Stage 1: You Got the Look
Prince and you are the same height, so you both look good in cropped jackets. Because it is the mid ’80s, you have collected an unholy number of cropped jackets, enough to dress a fabulous if short-waisted army. Most of them make you look like you’re trapped in a bad Martika video, but your favorite, a fuchsia double-breasted polyester fleece number with gold military-style buttons, is closer to what his Royal Purpleness wears. You are one badass motherfucker when you put on that jacket to see Cats, your first Broadway play, and you pair the jacket with a black skirt and, because it is a frigid December in New York, flesh-colored stirrup tights two shades lighter than your skin. The stirrups cut into your style game, but the top half of you is pure Revolution.
Right now Prince to you is as much about the style as the music, and you follow him like you follow the other major artists whose videos play around the clock on MTV: Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Idol. Because it is the ’80s, they are artists. You do not know at the time that Purple Rain was actually his sixth album, that he fused funk, rock, R&B, and pop together with such brilliance that critics and musicians considered him the heir to James Brown, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, etc., etc., etc. What does the world expect? You are in middle school. Eight, when Purple Rain came out.
Talk of Prince’s sexuality filters down to you, mostly through school-kid gossip—“Prince is tri, did you know? Men, women, and plants.” Plants. Lord only knows what all the rumors were about Prince back then, but perhaps this was the most unbelievable.
His presence causes discomfort. Even as a kid, you feel it. The ’80s are a decade that simultaneously embraces and ridicules its androgynous idols: Grace Jones, Boy George, to say nothing of a 5’2” man in frilly blouses and heels who refuses to explain himself. In Genesis’s 1986 video “Land of Confusion,” Prince becomes a caricature, eating his own tongue.
Stage 2: Can I Put This in a Way So as Not to Offend or Unnerve
During the early ’90s, which are your high school years and his Diamond and Pearl ones, you will hear snatches of “Batdance” and “Money Doesn’t Matter Tonight,” but neither of those songs linger in the air as long as the debate over what the hell to call him now that he’s going by an unpronounceable symbol. You’re not sure if you are starting to grow tired of Prince, or the “Artist Formerly Known As” jokes that follow. It’s been several years now since you’ve heard a new Prince song you liked. So when your best friend Cheryl confides in you that her favorite musicians are Rush and Prince, it becomes, along with football, Dune, hacking, and the glory of 64-bit Mortal Kombat, another interest of hers you don’t understand. You and Cheryl don’t have much in common, other than your mutual respect of each other and dislike of your school, where every day in the cafeteria black sits with black and white sits with white. Cheryl is black and one of your few friends, and during lunch she’s nowhere to be found.
“Prince?” you snicker “Yeah, maybe in the ’80s.” You have since moved on, to Nirvana, to Smashing Pumpkins, to PJ Harvey, to Nine Inch Nails, to Pearl Jam, to REM. Funny how they called it alt rock when it is pretty much all white, all the time. The irony doesn’t occur to you then.
“Seriously?” you ask her. “Even ‘Batdance?’”
You can’t remember word for word the long, impassioned endorsement of Prince that follows—about his songwriting genius, his guitar virtuosity, his greatest accomplishments of the last fifteen plus years—except it becomes clear how much more she knows about his music than you and not just Purple Rain either.
Yeah fool. She can look past “Batdance.”
Stage 3: To Get through This Thing Called Life
1994, freshman year of college. Drunk boys bellow down the hallway, and Dave Matthews blares from dorm room speakers, announcing the start of the weekend. But you have grown tired of keggers and red Solo cups and being pointed to bathrooms that are conveniently attached to a fraternity brother’s bedroom. That night you and your friend Mary hide out in her dorm room, listening to old 45s on a record player she brought back from her home in West Virginia. She puts on a single of “Raspberry Beret.” Maybe Cheryl’s long soliloquies on the glories of Prince have started to influence you, but if you didn’t realize how brilliant this song was then, you listen more closely now. Starting with Prince’s count-off and sliding into those funky opening chords that slink over from across the room, “Raspberry Beret” is just over three minutes of complete happiness. The story isn’t exactly your story, but the beauty of a perfect pop song is that it transfers the euphoria to you. In real life, you are an eighteen-year-old girl hiding from the outside world, but listening to the song, you’re a young guy in a dead-end job who just saw a damn foxy girl in a raspberry beret. You ditch the job and follow her out the door like Pepe Le Pew. Let’s get to rammin.’ No red Solo cups needed here.
All junior year, you and Mary blast “Let’s Go Crazy” in her car, usually after bad sessions with your psychiatrists. The recurring chorus of “Let’s Go!” becomes a rallying cry to slough off your problems and to start making bad decisions. It’s not a genius idea, but you’re twenty and it’s Saturday night.
Stage 4: Gett Off
In 2004, Prince emerges from his cocoon again, this time as a beautiful born-again butterfly in white platform sneakers. He’s been making albums all along, but this latest one, Musicology, receives way more attention. Upon learning that he’s rolling out some of the old Purple Rain songs for the tour, you buy a ticket to his show at Madison Square Garden. You’re hesitant because he’s found God, doesn’t curse, won’t perform “Darling Nikki.” Will the show still be good? What’s new G-rated Prince like?
The answer is that everything Prince can do in heels, he can do in sneakers. It’s a level of showmanship that you’ve only seen in James Brown videos, that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. He jumps in the air, lands into a split on the ground, hops up in one fluid movement that turns into a pirouette that turns into a few licks on his guitar—lord when did he even grab that guitar; he is magician-quick and every movement is seamless, synchronized, timed not down to the second but the eighth of a second. You have never seen a more confident human being in your life. His band does everything down to the eighth of a second too, as does the opener, Morris Day & the Time. It’s perfect, to an almost alarming degree—how does he get everyone to perform like that? Is he beating them into submission backstage? You picture something akin to the kitchen of a five-star French restaurant, a celebrity chef throwing plates and brandishing knives.
Sheila E. and her drum kit rise from the center of floor. “The Glamorous Life.” It’s all too much. Prince doesn’t seem to take any real breaks. No one seems to take any real breaks. So many of his songs come with the built-in climactic guitar or drum solo, and played back to back, the effect is well, quite overwhelming. At times, maybe too overwhelming. Seeing Prince perform is like a long night with the best lover of your life, someone who can keep going well after you think it’s over. No wonder people say it’s the best show ever. Can you have too much of a good thing? Get too over-stimulated? But he’s still going. Everyone is still going. He’s hasn’t stopped. Dear god. Is it getting a little warm in here? A little too warm in here? You start to wonder if you should take a little break, maybe step away for a second, get a little air. How many orgasms can one woman have in the balcony? Prince, baby, stop. Prince, need some water. Prince, can’t take it any more. Prince, dear god. Prince, damn, go eat a rib or something.
You don’t walk out of a Prince concert. You crawl.
Stage 5: When You Were Mine
That show converts you into a full Prince devotee. He is a musical god with so many amazing hits in him that occasionally he must bequeath them to others. Tiny genius, your cup overrunneth.
You start collecting weird Prince trivia just like everyone else. He is both cartoon and legend, a source of amusement and awe. Who knows how much of it is true, but there’s a wealth of it. With a lesser musician, the myth might overtake the music, but with Prince, the two go hand in hand. Prince and Charlie Murphy’s “True Hollywood Stories.” Prince doesn’t guarantee how long he’ll play for: thirty minutes minutes or four hours; you never know. Someone worked catering for a Prince party and he only ate ice cream. Prince fired someone just for looking at him. Prince sure loves ice cream. Kevin Smith almost did a documentary of Prince. Prince has a secret vault where he keeps tons of recordings. Kevin Smith tells you about it. Prince gave Carmen Electra her name, and when they were going out, she had to go to bed in full makeup and heels, just in case his Royal Badness was to pay a visit. VH1 tells you that one.
You want to know what it’s like to say fuck you to the world, to disappear into Paisley Park. You want to know what it’s like to be around someone who does it all so brazenly. Prince intrigues, and Prince intimidates. You want to be close, but not personal-assistant close. You don’t need to know him personally, you say. You get the best of Prince through his music. Maybe that’s the truth, and maybe it isn’t. Only people like Sheila E. know—Sheila E., who simply tells the news cameras after he passes, “Everyone fell in love with his music; They didn’t know him like we did. So we want to keep it like that. It’s all about the music.”
When you learn he is dead, you cry out at work, you issue a ban on Prince jokes, you start sharing hundreds of Prince clips and articles on your Facebook page, exactly the kind of Facebook behavior you usually complain about. You don’t want to sound too Joni Mitchell, too “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” too much like a lame ’80s version of a nostalgic hippie—but you want to smack down every millennial who doesn’t understand the majesty of Prince. Or worse, needs their mother to explain it to them.
No, a family member hasn’t died. You didn’t know him personally like Sheila E. did, but you’re going to mourn his absence anyway. Because of fuchsia double-breasted cropped jackets. Because of Cheryl and your high school cafeteria. Because of 45s in dorm rooms. Because let’s go crazy. Because he was working part-time at a five and dime, and his boss was Mister McGee. Because you don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude. Because there’s a rumor around that you ain’t been gettin’ served. Because he used to let you wear all his clothes. Because he wanted to be your lover, your brother, your mother, and your sister too. Because you don’t have to be beautiful to be his girl (although they all were). Because do me, baby. Because was he black or white, was he straight or gay? Because nothing compared 2 him. Because he had something that we’ll never comprehend, but damn if we don’t keep trying.