When Purple Rain was released in movie theaters in July 1984, yours truly, a mere wisp of a young woman, ran like lightning to see it the first day. Then I ran to see it the next day, and then a few days later. I saw it three times that first week! (Movie tickets were much cheaper back then.)
Initially, I tried to convince myself that the film, a pseudo-autobiographical story about a talented and rising Minneapolis musician contending with a troubled family life, a sardonic rival performer and an amply endowed though vocally-deficient love interest, was a grand cinematic opus. It was only by my third viewing that I realized there was something masterful on display — and it was neither the wretched acting nor the embarrassingly dumb dialogue (“Your horns are showing, Morris”). It was the music, conceived and fleshed out from the same Midwestern genius, one Prince Rogers Nelson, whose elfin stature was not at all commensurate with a talent accurately described by Mick Jagger last week as “limitless.”
I’m not a music critic. I’m not a trained musician. I cannot offer you a learned assessment of why that entire Purple Rain album was so brilliant, why it resonated so much with my callow, post-adolescent self. I can only reveal that, to this day, when I hear the opening strains of “When Doves Cry,” I get goosebumps and feel the same tingly sensation, those waves of euphoria that sent ripples over me way back when. It’s that simple.
I wasn’t the only one among my peers swept away by “Princemania.” As an avid 1980s downtown New York City clubgoer, I vividly recall how the crowd would practically leap onto the dance floors (myself included) every time the DJ would play “When Doves Cry.” There was something vaguely religious, even Pavlovian, to our reaction. Not only did we love the music with an almost mystical fervor that an earlier generation reserved for acts like The Beatles or Elvis, we knew we were living during a special period in which we were privy to our own indigenous musical maestro, our own Pied Piper.
This is why the death of Prince at 57, of still-undetermined causes, pains me so deeply. I came of age at a time when four music icons — Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston — ruled the airwaves and dominated MTV. Three of them are now dead and I want to know why my favorite from that pantheon is gone.
The rumors keep proliferating like fungus. Was it a reliance on painkillers due to a debilitating hip problem that got out of control? Or was it the other disturbing rumor reported by the supermarket tabloids that Prince stopped taking medication for a chronic health condition, believing his religion — he was a Jehovah’s Witness — cured him of the need for it?
Until the toxicology results come in, and if they prove conclusive, we will not know. But let’s be honest here (after all, I am the CFR’s “Truthsayer”): even though Prince was long past his Purple Rain heyday, he, unlike Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston in their later years, was infinitely more productive and not a tragic shell of his former glory days. He wasn’t a has-been. Witness his last concert in Atlanta just days before his death: He was very much in fine voice and musical form, and while he only played the piano, he was very much still a stellar performer.
Contrast Prince with Jackson, plagued by legal troubles and increasingly bizarre behavior toward the end of his life. Contrast Prince with Houston, who ruined her beautiful voice, a delicate instrument, with drug addiction and was forever rumored on the cusp of a comeback that never quite materialized.
Prince’s passing follows the death of another music legend that left many of us reeling: David Bowie. For the last decade of his life, Bowie was pretty much retired as a performer. That probably was attributable to his failing health. But he did release Blackstar two days before he died on Jan. 10 — a parting gift to his fans.
He was 69 when he died. That’s 12 more years than Prince.
Again, let’s be frank: Bowie was fantastic but he really wasn’t an icon of the 1980s generation. His peak was the 1970s, with some of that magical luster spilling over into the early ’80s. Prince belonged to my generation. He was ours exclusively. We owned him and he owned us — a fair and equitable quid pro quo.
I loved how Prince was a taskmaster. Whether they were his backup musicians or super-divas like Beyonce, he put everyone lucky enough to perform with him through their paces, almost testing them to see how much musical acumen they possessed. He wasn’t an SOB, by all accounts, but an exacting and painstaking perfectionist. Always, always, music was his top priority.
Of course, we can content ourselves with the welcome revelation that a vault containing unreleased recordings from His Purpleness (it’s my favorite color, too) could “produce albums for another 100 years.” The verdict’s still out on the quality of these recordings — maybe Prince stored them away for a reason; maybe he was just jamming and never intended them for public consumption. If that’s the case, then they shouldn’t be released — ever. No reason to sully the legacy of a genius just because he left us too soon.
In the meantime, please excuse me as I watch and listen to “Take Me With U” from Purple Rain on YouTube or his show-stopping rendition of the Eric Clapton guitar solo in George Harrison’s “White My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony or any other clip where Prince will live forever.