The first girl I ever seriously kissed was a major Prince fan. I didn’t see the appeal.
The appeal of Prince, I mean. The kiss was awesome. I can still remember it with almost shocking vividness. But Prince… really?
Sure, “Let’s Go Crazy” was as infectious a tune as any I’d ever heard. But this girl’s interest in him wasn’t confined to his musical ability, if you get my meaning. She wanted him bad, and she wasn’t shy about telling me either, and that made me kinda crazy. I just didn’t get it. Even on TV, where everybody looks taller, he was visibly tiny — scrawny even — and with all the lace and the purple velvet suits and the high-heeled boots and such, he looked… well, he didn’t look much like me, you know? I was sixteen years old and insecure as hell, desperate to unravel the mysteries of sex and masculinity and how exactly to get girls to like me. So naturally anyone who seemed to be making a bigger impression on them than I was, someone who had an entirely different style than my own denim-and-long-hair thing, was a tremendous threat to my ego. Even if that someone was an completely unattainable fantasy figure. I didn’t like Prince back in the day because, quite simply, I was jealous of the foppish little squirt. It was a classic case of “What’s he got that I haven’t got?!”
Everyone reading this has no doubt heard by now that Prince, born Prince Rogers Nelson, died yesterday morning at the age of 57. Preliminary reports said the cause was complications from the flu, but later I started seeing more troubling rumors about an overdose. There’s going to be an autopsy, of course. But whatever happened to him, his death — like Michael Jackson’s a few years ago — triggered a surprising stew of emotions in me, not only because his passing at a relatively young age was so unexpected, but because I hadn’t realized how much of a touchstone he and his music had become for me until he was taken away from us. I may not have liked him when I was sixteen (although truthfully, I think I probably did like him more than I was willing to admit, just as I secretly liked MJ too), but sixteen was a long time ago. Somewhere along the way, I grew up, and Prince won me over.
Maybe it was the funky beats he contributed to several key scenes in the 1989 Batman movie. (Sorry, Heath Ledger fans, Nicholson is my Joker.) Maybe it was the adorable vision of Julia Roberts singing “Kiss” to herself in a bathtub in Pretty Woman. Or the bright springtime mornings when I’ve heard “Raspberry Beret” on the radio and found myself feeling happy for no good reason. It could have been the way “1999” took on a whole new relevance for Generation X as the actual turn of the millennium approached. Or the times Anne and I have sung along to “Little Red Corvette” at the top of our lungs while driving with the top down.
But I think what really, finally brought me around on the Purple One was his 2004 performance at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, when he played George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, and George’s son Dhani. Prince’s guitar solo during that performance was a thing of beauty, a display of virtuoso skill by an artist at the top of his game, who has nothing left to prove and simply plays for the sake of playing. You can’t help but admire someone who can make it look so effortless, and who very obviously derived so much joy from doing it. The man was having fun playing that song, on that stage, with those other performers. And that’s something about this performance that’s really striking too: as someone pointed out yesterday in a Facebook discussion I read, Prince wasn’t grandstanding or overshadowing the others. As flashy as his playing was, it was in support of the song and of the band. And even the moment when we lets himself fall backwards into the hands of an assistant who pushes him back upright… as ridiculous as that moment was, it was also charming. It was cool. Just look at the grin Dhani Harrison flashes at that moment; he gets it. He knows that that little bit of theater was pure rock and roll. It was James Brown’s business with the cape, Chuck Berry’s duckwalk, Elvis’ karate poses.
Other people have a deeper knowledge of Prince’s catalog than myself — I’m pretty much limited to an entry-level “greatest hits” discussion — and those folks are no doubt better qualified to write about the technicalities of what, exactly, he did as a musician, and why it was significant. But it’s clear even to me that Prince — like Bowie or Michael Jackson, or Tom Jones or Willie Nelson or Ray Charles or any of the other performers who become cultural institutions — transcended any one genre and was simply himself. He wasn’t a rock star, he was just a star… one that burned out while it still had light to give.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot since the news broke yesterday morning, about how young 57 really is, how much time he might have had left, how many things he might’ve been able to do with that time. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that girl I knew who loved him so much. We only went out a couple times. Remember, I was sixteen and I was stupid. Maybe she could’ve loved me if I’d had more confidence; maybe not. Who knows, and after 30 years, it doesn’t matter anyhow. But I still remember that first kiss in the glare of a porch light. And the way the baby’s-breath she wore the night of the big school dance seemed to glow white against her dark hair. And I remember dancing with her on her back lawn one chilly evening, dancing slow and close to “Purple Rain.”
If for no other reason, I mourn the death of Prince Rogers Nelson because he gave me that moment.