The End of the Purple Reign (Prince Rogers Nelson, May He Rest in Purple Peace)
I was just leaving my sister The Writing Diva's job when she called me on my cell phone. I was thinking I left something behind. In less than a breath, she said:
I asked, "Prince the musician?"
She replied, "Yes."
I was shocked. Last I heard, he had just briefly come off his "Piano and a Microphone" tour to battle the flu. He was, to my mind, young. He had always seemed fit. I figured I'd catch him the next time around. Now here I am, learning the same lesson I learned when Etta James and Ray Charles died -- go see the artists you love while they're still living.
And I blame Kimberly Hancock for all of it. She introduced me to Prince's music, which was the slow death of my innocence and the birth of my appreciation of his genius.
Kimberly Hancock was my age and my race and lived down the street from me in the 1970's. As I recall, she introduced me to Prince when we were both preteens. She gushed over how cute he was, cute as the Sylvers. I questioned her taste, since every teenage black girl knew that the Jacksons where way cuter than the Sylvers. She had a copy of his first album, "For You." I'm pretty certain she played "Soft and Wet" for me.
I. Was. Hooked.
For starters, even as a kid, I'd always been a sucker for a good bass line. "Soft and Wet' was like nothing I had heard before. But what got me, more than the falsetto, more than the bass line, were the album credits. Yes, I was THAT kid who read album credits, even as a preteen. I was the kid who had to know what instrument was making the sound of a tennis ball being hit on Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." (Moog synthesizer, if I recall correctly).
The album credits stated that all the instruments were played by Prince. All the songs were written, arranged and produced by Prince, with the exception of "Soft and Wet," for which he shared a writing credit, I think.
There was only one musician, one artist, one person I knew of at that time who wrote all his own songs, played all his own instruments, and produced and arranged his own music: Stevie Wonder.
That's when I knew Prince was a genius. He was a musical badass before there was even a name for it.
But, my oh my, was he taking an early toll on my innocence.
I fell hard for what sounded like synthesized bass lines in "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and "Head." It wasn't until I started college at Stanford when my friends, who took great joy in bursting my innocence, explained what exactly was "soft and wet," what the double entendre in "I Wanna Be Your Lover" meant -- "I wanna be the only one you come for" -- and explained what "Head" was talking about, to which I responded, "EEEUUUWWW!"
By the time "Controversy" came out, I didn't care whether Prince was black or white, straight or gay. No one did. We were having too much fun dancing to his music.
It was after "Controversy" came out that I went to my first concert ever (Did I tell you I had a very sheltered childhood in Sacramento?) with my college friends to see Prince, The Time and Vanity Six at the Oakland Coliseum. It was and remains the best concert I've ever attended, with each act trying to outdo the other and none being able to hold a candle to Prince.
I remember seeing the movie "Purple Rain" and thinking that although the acting was okay, the music was phenomenal. I wondered how autobiographical it was and felt saddened by what I thought might have been Prince's life before stardom. I know I was shocked that he won an Oscar for the song "Purple Rain." More shocked than I was when Isaac Hayes won for the theme from "Shaft." To put it mildly, I thought of Prince's music as a black thing, and I didn't think white folks were ready for him just yet.
I was wrong. So wrong.
I'll admit it -- over the years, I didn't buy all of his albums. He was simply too damn prolific and I couldn't keep up. But every once in a while a song would just hit me and I'd have to have it. What I adored most about Prince was that, through all his phases and changes, including the symbol phase, his music was unmistakably his. He wasn't trying to be anyone but himself. He didn't chase trends; he made them. Even the rise of hip-hop didn't shake his game as it did other stars of the 1980's. When he wrote "slave" on his cheek and tried to get out of his contract with Warner Brothers. I rooted for him. I thought, "Why shouldn't he have the full benefit of his genius? He's Prince!"
Prince was generous with his genius, sharing his spotlight with the likes of Mavis Staples, Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes ("Betcha By Golly Wow" video, anyone?) and the most unlikely Sheena Easton. Yes, Sheena Easton, of "Morning Train" fame. I loved "U Got The Look" because it was so unexpected and yet danceable, taking her game to a higher level. I also doubt that Sheila E''s "Glamorous Life" would have happened but for Prince. When she kicked that high hat with her foot in the video? All I could think was, "Well damn!" Thanks, Prince.
My musical memories of Prince are too many to name. My favorite songs tend toward the early ones, like "How Come U Don't Call Me," which I first heard performed by Stephanie Mills. It is still timeless because you hear the black church influence in it. Another is "Little Red Corvette." Yes, it was yet another nail in the coffin of whatever was left of my innocence, but that song was straight up feminist. In that song, Prince portrayed a woman who totally owned her sexuality and pursued sex for sex's sake without commitment or fear of judgment. Her sexuality clearly intimidated the narrator in the song -- "I guess I should have closed my eyes when you drove me to the place where your horses run free . . . I felt a little ill when I saw all the pictures of the jockey who were there before me . . . . " To my mind, it was the first musical acknowledgement that women's sexuality could mirror that of men, that women were sexual beings without guilt or shame, even though the narrator warns that she "needs a love that's going to last." Thanks, Prince.
When I was going through my very bad dating phase during the 1990's, the chorus to Prince's "Anotherloverholenyohead" became my anthem: "You need another lover . . .like you need a hole in your head." It was so true. I needed to do what I eventually did -- stop dating, regroup, and figure out what I really needed in a man, as opposed to what I wanted. Once I became clear, I found that what I really needed I had had all along: Black Man Not Blogging. We reconciled in 2001 and married in 2003. Thanks, Prince.
But my favorite Prince song? "Kiss," and for one reason and one reason only: My late mom.
I love the song's lyrical nod to grown women, "Women, not girls, rule my world." But "Kiss" means so much more to me. You see, my mom worked really hard trying to house, clothe and feed six children and keep us in school and out of trouble. She loved music, but she didn't always embrace what we kids listened to. She certainly didn't embrace our dances. Saturdays were her time to catch up on her housework and listen to her music while doing so. Watching my mom, a middle-aged, short, chubby woman with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, pushing her Hoover vacuum cleaner on a Saturday morning when Prince's "Kiss" came on? Priceless. When the bridge begins with Prince declaring, "Think I wanna dance," my mom would break out into what can best be described as her "mom dance." She didn't care how out of date it was. She didn't care what anyone thought. She was just having a good time, dancing along with Prince, just as joyful as she could be. It is one of the happiest musical memories I have of my mom.
And for that, I am forever grateful to Kimberly Hancock and to Prince Rogers Nelson, may he rest in purple peace.