I went numb from the tips of my toes to the roots of my purple hair today when I saw there’d been a death at Paisley Park.
“It’s a big place,” I told myself. “People in and out of there all the time. Could be anyone.”
But I didn’t really believe it. 2016’s been like that.
I managed to hold it together as I rushed around getting last-minute birthday presents for my big, amazing, ten-year-old Griffin. And I’m determined to be cheerful tonight. My kid deserves that, and more.
But when The Current played the first chord of “Purple Rain,” the tears started rolling down. Purple Rain was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, at the tender age my youngest is turning today. A friend’s family had HBO, so when I slept over, we were determined to watch whatever was on just to feel grown-up. Instead, I sat stunned, thrilled, utterly changed.
Prince was sex before I knew what it was. Not the biology, but the essence of sexuality. The breathless moans. The hitched breath. The sudden, ecstatic screams. They punctuated his songs, created a separate rhythm that scrambled my pulse in ways I couldn’t understand. His liquid dark eyes, casting a look back over his shoulder at you alone, asking if you had the courage to come along for the ride. Pure, tempting transgression on a purple motorcycle.
Later, in college, my heart would race to “Darling Nikki” for another reason—we had to skip the track when we played the album in the record store where I worked. The stereo was at the front of the store, and many a time I did a flat-out sprint through the store to hit fast-forward before the line Tipper Gore never liked. My pulse speeds up in the first three bars to this day.
Prince was queer before I knew what it was. I sang along quite innocently as he breathed, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something you can never understand.” And to be honest, I didn’t question it. His whole self was confirmation of that statement. My autistic perseveration as a child was history, and I especially enjoyed historical fashion. Prince was a museum of styles on parade. He had it all: Marie Antoinette’s beauty mark, Cleopatra’s kohl liner, Lord Byron’s carelessly tumbling curls, Cab Calloway’s finger waves, George III’s frothy lace jabot. Prince displayed a fearless feast of gendered signifiers, embracing and rejecting them all at the same time, sparing no one the intense focus of his seduction.
Prince was the musical descendant of ancestors before I knew them. You name it: Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Otis Redding. Now that I’ve heard so many more seminal black artists, the more I hear their riffs and imprints. And now there are the artists who bear his stamp: Lenny Kravitz, Janelle Monaè, Kendrick Lamar, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and so many more. The genealogy is lavishly rich above and below. Prince even met the gold standard of performers in my book: he appeared on the Muppets. Okay, well, Muppets Tonight, but he wrote one of my favorite of his songs for that appearance (starts at 6:13).
It’s been a dream of mine, since we moved to Minnesota, that maybe one day I’d get to see Prince perform in person. As Paisley Park started to light up for late- and little-announced dance parties—some of which turned into impromptu concerts—I watched my inbox for alerts. Some were more than my body could handle; an 11pm start is tough even with maximum spoons. Others were more than my bank account could handle; $50 doesn’t seem like much, but it is to us.
And, of course, I thought I had time. We all did.
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
~Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, Lines 359-360