I think the first time I became aware of Prince was either hearing the song ‘Delirious’ on the radio, or seeing the video for ‘Little Red Corvette’ on MTV in early 1983. I liked the songs I heard on the radio, but I didn’t think much of them at the time. You have to understand, I became a KISS fan in 1977, when I was all of four years of age, and so for the next several years, while I did enjoy other bands (most notably The Beatles and Michael Jackson), my interests in music centered almost exclusively around KISS, so Prince was just a guy I heard on the radio. He wrote catchy pop tunes, but I had no urge to delve any deeper or explore any of his records.
Then something happened.
Beginning in 1983, my parents began to throw parties for our friends and neighbors. The parties took place in the basement of our house and they were strictly off limits for my brother Brian and I. Usually, since Brian and I would be banished to the upstairs, we were allowed to have friends stay over. We had an Atari, so friends would bring over their games and we would have a pretty good time, all while we could hear thumping bass from the basement (which is when I truly began to hone my talent to name songs based solely on bass and drum parts). Since the ‘kids’ were going to have their own mini-party upstairs, my parents decided we couldn’t be left to our own devices. We needed a babysitter.
That’s when I met Michelle. She was probably no more than four years older than me (she wasn’t old enough to drive yet) and I’m not sure how she was chosen as our babysitter, because I’m not kidding when I say I was more responsible than she was.
She was a party girl, and she was a Prince fan.
It was October 1983. It was a Friday night; I remember that because Friday Night Videos premiered KISS’ ‘Lick It Up’ video. Michelle came armed with a wicked sense of humor, the ability to not be condescending to me or any of her other ‘charges,’ and she brought a bag full of cassette tapes. I remember she had “Rant & Rave with the Stray Cats”; “Too Low For Zero” by Elton John, and “1999” by Prince + The Revolution.
On occasions when the basement was off limits, I’d always retreat to my bedroom and listen to records. After being by myself for a while, while the others watched TV and played video games in the master bedroom, Michelle popped her head in the door.
“Hey! Turn off whatever that is you’re listening to” (It was KISS, of course, the “Creatures of the Night” album) “and put this on. You should listen to this.”
She handed me her cassette of the”1999″ album.
“Have you heard of Prince?”
“I’ve heard the songs on the radio but I don’t have any of his records.”
“You’re gonna love this.”
With that she promptly turned off the record player and popped the tape into the cassette deck.
And we listened.
It was the first time I ever put together that rock music was usually about sex, even less subtle than KISS lyrics. I mean, Prince actually said “Fuck” on a record! Could you say that in a song?! At ten years old, I thought only comedians like Eddie Murphy and George Carlin were allowed to do that. It was a revelation.
Our “listening party” was interrupted somewhere around what would have been Side Three of the album (the song “Automatic”) and so, soon after that night I talked my dad into taking me to the record store where I bought “1999” on vinyl, mainly because I needed to hear the rest of Side Three and all of Side Four. And despite the homemade pre-PMRC warning label on the cover about some material being ‘unsuitable for minors,’ no one asked for my ID or quizzed my dad about the subversive contraband I had just bought.
What I liked about Michelle the most was her bluntness. She was the first person who never thought to spare my feelings. If she had an opinion about something, or an opinion about me, she gave it with no apologies, even if it meant “hurting the handicapped kid.” Like the lyrics of Prince, she was a revelation, and instead of being hurt by something she said, I savored the fact that Michelle saw me and appreciated me as someone other than “the kid with the canes,” even though I wasn’t able to articulate that sentiment at the time. All I knew or needed to know then was that she was cool.
Over the next few months, I saw Michelle sporadically; always at my house, and we invariably ended up listening to Prince each time, either in the basement or in my bedroom. She loaned me her cassettes of the albums ‘Dirty Mind’ and ‘Controversy,’ which I dubbed onto a non-descript unlabeled Memorex tape that I kept in my dresser until the mid-90s. I don’t think my parents would have confiscated the tape had they found it, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Playboy magazines weren’t allowed (though I, like every one else had a secret stash) but music was okay. What most parents never realized though (mine included) was that listening to Prince was akin to an audio version of a Playboy, with only his lyrics and the listener’s mind used to paint extremely vivid images.
Then came Purple Rain.
Prince was everywhere in the summer of 1984. I bought the album very soon after it came out, but as liberated as my parents may have been about music, there must have been something they saw or felt that made them say “Purple Rain” the film was off limits. Don’t ask to go see it because we won’t take you. I remember being upset at the time. Michelle told me one night that she would get us both in to see the film, even though she was under 17 herself. (Sadly, that never happened. I did see the film on HBO the following year, and I guess it wasn’t a big deal because nobody grounded me.)
In 1985 my parents got a divorce. I found out about it totally by accident one night (May 30…some dates you never forget) when I heard my dad on the phone say ‘When do you want to tell the kids?’ and me, being my big pre-teen self, I demanded to know what we were going to be told, and he’d better tell me now!!
That night is a demarcation line in my life, and that summer of 1985 was one where I truly lashed out at every single adult in my world. Parents, teachers, grandparents…I was mad at the lot of them and they obviously were no smarter than me, so why bother listening to anything they had to say?
I do remember a few friends asking me how I was doing ‘now that your parents are splitting’ and I don’t remember what I said in response. I tried to show a tough exterior.
The one person I ‘couldn’t pull that shit with’ [her words] was Michelle. I saw her one night in June. She was there to watch me and Brian. I don’t remember why dad was out of the house, but it was summertime, no school, ‘no curfew as long as you stay in the house’ [dad’s rule]. I had just gotten the 45 single of ‘Raspberry Beret’ (a guilt gift from my dad) and, to my surprise Michelle didn’t own it yet. My record player had a setting where it would play the same record over and over without the listener having to get up to reapply the needle, so at some point that night, I was in my basement talking with Michelle with ‘Raspberry Beret’ on repeat. I think all she asked me was ‘How are you?’ and I lost it. I sobbed uncontrollably into her shoulder, not caring one bit about how that must’ve looked to her. To her credit, she didn’t flinch or try to stop my crying. I kept my head on her shoulder for a while (at least two run-throughs of the 45 on the stereo). Eventually, maybe because she couldn’t think of what to say, she kissed me; an innocent kiss in hindsight, but nonetheless my ‘first real kiss.’
“If that was a ‘pity kiss’ because I am a crying mess, I’ll slap you!’
“It’s not pity, shut up.”
I’ve said before that music is memory. I haven’t seen Michelle in almost 30 years, but I think of her whenever I hear early Prince records, and that memory makes me smile, even on days as sad as today.
Prince is dead. Long live Prince.
“Where have all the raspberry women gone?”