I kept waiting for the tears to fall.
Which is typical for a wake, I suppose, even one that’s being held a year after someone has passed away. There is a tendency to steel yourself until just the right moment, to try to hold it together in the face of unpredictable emotional ebbs and flows, to wait for just the right moment to let loose and let it all out.
What surprised me the most about the time I spent remembering Prince this past week — at Celebration, where I moderated several panel discussions with the people he worked closely with over the years; at various tribute events spread across the Twin Cities; and at home alone with a few close friends and my record player — was that I didn’t spend much time crying at all. Instead, I spent most of the week laughing.
Laughing at the stories that magnified his endless charisma and sense of humor, like the time Prince saw the toddler of his hairdresser, Kim Berry, running around his salon in light-up sneakers and demanded that the kid hand over their shoes so he could dissect them and make a pair for himself. Or the time he gave his wardrobe department three terse directions for his costume for the 1991 MTV VMAs: “It needs to be yellow, it needs to be lace, and it needs to have the butt out.” Or the time he told his web designer and art director, Jeremy Gavin, to stop compressing his photographs for his website even if it made the load-time painfully long, declaring that “If they can wait 93 seconds for Madonna’s page to load, then they can wait 93 seconds for me.”
All of these tiny memories and moments spilled out over the course of several days, adding up to something resembling a portrait of a real man: Not just the mystical and mythological creature that wielded a guitar and did the splits on stage, but one who forged real relationships with people that lasted for years, who held hands with his photographer Randee St. Nicholas while working with her on their first shoot, who drew unseen qualities out of all these people he worked with and left them feeling like they had uncovered their inner excellence. These were not crying stories; they were sketches of a deeply caring human being whose full impact on the world around him is still just being uncovered.
Even still, April 21 was not a day I approached lightly. This past year has been an intense one, to say the least, for those of us here in Prince’s hometown. As the one-year anniversary of that heartbreaking day approached, I wondered if the day would feel like the kick-off to an annual remembrance of the day we all realized how much we’d lost, or if it would feel more like something resembling a bookend, a finale that might give us permission to finally move past our grief and advance into the next phase.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I needed to roam around and figure it out. So after a long and emotional day of stories and performances at Paisley Park I drove away from Chanhassen, heading north toward that purple glowing skyline, and did my best to hit the streets and take in the whole city of Minneapolis all at once.
My night started just after doors opened at Clubhouse Jager, where my DJ friend Dean Vaccaro, as big a Minneapolis Sound expert as anyone I’ve met, was spinning an all-vinyl set of Prince deep cuts and familiar purple jams with DJ Craig Lambert. I’ve hung out at Jager quite a bit over the years so I was expecting to see some familiar faces, but pretty much instantly I realized that most of the people in attendance were from out of town; as images of Prince’s motorcycle flashed on a psychedelic screen overhead, fans from a variety of coastal cities and European countries held their phones above their heads, FaceTiming the proceedings for their friends back home.
The scene was similar down the street at Bunker’s, where Jesse Johnson of the Time was about to begin his second of three consecutive shows. An enormous, swaying group of women from San Francisco dominated the front of the stage, obviously giddy at being in a club they knew Prince himself used to frequent. A string of purple Christmas lights lit up Prince’s old booth, and selfies were taken with anyone who was actually anchored here in Minneapolis. When Jesse Johnson emerged, he performed as if he was conducting an intimate rehearsal for a small group of friends, and the entire sold-out Bunker’s crowd surged forward as one united front when he turned the mic stand out into the room and asked us to sing “Purple Rain” while he wailed on his guitar.
The air was warm that night, and it felt like the whole city had come alive. Making my way through downtown, there were lines stretching out the doors of every dance club on Hennepin, and Prince music poured out of overhead speakers and car stereos. But there was something quite normal about it, too; unlike last year’s citywide mourning, when you could literally feel the sadness weighing down on us like fog in the sky, this night felt carefree and vibrant. It was a beautiful spring night in Minneapolis, so why wouldn’t Prince be the soundtrack?
When I pulled up outside the Dakota Jazz Club, I wasn’t sure how to feel. Should I be happy that remembering Prince had taken on a more lighthearted feeling? Or did that mean that he was getting further away from us all the time? What was the “right” way to honor his memory now, after so many strange and unsettling and incredible things had happened since he passed? Would acknowledging him still feel different for us here in Minneapolis than it did for the people who loved him from around the world?
I swung open the door of the Dakota and was suddenly ensconced in darkness and warmth. PaviElle was on stage, nearing the end of her first set, and I hurried to get a good spot to watch her and decompress alone in the dark. I’d seen PaviElle perform Prince covers in the past, and recalled how deeply they guided me through the early days of Prince-less-ness last April, but even still it surprised me when she launched into “I Would Die 4 U” right after I arrived, with just Ted Godbout accompanying her on the piano.
I scrambled up the steps to the balcony and clung to the railing, and all of a sudden all those old familiar feelings swelled up and all around me. As PaviElle sang, I felt every tiny goosebump on my forearm stand up one by one, and smiled wearily as I realized that I was standing in the exact spot where I’d watched Prince the last time he played the Dakota in January of 2013; I remembered standing there alongside Bobby Z, who I’d just met for the first time, and clinging on to that railing for dear life, pinching myself at the fortune of watching such a monumental artist play in such a small space. PaviElle’s voice rose higher, my lip trembled, and soon I felt the smallest and most polite little tap on the back of my elbow, like someone was touching me as they passed by. But when I turned around, there was no one there. I was all alone on the balcony, all alone in my loss, all alone with tears running down my tired face once again.
I don’t know who or what touched my arm in that moment, but I said thank you as I stepped away.
Not to get all PRINCE LIVES!, but watching PaviElle sing that night and watching all of these out-of-town guests descend on our city and soak up our Prince-ness, I couldn’t help but feel proud of the energy that pulses through our streets and stages every single day. After spending so much of this past year turning inward to grapple with this loss and wonder about how to move ahead, I found so much joy in turning back toward the scene who raised me up in the first place. Minneapolis is the place where we dance through our pain; where we flood the city with street parties and sing until our voices go hoarse. And in Minneapolis we’ll keep trying to live up to our own musical heritage and legacy until we die, never forgetting where we came from while always forging full steam ahead.
With all of these dizzying thoughts flooding my mind, I ended my April 21 the only way I knew how: By driving down to South Minneapolis, parking outside the Purple Rain house, wandering through a warehouse full of Prince devotees from near and far, picking up a paddle to play a round of ping-pong, and dancing the night away. Of all the Prince lyrics that have bounced around in my mind this year, that night I found myself hearing the same little snippet over and over again: “I only want to one time see you laughing / I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain.”
April 21, 2017 at Clubhouse Jager with Dean Vaccaro and Craig Lambert
April 21, 2017 at Bunker’s with Jesse Johnson
April 21, 2017 at the Dakota with PaviElle
April 21, 2017 at the Purple Rain House
April 21, 2017 at Squirrel Haus Arts for Shockadelica ’17