It was 1984, and I was barely 11. We lived outside of Chicago and were headed to the home of family friends for dinner. Unlike my family, these friends lived large. They had lots of disposable income and were unapologetically flashy. They competed in horse jumping, traveled to exotic island vacations and wore fur. We, on the other hand, played Little League, road-tripped for two days in a minivan to see my grandparents in South Carolina, and wore fake Izod. In 80’s speak, they were Dynasty and we were The Wonder Years.
Their house was one, wealthier suburb over. We got there, walked in, hug-hug-kiss-kiss, the adults poured generous drinks and the kids settled in with Fanta. Their teenage daughter, Nicole, was there, sitting on the couch listening to her new Walkman. I sat down next to her and cleverly said “Hey,” trying to sound cool and bored and friendly all at the same time.
Nicole nodded in my general direction. Nicole was 14. She was older.
My mom walked into the room with a glass of white wine that looked like a tumbler on a stem (hey, it was the 80’s), made a face like she smelled something rancid, and said to her friend, “Debra, what in God’s name are we listening to?”
Debra was my mom’s small height, but had big, permed hair, wore bright blue eye liner and leather pants. Stunned, she said, “Susan. WHAT?” She scanned my mom’s face for a hint of sarcasm. There was none.
Debra looked at Nicole, who had removed her ear plugs to listen to this insanity unfold. Nicole spoke, which was rare. “You guys, Susan (of course she called my mom by her first name), like, are you for real? You, like, don’t know who this is?”
My mom, having no qualms about not being 80’s trendy, said, “I have no idea what this music is. But I absolutely hate it.”
My dad chimed in with his favorite phrase about all current music. “Sounds to me like someone is banging on garbage can lids with a dead cat.”
Nicole looked at me like she now wholly and completely understood my dorkiness.
She announced to the room, “THIS…you guys… is Prince.”
I knew Prince. Of course, I knew Prince. This wasn’t my introduction to music, I owned Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson and a bunch of other albums, and I didn’t yet have a Walkman, but I had a clock radio that was loyally tuned to Top 40. I knew 1999 and Little Red Corvette.
But this was different. This was Purple Rain.
The room went quiet and we all listened. I heard a guitar play like it was alive, like it was talking to me. And a beat that made me want to dance, and not in a way that was allowed at junior high sock hops. The voice, the lyrics, the whole damn thing was sexy and mysterious and a little bit dangerous. Prince. Yes.
About 30 seconds into Darling Nikki, my mom raised her eyebrows and said, “This music is a little bit mature, don’t you think?” She tipped her head towards me, the child in the room.
I rolled my eyes, and dramatically fell back against the over-stuffed sofa as Debra popped out Prince and put in Stevie Wonder. Nicole got up, hit my arm, and said “Come on. I’ll tape it for you.”
* * *
I wasn’t Prince’s #1 fan, and I can’t give the musical explanation as to why his music always sounded cooler and edgier than everything else. I am just one of the hordes of fans who is wondering why I am grieving so deeply, so sincerely, for a man I didn’t know.
I know that I listen to “When Doves Cry” today, at 42 years old, and I am sitting in Nicole’s room that night. Like I’m hypnotized, I can look around and see her phone in the shape of pink lips, her ruffled Laura Ashley bed skirt, her mirrored makeup table. I am sitting cross-legged on the floor, I can feel the carpet on my legs and look down and see my white, Esprit shorts.
But even more than this – slightly eerily more than this – I can feel the actual moment through this song. I am in sixth grade. I am in that uncomfortable space between girl and teen and my emotions are no longer in my control. I still like playing tag with the neighbors and catching fireflies at dusk, but I have a secret stash of forbidden lip gloss that I put on in the school bathroom with my friends. I am outgoing, but hyper-aware of what others think, which creates a strange blend of awkward charisma. I am entirely too eager to grow up.
I think this is why millions of middle-aged fans and I are grieving. While other artists evoke memories or screenshots of our past, Prince’s artistry doesn’t stop at dislodging a forgotten memory. His music continues on to pick us up and drop us off into an exact moment, to feel it again. Prince has provided his fans with a musical diary that stretches the last almost-forty years of our lives.
Prince has made us time travelers.
* * *
In her spectacular bedroom, Nicole and I watched MTV while she copied Purple Rain on her cassette stereo. Nicole handed me the copied tape and told me to hide it from my parents in my over-sized shorts pocket. I said I could do better, and she watched me make a paper insert for the case that said “Air Supply” in bubble letters. I wrote it in purple.
“Oh, that’s good,” Nicole said, laughing.
I looked in her general direction and nodded, not worrying about being cool anymore. I didn’t need her confidence. Prince had given me my own.