When I was four-years-old, I received as a gift a Show’n Tell record player. This device was a marvel. Not only did it play records, but I could watch (in filmstrip fashion) whatever story was coming from my 45s. In a perfectly animated still, I could see Bert’s furrowed brow as he vented his frustration over Ernie’s latest mishap; I could see the surprise on Baby Bear’s face when he found his chair was broken. Picture books were fantastic, yes, but my record player was totally intriguing. I realize my child would likely be thoroughly unimpressed by this contraption, its technology having become so antiquated, but I thought this toy was nothing short of magical.
Fortunately, I was born into a family of music lovers. Saturday mornings in our home were for cleaning, but more often than not, chores were replaced by dancing. My mom kept us going with her steady supply of The Rolling Stones, Jackson Browne, Waylon Jennings, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Merle Haggard, and so on and so on. Although I don’t have memories of this, my dad was also a fan of music, and he and my mother would often decide to take a last minute road trip just to see a concert.
Because my mom was such a devotee, we had a large stash of albums in our home, many of which were from her youth. She once presented me with a milk crate full of 45s, and I would hide away in my room doing my best to commit every note of every album to memory. I once brought The Standell’s “Dirty Water” to record day at school and was completely baffled as to why my classmates did not seem to be as taken by the guitar riffs as I was. I don’t think I understood the song was too old to be cool, and I had no idea what it was even about. I just knew it grabbed me. (Thankfully, I now live in Boston where people actually appreciate this song.)
There was an evening, a few years after I first fell in love with music, that my Girl Scout troop gathered in my troop leader’s home. I can’t recall the reason. I do, however, remember “1999” being played. I don’t know if this was my first time to hear Prince, or if this was just the first time it felt meaningful. All I know is the entire room was enthralled. We were electric, we were giddy, and we were in it together. I was too young to make sense of what was happening in that moment, but it is obvious to me now this was the first time I witnessed the effect music can have on a group of people. I was instantly hooked on that feeling and it is something that has never left me.
I know in internet time the news of Prince’s death is practically ancient at this point. But when I first learned of it, I broke into tears, and to be honest they haven’t entirely stopped. I have felt like an idiot because why should I possibly be crying over someone I never even met? After all, there have been plenty of musicians I have loved who have passed, and that’s never left me with more than fleeting sadness. Prince was just different, though.
As I started trying to answer the question of just what made Prince so worthy of crying over, I realized he and his music had always been there. My friend Candy and I used to spend our fifth grade Friday nights taking turns doing the opening of “Let’s Go Crazy.” We had a robe we would wear, and looking as seriously as we possibly could, we would stand on a little table in her room and begin, “Dearly Beloved…” only to throw ourselves from the table and dance around like maniacs the second the music kicked in. At twelve, I remember laughing myself silly as a friend and I tried making up naughty lyrics to “Raspberry Beret.” I spent hours during the summer between 8th and 9th grade watching MTV in hopes that they would show “Alphabet Street.” In my early twenties one of my friends and I tried to explain to another friend, yes, we thought that little, androgynous guy was hot. As recently as a year ago I sat around with a group of friends as we wrote acrostic poems using Prince’s name and describing the various ways he was (ahem) “sexy.” I have so many Prince memories, I can’t even share them all.
Aside from Prince being irrefutably the most talented musician of our generation, he was simply other-worldly. He somehow managed to be everything at once, and I can’t stop thinking of that part of him that was mysteriously quiet while simultaneously completely commanding. This is the part of him I see so clearly now. Somehow, without my being aware, he managed to quietly slip into so many parts of my life, making his music part of my story. And I know I am one of millions for whom this is true.
A few days ago my best friend and I made a trip to see our favorite band perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. We have a history of going to pretty extreme lengths in order to see musicians we love, behavior we frequently label as “crazy.” On this night, though, we were with friends who we met through a shared love of this band. We sat in the front row with some people we had met at other shows, all of us having traveled from different places to be there. We sang loudly together, got on our feet when the music demanded it, and cried as we listened to a slow, acoustic version of “Purple Rain.” The feeling was not unlike how I felt as a child listening to “1999” in my friend’s living room all those years ago. Nothing at all seemed crazy about it. It felt necessary, almost, a needed moment of togetherness and connection because really, connection is how we get through this thing called life. And, as Prince taught me, there’s no better way than through music.
If you have Prince memories to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.