When I was so very much younger, back in Lafayette, Louisiana, around 1980 or so, I'd occasionally see flyers up in town advertising Prince concerts in the clubs and halls in what was, as white people called it, "the black part of town." Something intrigued the hell out of me about that shirtless, skinny dude in bikini underwear, staring out with those just-finished-masturbating-and-now-ready-for-you eyes. So I headed over to New Generation records and got Dirty Mind, and before "When You Were Mine" even ended, my adolescent mind was blown wide open. My parents threw it out when they found it. I had discovered true love on vinyl.
"Little Red Corvette" was the first song I listened to non-stop, the first Prince song I told others that they had to hear. Sure, you could get sick of "1999" or mock it (although it's got one of the funkiest grooves in music), but the slow thigh-thrust of the synths at the beginning of "Little Red Corvette" hit something deep and primal. After that, we'd talk about how crazy sexual Prince was, with songs like "Jack U Off" and its gender-neutral use of that phrase, and the winking subversiveness of "Sister," calculated to fuck with the tight-assed crowd. Sample lyric: "My sister never made love to anyone else but me/She's the reason for my, uh, sexuality." That's hilarious, and if you didn't know that, the joke was you.
In July 1984, I went with my pal Tony to see Purple Rain at the Northgate Cinema on the day it opened. We knew then, like we all know now, that it's a terrible movie. It's sexist and overwrought. It's badly acted by just about everyone, and anyone with any sense would have rather hung out with Morris Day than Prince's dour "The Kid." None of that mattered one bit because when the music started, when Prince grabbed his guitar like it was a python-length dick and tore into it, all the other bullshit in the movie melted away. And by the time you got to the guitar solo at the end of "Let's Go Crazy," the lines between musical genres was obliterated. For good, for most of us watching it.
Prince was one of my musical mainstays for most of my life. Even before I was into Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello or John Coltrane, I was into Prince. He was my gateway to so much other music, like Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone. But, perhaps more importantly to a young brain being raised in the deep south, Prince said, without being coy about it, that it was okay to want to fuck. In fact, fucking is the supreme, even transcendent act of human existence. And he wasn't centering that desire in men alone, like so many other artists. He wanted women to get off in every possible way. The song "Come" is an ode to pussy-eating, encouraging women to want to fuck, too. In Reagan's America, that shit was practically treasonous. If you were old enough to fuck in the 1980s, at some point, you either fucked to Prince songs or with Prince's music in the back of your mind, controlling the rhythm of your sex.
Because of his celebration of the body and its fluids, Prince's music became a target of the 1980s music censorship movement, whose leaders found "Darling Nikki" to be obscene because Nikki is "masturbating with a magazine." Shit, that's not even the dirtiest part. Those humping synthesizers are doing nasty things to each other, and then the guitar joins in to fuck them all into oblivion as Prince screams in orgasm. (And you gotta love that after "Darling Nikki" on the Purple Rain album is a backwards segment, mocking the conservative obsession with hidden Satanic messages with a very Christian one. Prince was occasionally scary religious.)
One of my favorite things about Prince is how political he could be in his lyrics. The liberatory aspect of the sexuality and the gender-bending in his dress and in his songs was clear. But he could get even more explicit in songs like "Annie Christian" ("Annie Christian wanted to be a big star/So she moved to Atlanta and she bought a blue car/She killed black children, and what's fair is fair/ If u try and say u're crazy, everybody say electric chair/Electric chair") and "Ronnie Talk to Russia." And "Sign o' the Times" is a stark look at an apocalyptic America as the millennium approaches, all while boogying into inevitable oblivion.
This could go on. I could tell you about the Prince cover band at my senior prom, one of those quintessential 1980s moments that you wouldn't believe if it was in a movie. I could go on about how much I played and dug into his post-Purple Rain work, like Around the World in a Day and The Black Album and Musicology. Or maybe I could piss and moan about how I had a ticket to see Prince in 1985, but a freak ice storm in Louisiana blocked me from getting there. Or maybe this could examine how he was aging gracefully, with his guitar playing evolving from incredible to otherworldly. Or I could describe the friend of mine who broke down in tears when I told her the news today.
Instead, let's end with this: in 2009, I went with a few friends to Prospect Park in Brooklyn for a screening of Purple Rain. A band was on stage, leading the large audience in a singalong to the music. Everyone laughed ironically at the excesses of the film's era, the crazy hair, the martial-style clothes, the terrible treatment of Appollonia, the cringe-worthy dialogue, all of it. Oh, we sang stupid and danced goofy on that hot August night as the sun set behind the screen. But when the song "Purple Rain" started, something shifted in the crowd. Night had finally fallen, and all of a sudden, our distance and sarcasm fell away, too, and we were all singing our hearts and guts out, a mixed-race audience at a free show, unafraid to let our emotions blare. We swayed to the guitar and oohed with Prince at the end of it, bursting into applause. And then, purged of the sadness and pain of our daily lives, we twirled and shook to "I Would Die 4 U." It's what you're supposed to do, you know.
We mourn today. Tonight, maybe tomorrow, we dance, we fuck, we rave un2 the joy fantastic.