The first time I really remember hearing of Prince was probably when Julia Roberts was singing “Kiss” in the hotel bathtub of Richard Gere’s character, Edward, in Pretty Woman. I was eight or nine years old and that was the early-90s era when Prince was going around in assless chaps and singing “Cream,” “Get off,” “Kiss,” and songs like that – when he had the little George Michael five o’clock shadow. He had also done the Batman soundtrack a year or so before, but I don’t remember that having the same effect on me as the Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson face-off did. All I knew about Prince was that he dressed in weird outfits, wore eyeliner, and sang in a high-pitched voice. So, obviously he was gay. And that was gross when you’re a little redneck boy that don’t know no better. Even though I was technically born in the eighties, I obviously had no idea what it was like to be alive in the eighties.
Diamonds and Pearls came out in ’91 and was huge, but I was too busy listening to “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers and other hard rock songs to notice. Sports was starting to dominate my life and Prince was still staying relevant – mostly for changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, working with his new band, New Power Generation, and writing the word “SLAVE” on his face during a lawsuit. And though he still had some hit singles during this time, I think it was a drop-off in performance, albeit a time of increased productivity (to finish out his contract faster, I believe).
Even though I was a rough little kid all about sports and sticks and general horseplay, I had always been into the arts – music, theater, dance, etc. There was a side of me that loved soul music, which later turned to R&B, funk, jazz, and hip hop. I couldn’t deny that something about dance music always worked for me. And I can’t remember exactly when or why, but I started to expand my musical tastes in high school, greatly influenced by my older brother, Beau. I already loved 80’s music, so maybe it started there. Perhaps I was getting less afraid to be honest with the fact that I couldn’t help but like songs by Madonna or Paula Abdul or Mariah Carey. But something had still kept me from Prince. Until one day in conversation with Beau, he told me that Prince was a bad ass. I’m not even sure how it came up, but this sort of validation was huge for me. Beau had, and still has, a vast knowledge of good music, but was also this model of walking the line between machismo and sensitivity. His stamp of approval was all I needed.
I was 16 years old sitting on the blue-carpeted floor of my mom’s (new) house on Main Street listening to The Hits/B-Sides album that had come out in 1993. The third song, on the second side, was “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and it quickly became (and remains to be) my favorite fast song by Prince.* Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was his first hit, and rightly so. I couldn’t believe the things he was saying and the beat did exactly what a pop single should do. I sat Indian-style in that floor and listened to both sides of the record. I quickly knew which Prince I identified with most, as I tended to lose interest in the New Jack Swing-era of “Pope” and “Gett Off.” I did like “Sexy M.F.,” though.
I continued my exploration of Prince songs throughout my high school years and tried to turn on anyone that would listen. It wasn’t always easy. Eastern North Carolinian girls couldn’t quite understand a heterosexual male dancing and singing falsetto along with a song like “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Many of them questioned my sexuality because of it. Perhaps they still do sometimes while sitting around smoking cigarettes and eating their Golden Corral leftovers. One girl was grateful for my introduction to The Purple One – I believe she even thanked me in a letter. I would play “If I was Your Girlfriend” for her while we quietly pulled each other’s clothes off in that same blue carpeted room upstairs. We had a fun summer, but ultimately she wanted to actually be my girlfriend, and I was already struggling with what would be a lifelong battle with commitment and monogamy. I finally called it quits one night and drove her home. We didn’t say a word. She just cried and I simply played “Purple Rain.” So profound of me.
By the time I had gotten to college, Prince had just gone back to calling himself “Prince.” At my first school, Campbell University, I was known as the guy who knew all the old songs that the current hip hop songs sampled. I specifically remember making my friend Jon a mix CD with “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” on it. The song blew his mind – another fan created. As I transferred to NC State, Prince was gearing up for what would be his biggest album in quite some time, Musicology, and his name was all over the place.. Before the album came out, he had appeared at the Grammys with Beyoncé (he always knew which women to link up with) and got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That was also when Fred Armisen started perfectly portraying him on SNL (with Maya Rudolph as Beyoncé). Musicology quickly became a top-five album in several markets. Prince was back, baby. I still have that album.
Seeing Prince seemed like a myth, or surely something so far out of my reach I’d never experience one of his infamous performances. I was out of college and my girlfriend Elizabeth and I absolutely shared an affinity for pop, R&B, and soul music (as well as indie rock). She was Team Michael; I was Team Prince. Though let’s just say our teams didn’t compete, but played perfectly together. Early in 2007 we gathered with friends to watch the Super Bowl, but I don’t remember the game at all – no one does. All I remember is Prince with his hair wrap on standing on a Love Symbol stage in the pouring rain shredding his guitar and singing “Purple Rain” with thousands of fans and I suppose millions at home. There was and never will be a halftime show as memorable. Never.
A couple months later, Elizabeth and I had taken a trip to LA together to see some of my friends and show her Hollywood. It was her first time (my second) and we were planning on seeing all the sites. I’m not sure how this even worked out, or who realized it first, but my mom was in Vegas that same week for a national real estate conference. Neither of us had been to Vegas before and we didn’t have strict plans so I had the idea to rent a car and drive the four hours through the desert to see my mom and play some roulette. We were having drinks with my friend Chris at The Dresden and told him about our big plans. He offered some tips for the drive and told us that Prince was playing there at the Rio (his 3121 tour). Neither of us believed it. How could that timing have worked out that way? Chris said that he saw the show and it was amazing, but the best part was a secret impromptu aftershow that he did with maybe 50 people in the room at four in the morning. Our brains were fried. How did this happen? How could we go? We were going to Vegas for one night only and my mom wanted to see a show and do as much as we could together. As I excited as we both were, I knew Mom wouldn’t necessarily want to go see Prince, and her husband definitely wouldn’t. I was left with two shitty options: leave Mom and go to Prince with Elizabeth on our first and only night in Vegas (with my mom coincidentally being there, who never flies or travels anywhere) or go see Tom fucking Jones. I think (and hope) that Elizabeth and I both agreed Prince could wait and we should spend this special time with my mom. My mom and I have had many special nights together since, and I can confidently say that I regret my decision that night. We walked passed the door to the Rio and could literally hear Prince playing, but instead spent our time watching a white haired Tom Jones catch the panties of 60-year-old women while singing the wrong version of “Kiss.”
2010 came fast. I had a new girlfriend and a new city. Prince was coming to Madison Square Garden in December for the Welcome to America tour and my brother Beau had just gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Lauren. Money was coming in fast that year and I spent it even faster on Brooklyn bars and Broadway shows. For their engagement gift, I got Beau and Lauren (and myself) tickets to the show, 13 rows back. They were going to stay in my Manhattan apartment and we would walk to the show together – what a night it was going to be. But, it never happened. Prince had to postpone the show to a date that I was unavailable to go. Beau and Lauren still had an amazing weekend at my apartment, or so I heard. But, I had to opt for the January concert at the Izod Center in New Jersey. Not wanting to go alone, I purged out another $300 (or whatever it was) for Whitney. She didn’t really know Prince’s music but she was excited that I was excited about it. I should have known then that we wouldn’t work out. But we made it across the river and saw what would be my favorite show of all time. As soon as I saw the stage, I could barely make it down all those steps to my orchestra seats. The piano was lit up in purple and Prince stood on it as he played “The Beautiful Ones,” my favorite slow-paced song.* That’s all I really needed to see from that night. It was amazing. I had finally seen Prince perform and he did not disappoint. I bought Whitney a retro-style shirt on the way out (much better than the male option) and she told me recently it’s still one of her favorite shirts. Another fan created.
Now, I was back in North Carolina, had a new girlfriend, and until two weeks ago had been waiting on a potential secret Prince show to happen in NC. He was performing another Hit and Run tour, where he played unannounced (or announced very quickly before the date) shows at mid-size clubs. Beau, working in the event business, had caught wind that it would be at The Ritz in Raleigh. I had Maya, my girl, keeping her ear out and I was quietly waiting to hear from Beau if he found anything else out. Maya knew Prince well – not my kind of love for him – but she was ecstatic about the chance to see him. But before that could happen, she texted me:
“Babe, Prince died.”
My heart sank.
I was in shock the rest of the day and really didn’t know why it was affecting me so deeply. Most celebrity deaths don’t bother me on a personal level. The last time I cried over a famous person dying, it was Chris Farley in 1997. I couldn’t shake Prince though, and I still haven’t. I spent the rest of the day listening to his songs and amazing covers of his songs while running down a rabbit hole of internet articles. I found one tweet that finally explained why I was feeling the way I was. And it’s probably cliché, because I think it was originally in response to another celebrity’s death, but it’s completely applicable:
And I cried twice 4 U.