I hated high school. Without reservation, I could not stand it.
My mom started me in kindergarten when I was only four years old. She wanted me to get socialized with other kids as soon as possible. While the intentions were good and everything would eventually work out fine, being a full year younger than nearly all my peers had definite drawbacks. I was the last to get my license. The last to get a car. The last to get out of little league. The last to sprout a chest hair, and due to the natural lack of maturity I suffered from because of my comparative youth, I was often an easy target for bullies.
To make matters worse, when I was thirteen, we moved out to the sticks and I was nowhere near any of the few friends I had, and therefore spent many a weekend evening with nothing to keep me company other than the radio.
Then 1984 happened. More specifically than that, Purple Rain happened. Prince happened. Sure, I knew who he was. 1999 and Little Red Corvette were already big hits before Prince unleashed his superstar maker. I loved those songs, but I wasn’t quite at the age to appreciate the artistry that created them. Purple Rain changed that. I was in the car with my mom going who the hell knows where the first time I heard When Doves Cry. I didn’t understand it, exactly. It was and is a damn weird song. Minimal and maximal, alpha and omega, Genesis to Revelation. I didn’t know what I was hearing, but I remember thinking my mom should pull over to the side of the road while we tried to figure out what the hell just came out of the speakers of that Chevy Malibu. I didn’t know it then, but my whole world had changed.
Before Prince, I liked music. I mean, really, who doesn’t? Prince was a line in the sand though. You stepped over it, embraced the new-found geography and then you began to understand art.
That summer I snuck into Purple Rain three times. I was only thirteen, but that wasn’t going to stop me from getting into my first R rated movie to see a dramatic depiction of the man who could produce such extraordinary sounds. It was a communal experience. The neighborhood that housed my local theater was in a mixed race area and many of the older black folks were already on the train before me. People often ask you what your first concert was. If you are going by the strictest of definitions then my answer is Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms tour (not bad, right?). The real emotional answer for me is Purple Rain. For all of its concessions to the 80’s time frame, the restrictions of its low-budget, and the pretty (in hindsight at least) sexist script, the many musical performances in the film carry it to a level it might not otherwise deserve if you chose to pick cinematic nits.
It was unlike anything I’ve ever been to. It connected. People stood during the penultimate performance of the title song. They sang along. They waved their hands. They cried. I bet many of them are doing that last thing today.
After my first exposure, I went back. I had to have everything. For You, his self-titled second album, Dirty Mind, Controversy, and of course, 1999. I entered high school that year being one of the few white male Prince fans in a sea of Ratt and Motley Crue followers. It did not help me with the guys and certainly not the girls in my small town to have staked out this position. Time has proved me right though. By a damn large margin too.
So I took the shots. Made the arguments. Held my ground. For me, Prince was over Michael Jackson. Bruce Springsteen. All of those hair metal bands. Everything. Being a a lower middle-class, skinny, alabaster pale, red-headed step child living on the edge of nowhere in particular for the next four years, I didn’t have a lot to look forward to. Except a new Prince album every damn year. Most artists around that time would take at least two years between records. Not Prince. Most artists after a massive hit album would have toured behind it for an age, cashed a shit ton of fat checks, and taken a long time until they followed it up. Again, not Prince.
The polarizing, psychedelic left turn Around the World in a Day was next. Then the stripped down funk of Parade. Right after came the stone cold classic, Sign O’ the Times. My senior year brought the vulnerable, more explicitly religious, Lovesexy album. That’s how I got through high school. One Prince album at a time. He served me well by not trying to serve me at all. He followed his own muse. He never spoon fed me or anyone else for that matter. As it turns out, Purple Rain was a bit of a lightning flash. He would never scale those commercial heights again. I think he could not have scarcely cared less. He was a man chasing a sound only he could hear. If you wanted to run with him, fine. If not, that was fine too. It wasn’t always easy keeping by his side. The stylistic twists and turns could leave you breathless. As with anything, there were some records I liked better than others, but I can say without equivocation, I was never able to predict his direction. To put it another way, I was never bored.
I had the good fortune to see him twice in person. The second time was at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. It’s still the most staggering display of talent I have ever witnessed. The show went on for nearly three hours, with Prince taking over for his crack band members when the whim surfaced on piano, bass, drums, and whatever else he wanted, and he was better than all of them. The final encore was a surprise. The roadies were out pulling plugs, when someone signaled offstage to reconnect them. Most of the crowd had left by then. What they missed. My goodness. I had solid seats to start with, but thanks to the “beat the traffic” defections, I was able to bum rush to the front and get within about six feet of the stage. At one point I turned and looked behind me to see the Fox balcony bouncing up and down with the hop of those sharp souls who stuck it out. I remember thinking I could die if that went on too long. I remember thinking that wouldn’t be so bad.
As everyone knows, 2016 has been a shit year for great musicians. If you would have told someone we would lose David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, and who the hell ever else I am missing as I work from far too recent tragic memory, you would probably have gotten laughed out of any room of any size as if you were surrounded by the maddest of hatters. On the most personal of levels for me, we have now lost my three favorite male solo artists within the last year. Lou Reed, Bowie, and now Prince. I have to tell you, I am sick of this shit. My god, it is not even fucking May yet.
This murderous year makes me angry. At who? Hell, I don’t know. Zeus, nature, the cosmos, you pick.
Memories can be wonderful things. They can hurt too. One day I know I will be able to comfort myself reminiscing about popping Sign O’ The Times into the cassette player of my boom box, cranking up the volume, lying back on my bed, running it straight through, and starting it over again as soon as it finished, and doing it all night long, in a small rented house, on a back country road all alone. Because of Prince, shit wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was often quite remarkable. Someday those thoughts will keep me warm. Today is not that day.