in an attempt to make myself look more macho. It didn’t work. She was patient, but Prince insisted I was doing it all wrong, and he was right. And years later my post-college bedroom would have every Prince poster I could score out of my local record store circuit. It was a proud collection that I fear my mother’s basement has long had its way with.
– Same girlfriend. We skipped school to go see Under the Cherry Moon. It was shoddy and ridiculous and hilarious and the music…my god, the music was unreal; some blend of art house and funk and symphonic eye-fucks. I loved it where I could not love myself. Leaving her house in the middle of the night a day or so later, she let me borrow her cassette copy of Parade. When she asked for it back weeks later I pretended to not know where it was. In truth, I played that tape to dust out of love and creative bewilderment. I was still trying to be a musician then and I couldn’t figure out why the black café-ness of “Do U Lie?” worked, or how he’d come to the drumming decisions on “New Position,” a song vacillating in rhythm decisions from gated arena snares to cafeteria cardboard thumb-boxing to steel pan backbeat, all in two minutes and twenty seconds. The entire affair sounded like it came from some lost and forgotten era in music, where black people emigrated to Paris not to sell their art, but blend it, then elevate it, then transcend it; the whole exodus in one record. And oh yeah, here’s a 98 minute black and white video to go with it, you classless neophytes. And I die in the end, so all of this goes with me, cabbageheads.
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Of course it rained yesterday. Typical Prince.
I should have left work early. Coming back from lunch to discover news of Prince’s death, a co-worker and friend touched my shoulder. “I’m sorry, man,” he says, and he knows to mean it. Another staffer trumpets my sadness to the newbs who do not think my grief is real, who have not been working with me long enough to have Prince fall out of my mouth as a common proselytization. In the pantheon of my influences, Prince was Zeus, and poems sprung whole from my mouth when I called upon his sigils: an album, a biography, a memory of a Detroit crush set to “International Lover”. I own every notable text on Prince, and what I do not own, I have likely consumed. There is no Prince song I have not heard that he has seen fit to release, and there are many I own which he has not. I have written essays – long, long essays – on Prince. I have written poems about Prince, after Prince, as Prince. I have created experiments to establish the code of his greatness. I have fucked people up over Prince. I have even fucked Prince up over Prince. I have heard “Purple Rain” played in a Mississippi juke joint by a teenage wunderkind of the blues, resting easy in the knowledge that Prince was officially, in that blackest of black-ass moments, going nowhere.
And yet, I need the strength of ignorance reserved for 2Pac fans who swear he is alive, even now. I need their middle fingers aimed at all common sense, their upturned lips at evidence and autopsy photos, their barbershop-loud anti-world denial cache striking back at all of the never-ending silence they swear by. I needed it to get me to the end of my work day, to the car, to the ride home. I feared the ride home. I cannot yet listen to his music. I can watch one or two of the videos because I already know what’s in all of them and can gauge what I can bear. But I cannot really talk about him yet, not well, not without it turning into The Only Thing That Needs To Happen In That Moment. I threw myself into work yesterday because library books don’t speak and the children I often help do not know Prince. I am too curt, too short with anyone who might know who Prince was in any real way. He is not small talk to me, not yet. I should have left work because people who do know me and know what his passing means to me know where to find me and I am not ready for their condolences. I have not accepted it the way you accept a death. I bear the face of rebuke, I can feel it. I am not ready to bookend that magical and phenomenal career. I refuse to allow HITnRUN Phase Two to be the last Prince record released under his supervision. My heart cannot take it. I want to scream at his legal team to ease up for a day and let us have our illegal mourning, just for one day.
I did not have the musical well or will to absorb Prince’s lessons on the level of a musician. Some of those lessons I applied to the music I was able to create, but ultimately Prince would bond with the DNA of my life at large, like he did for most of us. For those of us who are not musicians he would inform our grind: our sense of fashion or how we kissed our lovers or every crowd “Whooo” when you heard him peel his hand down the length of a piano at the beginning of “Do Me Baby”. There always seemed to be a crowd “whoooing,” even if it was in your car, alone, on your way to anywhere. I can’t listen to his music yet, but I know these things will always be true of it.
In the late 1980s Ebony magazine published an article that was kind of a lark, a “Where will these black celebrities be in 50 years?” or some such thing. They had Jesse Jackson and Eddie Murphy as president and VP respectively, captured in a New Yorker style rendering of them in front of the White House, that sort of thing. One section of the satire suggested that Prince would be playing in a small Las Vegas lounge, fat and trying to relive his glory days between bar tabs. I’d give no small amount of precious things to make that the end of the story.
Dave Chappelle’s “True Hollywood Stories with Charlie Murphy” skit about a basketball-playing Prince is classic television because it is stop-breathing funny. It is also one of those rare instances in which we get a glimpse into the mysterious world of Prince as a person, and it leaves us with more questions than answers. If you’re a longtime fan you already heard from someone somewhere that he played ball, and not just in high school. But to have it told to us as a genuine experience was almost more than a Prince stan’s heart could stand. Coming up, you took your Prince scraps where you could get them. There was no internet lying in wait behind every rock and turn, every cellphone a body cam, TMZ skull-fucking every corpse before it cooled. Prince was the last real pop enigma. No one cares about anyone else’s mystery, and if your mystery isn’t turning out art like Sign O’ the Times, who cares what you’re hiding? Go live your lives, false idols. I’m still trying to figure out what elixir Prince drank that made “Something in the Water Does Not Compute” fall out of his head. How he stayed out of the mix of this world we have made – aspects of which he ushered in but more or less refused to partake of when they became common and base and knowable – I’ll never know. In a world where a celebrity can’t hide how much they tip in a restaurant without the amount becoming an international headline, Prince remained above it all. We thought he was hiding, but one look at his output – his recordings, his vault, the quality of his live shows, the stories – shows us that he wasn’t hiding so much as he always had better things to do, that there was always more to apply one’s self to.
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I have tried to ascertain why I care, beyond the music. Why my stomach churns at the notion of logging onto the internet and having people post rampantly and randomly about someone that, while I could teach classes about him, I did not know, was never going to know. What was Prince to me, exactly? I don’t cry over celebrities, ever. Why did I cry at work? Why did I need to lock myself into a bathroom and grieve with real tears? He was too young to see as a father figure, too distant to see as cousin, too Prince to be a brother. The closest relationship I can ascribe to us is friend. I have lost my friend. Like all strong and real friendships, he was there when I needed a little help, and occasionally I took him to task, often relentless in my admonishments of his creative decisions or a weak album. It was all love, a real I-want-the-best-for-you love. Even his weak albums contained more pure musicianship than almost every record released alongside it in any given year. Even if I did not like the destinations, the rides were generally worth the price of the ticket. Even when I hated a record I knew what it took to make it, my long-suffering faith making me stand frenzied on its neck, screaming, “You can’t write ‘The Beautiful Ones’ and then come back with this!”
This is not a think piece or an article or an assignment or click bait. This is a eulogy. My friend died yesterday. You can’t tell me shit about my friend or this moment. The autopsy will say whatever it has to say. For myself, I must reconcile a world wherein what few idols I bother claiming are stepping down from the dais I have erected, that I am losing my religion, and that the largest and central throne on the Mount Olympus of my influences now sits vacant. I must come to terms with a world in which there is no Prince, that what we have is all that we will ever have, that purple is just going to be a color again. All pantheons pass.
See you on the other side, Prince. I promise not to bring any demos or make any pancake jokes. I cannot promise that I will not bring a basketball. Some things, cousin, you just have to see for yourself.