It’s been a little more than one day since Prince Rogers Nelson was found dead at Paisley Park, which is about 20 miles from my couch. He was 57, which is too young to go for any human, but especially young for someone who we all kind of suspected was an immortal sex alien.
I’ve never considered myself a “fan” of Prince. I never was a huge listener of his music. I mean, yes, I grew up in Minneapolis during the 1980s, which means I lived and breathed his music for that decade because it was inescapable. I saw Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge because they were filmed here. I owned a cassette of 1999 (which my mom confiscated after she heard it), and I still have a CD of the Batman soundtrack. But after the 1980s passed, my musical tastes didn’t latch onto Prince’s music. (That’s not a comment on his talent at all; it’s just that once I found Mr. Bungle, I fell deep down the avant-garde metal rabbit hole.)
So, because of that, I would have never expected to grieve much for his passing. I have many, many friends who are far more passionate about his music than I, and their grief is fully understandable. And yet, I was sobbing in the shower this morning as I got ready for work. I’ve been wrecked for the last day.
Even though I never met the man, he meant a lot more to me than I ever thought he did. Perhaps I took him for granted, like he was some sort of permanent fixture of my hometown.
My mom called me from Florida last night. We both had a long, heartfelt conversation about Prince.
Mom is Prince’s age, and she lived in North Minneapolis, so their social circles very roughly overlapped. She mentioned once seeing him at parties, before he started performing.
I was born in the middle of my mom’s youth, which means I arrived just in time to see and remember Prince’s meteoric rise to fame. Mom was into the music scene in town and dated a guitarist for a while, so I got toted to a lot of shows when I was a preschooler. We were mostly following the bands Fairchild and Chameleon (remember Yanni?), so I don’t think I ever wound up at a Prince show, but I got to see the Minneapolis Sound form long before I could understand what it was.
One of the guys in one of the bands we followed got his hand on a reel-to-reel of Prince’s demo (“For You”). He brought the tape to a party, and mom wound up listening to the demo with a bunch of experienced Twin Cities musicians. Most of the folks in the room were skeptical of the 20-year-old upstart… but the attitude turned swiftly as the tape played, and Prince displayed his skill at playing all the instruments on the track.
One of the musicians in the band with mom’s boyfriend-guitarist was Dez Dickerson, who answered an ad a few months later and wound up in The Revolution.
Prince’s first live show with his band was at the Capri (2.9 miles from my couch) in January, 1979. By October, he was climbing the Billboard charts. I was six when he appeared on Saturday Night Live, a show I watched religiously with mom, despite the late-night timeslot and my inability to understand most of the jokes.
I was nine when Purple Rain hit, and Prince, our hometown guy, became a megastar, bigger and somehow weirder than Michael Jackson, King of Pop. I was already a movie nerd, and the film Purple Rain was made right here at home, in the now-legendary First Avenue music club.
Looking back, that was a tiny amount of time to go from being the quiet guy at high school parties to being the purple glam lace phenomenon that somehow erupted forth from the Midwestern city I still call home. And once he was at the top, he remained a phenomenon, releasing almost an album every year, remaining one of the most respected musicians in the American music business.
And perhaps more phenomenally, he never left us. Most artists that hit big flee to the coasts, where the studios are. Not Prince. Prince brought the production here. He brought film crews and musicians and built the Paisley Park studios.
The Minneapolis/St. Paul metro has always been a city that generated an unusual density of artists, but until Prince came along, nobody really acknowledged that on a large scale.
Two of my friends from Texas flew into Minneapolis/St. Paul yesterday afternoon, as part of a weekend vacation into Wisconsin. When I went to dinner with them last night, they told me that they were mid-flight when the news about Prince broke.
A woman walked down the aisle of the airplane, gently telling each row of passengers that Prince had passed away.
One of the things that really did impress me while I was growing up was Prince’s dedication to women in music. Where much of the radio rock of 1970s Minnesota was all-male all-white, here was a black guy who loaded his band with female musicians. He wrote songs prolifically for other artists to perform, most of them women. He served as a producer for a large number of female-fronted groups. Where many other male acts of the time had female dancers on stage for oggling, the women on Prince’s stage held instruments.
The news broke when I was at work. I happened to glance at my phone between the time TMZ jumped on the story and the time when it was actually confirmed by the Associated Press. Nobody got any work done for a while.
An hour later, several of my coworkers were due to leave the office to tour our Chanhassen plant… which is about a block and a half from Paisley Park. Apparently, they had a very interesting drive to the plant, because the police had to block Highway 5 because of all the mourners.
Last night, the streets of Minneapolis were flooded with thousands of people, as the First Avenue music club, the same one immortalized in Purple Rain, held an all-night dance party vigil for its favorite son. Purple flowers collected under Prince’s star on the outside of the building. Every skyscraper and bridge in Minneapolis that could possibly be lit up in purple was lit up in purple.
It rained a lot yesterday.
It was the year 1998, and I had just spent a month living in a tent in the Arctic Circle. (Long story.) I was in a white van, driving back into the United States with three other women. We had driven overnight, because we were desperate to get back home after all this time. We passed Fargo and spent a long, long time staring at I-94 as the sun rose.
It was about 9 AM when the skyline of Minneapolis climbed into view. It was beautiful, but I didn’t feel like I’d truly arrived home until I flipped on the radio. There was the voice of Brian Oake, introducing a Prince song.
It was the year 2000, and I was living for a short while in a 16th-century former convent in Toledo, Spain. (Long story.) I had grown weary of the food served in the cafeteria of the building, so I walked down the street to the local McDonald’s. (In my defense, I was in college at the time, and McDonald’s was super cheap.)
As I looked at the menu, I suddenly became very curious about Happy Meals in foreign countries. What sort of toy came with a Spanish Happy Meal? So I ordered one.
First off: European Happy Meal toys rock, or at least they did back then. The plastic figure I got in the box was an impressive 6″ tall, a full-sized doll.
But the truly flummoxing thing was that the toy was Snoopy. SNOOPY. As in, from the Peanuts comic strip. As in, created by Charles M. Schulz, another one of Minnesota’s favorite sons (who lived around 13 miles from my couch).
And then a Prince song came on the radio.
Minneapolis had stalked me from 4,300 miles away.
Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001.
And yes, he did witness.
Meaning that he did actually occasionally knock on random people’s front doors and ask to talk about Jesus with them.
That’s right, people. It was actually possible in this town that someday, Prince might randomly knock on your door.
I told this to a friend in West Virginia yesterday, and his response encompasses a lot about my feelings today: “I sincerely feel that the planet is a little less weird now, and lesser for it.”
I stayed up way too late last night, watching videos of Prince performing.
It is perhaps criminal that I never made an effort to see him perform. It’s like those stories about people who live in New York City who have never visited the Statue of Liberty, but worse.
Even though his music didn’t overlap much with my adulthood musical tastes, the man was insanely talented. He was perhaps the greatest rock guitarist in history, and he could play pretty much every other instrument on Earth.
I mean, take a look at this video, of him covering The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with fellow rock legends. He hangs out quietly until the 3:39 mark, and then steps up and takes over the show.
Or how about this one, where he covers Radiohead’s “Creep” (?!?) at Coachella. The backing band pretty much plays the same eight bars for eight minutes, and Prince just picks a few key points to use his guitar to rip a hole in the fabric of the universe.
But beyond his sheer musical talent, he was an incredible performer and a tireless worker. By all accounts, he would keep engineers and fellow musicians on punishing schedules in the studio, because he was inexhaustible. He was endlessly creating, every day. And this translated to the stage, where he gave everything, all the time. This short documentary about his performance at the Super Bowl is a good example of that.
But the video that really rips me apart is this one, where Van Jones came forward last night and gave his personal story about working with Prince. For all the bravado he showed on stage, Prince also quietly dedicated his life to improving the lives of others. We just… never knew.
2016 has been outright cruel to artists. With the passing of Bowie and now Prince, who is left alive of the culture-bending music megastars of that era? Madonna, Bono perhaps, we still have some Rolling Stones and some Beatles left… but I don’t think there’s anyone left who’s death will leave me outright bereft. Bowie’s death hit me hard, but at least I knew it would, because I loved his work. I’ll probably be utterly broken when Mike Patton and David Byrne eventually depart, but they’re not exactly international icons.
Prince, though… that’s a pain that is surprisingly personal.
I may not have been a fan of his music, but I was a fan of him. He was a glorious, glittery force of nature, packed into a sweaty, purple, 5’2″-tall package who was as quiet offstage as he was explosive onstage. He released a mountain of music over the space of 35 years, found time on the side to create music for others, created so much that there is apparently a mountain of unproduced material, and still found time on the side to make the world a better place. He made mainstream work that was nearly as gender-bending as Bowie’s but was also shockingly, frankly sexual, showing us all in the 1980s that it was totally cool to let your freak flag fly. He remained dedicated to a city that might not have totally understood or fully appreciated just what he was, but damn, we were proud of him.
I love Minneapolis. Minneapolis is my home. Prince will forever be part of my home.
May we all continue to find inspiration and drive from the man who gave so much of his own to us.
On a final note, here’s a video of Prince performing “Purple Rain” for the first time. Rest well, Purple One.