On April 21, after 39 albums, seven Grammy Awards and a legacy that’s almost impossible to match, Prince left his planet.
It feels wrong to say Prince died. People like him don’t die. They exist beyond something as foolish and as simple as the confines of mortality. No matter what we are and no matter who we are, they’re here to show us who we can be.
Prince was a spindly and androgynous little man who wore a lot of purple. He was also a sex god. And those things were absolutely linked together. He was who he was, and he owned who he was. If you were different, if you were weird, if you didn’t fit with what you were told to be — that didn’t matter to him. He bucked the rules, he followed his own path and you could, too. Under Prince’s agenda, everything was going to be alright.
Even if you were a dorky, big kid who had no idea what you wanted to be, Prince made you feel like a fucking star.
To give only the smallest idea of what he meant to me, I’m going to do the one thing you never really could with him and attempt to pull him down to a single work.
For me, that’s Purple Rain. It’s embedded too deeply in my psyche to talk about anything else.
My earliest memory of Purple Rain is mired in a haze of young memory. I’m not sure when I first heard the album, though I can’t imagine that it wasn’t early on in my life. I grew up the product of two children of the ‘80s. My mother’s first slow dance was to the title track of the album. That distinctive album cover, with Prince staring into your eyes like only he could atop a Harley shrouded in blue and orange smoke, was a fixture of my parents’ tiny CD collection for a long time.
My first memory of that album has to be in there somewhere. And I’m sure “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” were jam-out radio fixtures in our car for years. But Prince transfixed me when he took me by the hand and used Purple Rain to show me what could be cool.
I was in the most awkward parts of my teenage years (so, all of them). But this specific time was my junior year of high school, early 2011 I think. We’d had a recent series of intense tornadoes, so power had been knocked out in the whole of the Huntsville, Alabama, and the only portable thing I could play music on was an old Walkman CD player, since my iPod had died long ago. Being without music would mean people would try to talk to me in public, and I wasn’t going to have that.
I usually took the Walkman and whatever CDs we had to walk around the muggy, oppressively humid, empty streets in attempt to escape a house increasingly turning on itself from cabin fever. But I found I only ever really needed one CD to get away from it all.
Purple Rain became the soundtrack to a time when the hum of the world fell away. Prince had a direct line to my brain and he placed himself somewhere deep in my thought processes.
Now’s the time to talk about how wonderful Purple Rain is, because it really is. It’s a perfect album, full of anything you could want, all out of the head of a singular genius. It’s an album that isn’t crossing lines, because it never cared that those lines exist.
I grooved along to the gorgeous “Let’s Go Crazy,” a hymnal funk that took me to a world where the barriers were down because we had smashed them.
I marveled that someone had ever gotten away with a song as filthy and seductive as “Darling Nikki,” and that the act was done was by that little guy on the cover of the album. I felt like I was learning a dirty secret that no one else knew. I learned you didn’t have to be a masculine guy to be confident in who you were, because no one was more willing to celebrate who he was and who we were than Prince. He felt no need to apologize for being sexual.
I felt the heartbreak of “When Doves Cry.” I danced with the sheer power and joy of “I Would Die 4 U.”
“I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand,” Prince sings in “I Would Die 4 U.”
Has any opening more perfectly encapsulated an artist?
And the title track is a gorgeous final statement sweeps the listener away to his world for eight minutes, ending with the feeling of having ascended with him to another plane of existence. “Purple Rain” is my “Stairway to Heaven,” a song that feels as though it was not written, but gifted.
Purple Rain taught me how deeply music could touch the soul. It taught me what it could mean to be an artist, and what the power of having such a beautiful and singular voice could be. And most importantly, it imparted the lesson that Prince taught us all.
Like David Bowie, another person incomparable to any other and another person taken from us far too soon earlier this year (in January, practically in the same tragic breath), Prince made it clear that it was okay to be weird. It was more than okay — it was cool. It didn’t matter who you were.
Prince teaches us that the most important thing in the world is to celebrate who you are and who the people around you are.
He knew that he could always stand above the tide around him, and he wanted you to take his hand and come with him. He taught a young teenager that being weird was okay. In fact, he taught a young teenager that being weird and being uncool could be better than anything else.
Concluding this feels wrong because it feels like saying goodbye to someone we should have never had to say goodbye to. So, I’m going to let him have the last word. He’s earned that much, and in that last word, it’s about his art, the thing that has and will continue to touch the lives of many.
Goodbye, Prince, you otherworldly genius.
Dearly beloved/We are gathered here today/to get through this thing called life
And if the elevator tries to bring you down/Go crazy