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Geeked Up: Prince Is The Teacher

Life lessons from a redeeming scream to a parking-lot all-nighter to guitar solos galore

Despite Beyonce’s detonation of Lemonade, her Black Magical Southern Realist mother lode of reparations-level alienation, Prince’s sudden death last week continues to permeate every speck of space I inhabit. Both somber and exhilarating, his spirit is still causing me to pull up short and space out. On a normal day, due to Monstrous Depression, my mind would drift to ugly, worst-case scenarios, but now it’s drifting to memories of Prince. It's as if he’s so positively informed and fired so many of my beliefs about music, life, death, love, sex, God, personhood, creativity, humility, beauty, fun, wit, cool, et al. that he’s got depression shook, mute.

Many writers on this site — Greg Tate, Jane Coaston, Carvell Wallace, et al. — have shared deeply considered Prince tributes, yet I’ve struggled to do much beyond listen and read. I’m still unmoored and inarticulate. Playing his music brings the same too-vast questions that were instigated by Prince in the first place: Is spirituality defined by limits or by limitlessness? Why is acceptance of people’s differences more disruptive than a refusal? Can fucking transcend fucking? Dumb shit like that. And more individually, why music? Why do I experience music as far more powerful and pure than a devoted believer praying to God or Allah? Could it all be neuroscience — the circumstances under which vibrations of tones hit my ears and fired neurons in my auditory cortex? But neural connections are usually formed early in life, and there was little to no music around as I grew up, except AM radio static and lifeless Protestant droning. Or maybe, as a late unwashed teenager desperate for an auditory jolt, I heard Prince and my brain woke up with a start, the start of this life.

There may be no definitive answer to any of this — though I’m still not conceding that it can’t be located in the Art of the Artist. But here’s one statement of which I’m certain: Music, especially music by Prince Rogers Nelson, experienced by me, a white Southern Baptist naïf introvert in the 1970s and ‘80s, was a more benevolent, sane teacher than any other traditional entity on offer — family, school, church, sports, work.

Point of context: My body has always rejected pedagogy, like I’ve got a genetic disorder — celiac academia? — that forces me to blow up teachable moments, no matter how desperately needed or even desired. Not to mention the fact that, in addition to not hearing much music, I blocked out virtually everything my well-meaning, Christian fundamentalist parents said during my entire childhood. The knowledge that’s eked through, however, has usually been via music (books a distant second). Certain lessons — in crude magic, say, or the transmuting of fear and rage, or the expressing of volatile or unvetted truths — are not regularly available elsewhere. People sometimes ask why I care about a type of music that doesn’t seem to fit my superficial vita, especially now that I’ve been toiling in the post-youth demographic for a number of years. And if I’m having a lucid moment, I’ll suggest this: How does art, such as Prince’s music, possess the power to breach so many barriers and speak to so many?

Below are five instances of my continuing Prince education:

1. The scream after “Controversy” and just before “Sexuality” on Controversy, 1981

Sex is an expression of God and, therefore, an expression of spirituality and liberation, no matter if you’re black or white or straight or gay or rude or nude or even if you don’t believe in God, but if you’ve had some experience with the Great Redeemer, or the Redeemer has had some experience with you, it sure ups the excitement level. As my colleague Doreen St. Félix has also noted, in 1989’s Miles: The Autobiography, the legendarily withholding jazz icon Miles Davis testified for Prince’s brilliance, describing it as “that church thing in his music that makes him special … It’s a black thing and not a white thing. Prince is like the church to gay guys. He’s the music of people who go out after ten or eleven at night … I think when Prince makes love he hears drums instead of Ravel. So he’s not a white guy. His music is new, is rooted, reflects … 1988 and ‘89 and ‘90. For me, he can be the new Duke Ellington of our time if he just keeps at it.”

I’m not black or gay, and at the time I heard this, I wasn’t going out after 10 or 11 at night very much, but when I heard Controversy’s title-track manifesto — “Life is just a game / We’re all just the same / Do you want to play?” — the idea of freedom on a grand scale, well beyond the harsh categorizations with which I was familiar, seemed possible. Then, when Prince intoned the Lord’s Prayer, followed by his own Freak’s Prayer, and the taut slink of the outro cut off abruptly like a needle being yanked, only to be replaced by a howl, as if Prince was fleeing toward something — that was my conversion. This new movement of freedom was happening right now and I had to get with it. If not for Prince’s giddy howl — Owwwuhh! — then I probably wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to show up for some of my life’s transformative musical experiences, from hearing gospel roar and yearn in countless southern churches (not my own, unfortunately) or seeing Bad Brains shred a tiny storefront club in Athens, Georgia, or witnessing hilarious theatrical terrorism at 688 in Atlanta, where RuPaul performed with backup singers Wee Wee Pole, or other queens who freaked me the fuck out at the tiny dive the Nitery. Punk was funk was disco was black was white was gay was straight was Owwwuhh!

2. Peaches Records & Tapes parking lot, Athens, Georgia, 1984

When I was a teenager in backwater Rome, Georgia, you had to physically go to the local record store and wait for some slack-jawed, butt-hair-mustache assistant manager to type your order into a grimy computer and maybe you’d get tickets to .38 Special at the Fox Theater or The Pointer Sisters at Chastain Park (both in Atlanta, where all the big shows were), depending on your tastes and luck. I was too intimidated or without funds to attend such events. (An exception was Devo on the Freedom of Choice tour, and I still can’t believe that shit happened!) By Prince’s Purple Rain tour in 1984-‘85, I was matriculating at the University of Georgia and an out-and-proud music geek. But, due to Prince’s escalating popularity, a Purple Rain ticket required more than the usual fandom; it required more fandom, in fact, than I had ever displayed. It required, as it turned out, that I camp out in the parking lot of a regional chain record store — which, though lame, did stock early hip-hop 12-inches when the local new-music outlets did not. I had never camped out for anything, but a friend and I grabbed a spot on the asphalt about 30 people back and waited (we may have been on drugs, I don’t remember). When the doors opened the next morning, tickets quickly disappeared — every store was allotted only so many? — and we were left totally blue-balled (sorry, this is how we talked back then). Luckily, some skeevy scalper offered us a pair for $100 and my friend maxed out a credit card and we obtained respectably good seats. Of course, it was the most outrageously spectacular show I’ve ever seen, and I forever thank Prince for schooling me on what it takes to be a true, fanatic-level fan.

3. “We will smoke them all / With an intellect and a savoir faire,” from “7” on the Love Symbol Album, 1992

With a sheltered and so-obviously-virginal upbringing, it became essential to me that music be, or at least seem to be, not just fun and exciting, but intellectually curious and forward-thinking — i.e., tell me something I don’t know or sound like something I’ve never heard, since I don’t know much and haven’t heard much. Queen and The Clash, say, met this standard, but England Dan and John Ford Coley did not. Boogie/blues/hard-rock clichés made my skin crawl, like I was actively regressing back to the Antebellum period. The song “7” wasn’t released until 1992, but it retroactively grasped my needy pretensions. The brashly suave verse above effortlessly ascended to higher ground, accompanied by a choral grandeur and breakbeat-gospel stroll that felt wholly original. It was the Artist calmly leading his army of freaks off to wage the style wars with an exquisite battle cry that worked on so many levels. I always envision twin images, one where I coolly crumble up my enemies and roll them in a fatty, and another where I challenge them to a dirt-track race where I “smoke” their doors. Yes, I’m a product of my environment.

4. Dallas Austin, interview for Spin magazine, 1996

In the early ‘90s, if you were a guy like me who was interested in left-of-center stuff, it was said that you were into “alternative” culture, and if you were a music writer of my demographic, it was assumed that you wanted to write about alternative rock. I was never comfortable with these assumptions, and despite my urgent need to make a living, working for the glossy alternative-culture omnibus mentioned above was always an awkward fit (though I ended up working at Spin for 20-plus years, psych on me!). Anyway, because some other story fell through, I was given a last-minute assignment to interview Atlanta producer Dallas Austin, best known for working with Boyz II Men, TLC, and Madonna, among many others. At the time, he was producing Fishbone and hoping to start a label for rock bands and seemed to have a lot of ideas about the concepts of “alternative” and “black rock.” In quickly preparing for the interview, I was stewing, per usual, on Spin’s Caucasoid alternative parameters (driven mostly by advertising and marketing, rather than editors, as is often the case), and it struck me — like a giant boulder of DUH — that Prince was, if we could be honest for a second, the Original Alternative Rocker (at least in my idealized, melting-pot vision of the term). His sound and style and approach drew from all genres and eras and was most definitely an alternative to everything else happening. Why were the Pixies obviously viewed as an alt-rock touchstone, while Prince wasn’t? Clearly, it was about racism and formatting and genres as ways of selling lifestyle garbage to specific demographics, but regardless, I asked Dallas Austin his opinion. “From the ages of 10 to 14, I was in bands playing Funkadelic and Prince with these older guys,” he said. “Because of them, I also admired Run-D.M.C., The Smiths, Ministry. I thought everybody listened to different kinds of music. Later on, of course, people started saying to me, ‘You like that shit? That’s white music.’” He went on, and I went on, and it was a cool convo (though nothing much came of his black-rock hopes or my righteous Spin angst), but that was the day that I forever established my ready definition of “alternative rock.” It’s Prince.

5. Guitar solo on “When Doves Cry” seven-inch single, 1984; guitar solo on “Purple Rain” from Purple Rain, 1984; guitar solo on “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” from Sign ’o the Times, 1987; guitar solo on “Creep” at Coachella, 2008

From a fairly early age, guitar solos made me restless and angry. I’m not sure where the bile originated — maybe it was the “boogie/blues/hard-rock clichés” that the radio refused to stop regurgitating; or punk; or new wave; or, let’s call a spade a spade, “Free Bird.” Whatever. But Prince, starting with “When Doves Cry” and “Purple Rain,” taught me to appreciate guitar solos and from there I worked backwards to a point where I appreciated other guitar solos. But Prince’s guitar solos are still my most trusted. As Greil Marcus once wrote of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”: “But in the last minute he takes the place of Duane Allman.” And with the solo on his cover of “Creep,” he took the place of Radiohead.

There’s more, but you’ve already read 3,121 Prince tributes, and as the man said, “Life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.” BTW, has there ever been a darker celebration ever sung? Or a more joyous suicide note? Oh, damn, I should shut up, already. Rest in Purple. Fin.

More Prince on MTV: