Who is Prince? It’s a question that’s been on our minds for four decades now. Because for as long as the man born Prince Rogers Nelson has been making music, the world has been attempting to decode his motivations and cut through his mystique. But much like the murky waters of Lake Minnetonka in Purple Rain, the harder you squint to see through to the real artist, the more fantastic and otherworldly he becomes.
As soon as you think you’ve got a grip, you can hear his voice echoing in your ear. “That ain’t Lake Minnetonka.” Whoever we think he is, that ain’t Prince.
As I look back through the bleary-eyed fog of these past two days, I’ve found myself reflecting on a quote I heard recently — that the most compassionate people also set the most boundaries for themselves — and how Prince was able to keep his private life locked down while opening his doors to the public regularly and pouring himself into his work and his fans so completely.
I didn’t know Prince. I wrote about him a lot, thought about him a lot, listened to his music carefully, and studied his movements from up close and afar. I felt an intense emotional connection to his music and did my best to translate his performances into words. I’ve dug down deep into the music that emanated from North Minneapolis in the years leading up to his breakthrough, and contemplated how everything from the construction of the highways to the segregation of the Twin Cities shaped his upbringing and created a launchpad for his funk ‘n’ roll spaceship. A few fleeting times I had the tremendous, confusing honor of speaking with him and being welcomed into his world.
I almost danced with him once. He knew that I knew that he read everything I wrote. He asked me to help him find local artists. He took a silly drawing I made and turned it into the cover art for one of his songs, and he made sure I was around for all the big moments he wanted the world to know about. He would send missives through the ether, from his imagination to my laptop, from “P,” somehow, to me.
Like a lighthouse beacon pivoting from its scan of the sea to my ship passing in the night, in these fleeting moments his light was all I could see.
The sheer idea that one man could be so musically brilliant, so thoughtful, so funny, so tender, and yet so defiantly and boldly himself was intoxicating. He subverted everything we thought we knew about Minnesotans, black men, sexuality, pop artists, celebrities, suburbanites. He ate stereotypes for breakfast. He was shy, but loved people deeply. He quietly funneled his fortune toward poor and troubled communities. He hired and promoted women, and tried to find a way to elevate the necessary voices of modern black women artists above his own. He was the most turned-on man in the metro area. He used sex as a metaphor for human connection and spirituality, and used everything from screwdrivers to flowers to his own guitar as metaphors for sex.
Most of all, he never stopped working. When I met with him, he hovered around me like a butterfly, as if to remind me that he might lose interest and walk away at any moment. He found pretty much everything around him to be funny. He had the restless energy and curious mind of a person who never stopped wondering, searching, feeling. The last time I saw him, I got the sense that he was at the beginning of a new journey inward, one focused on his identity and his memories. He was finally getting ready to tell his own story in his own words.
The thing that makes me angry is that we don’t even know how much we’ve lost. There’s no way to quantify it. Prince wasn’t done.
He knew that he had mastered the guitar, that he could scorch us with it so effortlessly that it was practically boring to him, and wanted to figure out how to do the same thing on the piano. His dad inspired him to play the piano all those years ago when he was living off Olson Memorial Highway, and he wanted to make his dad proud.
He knew he wanted to share his life’s journey and narrate it on his own terms. I couldn’t wait to read his memoir. I hope he got something down before he left. He never allowed his conversations to be recorded and refused traditional interviews, so his narrative gets passed from person to person like folklore. There are so many books about Prince, but most don’t manage to get their facts straight from page to page, much less between the author’s imagination and reality.
The thing that makes me sad is that people are getting even thirstier for Prince now, searching for answers, wanting to figure out why. I feel this bizarre desire to protect him. I don’t know Prince, but I truly believe that he was able to remain so sensitive, so connected to that other plane, because he was fiercely protective of his privacy and his agency. I don’t know Prince, but I cringe when I see people describe him like he came from outer space, and wish they could see his quiet tenderness and humanity.
The world feels entitled to Prince, and we are so honored he claimed us here in Minneapolis. The whole city is mourning, and my heart aches as I look out on the skyline and wait for it to turn purple. Even with the radio off I can hear him ringing in my ears. I have so much else I want to say, but it wouldn’t be enough.
Good night, sweet Prince. It’s such a shame our friendship had to end.
A not-so-brief history of some things I’ve written about Prince:
October 9, 2015: Prince serenades Madonna at late-night Paisley Park gig
September 6, 2015: Live from Paisley Park, it’s Prince! (on speakerphone)
June 2, 2015: Alabama Shakes give Paisley Park all they’ve got
November 17, 2014: FKA twigs mesmerizes the audience, warms up to Prince at Paisley Park
September 29, 2014: Prince’s band 3RDEYEGIRL on Paisley Park: ‘It’s like a musician’s wonderland’
July 28, 2014: Then and Now: Scenes from Purple Rain
January 10, 2014: Then and Now: The Capri Theater, where Prince played his first solo show
January 23, 2013: Prince’s new bandmates talk to the Current and release ‘Screwdriver’
January 19, 2013: Prince ends his run at the Dakota with smoky, standing-room-only shows
January 18, 2013: Prince’s second night at the Dakota Jazz Club heavy on jokes, hits
June 7, 2011: 53 things you might not know about Prince
May 17, 2010: Prince (almost) joins Gayngs
April 1, 2010: Janelle Monae plays for small crowd… and Prince