Prince was my Beyoncé. Every generation an artist comes along so groundbreaking that it is earth-shattering in his or her’s impact on our culture. That is hyperbole, but I know you have heard the saying. I just added some flavor, as is Bobby Mack’s wont. (Don’t you love me?:)) The truism is true, and the fact is, there is always more than one: Michael Jackson? Michael Jordan? Mike Trout? Shit, you might be able to name a few more “Mike”‘s alone. There’s always more than one, but there will only be your one, the one that supersedes all the others for the impact he had on your life. My one was Prince.
What do we mean when we say “every generation”? What we mean is that the artist appears at the time in our lives when it matters most. When does it matter most? When we are “coming of age”; when we are becoming adults; when we are struggling to find and consolidate our identities; to be real, when we need him most, for guidance, for hope, for relief. Relief from what? The ongoing struggle, the workaday, the fears about the future, social anxieties, confusion and depression about the state of affairs, personal problems, and on and on. Prince, one of the all-time greats, came along when I needed him most.
And the guy was my age. Almost! It’s not fair! It wasn’t fair! How, how could this guy have it so together, be so prolific, be so sure of himself, at 21? How? Because he was a true genius. Don’t be fooled. He was our Beethoven. They will be discussing Prince for centuries, if we last that long. Centuries. He will be in books. People will get their PhD’s writing about him. He will continue to influence the culture long after he, and us, have left this earth.
Imagine what it is like to be 17, (need I describe it), and along comes this oddity known as “Prince”. Prince of what? Is he royalty? Is he putting on? Is he real? What is he? He was a prince, heir to the throne, only in the pantheon of CULTURE. Culture comprises everything we are. To answer the questions in order, he was the new, best thing in music; he was royalty, in that musical culture sense; yes, he was putting on; yes, he was real; and, we are still trying to figure that out. Did I answer the questions satisfactorily? I shall fill them out, just in case.
I will not waste time detailing the media environment at the dawn of the 1980’s. It was not the dark ages, certainly not for those who were hip. With technology, things change fast in our culture. Things were changing fast. MTV, which was so different then, began airing “music videos” in 1981. Memories of how MTV influenced popular culture made a lasting imprint on that culture.
I had heard “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, the extended version, on Majic 108. It was danceable. It was plaintive, and heartfelt. It was a man singing in falsetto, which is something I liked to do at the time. I liked to try to sound like the women–actually track their voices–who I liked, and sang songs I liked. The song also encouraged introspection–the long instrumental part captured a wistful, reminiscent mood, like a distilled emotion in sound.
When you are in your late teens, you think you know everything, and that you are going to live forever. “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, in its sound, tone, words, and feel, allowed a know-it-all teenager, who was going to live forever, the sneaking suspicion that those notions might be wrong, and there will be an end. If you want somebody, and you can’t have them, and you’re going to live forever, well, wouldn’t that be Hell? Prince was 17 when he wrote that.
He was officially on my radar. Then I saw “Dirty Mind” at the record store. Instant kryptonite. What I would have told you at the time was, “I don’t know what is going on here, but I can’t get near it.” On the record cover, Prince stands there in a jacket, and not much else. He is androgynous; in a thong. It was like, I like him, but I guess I will forsake him for now. Let’s see how it plays out.
Then my musician friend, a black guy named Don Brown, played “Dirty Mind” for me. Don was good on guitar, and liked to noodle around with drums and keyboards. That was Prince, at the time. Prince came to master all of those instruments, quickly. “Dirty Mind” was a minor masterpiece: it contained several genres of music–funk, punk, disco, rock. It could not be denied. I could not deny it. Something great was in the making.
We were waiting for “Controversy” when it arrived in 1981. MTV wouldn’t touch it. They didn’t play black artists until the culture essentially forced it to. That didn’t take long.
“Controversy” was “Dirty Mind” on steroids. It was “Dirty Mind”, but better. If Prince had died in late 1981, he would still be my all-time guy; my reference point for the most important time in my life as it shaped, formed, and created my identity.
I had a friend named Kenny, who lived in Rock Hill. He had a sister named Robin. Robin had a friend named Deirdre. Deirdre was a dark, very cute 17-year-old, with a bangin’ body. There is a song on “Controversy” called “Sexuality”. It has a primal beat. The beat is the thing. To see Deirdre move to “Sexuality” was sex itself. I had fantasy after fantasy about Deirdre in those days, and it was because I saw her dance to “Sexuality”. I couldn’t get it–or her–out of my mind, and I never will.
Every song on “Controversy” is great, and it covers the waterfront. Now, Prince is becoming political, with “Ronnie Talk to Russia”. He tells you he will “Jack U Off”. Where I came from, “jack you off” meant rubbing a penis to climax. I didn’t know it could mean the other genitals, plus, maybe I wanted him to jack me off, I wasn’t exactly sure, then. What the fuck was going on?
He was playing with our minds. He knew that’s what he was doing. He still is.
I will continue in my next post.