Prince was right: life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last. But he had hosted one of the most impressive, inspiring, weird, imaginative, wonderful, come-as-you-are parties this world will ever see, and it should have lasted far longer than 57 years.
On Thursday afternoon, I had given a talk about careers to my nephews’ marketing class at Glen Allen High School (now there’s a tough room). The looks on the kids’ faces, the questions they asked, the undercurrents that ran between them, all of it left me reflecting on how difficult the high school years can be and how I’d never want to repeat them. That thought was at the front of my mind when I glanced at my phone and saw that a friend had tweeted the news of Prince’s passing. I couldn’t bring myself to absorb the words, no matter how many times I read them.
Like millions of people, I was a Prince fan. I appreciated him as a true musical genius, a prodigy, a prolific and never-derivative creator, a gifted songwriter, a bender of genres, a guitar virtuoso who mastered literally dozens of other instruments, and a possessor of one of the highest talent-per-pound ratios of all time.
Music lost a titan when Prince died. And I lost someone who wrote in indelible ink on the pages of my adolescence.
My first concrete Prince memory was formed in 1984, when I was a terribly un-cool seventh grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School. A school dance loomed large, and though I wanted to go (or at least wanted to want to go), the knowledge that I didn’t know how to dance terrified me. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could admit to my mother, and she couldn’t have done a thing about it anyway. Mom was, and is, a fantastic dancer, but she knew dances like the Twist and the Mashed Potato. I couldn’t see the Mashed Potato playing a role in my first middle school dance unless I happened to trample an errant tater tot on the cafeteria floor.
My then-best friend, Liz, must have had similar fears because we somehow wound up deciding to confront them by practicing some dance moves with her sister and her mom in their living room. Despite the safety of the environment, I hesitated to move. And then “Let’s Go Crazy” –a dance commandment if ever there were one –came on and I was heeding it before I even knew what I was doing. For four glorious minutes, I rose above my self-consciousness and felt cool. That’s what Prince’s music was: a force strong enough to make even the most awkward teenager let go of the walls to which she clung and let loose on a dance floor. And that’s who Prince was: someone who could make anyone feel cool, even if only for four minutes at a time. He wore his weird on the outside, issuing the world an invitation to treat uniqueness as a source of pride rather than shame. Long before he wrote a lyric that’s now comically dated about not needing to watch “Dynasty” to have an attitude, his music, his unclassifiable and ever-changing aesthetic, and his very purpleness had made that point with eloquence.
After reading the news, I got into my car last Thursday, turned on the radio and was greeted by a barrage of Prince songs. I wasn’t ready for it. Complex, emotional, evocative, and passionate, Prince’s music was all about life and living, and in that moment, I couldn’t access any of that. All I had was numbness. I lasted only seconds before I turned it off. I needed comfort, so I turned to Shel, an incomparable friend, the biggest Prince fan I’ve ever met, and the person who made it possible for me to see him live three electrifying times. (She also gave me this fantastic door decoration.)
Shel was taking it harder than I was and understood perfectly my unwillingness to approach Prince’s music in a state of emotional paralysis. That music is so remarkable, funky, and resplendent that I didn’t want to hear it until I could bring it some of the joy it deserved.
On instinct, I reached out to my brother next. I didn’t remember ever talking to him about Prince–L.J. is four years my junior so his adolescence probably featured a different soundtrack — but music affects the two of us in such similar ways and to such a deep extent that I felt certain he would get it. I sent a one-line text: “I’m heartbroken about Prince.”
“Me too…This hits me harder than it should,” he wrote.
For the next two days, I kneaded this sense of loss I didn’t entirely understand. I traded texts with Shel and L.J., and that helped. My brother put it well when, after watching Prince’s star turn with the Muppets, he noted that only Prince could write a song about breakfast that would top the charts musically. Though otherworldly in so many ways, Prince somehow belonged everywhere he went, whether it was the set of the Muppets, a rain-soaked stage at the Super Bowl, or the interviewee chair on “Larry King Live.”
While riding the stationary bike at the gym on Saturday and still unable to immerse myself in Prince’s music, I re-watched that Larry King interview from 1999. Prince made a comment that he didn’t like to look back or reminisce, and that really stuck with me. Though I enjoy thinking about the future and have a healthy sense of optimism, I love to reminisce and re-live. How could someone who’s produced such musical brilliance as “1999” not want to gaze back on it in wonderment? The answer hit me while I was out walking the next day: for a creative genius of Prince’s magnitude, maybe the idea of an apex didn’t even exist. Maybe he, unlike most of us, never felt tempted to scan the past and freeze it on achievements and moments of perfection because he knew he had plenty ahead of him. Prince was nowhere near done and he wasn’t ever going to be done. Death simply stopped him, and I’m still having trouble accepting that.
I think I need to feel sorry for myself for a few more days. And maybe then I’ll be able to act my age, not my shoe size.