I’m not a human
I am a dove
I’m your conscious
I am love
All I really need is to know that
1) Seeing the movie Purple Rain, as a kid. The scene where he gets Apollonia to jump in the lake, I felt mad at him, and also funny inside, which was similar but not the same to how I felt about Little Red Corvette, a pocket full of horses, Trojans and some of them used… I loved horses. Did I maybe know what a Trojan was? Lying on the living room floor, looking at the LP, with its flowery stripes down the side, I memorized them all.
2) Begging my parents to take me to see Billboards, the Joffrey Ballet to Prince’s music. I cried when they lifted a ballerina in a golden Pierrot costume, over and over, to the guitar riff at the end of Purple Rain.
3) Knowing that my taste is all wrong, in high school, but knowing that I still love Prince. I also still like musicals. Openly. I was not cool. I listened to the music I was told was cool, and I liked some of it OK, but none of it made me want to lie on the floor and memorize the lyrics or dance with my eyes closed like the pop that is my dirty secret soul. I missed the Diamonds & Pearls tour, just watched it go by, like I missed Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, because I didn’t have the courage of my pop convictions. I thought about spending but did not spend all my babysitting money on the thing I wanted, because I didn’t want to go to the concert and dance alone.
4) KISS at college dance parties with stale beer on the floor and and KISS in the dorms in stupid late night socks and yes, Julia Roberts singing KISS in the bathtub and kicking off heels to Raspberry Beret at countless weddings and begging the franchised party DJs to please, please play Darling Nicky, but they won’t. Somewhere, probably dancing to I just want your extra time…. in college, I decided not to miss any opportunities to see Prince, if they ever came around again, ever. This decision feels like coming out, like acceptance, like admitting that I also secretly promised myself that someday I’ll get myself invited to one of his house parties in Minneapolis. This never happened.
5) In the 90s, my first reporting job was for the kickass New Haven Advocate, writing for the incomparable Paul Bass and Carole Bass, and right out of the gate they let me go cover a Prince concert. It was at a stayed, velvet-seats theater in Wallingford. I tried to get the people around me to stand up — because dance, it’s Prince, mofos! — and only these two well-dressed African American couples in front of me would do it, and then they got tired, but at least they smiled at me. I stayed on my feet and danced with my butt in the guy behind me’s face the whole time. It was hard to see past the stage lights, but in my mind, Prince could see me, could see that I was the one who had always loved him, the one dancing by myself, in the 7th row press scrum, notebook in hand.
After the concert, I wrote a totally loony heartfelt rave about how Prince’s tiny purple screaming guitar god of freaky masculinity in heels rocked me to the core of the place I identified as the place of sex. And they published it! in the paper. I won a New England Paper Association award for that piece, I think because it was so raw and goofy. I can’t find a copy of it anywhere.
6) Vegas, New Year’s Eve, 1999, a bunch of us are in the New York New York casino, and I’m dancing. Bouncers come and tell us what we will have to pay if we want to stay on this dance floor past 10pm, and it’s too rich for our blood, but as we get ready to hit the strip for midnight, they play 1999. Prince’s party ballad is something he plays like he knows he’s just doing us a favor, but it made me so happy. There I was, grown up enough to almost get kicked out of Lance A Lot of Pasta and to win a round of shots on the one-arm bandits and to dance like it was 1999, facing away from the guy with the ear piece so that he’ll let me stay, stay until the song is over, and 1999 is here.
7) Inglewood, 2011, we get pretty good seats for the 21 Nite Stand. We almost lose the tickets in the car, and some poor teenager who’s working the makeshift parking lot shares my panic and shines a flashlight. We find them, and of course it starts late anyway, and there he is. Tiny and electric on a Symbol-shaped stage. He plays everything I want him to play, including I Would Die 4 U and 7 and Nothing Compares to You and his cover of Crimson & Clover and he even plays the first few chords of Darling Nikki to tease us, but he’s Jehovah godly now, and we know it. He likes to tease us. Purple Rain still makes me cry. We start walking out after the second encore. The lights are up. But just as we get out of the building, the music starts again. I panic. He’s playing more. I turn and try to drag my husband back inside.
I think it’s this: I spent so many years trying to change every impulse and tamp down every feeling, not trusting myself or my body enough to even stand up and defend Purple Rain. It took me so long to accept that I would always be the first one on my feet no matter where KISS played, and to accept that I didn’t care if people hated that song. I have been recorded dancing by myself in bridesmaids dresses on VHS tapes across America. Prince was the inner soundtrack, my sad happy happy sad music, the music that made me feel like maybe on the inside, I was both sad and OK, like maybe those were the same thing, like maybe just around the bend there was an awesome view of a lake. It is Prince who made me understand Nick Hornby’s question in High Fidelity: What came first—the music or the misery? I listened to my Prince LP and then tapes and then CDs so many times, so many times. How can that not leave you bruised somewhere?
Prince was not, as Bowie was for so many of my friends, the pop cultural icon around whom I rallied with my fellow misfits to a common purpose and style. I wanted to dress like Prince. I never had the guts. And when I finally decided — I’m not missing any more concerts — I had already missed so many. I started out missing it, not cool enough, off step. When I thought I was missing that encore, I felt, for a fleeting moment under the portico outside the Coliseum, like I was about to miss the party again, my party, the real party.
It turned out to just be a few chords. We stood there outside and listened. I don’t think P. understood my blind panic. He just wanted to make it out of the parking lot before the rush.
It was a great concert. It was time to go home.
Prince is one of the great musical artists of the last century, a purple flame of outsized talent, but he also had no editor. In this, his moment of apotheosis, I want to remind his newer fans that the fates of popular music are fickle. He was roundly mocked and taunted in the press for his battles with the record labels, for being the Artist Formerly Known As and writing SLAVE on his face. He was always stunning, but he always took some shit for his crazy tux jackets and heels. The same white rock dudes who now fuel the cottage industry of nostalgic 80s and 90s irony, they hated KISS like they hated Madonna like they hated girls who danced at weddings. They would turn away in disdain from anyone who admitted to weeping at the fucking Joffrey Rock Ballet. And now, some guy on the Internet has dubbed Purple Rain “the greatest track of the 1980s.”
Of course it is.
I tried listening to a lot of Prince’s music, over the years. I would take up an album and play it while I worked. I tried really hard to get into Chaos & Disorder. I liked the new stuff he played in Inglewood, but let’s face it, nothing was going to re-arrange me inside again like original Prince. His physical presence and musicianship always made me swoon, he was so purely, unabashedly weird sex and talent, but early Prince re-shaped me without making me cool, when I was at my most unhappy and tightly held. I listened to him in secret for years. Even when I wrote that piece, for The New Haven Advocate, it felt like a confession, like maybe some of the other people at that show were there to gawk at the funky imp, already past his prime, who could play music like a god. By then, I didn’t care. By then, I had found places besides weddings to dance by myself. But Prince did light a path to a place where the tiny funky purple ones could be sexy and powerful. All that beauty and talent. You feel like you know the icons, but of course you don’t, you won’t miss them like friends, but you do miss them. I will miss the next concerts he’ll never play like I missed the ones he did—with profound longing and regret.
You’re just a sinner I am told
Be your fire when you’re cold
Make you happy when you’re sad
Make you good when you are bad