The internet will be ripe in the coming days and weeks with tributes, discourses, and dissections of Prince. It is our nature to process things through tribute. When David Bowie died earlier this year, I read through these tributes, particularly those presented by his peers, hoping in some way to move beyond my own sadness. It worked to some extent. As much as I loved David Bowie, however, my connection to Prince is something much more. And so I will become one of the pathetic masses who tries to grieve in possibly the most selfish way possible–by talking about what he meant to me.
When I was 10 years old, I subscribed to a CD of the month club because I wanted to have a copy of “When Doves Cry.” The first time I heard those opening bars–bars that ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons would claim he spent years trying to replicate–something shifted for me. My mother agreed to let me; that is how I acquired The Hits/The B Sides, my first Prince album. I listen to it all the way through aince it was my first CD and I wanted to get my allowance’s worth. Several of the songs were familiar from the radio, but many of them were new to me. “Nothing Compares 2 U,” for example, scorched my ears in a way I have still not recovered from. I played “When Doves Cry” over and over, reveling in that Am G cord sequence.
That was it for me. I was all in. Prince became the soundtrack of my life.
Over the years I would read more books than I care to number about Prince. Someone once informed me that I got a “tone” when people talked about his infamous name change and I set them straight as to why. When I auditioned for Universal Studies (and booked the job), I talked about how the museum scene from Batman was one of the greatest on film because how could you beat Jack Nicholson deconstructing art to the sounds of Prince?
When his death was announced today and the women sitting at the table in my meeting started talking about superficial details of his life as if discussing their salads, I had to bite my tongue not to spout every single detail my brain has catalogued over the years. Or even just scream, “Shut up! How dare you talk about him like this just because you ‘kinda liked’ ‘1999’? How are we still having a meeting?” Later, when a guy at the bar said, “I can’t believe Prince died,” and “Taylor Swift is funny in the this ad” in the same breath, I had to walk away to avoid punching him in the face.
Undoubtedly, a number of better qualified sources will speak of his many talents in much more articulate ways than I can. There will be lists of his greatest songs, accolades of his many performances (like the Super Bowl and George Harrison tribute), and revisiting of Purple Rain as the greatest soundtrack of all time. They will all be right.
He was astounding, both in his recordings, and on stage. I saw him live three times and each time cried my way through the concerts because I was so overwhelmed by the experience. He played more instruments than I can name. He worshiped women, not just as the subjects of his songs but as artists. I once watched him carry the cape of Chaka Khan after she opened for him. He played with Lou Reed that same night, not done up as “Prince,” but wearing jeans and a knit cap, sneaking on to work as a back up player with a musician he admired. The dress I wore to my first Prince concert is sealed in storage like one might seal a wedding dress. His stage presence was something so much more than life. Although he included some “show” aspects, it was truly about his music and the musicians he worked with.
From Prince I learned that gender is fluid, artists and their work have value, identity is ours to claim, it is okay to be serious about things people consider irrelevant, sex and sexuality are part of who we are, cultivating talent in others does not diminish your own, and if a man can play guitar and jump on piano in four inch heels, by God I can walk in them. More than anything, I learned that it is okay to never apologize for who you are. That lesson I forget sometimes, but he brings it back to me.
When I think about Prince, I think about love and passion. And fun. Holy shit, he was fun. His music was fun. Yet, it was also so authentic and challenging. As much as I love his original works, his covers of other artists were exceptional in their own right. Give “One of Us” a listen sometime. He rips through it in a way that Joan Osbourne never dreamed.
I am not sure how to finish this post because I want it to mean something, if only just to me. In the end, I live a small existence. I have no personal connection to Prince beyond being a fan. But maybe that is enough. How wonderful is it that art can touch us to the point that the loss of its creator is such a profound tragedy? That the silence of a voice can give us pause, make us reach out. I received a number of phone calls, messages, and texts today.
“Are you okay?” they all want to know. “You are the first person I thought of when I heard this,” they say.
Maybe that is the legacy. That people know this man, the strange, brilliant, extraordinary man, meant something to someone. That beyond a song on the radio, he is something so meaningful to someone so small.