In April 1993, when I was in college and still living in suburban Crystal Lake, my friend Mike and I were leaving an early show at Metro when we noticed another long line outside the venue—black folks and white folks, young and old, trailing down and around the block. We probed people in line for details. Prince was playing a midnight show, and it had just been announced on the radio. That much was certain. Past that point, the juicy rumors took over. We heard he was performing a rock opera based on Homer’s Odyssey. We heard Malcolm-Jamal Warner from The Cosby Show had been spotted outside and was going to perform too. We heard Prince would play an acoustic solo set, and then we heard the Revolution was reuniting to perform all of Purple Rain. Because it was Prince, none of it seemed outside the realm of possibility.
Prince’s ability to radically cross over, in every sense of that term, was staggering—and not only because he was sexy, black, androgynous, and deeply weird. He was a constant and delightful assault on the senses, an ardent yet bashful superstar, shrouded both in his own purposeful enigma (What are his religious beliefs? What is the 23rd position in that one-night stand? Why did he decide 2 spell words with numbers?) and in a patina of fan- and journalist-created mythology (Does he really only listen to his own music? How many dozens of unreleased albums does he have in the Paisley Park vaults? Can he really play 30 different instruments? Why doesn’t that seem even remotely unreasonable?). His purple effervescence seeped into every nook and cranny of popular culture. Record player, radio, television, movie screen—even the Super Bowl, possibly our most shared American event—all were easily within his reach.
Prince’s career as a pop artist was the most remarkable of his time, if not of all time. In the weeks and months to come, as we mourn his loss, I suspect that this opinion will emerge as consensus among fans, critics, and musicians (assuming it hasn’t already). Only Prince could dance like Michael Jackson, play guitar like Eddie Van Halen, and sing like Maria Callas and James Brown within the same line—and he could cap it off with a tossed-off “Yes, I just did that” smirk to boot. He was that fucking good.
Much more than his outrageous fashion sense, sexually frank lyrics, and confounding 1993 name change, what many of us will remember about Prince is raw musical talent, and rightfully so. The force and shock of that talent could never be denied, not even by the comedians, talk-show hosts, and conservative sticks-in-the-mud who tried to parody the many eccentricities he displayed after his career exploded into superstardom. (After all, you can’t properly parody the uninteresting, and parody by its nature contains a hint of celebration—at least it usually did when it came to Prince.) To witness him was to be in awe of his singing, dancing, and playing, and he stormed the charts with a bounty of hit songs that bloomed with masterful alacrity and unconventional production techniques but nonetheless became sing-along touchstones for entire generations.
His albums, often realized onstage with dazzling mixed-gender, multiracial bands such as the Revolution and the New Power Generation, were cultural events: Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, and Sign ‘O’ the Times each would’ve been an unrepeatable career peak for almost any other artist. His songs for the Bangles, TLC, Chaka Khan, Sinead O’Connor, and Sheila E. sounded tailored to each performer, even when they weren’t. Prince rewired the basic circuitry of pop’s electricity. His brilliant, cunning, constantly surprising music upended or simply ignored pop’s conventions about race, genre orthodoxy, erotic playfulness, sexual swagger, moral intention, machismo, and gender fluidity, and millions of eager listeners plugged in and were changed. I certainly was.
Dig, if you will, the picture—of kids in a suburban basement. (Spoiler alert: One of the kids is me.) It’s 1984. My friends and I are playing air guitar on tennis rackets to Van Halen and laughing at ZZ Top. I’m new to MTV and constantly dazzled by it, because I’m ten years old. In the queer way that memory works, I can still imagine myself the first time I watched the “Purple Rain” video, how it cut through everything that I’d ever heard and seen before like a scythe. I can still remember conniving to get my aunt to take me to the mall to buy a cassette of the album. Secluded in my room, I gave that tape extraordinary attention. Over and over again in the following weeks, I listened to “Take Me With U” with its delicately jeweled instrumentation: a pocket symphony of clinking finger cymbals, warmly thrumming synthesizers, and gilded swoops of violin. In a sense, I’ve never really stopped. I liked all of Purple Rain then and I still do—the horny bathing sequence in “Computer Blue,” the death-metal drums at the end of “Darling Nikki,” the cascading falsetto refrain of “Purple Rain”—even as I’ve heard it beyond endurance over the years. But I keep coming back to “Take Me With U.”
It occurs to me now that somewhere in the song’s rushing call-and-response duet between Prince and Apollonia, I was hearing my own sense of desire—for all of the simple, complicated feelings of sensual connection—beginning to stir. Today I can’t isolate the exact feelings it gave me in 1984, of course, not least because life has long since inured me to the idealism surrounding romance and escape—now the song mostly provokes bittersweet nostalgia. But those feelings are still inside me somewhere, and when I found out that Prince had died yesterday—peering at a small glowing screen on my way to a White Sox game on the Halsted bus—I was suddenly crying (and surrounded by UIC students, naturally). My first thought was of that little boy in his friend’s basement all those years ago, thunderstruck by the closest thing he’d ever seen to sheer perfection, watching a man in a frilly white shirt on MTV and bathing in the purple rain. There is a place in me that will always call out his name.
I never managed to see Prince live. In the way that these things happen—budget problems, lack of foresight, arranged guest-list spots that suddenly closed—that April 1993 night at Metro was the closest I ever got. Mike and I didn’t know anyone who lived in Chicago, we were broke, and the last bus to the nearest train stop back to Crystal Lake was waiting at the corner. If you’ve ever been a suburban kid looking for thrills in the city, you know the drill. Anyway, when Mike called me yesterday to grieve for a minute, neither of us could remember the show that we’d actually been at that night, only that we’d somehow missed the Purple One who went by so many names: Prince, Camille, Prince Rogers Nelson, and an unutterable symbol both male and female that somehow meant everything and nothing all at once.
Correction: This post has been updated to properly identify Prince’s duet partner on “Take Me With U.”