I never wanted to be Prince.
At various points in my musical life, I did want to be Springsteen, or Dylan, or Tom Waits, or even Eddie Vedder. I wrote songs that emulated—or, more accurately, ripped off—all of the above, plus The Replacements, The Cure, U2,
Chains, and Smashing Pumpkins for good measure. But never Prince. That sounds
like a slight, but it wasn’t. It was the highest level of respect.
Those other guys with guitars wrote songs that sounded like, well, guys playing guitars. Their chords were the same chords I could play, the same sounds I could clumsily create. Their voices sounded like my voice, but better. They were ideals to aspire to, targets that were far off but attainable. If you squinted hard enough, you could trace the path they took, and if you listened even harder, you could (sometimes) pull apart the magic and figure out the tricks yourself.
But I could never do that with Prince. Prince wasn’t of this earth. Prince was on another plane altogether, living in a separate realm where music was effortless and songs emerged like Athena, fully formed every time. Shooting for Prince would be like shooting for the sun: Even if your aim was perfect, your range could never even come close.
It wasn’t just that he was a genius songwriter and a genius instrumentalist and a genius producer. I honestly believe he heard things differently from you or I, as though some sounds were colors outside the visible spectrum, and his gift—his true genius, maybe—was capturing those sounds in a way that made sense to us, the mere mortals with our limited frequencies and narrow color palette. How else to explain “When Doves Cry,” a song that resembled nothing else on the planet when it debuted on May 16, 1984? How could a piece of music that sounded so foreign, so alien, also resonate so deeply with millions of people across all races, genders, and ages?
I can vouch that it resonated with me, all of twelve years old, because that’s the period in your life when you absolutely have a Favorite Song Of All Time, and you can say that without irony or overstatement, and whereas previous Favorite Songs often changed month to month or even week to week, “When Doves Cry” became my FSOAT on its very first listen. And remained so for the next two years. I can’t fathom how many hours I spent during the summer of 1984, watching and rewinding and rewatching my VHS tape with the entire video recorded, in full, from its “world premiere” on MTV, mesmerized in that way unique to children first starting to realize the world is far bigger than they ever imagined.
By that point I’d already fallen hard for Prince, thanks to “Little Red Corvette,” but I’d also fallen hard for Michael Jackson and Hall & Oates and The Police and Eurythmics too. (In hindsight, 1983 was an amazing year for pop music.) I wasn’t picking sides the way the media awkwardly would years later, but in sixth grade? I was all Team MJ. He was the easy choice: The non-white musician all the white kids loved, the wholesome superstar who won the approval of my Republican parents by posing with Ronald Reagan, the pop sensation so iconic a skinny little Caucasian boy with no discernible dance skills could dress like him for Halloween (red jacket, white T-shirt, one glove) without raising too many eyebrows.
But Prince? Prince was something else altogether. He wasn’t safe or wholesome. He was freaky. Dangerous. The stuff of month-long punishments and bans on further MTV watching. His early videos were lit like cheap motels, all neon reds and purples and flashes of pure white, and his band was a mix of men wearing eyeliner and women wearing lingerie, their skin black and white and shades in between, and there he was swirling in the center, a trenchcoat-clad figure who fascinated and scared me in equal measure. I was too young to have even a vague concept of sex (it would be a couple years before my friend matter-of-factedly explained what the “pocket full of horses” line meant), but I already understood Prince exuded the sort of raw, pulsing energy that my more clean-cut heroes—your Halls, your Oates—never did.
And that was both lure and terror.
One night I snuck downstairs (past my bedtime) to watch the local
Atlanta video music station (banned by my
parents), so I was already a double sinner when the clip for “Controversy” came
on. In the video, Prince performs in front of a church's stained glass window, dressed like a French dandy, lit by glowing crosses, singing
“Do I believe in God?/ Do I believe in me?” in a voice pitched above a woman’s
register, all the while staring down the camera like a man possessed.
I wasn’t even a year removed from private school, and I thought the music was amazing. I also thought I might burn in hell just for hearing it.
But I needed to hear it, regardless. All of it. I borrowed three tapes from some older, cooler kid on the bus: 1999, Controversy, and Dirty Mind. I already knew and loved the first three songs from 1999, thanks to Top 40 radio. These versions were longer, weirder, stranger, but still in my comfort zone.
The fourth song was “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” I listened to the entire thing, mesmerized, with that same combination of fascination and terror. And then I rewound the tape, and listened again, but this time with the volume turned down. Way down.
Could my mom hear the words through the walls? I couldn’t take that chance.
The music was primal, but futuristic. Simple and crude, but otherworldly. Stripped down to the barest minimums of beat and melody, yet absolutely engulfing. The vocal was pitched high, again, but now with other voices in the mix, some lower and some barely discernible, like a stranger whispering lewd advances in your ear. They were all Prince, all the versions of him, and then they dropped away until there was just a single Prince, talking not singing, and he was definitely talking about S-E-X with words that left nothing to the imagination, words that would get me grounded for weeks just being in their vicinity. And then the other voices returned, seven minutes in, every single version of Prince now flat-out confessing his (their?) love of God.
Followed immediately by a promise to have fun every motherfucking night.
I was eleven years old. I’d never had a single face-to-face encounter with an African-American. I’d never kissed a girl. I’d never even held hands with a girl. But I now possessed cassette dubs of Prince, unfiltered, singing songs about dirty minds and head and sisters and lady cab drivers and all the places he would jack U off.
To say that Prince blew my world apart is a slight understatement.
He wouldn’t be the last one who did that, of course. As the decade wore on, my love of music expanded along with my tastes, in the same manner as countless other white suburban teens: Zeppelin and Rush, New Order and The Cure, INXS and Guns N’ Roses. Michael Jackson fell by the wayside, at least for the short term, along with Hall & Oates and countless others from my awkward past.
But Prince? Prince never left. When the rest of my peers stopped caring after Around The World In A Day turned out not to be Purple Rain 2.0, I stayed on board, if just for “Raspberry Beret” and “Paisley Park” and “Pop Life.” Parade was the first album I bought in a real record store (Turtle’s Records & Tapes in Snellville, GA), mainly due to my infatuation with “Kiss” (my FSOAT for the rest of 1986), and there were enough lifelines on that one—“Girls & Boys” and “Mountains” and “Kiss,” of course—to make up for all the moments I simply wouldn’t, or couldn’t, grasp at the time. When you’re an eighth grade boy yet to experience any significant losses, you can’t appreciate “Sometimes It Snows In April” for the masterpiece it truly is. Prince was already there, but I wasn’t. I had to mature into him.
My grandfather passed away the week I bought Sign ‘O’ The Times. It was the first death of any kind I’d ever experienced, and I still remember how my mom was crying when she picked me up early in the school parking lot, and then I was crying too, and I sobbed all afternoon and all night in my bedroom with that Prince cassette on a steady loop, finally hearing all the levels and layers that were there all along, waiting for me to really understand. Sign ‘O’ The Times isn’t a particularly dark record, but it’s shot through with sadness and spirituality—especially on “The Cross” and “Forever In My Life”—in ways that rarely exist in pop music. Because this was pop music for adults, not kids, and while I wasn’t an adult yet, I was finally on my way to becoming one.
And of course Prince was there, guiding me and shaping me, even when I wasn’t fully cognizant of his influence in my life. I was a good Christian boy in a deeply religious household, but I was also a teenager with raging hormones and a constantly frustrated libido. The constant push-and-pull between the flesh and the spirit suddenly seemed like a very real, very actual battle occurring inside me, a battle that Prince had already articulated with “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Darling Nikki” and now “Anna Stesia.” Years later, when he devoted himself to the Jehovah’s Witness faith and renounced all his “dirty” songs, I wondered—for maybe the first time—if Prince had been just as confused as I was. If he’d had the same questions about love and lust and God and sex and sin and redemption and the afterworld. If maybe he and I weren’t so different after all.
Except, if I were being honest, I knew that was a lie. Prince was different from me, because he was different from everyone else who has ever lived. Even at my best, I was just an average-to-good musician with a bit of talent and the occasional knack for catchy songs, but Prince was Prince, a mythical figure with genius dripping off his fingertips and a voice that made women lose their minds and a guitar that made grown men cry. Even when I holed up in my bedroom layering tracks and vocals to create my own one-man band, it would never sound like Prince. Even when I finished my acoustic sets with an encore blowout of “Little Red Corvette” (an encore always received far more rapturously than any original composition I’d played that night), it would never sound like Prince. Even when I worked “17 Days” into the coda of one of the best songs I ever wrote and caught heads nodding in the crowd, I knew they weren’t nodding for me, but for Prince.
And that was okay. All us diehards shared a bond, a common story told in a million different ways. We all paid tribute, and we all paid tribute with the understanding that we were a mere facsimile of his greatness, a blurry Xerox of a true original.
I never wanted to be Prince, because deep down, I always understood I never could be Prince. None of us could. None of us ever will.
That’s why his passing hit all of us so hard. We could live a hundred more lifetimes and still never get another one like him.
But each of us got him. Once. In this lifetime.
And that’s reason enough to celebrate.