Prince Showed Me a Whole New Way of Existing

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Photo: Ron Wolfson

When I was 12 years old, I saw Prince for the first time on the cheesy top-40 TV show “Solid Gold.” He was wearing a sparkly purple jacket and eyeliner, dancing like a sexy demon with a guitar strapped to his body, singing about the end times. It was like catching a glimpse of an alien from a distant galaxy and immediately realizing that there is a faraway world out there that’s a million times cooler than the world you live in.

As Prince moved from “1999” into “Little Red Corvette,” I fired questions at my 16-year-old brother: Who is that? He’s so weird! Is he wearing make-up? Why is his hair like that? Do you like this song? My brother was more than happy to answer my questions if it meant steering me away from the empty calories of Air Supply and Hall & Oates that were the staple of my musical diet at that point. Yes, Prince is very fucking cool, his tone told me. Yes, this guy is the real deal. Yes. He came from another dimension to blow your tiny preteen mind. 

A few weeks later, I visited a record store and bought Dirty Mind. I put it into my Walkman immediately, and didn’t take it out for the next six months. That opening beat, like a heartbeat, followed by Prince’s extra-high soprano, sounded to my very white, very Catholic ears like the sexiest whisper of temptation I’d ever heard.

There’s something about you, baby
It happens all the time
Whenever I’m around you, baby
I get a dirty mind
It doesn’t matter where we are
It doesn’t matter who’s around
It doesn’t matter, I just want to lay you down

It was like listening to my nascent libido. Prince was a dangerously sexy alien who lived inside my head and knew exactly how sick my thoughts were. He understood the enormous inconvenience of getting a dirty mind whenever you’re around someone — which is the pretty much the dominant ambience of a 12-year-old’s existence. Suddenly I knew that all of the things that everyone called “bad” might actually be very, very good indeed.

And there was something so gentle and loving and right about Prince. He had a massive sex drive (Obviously! All the guy did was fuck!) but he didn’t have the scary vibe of a macho dude who would manhandle you with his giant, clumsy bear paws and then leave you mauled and weeping afterwards. Prince was filthy but sensitive. He knew what he was doing. He had skills. When he bragged about his skills and then shimmied around onstage and then played those finessed, nuanced guitar licks with those delicate hands of his … Well. You learned things about your own desires just watching him. It was not difficult to access your sexual imagination, once you knew that Prince existed.

And nothing Prince claimed seemed far-fetched. It seemed plausible that virgins on their way to be wed would stop and proclaim to him, “I must confess, I want to get undressed and go to bed.” I didn’t even know what this “head” thing was, but I knew Prince could probably do it better than any man alive. And he wouldn’t make you feel cheap about it, either. He’d make you feel like the center of the known universe. Prince seemed to love women for all of the right reasons. Prince was part woman, maybe. Or maybe he was part gay. I didn’t have the slightest grasp of what any of this stuff meant — I barely understood binary gender constructions — but I knew that Prince found all of the traditional distinctions made by mortal man useless and arbitrary and hopelessly narrow-minded.

Prince made pop music seem more exciting and smarter than it ever had before. Prince made sex seem full of possibility instead of sinful and scary. Prince made regular everyday men seem clumsy and unimaginative.

So I bought 1999 and listened to that constantly. And then Purple Rain came out.

“The Beautiful Ones” was by far my favorite song on that album. I listened to it over and over again until I couldn’t stand the sound of any other song. No other song could touch the seductive melancholy of “The Beautiful Ones.” Here was a song that felt just like falling madly in love and lust and then watching it slip out of your grasp. Plenty of songs are about that, but Prince takes it past the gentle, flat ocean of “I want you back” and heads out for the open sea of desire and despair and rage and raw physical longing. When Prince starts singing “Do you want me?” it’s so unexpected and so wretched that it’s impossible not to feel every cell of your body spring to life. When he screeches “Baby baby baby I want you!” it sounds like a baby crying, which is exactly how it feels to want someone who is indifferent about you.

I loved that song desperately, precisely because it embodied the feeling you have, when you’re so obsessed that you can barely breathe, that if you express yourself clearly enough and passionately enough, the object of your obsession will somehow be moved enough by your passion to come around. This essential misunderstanding — that by explaining your desires clearly and forcefully, you’ll finally be embraced and loved deeply — ruled the next 15 years of my life. “The Beautiful Ones” was a terrible, irresistible omen of things to come.

But really, the whole Purple Rain album was the most addictive, deeply soulful music most of us had ever heard before. I had U2 and the Police and Led Zeppelin and Queen on heavy rotation by that point. Prince’s music mixed the sexual with the spiritual. He stood for some brand new way of existing.

With “Purple Rain,” Prince made spirituality seem closely linked to lust and anger, which might not have been a huge leap for those very familiar with gospel and blues and R&B at that point, but which seemed utterly foreign to a kid raised in the Catholic church and therefore used to associating spirituality with eating dry wafer “bread” and half-singing starchy hymns and kneeling until your knees ached. Prince made regular everyday religions seem awkward and dead to me.

While the rest of the world was flat-lining, Prince was an explosion of color and sensual delights. Prince was an around-the-clock sacred orgasm in human form.

Then my dad returned from a trip to Minneapolis and reported that his friend was neighbors with Prince, and his friend told him that even though Prince sang dirty songs he was a perfectly nice, regular guy. I imagined Prince often after that, living by a lake, writing music, remaining out of the limelight and staying largely invisible to the rest of us, but knocking on his neighbor’s door for a cup of sugar.

It hurt my heart to imagine Prince back then. Here was a human being who knew exactly how to live, a sexy introvert who had mastered so many instruments, written so many songs, and had sex with so many (lucky, lucky!) women. Here was a man who existed on a higher plane that the rest of us did. It was so obvious. I was so envious.

I wanted to be with Prince, sure. But more than that, I wanted to BE Prince. And I cared about him — he seemed a little fragile! And I felt I could relate to him in a way that I couldn’t relate to, say, Bono or Michael Jackson or Sting or Michael Stipe. It’s telling that Prince eventually belonged in the same category in my mind as Kate Bush and Bjork and PJ Harvey and The Lion and The Cobra–era Sinead O’Connor. Prince was a passionate, enraged outcast who’d been injured by his upbringing. (Thanks to “When Doves Cry” and later the movie Purple Rain, I was sure that Prince’s father was “too bold” and his mother was never satisfied and they yelled at each other all the time, just like my own father and mother did.) Prince was a sensitive, sexy man-child (or woman-child?) who channeled his passions and made magic from them. I saw Prince as my secret friend. I saw him as my weekend lover. I saw him as my muse.

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The Monday before Prince died, I was driving in the car playing “Little Red Corvette” for my kids, telling them how it felt to watch him for the first time on TV. “I had never seen anyone like him before,” I said. “Guys didn’t wear earrings and eyeliner back then. That was a really courageous of him. And he had such a beautiful voice, and he was also insanely charismatic. I couldn’t peel my eyes away from him.” I knew I was talking about Prince the way my mom used to talk about John Lennon, the way people used to talk about Elvis or James Brown or Frank Sinatra. Prince was like that for me. He was like that for a huge swath of my generation. Watching him was like peeking through a tiny keyhole and seeing a whole different way of being alive. We all knew instantly that he was the coolest. We knew there wasn’t a higher level of cool than Prince anywhere.

My kids wanted to hear the song again. And again, and again.

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so sad about any public figure’s death before. I don’t know if I can even read other people’s words about Prince, because my experience of him felt so private, even though I know it was shared by millions. If Prince had a lot of offensive and unforgivable flaws as a human being, I don’t really want to know about them.

Obviously he completely redesigned the landscape of pop music. For thirty years now, I’ve been telling people, “This song is a rip-off of Prince.” To me, everything on the radio sounds like an imitation of Prince, or an imitation of an imitation of Prince.

But I don’t even care about Prince as an incredible musician who blended genres with the deft hand of a master mixologist, creating something far greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t care about Prince as a masterful live performer. To me, Prince was a true artist who showed how you can take everything you have onboard, light and dark, positive and negative, honorable and shameful, transcendent and humiliating, and weave it into a work of transcendent grace that clears out a lot of room for the audience’s passion and their anger and their frailty. Prince blows the doors off our limited notions of what makes up a human being. He’s a luminously sexy motherfucker who makes space for us to be larger and brighter and more complex than we ever thought we could be. Prince didn’t just demonstrate how to own the full scope of your feelings, no matter how the world feels about them. He showed that, by celebrating the rawest, most painful, most dangerous, sexiest, strangest, most freakish parts of your soul, you can touch the divine.

Maybe everything bad is actually good. Maybe everything dirty is actually brilliant and right. Maybe everything you fear actually holds the key to your salvation.