I suppose it could be portrayed as being somewhat spurious – a pale, doughy woman on the far side of middle age sitting in her living room, tears occasionally spilling down her face, listening to Prince’s “Purple Rain” through the earbuds plugged in to her laptop so she could turn the volume up without disturbing others still sleeping upstairs. And yet there I was last Thursday, hunched over in my chair, hand covering my eyes, shrinking my world down to only that guitar, that voice, that song, that pain.
I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain
I only wanted one time to see you laughing
I only want to see you laughing in the purple rain
Prince Rogers Nelson was my age. He lived in my hometown. He grew up in my neighborhood. He died suddenly, unexpected, on April 21, 2016.
Even though I have made Minneapolis my home for well over 30 years, I had only seen Prince in concert once, and that was only by chance. It was the early 1980s, and my husband called from work at one of the local live theaters to tell me that “Prince’s people” had contacted them to see about borrowing their dance floor for the night, because he was going to give a spur of the moment concert at First Avenue (a local nightclub) around midnight. (This was not unheard of – Prince was known to stage these secret, impromptu concerts at First Ave occasionally to try out material he was thinking of taking on the road.) There would be no announcement to the public or to the media, but word of the concert had spread like wildfire among the theater staff.
We were lucky – a friend had an anytime-access “Black Card” for First Ave, and he let us borrow it for the evening, otherwise we would have probably never made it in the door. But for almost three hours we stood at the balcony railing of that darkened nightclub watching Prince dance, sing, strut, croon, play guitar, piano, bass, watching him entertain, and we were overwhelmed by the sheer power of his presence: his incredible musicality, his obvious and enormous talent, his utter commitment to performing, and the dazzling realization that we were seeing this man, this talent, this artist, at his essence. He was the music.
From that night forward, I was a Prince fan for life.
It’s hard to explain, the impact that Prince had on me. I wasn’t a big fan of much of his music; I still am not, truth be told. But I absolutely adore him as a musician, and as a person.
Through the years, I watched his persona swell, become huge. My husband went on to work for him, on a video shoot, out at Paisley Park, and with the production of Glam Slam Ulysses, both here in Minneapolis and in Los Angeles. Prince was larger than life, both thrilling in his public persona and his performances, and frustrating in how he controlled access to his music, access to himself as a human being. So many expect their celebrities to be visible, reckless, obnoxious, but Prince was none of those things. For better or worse, he was true to himself first and foremost, and I admire him for that.
I’m not your lover.
I’m not your friend.
I am something that you’ll never comprehend.
And he was ours. A Minnesotan. He would travel out to other places, but he always returned home, to us. Yes, he was private, but he wasn’t closed off. He suffered personal tragedies – a hard childhood, failed marriages, the death of a child – but he did not use these experiences to garner sympathy or gain followers. Instead, he poured his emotions into his music. Sorrow, joy, faith, sex, love.
And through him, we were special, those of us who live here. We claimed him, and he did nothing to prove us wrong. He was one of us, proud but not boastful, embracing the spotlight but not seeking it out, true to his beliefs but letting those beliefs be known through who he was rather than shouting them from a soapbox; he didn’t seem to care about gossip or chasing fame, but let the fame come to him via his music. Always, the music and how it flowed from him. We loved him for it. And he loved us. (“Minneapolis is the bomb,” he would tell Larry King in an interview in 1999 at the height of his popularity, and we knew it to be true.)
And now he is gone. Stolen away from us, far too soon, by circumstance and all too human frailty. A life force of our culture, of my own personal world, has been extinguished, and we here in Minnesota have been diminished by his passing.
A week later, I’m still bereft. My heart still grieves. Strange, I know, to grieve for someone I did not really know (and from the stories now surfacing, of his generosity, of his kindness, of his adherence to what he felt in his soul to be true, I’m realizing just how much I did not know of him even as we glimpsed him in our midst), but I truly feel as if a light has gone out in my life. While I will not stand and rend my clothes and gnash my teeth, while I will not make any pilgrimage to Paisley Park or First Avenue, I will unabashedly allow myself to feel a deep and genuine sorrow. I will pause when I hear a Prince song on the radio or on my iPod, and I will listen, and remember, and feel all that emotion that his music evokes in me without apology, open and unguarded, just as he was when he performed.
And in the privacy of my own home, with my earphones on so as not to disturb others, I will blast his music so it overwhelms the core of my being, just like it did all those years ago in that smoky nightclub. I will no longer cry, and eventually I may even dance, like so many others have done, are still doing.
But I will miss him. I do miss him. And even though I count myself so incredibly lucky to have shared this time, and this place, with him, it still hurts to think that he is gone. And that’s okay, because it’s genuine. It’s real, and in its own strange way, it’s beautiful.
Thank you, sweet Prince. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
~ Sharon Browning
This recording of a concert at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey in 1982 gives a glimpse of just how powerful a presence Prince was when he performed live; it’s a little over an hour long – believe me, you’ll want to watch it the whole thing. You’re welcome.