My college years were defined by Prince. Specifically, they were defined by the eternal quest to get into one of Prince’s late-night jam-fests at Paisley Park. More weekend nights than I care to count, whatever I was doing would get unceremoniously dropped whenever I heard the rumor flying around: Prince is throwing a party tonight! Whoever had access to a car would race for it, along with the three or four people lucky enough to call a seat, and off we’d go, barreling toward the mysterious gated estate. Most of the time, nothing would come of it. But, on extremely rare occasions, you might find yourself standing awkwardly in a giant room, watching Gwen Stefani sipping a glass of wine nearby, as everyone waited for the great Purple One to make his entrance, start playing music, and not stop until several hours later, having seemingly levitated the entire place via sheer force of personality. Sadly, this was never me—I missed out on ever getting lucky enough, meaning I would simply demand that friends of mine who did manage to get in regale me with the entire account, from the first note to the final bow. But even the failure carried a kind of connection to Prince. After returning to my dorm from another failed attempt, I’d put on his music, look out the window, and, as the sun came up, wonder about the experience I was missing. Maybe never getting into the compound wasn’t all bad: Forever in my mind, I’ll have the magical, otherworldly, and intimate Prince performance I didn’t get in reality. No other American artist I know of possesses that kind of transcendent mystique, one that even liberates my daydreams from the everyday. Emancipation, indeed.
I wrote a lot about Prince for The A.V. Club when I inducted Dirty Mind into Permanent Records. But I didn’t include anything of my personal experience, like how I always felt like I was getting away with something whenever I listened to Dirty Mind, Controversy, and 1999 in my Tennessee suburban home, where I wasn’t even allowed to watch R-rated movies. My most vivid Prince memory will always be listening to Purple Rain for the first time. I saved up my allowance and bought the album at Walmart, on the strength of the advance single, “When Doves Cry.” When I dropped the needle on the record and heard “Let’s Go Crazy”—before it was getting played on the radio—I experienced what I can only describe as a moment of transcendent musical ecstasy. The song was so exciting that I was literally shaking by the end, and had to pause before I could continue. I don’t know that Prince’s mix of deep Christianity and libertine pleasure-seeking ever made sense to anyone besides himself, but I can say that “Let’s Go Crazy” was a simultaneously religious and erotic expression, like nothing else. (Well, like nothing by anyone other than Prince, that is.)
I was never the obsessive fan of Prince’s music that I know so many of my colleagues and contemporaries are. But it was impossible not to respect him as a creative force, and as a man who refused to compromise his artistic vision, even at the risk of being labeled “eccentric” for refusing to go with the flow. Battling the record labels, putting Spotify on blast, even changing his name: It’s painfully rare to see someone able to protect his own talents with that kind of confidence and conviction, and the world is poorer for losing that self-possession and strength.
A lot of growing up is about trying to find people you can identify with. That’s easier for some people based solely on where they live. If you’re in New York, for example, there’s a plethora of entertainment you can claim as your own and celebrities that got their start in your neighborhood. As a kid from rural, northern Wisconsin, that wasn’t my experience. There was, however, Prince. Sure, Minneapolis was still a three-hour drive away, but as the nearest metropolitan area, it was my city and that made Prince, a pioneer of Minneapolis sound, my artist. What started as a mere hat tip to someone else from the Midwest quickly turned into a deeper admiration. How could it not? Prince as a musician is so obviously talented and I fondly look back on car trips to and from Minneapolis with some of his best jams blaring. But what I admire most about Prince is that his talent, authentic and influential in equal measure, wasn’t confined to the stage, screen, or my stereo. That is to say, Prince is one of the first people that taught me it’s okay to be unconventional, and not just a performer, but as a person. Hell, he’s one of the first people from Minneapolis that I knew that was anything but “Minnesota nice,” and in that I found a kindred spirit. I like to imagine that wherever he is now, he’s greeted those around him with, “Boys and motherfuckin’ girls, this is your captain with no name speaking, and I’m here to rock your world,” because even the afterlife is too short for passive aggression.
It’s impossible for me to isolate a single part of Prince’s life and career that meant the most to me. I loved his music dearly (I have never, ever put money in a jukebox and not played “Raspberry Beret”), but what was always most inspiring—and occasionally frustrating—was his fierce commitment to doing whatever the fuck he wanted. He did things on his own terms, never willing to give an inch of himself to something he wasn’t fully invested in. He was independent in a way few artists ever have been, and losing that beacon of artistic freedom hits harder than I ever thought it would.
I wrote this for a Hear This a while back, but most of you probably didn’t read it, so let me just tell it again: My oldest sister was almost done with high school when I was just a 7-year-old pup starting to get obsessed with music, and her record collection was pretty incredible for someone her age in 1981: I listened without any preconceived notions to The Residents, Circle Jerks, and more. I was especially enamored with the title track to Prince’s 1981 album Controversy—I still am, really—but I’d occasionally get through the entire record, which ends with the rollicking, ridiculous “Jack U Off.” It may be the least subtle song in a catalog full of unsubtle sex jams, with every verse featuring a new location in which Prince offers to, um, jack you off: movie show, restaurant, his neighborhood, on a date, in your mama’s car (a Cadillac). Now, as a second- or third-grader, I clearly had no idea what services Prince was so keen to provide, I just liked the sound of the words. It ends like this: “I’ll jack you o-o-o-off, I’ll jack you off.” I remember distinctly approaching our family car, a red AMC Matador, jauntily singing the song to myself. One of my sisters froze and said, “Sing that again! Sing it to Mom!” I knew immediately that singing it to my mom was a bad idea, though I imagine she probably would’ve just laughed and told me not to sing it at school. (God bless you, Mom.) “Jack U Off” was never a hit, and it’s overshadowed by much better songs—“Controversy” and “Sexuality”—not to mention albums. But it’s got a special place in my heart for accidentally making me say the darndest things.
My brother was five years older than me, my cultural compass and our family’s keeper of the copy of Purple Rain. As a 7-year-old, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of this androgynous, royal purple-clad enchanter, but I sure did dig his incredibly catchy album. Like all my brother’s things, the record was off-limits to me, so I was only able to listen to it when he was inclined to put it on. “When Doves Cry” was my favorite track and I was as disproportionately excited as a first-grader could be whenever I had the chance to hear Prince’s contemplative anthem on escaping the broken legacy of your own dysfunctional family lineage. I remember clearly a day I was home sick with the flu: Lying in bed, I heard my brother come home from school and ask my mom where I was. I didn’t hear her response, but shortly after, I did hear these familiar opening lines blasting loud enough from our speakers that I could hear them upstairs: “Dig if you will the picture / Of you and I engaged in a kiss / The sweat of your body covers me / Can you my darling / Can you picture this?” Thanks, Prince. You are powerful enough to make a 12-year-old boy be nice to his sick younger brother.
As a child, I hated dancing. I found it really undignified for some reason—maybe it was all the Masterpiece Theatre I watched. So you can imagine the difficulty I had in expressing my admiration for Prince’s music while living in a household filled with his fans, who weren’t at all averse to accompanying Purple Rain with some actual movement. After all, what kind of person sits still to “Let’s Go Crazy” or “Raspberry Beret”? One who sings really loud. I have six siblings, and rooting myself to the spot during our group listening sessions while crooning along to “If I Was Your Girlfriend” or some other track helped me find my voice in the Greek chorus of my family life. I caught a lot of flak from them for not “enjoying” the songs the right way—but given how Prince resisted definition, I don’t think he would have prescribed any one method for listening to his music.
Like Madonna and Michael Jackson, Prince was omnipresent throughout the ’80s. But my major introduction to him came via the Batman soundtrack, which was one of the first CDs my family ever owned after purchasing a then-pricey player. I was obsessed with the movie at the time, so that we had the soundtrack was pretty rad to my then-elementary school ears. Listening to “Batdance” now—which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts!—it’s a mind-blowing song that treats genres like a suggestion, and somehow manages to be both cartoonish and dirty. I didn’t realize at the time how incredibly futuristic his music was, of course. But over time, that’s why I’ve come to admire Prince so much. He always sounded one step ahead of everybody and everything else, and his refusal to kowtow to trends or even his own legacy made him radical.
For me, Prince will always be the sound of late-night dance parties in hot, sticky, probably-not-up-to-code rooms with the sweat of a hundred or so young twentysomethings hanging in the air like a fine mist. My freshman year of college, I befriended a couple of guys who DJ’d regular dance nights upstairs at a local rock joint and whose musical tastes were significantly funkier than mine. (I was more of a punk rocker in high school.) These guys loved Prince, particularly Dirty Mind, and “When You Were Mine” was a staple of those dance nights. It was the first time in my life I let myself just relax, quit being so self-conscious, and dance, and Prince was a big part of that. Maybe that’s why his music always gives me such joy.
I actually went to the same college as Katie, and we had a lot of the same friends, so my memories of “meeting” Prince are much the same, albeit a little earlier and to the tune of “Let’s Go Crazy.” But the first thing I thought of when I heard the news today was this image, which stared at me from above my coworker Miranda’s desk across the room at Touch And Go Records in the mid-’00s.
Like Burt Reynolds’ Playgirl picture, Prince’s Controversy poster is one of the quintessential male pinups. There’s so much to look at—the belly chain, the crucifix on the wall, the way that pair of briefs doesn’t really cover up all that much. This poster reminds me that Prince wasn’t just a stellar musician. He was also an icon, one that could produce something this cheesy and get away with it. He changed his name to a goddamn symbol and we all just went along with it, albeit with a little joking. Prince feels like one of the last celebrities alive that could get away with just about anything, making his death mark both the end of his life and the closing of an era.
I’ve written before about the power that music had to bring my family together, and while Bruce Springsteen was a linchpin of familial connectivity, Prince was the funky alternative, yet another artist introduced to my siblings and me by our mother. That’s what Prince was to me: an effortless way to bond with the closest people in my life that, when we were a family with three teenagers, wasn’t always so straightforward. How can you not sing together when “Raspberry Beret” comes on in the car? “1999” was a particular favorite, starting from when the radio stations played it nonstop in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve 2000 and continuing on, cementing a place of funkiest of rock anthems in the collection of songs everyone could agree on playing. We even saw him at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, suffering together through an unusually cold summer day with seats so far away and high we could look behind us and see Lake Michigan stretching to the horizon. Even as a dot on a faraway stage, the Purple One brought us together.
I got into Prince later than most, around 17 or 18, having always understood he was one of those people whose coolness was accepted as a given. It was the cool aesthetic that made me curious; Prince was supposed to be slick and sexy, a standard of party and make-out music that appealed to parents and intimidating record store employees alike. I was shocked, of course, to then discover how weird, goofy, uninhibited, and intelligent Prince could actually be. Dirty Mind was the album that made me a Prince fan, from the cover to the tightly pressed sound to lyrics that could make a porn star blush. Talent—which Prince had in spades, as a musician, songwriter, and vocalist—is one thing, but what’s even more important is the willingness to push as deep as you can into something, whether its your hyper-sexed imagination or your political and religious views. He’s one of those artists I find myself thinking about whenever I think about the general concept of making art. Though I write mostly about movies, I often think of his music as a point of comparison; heck, one of the first pieces of film criticism I ever wrote was a defense of Under The Cherry Moon.