Prince is dead and I don’t feel so good myself. 2016 is already notorious as the year the music died, but this is the rock ‘n roll tombstone I dreaded most, the bullet I thought I dodged last week when Prince’s plane made an emergency landing and he was rumored to be at death’s door. When that proved to be a false alarm (at least temporarily), I made a mental note to see Prince next time he came to town because, after all, who knows when it might be the last time? Well, the last time will never come, hard as it is to believe. So all I have are memories, presented here in roughly chronological order…
“1999” was the song that got me hooked. “Little Red Corvette” had already been a hit, and I liked it fine, but “1999” was something different – a “party in the apocalypse” song before that became a genre unto itself, with three different lead vocalists trading off lines. It was enough to convince me to part with my allowance – this would have been my sophomore year of high school – and purchase the double album. I quickly learned I would have to turn down the volume on certain songs, like “DMSR,” ‘Lady Cab Driver,” and especially “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” which left absolutely nothing to the imagination. This was before albums carried ratings and warning labels; of course it was, because it was Prince himself, with the next album’s “Darling Nikki,” who scandalized would-be future First Lady Tipper Gore into forming the PMRC and putting rock ‘n roll on trial. (I have a treasured memory of watching a Donahue episode devoted to the controversy with my mother, who was well aware of my Prince fanaticism, and when Phil D. read the lyrics to “Head,” “Sister,” and “Darling Nikki” in a prudish, disbelieving tone, my mother laughed and laughed.)
That follow-up album, Purple Rain, was no mere record for me – it was an obsession. I still remember being thunderstruck the first time I heard “When Doves Cry” on the radio. I had no musical talent or knowledge, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but this was something from another dimension. I bought the single and played it incessantly. I thumbed through Billboard at Mr. Paperback to find the album release date. I bought the cassette from the local record shop before they’d even had the chance to put it in the display case, on a break from my first job at Burger King. All my friends bought it too, and whichever car we happened to be cruising around in that summer, you could be sure Purple Rain was blasting out of the speakers. I played it so often in my first car, I wore the printing right off the cassette.
I don’t know how many times I saw the movie in theaters – a half-dozen? Living on the coast of Downeast Maine, I’d never been to a rock concert – certainly nothing bigger than a band playing at a high school dance. Now I was a senior, though, soon to graduate and head to college. My friends and I went to Sears in Bangor the morning tickets went on sale for the Purple Rain tour stop in Worcester, Mass. We got them. I bought a purple shirt while I was there, and I may have it still. Our seats were pretty bad, but it didn’t matter. The concert was an out-of-body experience. I stayed overnight at my friend’s Emerson College dorm in Boston and the next day got the phone call letting me know I’d been accepted there, too.
I kept up with Prince throughout my college years, and he never let me down. I saw him again three years later on the Lovesexy tour. My friends and I camped out all night in front of the Boston University bookstore to get the tickets. The next day we learned that a car had gone out of control and killed someone waiting in line at Tower Records. We chose wisely.
I never stopped being a fan, but I did stop buying his new stuff about 20 years ago. Freed of his contract with Warner Bros., he became too prolific to keep up with. The returns were increasingly diminished; though he was always capable of churning out an engaging new tune, the quality control went out the window in favor of triple albums and internet-only releases. He had no concern for his legacy, which is admirable, but also meant his absence from streaming sites and YouTube and (despite a high-profile announcement about a deluxe Purple Rain edition a couple years back) remastered versions of his classics. I suspect all that stuff is coming now, though. (Does Prince have any heirs or relatives at all? Who knows?)
I’ve had friends over the years who have found it odd that I was such a Prince fan. He wouldn’t seem to fit my profile. But then again, that was the beautiful thing about Prince. He had something for everybody, and boundaries, musical and otherwise, meant nothing to him. “White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin'” went one lyric. “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” went another. What did it matter? If you grew up in the ’80s never quite being sure about your place in the world, he was there for you. And he wasn’t some fringe artist – he was the biggest star imaginable. Talk about the American dream. In the America of my dreams, it’s Prince on the $10 bill.