There is always the problem of when write about an idol that it is self-indulgent mess and pulls out every cliché in the book. This maybe the case. However, we do tend to date stamp our lives by the music we were listening to at the time. Through my formative years of my teens through to my late twenties, Prince was a constant in my life. And his death today jogged my memory of the role he played in my life.
Ever since I was about 8, I was really into music. I used to listen to American Top 40 with cassette deck ready and the microphone on the speaker. Growing up in Trinidad & Tobago, I graduated to Emmett Hennessy and his 6 hour show on Saturday afternoon, but by this time I had graduated to an Aiwa radio-cassette player. Emmett was my music gnomon. He introduced me to ELO, the Cure, the Sex Pistols, a host of early new wave and soul, and Prince.
It was 1979, and I was in Form 5, and getting ready for my O levels. I used to work Friday evenings and some Saturdays in the record and stereo department at Squizzums at Valpark Plaza. I recall hearing “I wanna be your lover” on Emmett’s show, and the following week Prince’s album was there when I showed up for my shift. Marcus (my boss) and Armstrong (co-worker) immediately and I struck up a conversation about the single and who was this Prince guy. This being the pre-Internet age meant that we were limited to the simple fact that he was 21 and from Minneapolis. We put the album on the turntable and did a scan of the tracks. This was different.
It was funky, raunchy, raw, soulful, sexy and new all at once (or as my 15 year old mind could process). We then proceeded to open another album, now there was one on each turntable and we then started to remix the single. Man, we loved that groove. It was a moment I clearly remember. After, we started to sneak the track on to mixed tapes that we sold (yes, piracy was alive in 1979).
While I was a fan of Bowie and Mercury, Prince was in the same vein but on a different plane. I looked at this gender-bending kid and felt an instant bond. He was mixed race and, me living in T&T, kind of looked like one of us, while singing frankly about emotions and sex. Yes, stuff a gay youth would totally relate to. But he also brought a new sound – not quite soul, nor disco, funk or p-funk; but his interpretation of what was now and the future music in a single package. He defied categorization, and explored his complexity. And over the subsequent years, he explored various aspects of identity (some by force as he attempted to get out of a record contract).
His next album “Dirty Mind” amplified those themes, and with him in bikini briefs on the cover solidified my relationship with this enigma. There was something that was very comforting in his fluidity of gender – from the outfits, to his hair and his makeup. However, this was around the time when I first came to Canada, when the “disco sucks” movement was in full effect, and kids in school shamed you for liking dance music. So I retreated in a Prince “closet” so to say. But this, like the man himself, changed soon too.
The nanosecond I heard the second line – “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” – on the title track of the subsequent release “Controversy,” I was sold on his genius. This album marked a turning point for me & Prince. I had started university and starting to think more about my own sexual orientation; Prince gave me relatable licence to articulate that in my head. Also, Controversy was the clearest signal of where Prince was going and what he’d become. The extended jams, self and sexual exploration, role reversal and adaptation of new musical styles (including a bit of punk and new wave). The next eight albums (excluding the Batman soundtrack) were definitive, ridiculously creative and daring all at once, and we got to witness his true brilliance.
1982 saw the release the oddly packaged (as a double album) “1999.” Another shift in direction, us hardcore fans ate it up. This was the soundtrack of my late teens. In my first car, this album was a regular rotation when hanging out with friends from my neighbourhood and high school. And it had a more measured balance of pop, funk and raunch, while still being original. This also marked another critical element of his success – he understood the visual medium. With the advent of MTV, he became a superstar with the videos for “Little Red Corvette” and the title track in heavy rotation. The rest of the world took notice.
1984, I was on a full year off after flunking out of engineering. The previous four years were challenging as I was grappling with failure, my future and figuring out what being gay was. I went back to work for my dad – working on site at a highway project to maintain a healthy distance – and started to get my head together. It was at this time “When Doves Cry” came out. From the opening guitar followed by the drums, the world had changed again. His Purpleness pulled together a hit album that still not sell out. A worldwide hit, a movie, Grammys and an Oscar. Amidst Prince’s success, I had my first serious relationship and I returned to university.
I managed to go eight straight terms (no pun intended) focused on getting my degree. Prince released the psychedelically inspired “Around the World in a Day,” that I loved to play during my early shifts at CKMS. It was also a soundtrack for road trips to Niagara Falls, NY, for wings and booze, and the Blue Jays first division championship (yeah, this was important).
As I neared the end of my undergrad, he released, what was in my mind his greatest album – “Sign o’ the Times.” Like “Purple Rain,” it was a complete experience, but it was the complexity of his genius – past, present and future – in a single album. From a mix of social issues to androgyny, sexual lust and spirituality. His songs took me to a degree that seemed illusive at first, my process of coming out to my friends, and taking time off in Trinidad before I started grad school in 1988. The minimalist arrangements let the words come through, and reflected a mix of emotions as I knew that this was the last time I was going call Trinidad home. It was the album that was there as I started to crystallize my identity into who I am today. While there were other great albums after, there were no greater that this to me.
Beyond all of this, I felt that Prince was savvy about the business of music. Before start-ups really became a big thing, he nurtured an ecosystem of musical talent – the Time, Sheila E, Vanity 6 to name a few (the former unleashing mega-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on the world) – and expanded into film (with varying degrees of success). He appeared to value diversity – from the breadth of ethnocultural backgrounds of his band and the women in his life. He also, in an odd way, had a strong but distant relationship with his fans. While remaining intensely private, his impromptu shows around the world were legendary. Prince truly understood the value of his brand. Beyond his sheer creativity and talent, there were business skills that were worth emulating. His longevity in the business is a testament to that.
Ever a chameleon, always a rebel. Something a little dangerous too. A creative dynamo, and always willing to explore himself and push his boundaries. An enigma who expressed his soul via music. And the music will live on.
Thanks for being part of my life.