I WAS IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, which is a pretty young age for a thief or for a Prince fan. I don’t know what prompted this act of petty criminality, but this was still a time when cassette tapes existed side-by-side with vinyl and compact discs but were eminently easier to steal, especially from the cut-out bins. They were begging for it.
That’s where I found Purple Rain, several years after it ceased to be a cultural phenomenon and was merely an all-time great album. It’s still one that’s still difficult for the cultural archons to digest – a soundtrack that was the vehicle for a movie that was the vehicle for a pop “star” who to that point could claim just one hit record to his name. There have been more unusual songs than “When Doves Cry” or “Purple Rain” or “Darling Nikki,” but none of them prompted seven year olds to dance (or even steal).
I didn’t have a Walkman so I listened with the volume turned down low, for as long as I could stand it. You could lose yourself entirely – I mean transcend time and space in a way that only hippies really understand – in the guitar solo of “Purple Rain.” It feels like it might go on forever, every time. What kind of magic is that? It never does – go on forever, I mean – but the disappointment melts away in exhausted exaltation. How some people feel about the 23rd Psalm? That’s how I feel about that song.
Nobody paid too much mind to what I was doing in those days, so a small crime spree centered entirely around a Sam Goody and consisting entirely of Prince albums went unnoticed.
Living in a cultural backwater, there was a lot of catching up to do. Prince’s b-sides alone would resemble any other Hall of Fame artist’s greatest hits record. Just the songs he handed off to others would have made a solo artist’s career, and then some.
I carried on like this without pause until one day my brother caught me lip-synching in my bedroom wearing a bulky suitcoat and a pair of white gloves, which was about as close as I could improvise Prince’s purple splendor.
That was when he began to blackmail me – not for my burgeoning shoplifting career but because even the crime of listening to Prince (much less dressing something like a hobo version of Prince) was seen as an act of supreme homosexual tendencies in certain circles. Unfortunately, we lived just at the hardscrabblin’ epicenter of one of them. This was many years after Disco but the passion and petty hate that had smashed Disco to pieces beneath the fists of white rage were still steering this ship.
I think I had to promise to get him several Van Halen records and maybe a Joe Walsh to buy his silence. Done.
Years from now a diverse cottage industry will be devoted to documenting his every move, like a combination of Bieber fandom and a North Korean cult of personality.
Prince had a relationship with the Internet that could charitably be described as “complicated,” as both a pioneer (he released on his own the first solely Internet-sold album back when a thing like entering a credit card number in a small pixelated box seemed like an act of revolution) and as a harsh master. He sometimes encouraged his rabid fans’ expression with one hand and slapped them around with the other.
But I’m pretty sure Prince came out ahead here. Thanks to the lax security at suburban malls at the close of the 1980s, he had a lifelong fan, one that knew all the words to “Darling Nikki” before he was old enough to even comprehend what they really meant.
In fact, Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times in particular probably did a lot to help me overcome whatever trashy attitudes I was raised with, from the jagoffs I was raised around. I doubt I’d have ever listened to House Music (also characterized as “gay music” in that milieu) had Prince not lain the groundwork. Keith Nunnally of JM Silk once told me that House Music could save people from the streets. Prince saved people – or me at least – from an inheritance of narrowminded bigotry.
Like everyone else, I eventually traded cassette tapes for compact discs, compact discs for MP3s and, curiously, MP3s for vinyl. So I would guess I’ve bought every one of those stolen records multiple times, over and over again. Prince – or whoever owned a controlling interest in the Artist Sometimes Known As – got his money from me. But I think I wound up with the better deal. It’s been observed by someone (at this point the tributes and obituaries and off-beat stories like this one are blending together in a joined cry of despair encompassing all of Western civilization, like an angel’s apocalyptic trumpet) that despite selling more records than the Beatles, everyone that listened to Prince felt like this was his own discovery, that Prince was putting on his own private show just for you. You could get lost in a never ending catalog, dive down through five decades of recordings and never touch the bottom. Years from now a diverse cottage industry will be devoted to documenting his every move, like a combination of Bieber fandom and a North Korean cult of personality. Kim Il-Sung, as president, was never replaced. He will never be succeeded, because they abolished the position so no one would ever surpass him. We abolished the office of genius because no one could ever be compared – it’s corny, but I have to do this – 2 U.
Celebrate The Beautiful One in 5 Magazine Issue #131, a double issue featuring Prince, Kenny Dope, Ralf Gum, N’Dinga Gaba and Natasha Watts. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full access to everything House Music and save 66%!