I am lying on the floor of my room, 12 years old, listening to music. I am an only child, and I spend a lot of time in solitude. I talk to myself and fantasize that I’m very popular, very famous, very beautiful. I have books and matchbox cars and tapes, all of which I use to fuel these dreams. The cars are my dolls, acting out elaborate stories of love and loss, fame and heartbreak with them: This Jeep wants to date this drag racer, but the dragster still has feelings for the police car. It’s a sticky situation. Things take a turn when it is revealed that the police car was just using the dragster to get to her wealthy best friend — the heiress Cadillac — and fleece her for her family fortune. Heartbroken, Dragster runs into the waiting arms of Jeep, a down-on-his-luck rock musician with a heart of gold. This victory in love inspires Jeep to write and perform a new song on the spot about how love is as vast as the mountain, as boundless as the sea. It is exuberant. It is raucous. The choreography involves all the cars.
Sometimes on these days, I run out of energy or stories to tell, and nothing plays but the music. I am slightly sweaty and fatigued from jumping around, flying cars through the air and breathily mouthing lines like “I love you. I’ve always loved you.” And so all that’s left to do is lay my body on the dark-green, stained, scratchy polyester carpet and let the music wash over me. I stare for a long time at the picture on the cassette box of the man who is making that music, and I let him wash over me too.
The tape I am listening to is Parade. The front cover shows a black-and-white Prince emerging from a glowing, bloodless background, a poor excuse for a tank top hugging his torso like a bandage, his hands lifted to frame his face as though he himself can’t believe his own beauty. The font, thin and sans serif, is a delicate fantasy of how Americans imagine 1930s France. The record is, in fact, about France, and it functions as the soundtrack to Prince’s second movie, Under the Cherry Moon, about a pair of black hustlers from Florida running gigolo scams on rich dames along the French Riviera until one of them makes the fatal mistake of falling in love for real. It's a movie about black men living a European fantasy.
The fact of the movie itself is another fantasy. Prince and his sidekick, played by the devastatingly dark-skinned Jerome Benton, are not the faces we are used to seeing beautifully shot in black-and-white, smartly dressed in tuxes, softened by Vaseline lenses, with the shadows of window panes and horizontal blinds deftly laid across their bodies. Yet here they are, carving out an unassailable place for blackness in the bedrock of classic noir. It is not an apologetic blackness that seeks to be indistinguishable from whiteness. It is a loud blackness, a celebratory one that drinks too much and pounds the table and struts down the street with a thousand times more swagger than any 5-foot-1-inch man deserves. (Can anybody on the planet look better simply walking than Prince?) It is a blackness of a thousand dimensions. In one scene, his character is holding forth about the cosmic nature of love. In another, he's posted up in a claw-foot tub, bathing himself in water and sunlight, wearing nothing but a bandolero hat and playing with a toy boat. In still another, he is drunk and dry-humping the air, yelling obscenities at a former lover and her new partner. His blackness is unchecked and complex, layers of angry masculinity on a bed of rose petals and women’s perfume. His blackness is a golden fitted backless bodysuit on the taut, coiled frame of a bantamweight boxer.
If the movie is an imaginary world, the music is as real as it gets. Parade is the sound of a band and recording engineers who know exactly what the fuck they’re doing. Prince keeps the best psychedelic elements from the cartoonish and underappreciated Around the World in a Day but returns to the adroit classical and jazz-inspired composing that elevated Purple Rain two years earlier. Parade is full of ballads with chord progressions that take you left when you thought you were going right; French lead-ins and lo-fi effects that shouldn’t be funky but still are; drums replaced with buckets, snares played backward, and heavy bells treated as high hats. Other songs trade on lush, complex arrangements with horns and flutes that slowly devolve into noise, only to rise again in new, dark, serpentine melodies. By the end of the album, the sound is so unapologetically maudlin that you can’t help getting caught up. When Prince plays music for you, you are always being held close.
I am a child in my bedroom listening to Parade, and I am thinking about the last time I saw my mother. It was two years earlier, when I went to visit her in Los Angeles. She took me to see a matinee showing of Purple Rain. When we emerged from the theater into the late-afternoon summer light, she was beside herself, shaking her head and talking a mile a minute. She got that way when something was good. She had a heart that exploded when it touched beautiful things. She was singing the songs, smacking her teeth, and recounting her favorite scenes to me or no one in particular. We walked to the car together while she chain-smoked cigarettes and praised whatever god had been responsible for what we had just seen. She was just 30 years old — a child. I know that now, but I didn’t then. I said nothing, just tried to walk close enough to feel the warmth that emanated from her body. Whatever this feeling was she had, it was love. Prince had given his love to Purple Rain, Purple Rain had given its love to my mother, and now I was hoping my mother would give it to me. This is why we see movies. This is why we make art: to be reborn, to have love course through our veins and make us bold. The stretch of Sunset Boulevard we were walking looked just like the scene outside The Kid’s Minneapolis club. That afternoon, Hollywood became a beautiful landscape, a living rock club that blended with the movie still running in my head, the visions of graffiti and lace, of velour and the sweat of beautifully played rock on a man’s bare chest. My mother, holding my hand and singing Prince’s songs to me.
That summer ended, as all summers do. I returned alone to Pennsylvania and to the enormous, dark, far-reaching winters that she had left behind. To be a child alone in a room, playing with cars and stories, hearing every single note of Parade is an experience I’ll never have again. Growing up is a series of things dying.
This is why I needed Prince: because he celebrated garish, goofy, unrestrained emotion. He made it OK to slouch dramatically over a piano and blink flirtatiously while trying to look sad. He made it OK to be a fantasy version of your own self. It’s not that he denied the true meaning of pain. It’s that he thought it better for pain to be beautiful.
That’s what I thought about when my mother died 21 years later, while I held her hand and sang songs to her. I thought about how she was so overwhelmed seeing Purple Rain that afternoon that she almost couldn’t talk. I thought about how her body was not big enough to handle all the feelings she had, and that maybe now, having been freed from it, she can feel a lot more things with fewer limitations. Maybe that’s a good way in which things couldn’t be the way they once were.
Death doesn’t make sense to any of us, does it?
It’s too soon to talk about Prince in the past tense. He created something so permanent and beyond that we will never be able to fully get rid of it. To say he lives on in his music is not enough. Better to say that we live on through his music. All I know for sure is that there is a part of me that is totally unafraid to imagine and feel and make things up; a part of me that fills to the point of breaking just by the way the third note of a triplet seems to bend, causing the whole song to sigh; a part of me that cries by candlelight and makes flirty eyes with myself in the mirror. A part of me that would be afraid of what you think of me, if I weren’t too damn beautiful to care. A part of me that can never be killed, because I’m too great to ever truly die. I learned that from listening to Prince alone in my room. I learned it from holding my mother’s hand while his music vibrated through her body.
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