You are nine years old, and Susan the babysitter is sitting in the hallway on top of the heating vent. It’s a cold night in Indiana. And she’s telling a story. Her eyes are wide, and she’s wearing purple lace fingerless gloves. You and your siblings are gathered around her like she’s the shaman of the village, sharing an ancient legend.
“I mean. He was just amazing.” She breathes. “It’s hard to describe.” She raises a purple-laced hand to wipe tears from her eyes, smudging some purple eyeliner. “The concert was just…unbelievable.”
Your sister, who is 14 and the oldest, she pats Susan’s arm in understanding. But you stare at Susan in confusion, eyeing her fringed “Prince and the Revolution” tour sweatshirt. She’s crying because the singer was so good? You can’t make sense of it.
You you’ve seen this on TV before. You’ve seen the old timey footage of women with stiff hair watching the Beatles and then just keeling over like they’ve been stunned with a cattle prod.
But you can’t put the pieces together. They’re sad because the song is so wonderful? But you can sense the heaviness of Susan’s emotions, and it translates to you as an important adult thing to try and understand later.
Later you are ten.
Your sister has turned on MTV. There’s a video of a man with curly black hair. He’s dressed like a pirate and singing about some birds that are crying. Doves, actually. And as you hear this song, and watch this man – something in you shifts.
This is not like the Little River Band mom plays in the van. This isn’t Neil Diamond shouting about “America!” This is different from the songs you sing at school about Jesus under the weight of the wood, and rainbow connections, and meatballs rolling off of the top of spaghetti all covered in cheese.
This is something that hits you low in your stomach. And it fills you with a feeling you have never expereienced before – a feeling like there is something wondrous just out of your reach – and this feeling is somehow both wonderful and terrible all at the same time. Later, you will learn the word “longing.”
You are 12.
In dance class you learn a jazz routine to “Raspberry Beret.” You wear pink tights and swivel your hips in a circle. She walked in through the out door out door…
You buy the Purple Rain CD for the brand new CD player. It’s a large black box the size of a VCR, and it’s connected to a huge amplifier. It’s all tucked onto a shelf in the old-fashioned cedar wardrobe your mom bought when she re-decorated your room with flowered wallpaper and pink carpet.
You open the cupboard doors like you are stepping into a secret world, but there is no lion or witch. Only a Prince. And he is crooning to you about someone named Nikki. And something she’s doing with a magazine. You hold your face in the darkness of the cupboard, and feel the vibrations of the music against your skin, while your stomach flips and twists.
You cut out the lyrics to “When Doves Cry” and hang them on your closet door. Dig if you will the picture. Of you and I engaged in a kiss. The sweat of your body covers me. Can you my darling, can you picture this?
You older sister stops by your room to take back the teal mini-dress you stole from her for your 7th grade dance. You wore it without knowing your sister had scorched a cigarette burn in the back, which your date pointed out to you while you were rocking awkwardly in a slow dance. Your sister scans the room, sees your cut out lyrics and pictures. She rifles through your CDs and spies Prince’s Scandalous Sex Suite, which includes the songs “The Passion”. “The Rapture.” And quite simply: “Sex.” She turns to you. You and your perm and bifocal glasses and braces, and she bursts out laughing.
“You’re into Prince? Hilarious. He a total horn dog, Jo!” She snaps her Big Red gum and laughs her way down the hall. You sit on your bed mortified. Somehow stunned that your selection of “Prince As Favorite Singer” has betrayed your sexual awakening.
You are in your twenties.
And therefore spend a lot of time confused and slightly drunk. You live in New York City. There is a lot of longing. You have been seeing a man for a very long time. A man who is also confused, but rarely as drunk.
You spend many nights away from him, out in bars downtown with your friends. “Little Red Corvette” and “Kiss” come on over the dive bar speakers, and you and your friends take off your pinching work shoes and swirl, laughing, dancing your confusion away, until the bartender shouts at you about his cabaret license and threatens to turn off the music.
One morning you wake up with the man and see a flash on his boxy desktop computer about Prince being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s doing a little concert afterwards, in a small venue. You have never seen him live. There haven’t been any opportunities to do so. And your hands shake as you email friends. It is only 7am. And you are harassing them about attending a Prince concert that night. A concert with a hefty price tag, and that doesn’t start until midnight. No one wants to go with you. Not even the man you woke up with. He is a more of a Michael Jackson guy. You decide to go alone.
You get there at 10pm, when the doors open, and you push your way to the front until you are about 20 feet from the stage. Midnight comes and goes. 1 am comes and goes. You are exhausted. Your purse and coat are in a heap at your feet. You chat with the people next to you, who look at your strangely – white girl with no friends in cheap boots. What’s her story?
As the clock ticks to 2am you begin to hate Prince. Fuck this. Where the fuck is he? And then suddenly – there the fuck he is – strutting out in a red tunic that looks like something Nancy Reagan might wear. And somehow still looking like the sexiest creature ever witnessed by human eyeballs. He smirks out at the crowd. Picks up a guitar. And you lose your mind along with everyone else in the room. There are delirious screams. And they’re coming from you.
Suddenly you understand Susan the babysitter. You understand those fainting Beatles women. You are slightly deaf, and you don’t care.
Two hours later he slinks off stage, and you ride home in a taxi at 4am, feeling like you are floating on a magic carpet, your heart pounding in your ears.
You are thirty.
You have met a different man. When you first see him – his blue eyes and shy smile – you feel that familiar longing. But different this time. This time the something wondrous is within reach. The first time you bring him to your apartment, he walks into the living room, and bends down to pick something up.
“Who owns this? You or your roommate?” He asks in his dipping Irish lilt. He is holding up a VHS copy of Prince Purple Rain.
“That’s mine.” You say.
“Ah.” He grins. “Very good.”
Later, you will play “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” on a loop. It’s his favorite Prince song. One you had actually forgotten about. When it plays at your wedding four years later, you will be dancing barefoot, and will refuse to go to the bathroom, because that would mean you’d have to stop dancing.
You are in your mid-30s.
It is your son’s first Halloween. You text your mother photos showing her the cut of the purple jacket. The silver sparkle on one of the shoulders. She says sewing the ruffles is tricky.
You order your boy a floppy black wig off Etsy. Cut him a tiny white guitar from cardboard. Paint a faint black mustache with eyeliner. It’s such a great Halloween costume you don’t think you can ever top it, until two years later you dress him in an all sequined jumpsuit as Ziggy Stardust.
When Bowie passes away, you stare at the Halloween photo with a kind of confusing, vertigo sadness. But….how can there be no Bowie?
And then three months later, your phone pings with a text from a friend: “How can there be no Prince?”
Your friend sadly jokes that maybe next year you should dress your kid as a Ninja Turtle or Batman? Maybe leave the world’s musical geniuses alone?
Some musicians are passed down like spirit guides – easing us through the tangle of our years.
You see his face on the news, his purple twisting guitar held aloft, and underneath the photo – a date marking his beginning and end. And you think of Susan the babysitter and her tear-soaked gloves. You think of your big sister popping her Big Red gum – all cinnamon and knowledge.
And you think how some musicians are passed down like spirit guides – easing us through the tangle of our years. You remember your cedar wardrobe, and for a moment you’d like to be lost inside its shadows and songs for one more minute, tucked up in that pink room with the flowers on the walls.
But your three-year old is pulling at you. And so you play “Let’s Go Crazy” for him. Turn it up. And he laughs and runs laps around his train table. Around and around and around.
He doesn’t know the word longing yet.