I didn’t become aware of Prince until around the time of his third album, Dirty Mind, when I’d see this poster of guy with a kerchief around his neck, a flashy sport coat over his bare chest, and skimpy black briefs hanging in the window of Melody Records at Dupont Circle. I’d be on my way home from my first full time job after graduating from college, waiting for the bus outside the record store after getting off the subway. It was 1980 and I was a messenger at the Library of Congress, delivering requests for information by hand to various departments within the Congressional Research Service, while the guy in the poster, obviously, had a much more exciting job than I did.
But it was all fine with me. On paydays, I’d go into the store before hopping on the bus. At the time I was listening mostly to avant garde jazz, and after completing my mission of hunting down every record Albert Ayler had made in his lifetime, I was perhaps looking for some change of pace. The guy in the poster, of course, was Prince, and at first I had no idea what he was all about. I’d read about him here and there—stuff about him being the next big thing—and I was intrigued. But it wasn’t until someone brought Dirty Mind home—I don’t remember if it was me or one of my brothers—that I heard any of it. What I do remember, though, is hearing the opening of the song “Dirty Mind” for the first time—how the drums and keyboards led to that voice. I didn’t think it was a great voice, at first. I mean, Philip Bailey, Al Green, Smokey Robinson, and on and on—I probably could have thought of a dozen falsettos I liked more off the top of my head. But as I listened I saw how Prince got his voice to say everything he wanted it to say, and what he was saying wasn’t like anything else that was around at the time, because what he was saying was both dirty and sweet, hard-boiled and romantic, light and profound.
From that first time hearing him, I was hooked. From then on, Prince’s music was a part of my life, though his wasn’t the only music I needed. There was still the avant garde jazz I was big on—the previously mentioned Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and so forth; there was punk and “new wave” like Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, Wire; there was the Ramayana Monkey Chant and all sorts of music that to me was essential. I understood that not everyone was into this wide variety of sounds, and that was cool. I could hang with people who didn’t get Sun Ra, I could drink at the Tune Inn on Capitol Hill with Patsy Cline playing over and over on the juke box for the hundredth time, I could attend a prim and proper recital of Mozart and enjoy both the music and the scene, but if you didn’t like Prince I was immediately suspicious of you. And whenever I heard someone say something along the lines of, “I don’t think Prince is all that great,” I’d make my way to the other end of the bar, find someone else to talk to at the party, or just leave to get away from the ugliness.
Still, this isn’t to say that I always moved down to the other end of the bar. I probably spent a little too much time, especially when I was young, hanging out with people I didn’t quite click with, people who I felt safe with but who didn’t inspire me. But after a while I did move on. I started hanging out less with a crowd that only listened to Top 40 radio or classic rock and who didn’t care much about poetry or foreign films and modern art and a million other things. I started hanging out more with those friends from college who would actually party to Ornette Coleman’s music, Talking Heads, and Prince of course. They were a little bit crazier than my other friends, but then I was a little crazier than my other friends as well, and becoming less crazy was, for me, neither option nor choice.
Over the years I made new friends, lost touch with old ones, got pissed at good friends, laughed uncomfortably with bad friends, made up with real friends, and fell completely out with others because sometimes it’s just so hard to even say anything. There were people whom I missed like the next sip of bourbon, and people who were just stomach aches and head aches and sore throats and pink eye. As for me, I was, by turns, a saint, an asshole, a pillar of strength, a pompous jerk, the wittiest person in the room, the dullest clown in a travelling circus of the damned. There were things that I could have done better, things that I did do better, tasks that I performed spectacularly, and tasks at which I was completely lost but did anyway, because, Jesus, sometimes it was just nice to do something/anything whether I was good at it or bad at it. That I continue to have good days and bad days proves that I am alive.
Not long after he died, I played Prince’s Dirty Mind album again. And again. Then I listened to For You and the eponymously titled Prince album again, because in 1980 that’s what I did—I went back to those earlier records. After one more go at Dirty Mind I listened to Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day. I went on like that for a while—working, writing, doing the things I usually did by myself and with my family during the course of the day, all while reliving the progression and evolution of sound, from the late 70s to the present time, through the music of Prince.
I imagine that, during the course of those days, I was bopping my head up and down a little more, tapping my feet more than I usually did when I sat at the computer and wrote. And, I imagine, that with the help of this music, I felt a little more becalmed and content than my obsessive compulsive mind—with its unending flash of words and images and emotions—usually allowed me. Because in my more panicked moments, I look at life as an all too rapid process, the basis of which is solely biological and thus entirely lacking in the sort of essential qualities needed to form any manner of philosophical much less spiritual approach to existence. It’s when my thought processes slow down that they regain any kind of warmth in this regard, and I start to believe again that moments, years, even entire millenniums have direction and meaning. Oddly enough, it’s music that can slow me down like this.
One night, in the middle of all that, I took a photograph of my daughter Maggie and my son Julien playing in the back yard. My wife Heather was late getting in from town and by the time we were done eating dinner it was already starting to get dark. Still, we kept on going, bouncing this big red ball and a smaller blue and white ball back and forth between the four of us. In the photograph I took, Maggie is holding the red ball and laughing while Julien is holding the smaller one and looking serious because when you’re younger, like him, you feel like you have to work that much harder to keep up with everyone. At my age, much of the time, I still feel like that. Then I get caught up.
And so I watch as the years go by, taking into consideration the varying levels of light and dark, warmth and cold, speed and its opposite. While some parents may see money, career, and marriage as the most significant indicators of the brightness of a child’s future, I rarely think along those lines. And while they’re good to have, there are other things that are more basic and more important. Which is why, on a beautiful night, when the sun has gone down and the air begins to cool, what I wish for my children before anything else is a future full of sound and friendship. And the ability to move through the years like a falsetto that says everything that can possibly be said, and in so doing aspires toward grace.
Photograph by Jose Padua