At the college radio station, the poster hung on the wall. A scrawny li’l thing with a few flaccid chest hairs, greaseball hair tumbling down as much Guido Romeo as Latino playa... naked but for a pair of skimpy bikini panties and a cross.
He watched you. Every little thing you’d do. There in that still wet shower, promises of things that should scare you behind his eyes; pleasures untold still glistening on his lips.
Prince hadn’t broken wide when Controversy found WPRK, there on Rollins’ manicured Spanish style campus on the lake. My mother came to watch me turn the radio show on one morning, alone under the library before Chris Russo my news and sports guy got there.
As the generators hummed and the equipment whirred and warmed up, I ran around flicking light switches, grabbing logs and clipboards, tearing the latest Associated Press news feed. I found her, hair teased high and wide, three platinum stripes rising out of the impossibly immobile Lady Bird Johnson ‘do, staring intently at the rumpled poster as long and as thin as he was.
Pressing the Marlboro 100 to her lips, her eyes narrowed as she dispassionately inhaled almost the entire thing. The tip burned angry red, intensifying as she sucked in. When she finally stopped drawing the burning tobacco into her lungs, she let out a plume of smoke, turned to me as I settled behind the turntables and board, preparing to put the radio station on the air.
“And what in the hell is that?” were her only words. Flat, cold, appalled.
“Welcome to another morning of broadcasting at WPRK, 91.5, Winter Park, Florida,” I said as mellifluously as possible, then read from the sign on card. I feared her ballast; I knew it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t get it, didn’t care. The image offended her for so many reasons, though sexuality had never been a problem for the woman with the heavily dented dance card.
Cold drop on “Night Shift,” the Commodores tribute to the glory days of Motown. Turn the volume up slowly. Close the pots, check the logs, find another record. Look up.
“His name is Prince Nelson Rogers. They call him Prince. From Minneapolis. Funk. Controversy...”
"He looks like a freak, no wonder there’s controversy.”
“NO,” I picked back up from the interruption. “It’s the name of his album. A lot of people think he’s offensive. He’s also a musical genius with a big pop aura. Like the black soul Todd Rundgren.”
She inhaled what was left of her cigarette, dropped it into her coffee.
“He looks like a faggot.”
And there you go.
Prince Rogers Nelson, like James Brown, like Stevie Wonder, like Rick James, carved deep veins of funk. Grooves you could do the laps in, beats that’d bounce you like a little kid on a trampoline. But he was a masterful musician: to hear him slash and spike strings, you understood the musical violence that melody could sustain.
My gateway drug had been rollerskates. Fat wheels, stiff leather, laced way above the ankles. When “I Wanna Be Your Lover” played, it was so juicy, so emollient, it felt like that polished hardwood floor would push you by virtue of the silky pop grooves. And the way he squeezed his voice in the end? Oh, yeah!
There were no little boys like that at any of the prep schools I went to: sensitive, melting gender, sprawling across rock and rhythm & blues and pop and funk. But Prince did it with such insouciance, such bravado, such luster, you couldn’t walk away. To me, he was everything Carly Simon sang about in that first verse of “You’re So Vain,” only wickedly talented and able to scoop me up in a few bars.
If Rick James was hard and ghetto, there was something so bohemian about the man wearing ladies clothes long before arena rockers found Fredericks of Hollywood. Looking up through that thick black shock of hair, he was a doe-eyed sylph who was all tease, then taunt, then... Well, the mind bucks.
Which was exactly the point. And while those early Prince albums were a thumb on the sore spots, a freaky sex show of “Head” and “Do Me Baby” and “Soft and Wet” and “Dirty Mind” and “Do It All Night” and “Annie Christian,” “Jack U Off,” “Sexuality” and “Private Joy,” they were as fraught because of how overt his approach. Here was a 90 pound banty rooster, often in a frilly shirts or no clothes with a band as tight as James Brown’s making no bones about pleasure, eroticism or the various forms of coitus and release.
And I loved him. Nice girl from the suburbs, plaid skirt, white cotton blouse, I couldn’t look away. Unlike my mother, he didn’t repulse me, but excite a curiosity about what happens when hormones run wild. Even if I remained a nice girl, it’s good to know what happens when you close that door...
Wasn’t that really the permission people who leaned into the erogenous charge were seeking? When the lights go down, the heat goes up, what happens next? Being nice didn’t mean being a mandrake root, and Lord knows, there was a reason Eve looked so good to Adam.
So I listened. I sought him out. Almost died that early morning, having just signed WVUM, the Voice of the University of Miami, onto the air – and saw 1999, a double album pleasure fest of untold delight. So new David Fleck, the MD at the time, hadn’t even pulled suggested tracks. Virgin vinyl. Mine! ALL Mine! There as day rose over the student union in Coral Gables.
Scanning the titles – for length as well as provocation, because sometimes size matters – I settled on “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” Cued it up, hugged myself tight – and opened the mic as soon as whatever song by local faves The Front was done.
“And this,” I said in my flattest Angel Dust voice, “is brand new from Prince...”
Letting the record go, I knew I could talk a bit over the hard pulse of the intro.
“The album is called 1999, and this... ahhh, promises, promises... is ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married.’ Enjoy the commute...” and I laughed as I faded my voice down. Once the channel was closed, I blasted the song, shrieking and jumping up and down, tossing my head from side to side, spinning and twisting and yes, grinding away to the synth-ladden, guitar-heavy slice of throbbage.
It was heaven. It was fun. It was one of the moments where the song swallows the moment, there is only music and you and all those delicious gyrations coming from your body swept up in it all.
Suddenly, I noticed the flashing red light angrily spinning. The Hot Line was for emergencies, invasions, matters of national crisis. Oh, Lord... Throwing the volume down, I picked up breathless, squeaking, “Hello...”
“What in the HELL are you DOING?” came the angry bark of Glenn Schwartz the impossibly good looking summer GM. “Jesus, Holly...”
“It’s new Prince,” I stammered. “I thought I’d checked the levels. Am I pinning the...
Before I could say “meters,” he interrupted. “Get. IT. OFF! GetitoffNOW....”
“Uhm, uh, uhm, ah....”
Scrambling, I set the needle flying across the vinyl, shoving in a cart of the English Beat’s ska-skankery “Mirror In The Bathroom,” hoping it wouldn’t be too abrupt. Pulling the pot up, I didn’t bother to break, just cover the silence which is the mark of sloppy radio.
The telephone receiver dangled from all the scrambling. I could hear yelling on the other end. Picking it up to an “Are you there?,” I murmured “yeah,” not understanding. As the shouting resumed, I did pick out “For the love of Christ, ‘I sincerely want to %$#& the taste of your mouth?’ REALLY? Do you give a shit about our license?”
I wanted to be adult, professional. Trying to say, “Yes, yes, I do. I am so sorry,” I somehow fell into a giggle.
“This isn’t funny, Holly. What the hell? Didn’t you preview the track?”
Preview the track? Well, no. I thought we could all burst into spontaneous combustion of funky pleasure together. That was probably not the answer he was looking for.
“Uhm, no,” I said, always committed to telling the truth. “I, uhm, I got excited – and it was a long song. I figured there’d be some jamming, some really grinding down into the groove. I was so lost in it, honestly, I wasn’t even listening to the lyrics.”
“YOU?! The person who plays Pure Praire League on our station? You didn’t check the lyrics?! Are you kidding me?”
“No, Glen, I didn’t. I just knew...”
“It was gonna feel good.”
He hung up.
And so Prince became my own private rebellion. If my street school friends knew about Earth, Wind and Fire and Rick James’ “Superfreak,” I knew something even more out. Prince was mine, and I liked it that way.
Only “1999” became the omnipresent party anthem. “Little Red Corvette” took a penis metaphor and unbridled desire and roared across suburban Top 40 radio. It seemed America was turning on, finding the libertine with the sick beats, the narcotic melodies, and those grooves you couldn’t climb out of.
Jealous, I watched his star rise. Watched as he became the James Dean of funk, a tortured misunderstood artist against the world with the film “Purple Rain” and an album of the same name that seemingly outsold everything else combined.
My mother was still not impressed. One night after a few pops, she wandered by the tv as the still whippet thin musician rose from a steaming tub. Again inhaling her Marlboro 100, she paused with her lungs full, slowly turned as the smoke plumed and decreed, “He still looks like a faggot to me.”
Maybe. But in purple brocade, he was launching careers. Porn motifs as the Shirelles in Vanity 6, world class percussionist as women who knows in the seductive Shiela E(scobedo), cracker jack band with the swerve and the verve the Time, which eventually spawned Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who’d produce Janet Jackson’s biggest albums.
There were also the contributions to others: an innuendo laden hit for throwaway popper Sheena Easton with “Sugar Walls,” the rush rush working girl soda pop effervescence of the Bangles “Manic Monday,” the turbo synth shaft driven departure for Stevie Nicks “Stand Back.” Cindy Lauper cut a roiling “When U Were Mine” and Sinead O’Connor hit the mainstream with the stark lament “Nothing Compares to You,” not to mention Chaka Khan’s blazing return with “I Feel For You,” all sass and verve and whew! and well then...
Oh, yeah, Prince was happening. He hit Miami like a hurricane, blowing into the Orange Bowl with full gale force for the Purple Rain Tour. This tiny little man who danced like a chicken on a hot plate, downstroking his electric guitar and yowling with the demand and gratification of a true sexual avatar.
Yes, yes, yes. Garnering an invitation to the post-show party at the high end South Beach when it was busted hanger-sized disco Club X, I chewed my straw and watched the wide curving stair way hoping for a glimpse.
When he showed – somewhere between 2 and 3 in the morning – it was old school glamour. A meltingly luxurious suit in a pastel so pale, it was unidentifiable. Tiny like a jockey, but a presence that consumed the room.
Shiela E was with him, laughing into her hand. Caramel hair falling in waves and curls, a pencil skirt slit up, lace stockings and a satiny blouse whose tailoring seemed almost to be designed to second-skin her.
Rock & roll didn’t look like this. Nothing did. I was gobsmacked.
For suburban kids with their bad perms, Manic Panic hair color and mousse to defy gravity, wearing Jordache jeans with combs in the back pockets, this was as unattainable as the lingerie clad court of women who surrounded him like a merry widow army. Little did we know about the members only, nose bleed expensive Trashy Lingerie on LaCienega, where Prince would pull up in a limo and shower these women with whale boned satin corsets, ribbony garter belts and push up bras dotted with feathers, diamante, leopard prints in scarlet red, baby pink, midnight blue, white and naturally black.
Black. The color. The whispered about album. Mythic. Vaunted. A unicorn from Paisley Park. If Prince colonized a forbidden place kids couldn’t get to fast enough, he had his own dark thoughts, his own raunchy excess and grooves to scrape and twist into a scrap metal abyss of “oh, yes.”
There might’ve been “Kiss,” and “Raspberry Beret,” and “Cream.” All those albums that tumbled out, each slightly more obtuse as the funk widened. Was it – like Miles Davis or Coltrane – an attempt to explore universes obscure to the rest of us? Or was the Purple One seeking to shed himself of the obsessive outcasts and mall rats who’d never truly be free or forward or... beautiful.
I got my copy of The Black Album on cassette from the Dazz Band on their way back into the country from a tour of Japan. Winning the 1983 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group – tying Earth, Wind + Fire – with the unlikely “Let It Whip,” a song considered to be the first B&D smash, it seemed somehow appropriate.
Steve Cox, the jazz-driven synthesizer programmer, slid the Maxell heavy duty across the bar towards me with a knowing smile. “This is the stuff,” he said. “You’re gonna like it.”
It was the beginning of the extended game of chutes and ladders Prince would play with the record business. Getting a fade that read “Slave” cut into his sideburns... refusing to turn in records to his label... figuring out how to circumvent standard business procedures.
He would make the Noel Coward-evoking “Under The Cherry Sky” motion picture. He would turn up here and there. He would release a ridiculous album on Larry Graham. He would play hide and seek with the public eye.
But whenever he turned up, it would be worth the watching, Sexy*funky*strange. Not to mention, a feminist and wicked appeciator of the feminine form. When “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” descended, every shape and type and trope of woman was celebrated – suggesting the sensual in us all. It was genius, and it made women feel empowered in the world as well as the boudoir.
When you feel good, when you feel desired, what is more erotic than that?
It’s what made Prince someone you wanted to hear, to feel, but also to see.
Having cashed out my journalism chips to take a job at Sony Nashville, running their Media & Artist Development Department, I knew the writers that I needed were the ones covering the mainstream. In the waters where people thought country was – to parrot Sylvester Stallone in “Rhinestone” – “worse than liver” was where the beachhead needed to be.
Explaining to my very forward looking boss Mike Martinovich my thinking, he blessed me to go to the MTV Awards, where Don Was was serving as musical director. In true Penny Lane fashion, it was Was who “found me a pass.” It was standing by him, too, that saved me when they cleared the Universal Amphitheatre for Prince’s rehearsal.
Beyond the assless pants, where it all hung out and a big buzz, here was this loose electric wire, screwed up tight, showering the tech people, script folks and sundry production staff with such sweltering guitar playing, I can’t even remember the song. Bass notes rumbled like big trucks on old brick roads, fat tires flattening just a bit, the drums slapped hard like an open hand on a wet face.
But it was Prince, leaning in, hearing things we couldn’t as the synthesizers pushed what we thought were the boundaries. Binding the music together, it was the closest thing to combustion I’d ever seen at another person’s finger tips.
Even in rehearsal, even with his energy pulled in, he held nothing back from that guitar. It was man and music, entangled, thrashing, pressing and seeking. It was, perhaps the aural equivalent of sex with an instrument – and it felt good.
And when "Screwdriver" dropped out of the blue last year, it was just as alive, just as much voltage rushing through it. An entire day, I did nothing but play the YouTube with the flimsy little video. Over and over. Kept sending the link to friends, loving every Facebook reposting or tweet or gushing email reply.
That sense of the groove coming from the inside out? I never recovered, and all these years later, it still hit me in the face and dropped me to my knees. "I'll be the driver, you be my screw." Uh-HUH.
Like the mixtape a pretty famous regional musician made for me. The expected Buddy Millers, Patty Griffins, Springsteens, a random Vince Gill. But in the middle of all that, a few piano notes formed a curl, chords fell lilke tears as the notes ascended -- and a papery, whispery falsetto intoned, "I am lonely painter, I live in a box of paints..." and i sucked my breath in. So gentle, so soulful, so washed in a carousel of emotions -- want, regret, love, need -- I pulled over.
Prince singing Joni Mitchell. "A Case of You." One of her most sacred songs of love and longing, connection and those feelings so rarely sound, so aggressively sought, even chased. A drummer mostly played the rims, the piano rolled over notes and built, the falsetto rising ever higher before settling into the pledge of "I could drink a case of you/ and still be on my feet."
I could go on and on. But I can’t. I’m not spent. I’m crying again. Not just tears running down my face, sitting here in some deep Alabama truck stop, people who were never touched by the music milling by in search a hot shower, a little food, some gas or coffee.
Not me. I had to pull over when an editor mentioned it to me in a phone call. Had to start writing like Hans Christian Anderson’s Red Shoes possessed my fingers. Had to try to remember it all: the way my blood felt like schools of little fish, nibbling my veins when his music was loud, the pulse racing when I glimpsed him at X or my jaw went slack just watching him push that glyph-looking guitar to places I didn’t know existed.
But always the music pulls me back, holds me down. I am not sobbing, but I am audible. People are looking. What can you say? They think you’re some silly teenager in a flashback moment, lost on a tide of who you were when you didn’t know any better.
They’d be wrong, of course. Prince is the one who brought a freedom and a knowledge, a conquistador’s brio and the hunger of starved wolves to our lives. Like the snake in the garden, he gave us an apple that tasted like music... and sex... and love...
It is easy to remember the freaky, the odd demands, the ego, the flamboyance and excess. But it was the teeter totter of a Jehovah’s Witness, an intense privacy, a wild distaste for how the music business worked – and a drive to make music, play far into the night that balanced those things.
Prince was 57. Too young, not enough, no reason.
As the poet’s say: WTF?
And even worse, the truck stop has no cut rate For You, Prince or Dirty Mind to buy. Not even a bad second generation Purple Rain or Parade or Sign O’ The Times. It is raining now, just a little, a good cover for my tears.
US 280-E beckons. Miles to go before I keep, and it is that keeping on that is what will pull me to where I’m headed. A football stadium at a massive SEC Stadium, the first ever concert where the Auburn Tigers play.
Ironically or perfectly, Kenny Chesney’s 2016 Tour is called Spread the Love. Inadvertent, yet appropriate. In a very hippie, free-spirited way, it almost siren calls the youth to let themselves go and be in the moment.
As for me, you can find me driving and crying in what most certainly won’t be purple rain. But before I pack my things, back up and drive away, do me a favor: remember, all we have is right now. Today, do something bold. Tell someone how you feel. Wear that expensive thing you’re saving. Drive a little too fast if it makes you feel more alive. Turn up the music, especially, and let it play!
We never know. It never lasts. Take it for all there is before it’s gone. Wherever, however, whatever, forever and ever, amen.
21 April 2016