I didn’t play with toys as a child. I listened to and obsessed over music. Got my first record player when I was four. Prince and The Revolution – Wendy and Lisa and Bobby Z and Brown Mark and Dr. Fink – they were my Justice League. They had all the style and attitude and swagger I lacked. I studied every hairflip, grope, bang-blow, and grind; within minutes of having my hands on a VCR for the first time I recorded the Little Red Corvette video and watched it in slow motion just because I could.
On Easter Sunday 1985, they were set to perform in front of 55,000 fans at Miami’s Orange Bowl, following weeks of protests and boycotts. The City Commission and the Archdiocese of Miami dubbed the performance sacrilegious and pressed promoters to bump the show to another date. What a gaggle of clucking Tipper Gores. I was ten years old and all that mattered to me was that The Revolution would be closing out the final show of the Purple Rain tour an hour from my house. Nothing happened in Florida and now everything was. Leading up to the show, I spent countless hours begging my mother for tickets. Drove her batshit. Local station Y-100 had been giving seats away for weeks and I wore my chubby digits into nubs dialing and dialing with no luck.
Years earlier, my best friend Maise and I would spend whole evenings jumping up and down, high as we could, for hours on end, in the hope that the universe would gift us with the power of flight. That it would propel us up and out so we could touch a star, maybe escape. With scrunched eyes and white knuckles, we’d jump and jump and jump, unsullied little voices calling up to wet Florida skies. These wishes came from someplace inside us we didn’t have words for. The yearning I had to see this show was pressing those same buttons within me.
Mom didn’t budge. Sorry, kid. Easter ‘85’ll be just another round of ugly colors and smelly eggs in a hot house. No Miami. No Prince. No Revolution. No Sheila E. The weight, the drama of youth. A small yet brave part of me thought I could lure my dad to the Orange Bowl since it’s where his beloved Dolphins played. That attempt lasted ten humiliating seconds.
Y-100 continued their ticket giveaways, ramping up the bumper ads and just before Easter, a special announcement was made. The station would broadcast its “very first concert re-enactment.” Huh. A re-enactment. I mean, sure. At least it was something.
And now, thirty one years on, Prince is gone.
I’m forty one years old, sitting in my living room in Portland, Oregon, listening to a soundboard recording of the show I missed when I was ten. The sounds are a record of gorgeous, raw, daring talent at its peak. A man possessed, a group calibrated and soaring. The elements that converged to make those moments happen are seemingly impossible and yet…
“Happy Easter, Florida,” he teases as the show opens. “My name is Prince. And I’ve come to play with you.”
The boat I missed…
“I Remember When I Met You Baby”
Dig if you will the picture of a pudgy queer white kid growing up in the American Bible belt in the early eighties. A descendant of the deep south, I came of age in a culturally diverse neighborhood in South Florida, a rich mix of Hatians, Cubans, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Jamaicans. My educational experience bore no such diversity. From age four (the year of For You) ‘til seventeen (the age of Diamonds and Pearls) I attended the same Southern Baptist school where identity was ethnically, culturally, and spiritually sameified. My father, a man with little religious interest, made a meager wage as a blue collar elevator serviceman, but he was convinced my chances at success in life bumped considerably with a private education. The economically-depressed and resource-depleted public school options bookending our neighborhood worried him. The option, then, was a Christian academy up the way. So off to Bible school I went where I was indoctrinated with values my parents didn’t value. I learned guilt and shame. I met anxiety. My parents paid tuition. I paid dues, too.
What’s had lasting significance for me happened outside of weekdays 8am and 3pm.
The first time I heard Prince I was eight years old. Trevor, a lanky sixteen-year-old with ropey veins wrapped about his arms and dark doe eyes brightening his face, lived across the street from me. He and his mother shared a small house, having left Uganda when Trevor was a young boy. To an eight-year-old kid, this guy was a god. He was six foot tall. He had a drum kit in his bedroom. He had tall speakers, a receiver, a turntable. His bedroom was painted purple and an Eddie Van Halen poster hung above his bed. For a spell, he tried to teach me rhythm on his drum set, but we both soon agreed that trip was too steep.
“Bub, you gotta hear this,” he told me one heavy summer afternoon. Trevor dropped the needle on side one of Prince’s fourth album Controversy and I was transported to another world. Thick, slapping synths and questions about race and sex, rudeness and nudity, recitations of the Lord’s prayer.
What church was this?
Track two, “Sexuality,” played and within seconds, I heard my very first Prince “Owah!” followed by guitar licks that came to define the man. The song was slick and confusing. This guy was talking about what they talk about late at night on HBO – I didn’t entirely understand, but I could feel the source pulling me in.
“You don’t need no money, you don’t need no clothes. The second coming, anything goes. Sex-u-a-li-ty is all we ever need.”
Was this devil music? Was this the same dirty something that got Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins into all that trouble?
“No child is bad from the beginning; they only imitate their atmosphere!” Prince spat.
“So, Trevor, what’s he–?”
“Just lay back and listen,” I remember Trevor saying as the third and final track on side one, “Do Me, Baby,” filled the room. That piano, that falsetto. This man has a girl in him and he’s still a man. “Here we are, looking for a reason for you to lay me down.”
Trevor and I listened to the whole album, then we played it again. It was like waking up and being able to speak a completely different language. It wasn’t something you had to study, it was something you plugged into.
Within a year, Trevor disappeared. “I heard he’s doin’ that stripping for money shit,” Mom would tell me. I never got to tell him goodbye.
“It’s All About Being There”
Aunt Loretta: a round, freckled southern woman five minutes to fifty with a toothy grin and cropped, feathered red hair blushes in the front seat of Mom’s be-eagled Trans Am. We’re parked in front of a Woolworth’s.
“My lands! He ain’t got no pants on!” She covers her overbite and snorts, passes the sealed copy of Dirty Mind to the back seat and into my expectant hands.
“Really. Thank you, Aunt ‘Retta.” I’m beaming, tearing into the cellophane. I get my first glimpse of Prince’s crew. Dr. Fink, Dez, Bobby, Prince, Andre, and Lisa in glorious, tough black and white. Who was this gang?
In ten minutes, I’m in my room listening to a song called “Head”.
Five years later, my little sister was on the phone to Aunt ‘Retta, begging her to buy and send her a copy of 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be cassette from Virginia to Florida. Where we lived, the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida had ruled the album legally obscene – the first case of its kind. Our Aunt ‘Retta was a real trooper. She came through – she bought the cassette and sent it and for a year I had to listen to my eleven year old sister singing along to “Me So Horny.” I hated that album.
“That stuff’s gross,” I’d tell my sister.
“Whatever. It’s no worse than Prince and his horse pockets.”
“I Knew A Girl Named Nikki”
“Mom, what’s masturbating?”
“Why the hell are you asking that?”
“Prince talks about it in that song about Nikki.”
“Huh.” A pause and a drag off a Virginia Slim Ultra Light 100. “Shit, son, he’s playin’ with he’s-self.”
“Mom. Nikki’s a girl.”
“So? Same difference.”
“Okay.” Pause. “Uh, Mom?”
“Can I get a dog and name her Nikki?”
“Was I What You Wanted Me to Be?”
At my school, the church was on the same grounds as the elementary, middle, and high school buildings. The pastor’s house was beside the playground. The teachers lived just to side of the gymnasium in a row of trailers. Everyone, altogether in the same place. The homogeneity of it all. Not quite “Uptown”.
In 1983, the world looked right past all the warning signs and was in a full-fledged love affair with Michael Jackson. If you were a boy, you either emulated him or at least envied his moves. If you were a girl, you swooned. But Baptist school in South Florida in ’83 was a tad messier. To start, you weren’t supposed to be watching videos at all. Thriller, I learned, was nothing more than a media tool to indoctrinate young people into the occult. Local news in Florida was obsessed with occult stories and Geraldo was running weekly episodes on that nonsense. Comparatively, Michael was the clean stuff.
Prince – that was deep cut devil material. The trouble I got into for being a fan there. He was the first person I ever heard called a fag. And, in hearing that word for the first time, I learned a lesson of a different sort.
“Lady Cab Driver, Roll Up Your Window Fast”
Me, my best friend, a Walkman, and a banana slide.
“Okay, so what do you think he’s talking about here?” I ask, kind-of-not-that-innocently.
He puts the headphones on. I press play on the 1999 cassette. We’re outside his house in the shade of a willow tree, his grandfather ill and ailing just up the street. I cue up “Lady Cab Driver”. “Um. I think they’re doing it. Are they doing it?”
“It.” Sure. Whatever it is. “I think so.” I think Prince and that lady cab driver are probably, more than likely, surely doing it.
“Do you think she’s okay?” he asks.
“Oh yeah, of course,” worldly, experienced me says. “He’s taking care of her.” And I meant that in the trusting way you trust things adults do when you’re nine years old.
“We’ve All Got A Space to Fill”
Grandpa had trouble with the bottle. Whisky in particular. He was a small wiry, googly-eyed man, bald since his early twenties. His sagging arms were adorned with crude pinups from his time in the Navy during the second World War and for a winter and spring, he and I shared a bedroom.
Hutch, as he was known, was the only grandparent I knew. His first wife, my maternal grandmother, is still alive somewhere in a nursing home in Virginia – at least last Mom heard. I met her once when I was five and my only memory of her is how squishy her arms and breasts were when she hugged me hello. She wasn’t (isn’t?) a warm woman and didn’t seem to know what to do with me and my little sister. My father’s father died in a trailer fire when Dad was three; his mother died of brain cancer a couple months before I was born.
In 1984, Grandpa moved to Florida to stay with us after another failed sobriety attempt. He’d done a shit job parenting my mother, but my folks opened our home to give the lonely old man another shot. Dad got him a job servicing elevators and Mom set the boundaries and attempted to get him on the straight and narrow. I was asked to share my room until we figured something out, so I ended up with a roommate.
The first week or two was rough. Mom heated up the oven one evening and after a short bit there was an explosion. Grandpa had hidden a bottle of Jack in there, thinking it’d be safe since Mom rarely baked anything. The next week, when she found a bottle hidden under my mattress, she sought outside help. She took Grandpa to the V.A. and got him on Antabuse, baking the medicine into his dinners each night. For a spell there, he was vomiting after most meals and soon Grandpa found sobriety unexpectedly.
For about four weeks, Grandpa spent his evenings laboring in our backyard. We had an old oak tree back there and he got the idea to build a house around it. So he did. The tree at the center, he built four walls, a living room, a bedroom. His electricity ran through multiple orange extension cords from our house to his. He had a tv set up in there and he built a set of bunk beds for himself. One day on the way back from an elevator job, he pulled off the side of the road and picked up some roadkill and skinned it. He hung the tail and pelt on the tree like I would a poster.
But Grandpa’s sobriety didn’t last. Once he had his own space, he started sneaking out at night and walking the fifteen minutes to a little bar by the railroad tracks on Dixie Highway, not far from the diner where Mom worked day shift. Sometimes he would come home and would visit me and my sister in our rooms. We would giggle because he was acting funny and cracking jokes. I liked him better that way – he was a silly, less conflicted man. But he couldn’t manage staying clean and soon my parents had to make the call.
The evening we took Grandpa to the bus station to send him back to Virginia, I was in the back of my Dad’s van. The ride was tense and quiet and I had the Around the World in a Day cassette playing on my Walkman at a barely audible level. Just in case someone said something. The week before, Grandpa had bought the album for me – the only gift he ever gave me.
“The Ladder” was playing as we pulled away from the station and my little, bald-headed, glassy-eyed Grandpa headed into the terminal and on to the next phase of his life. He lived ten more years, but that was the last night he and I shared space. I never saw him again.
“Take Me With U”
I click on the purple spotlight in my room, lay down on the floor, tune to 100.7, drop a blank Certron cassette into the player, press record, and wait for the first sounds of Y-100’s canned applause to roar over the opening chord of “Let’s Go Crazy”. As the show opens, they don’t even play the 12″ version – just the album version – and for the rest of it, segments of pre-recorded screams are dropped between songs. The re-enactment even has commercial breaks. Imagine Wendy and Lisa pausing every three songs while some South Florida hot tub or Wing Shack commercial plays, then 2-3-4, The Revolution is back at it like Chuck E. Cheese animatronics.
For two hours, the station plays some version of a hypothetical set list and I surrender and let the experience wash over me. A sweaty dolled up ten year old boy in lace gloves and his mother’s ruffled shirt making it happen.
Yesterday, I touched down in Minneapolis for the first time in my life.
And this time, I’m going.
It’s a curious ache to mourn for a stranger – for a one-sided relationship where you have the same conversation or experience over and over through a song replayed or a movie viewed for the umpteenth time. It’s not about what Prince or The Revolution knew or I knew – it’s about what the collective we knew and what we now know and I’m counting the minutes until I can stand in a room of 1,500 other people who want to plug into that source of inspiration and insight and understanding one more time.
Prince won’t be there, but the Justice League will be. I’ll be. We’ll be jumping, jumping. We’ll be propelled.
Tonight. It’s gonna be a beautiful night.
And it was…