I hadn’t listened to him in years.
I knew his music – everyone knew his music. I had some of his songs in my iTunes library. Occasionally they’d crop up when I shuffled through my 80s playlists. And I still have the copy of Purple Rain (on vinyl) I got for Christmas 1984. He was like a relic of that childhood long gone.
After losing Bowie in January we all thought that was it; the One Big Death we’d have to face this year. Then they all started dying. Maurice White. Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey. Not even a third of the way through the year 2016 was becoming the Year Everyone Died.
Then came April 21. We’d just lost a genuine piece of Rock Royalty.
Shock gave way to sadness. And confusion. Not so much “why him, why now?” but “why is this one so hard?” I may have owned Prince Songs, but I owned Bowie Albums. More than a dozen. But Prince’s death was hitting me in a way Bowie’s did not. And I couldn’t figure out why.
And then it hit me.
1984. The year of Purple Rain. You couldn’t escape him. Not on MTV, not on the radio. Not even in elementary school. He was an androgynous alien dropped into white-kid 80s suburbia with the impact of one of those atomic bombs the Soviets were threatening to drop on us at any moment. Like it must have been for a different group of kids a decade earlier when Ziggy played guitar.
1984. Reagan’s America. Mulroney’s Canada. Thatcher’s Britain. Growing up then we knew we were living on borrowed time. We weren’t going to see 1990, let alone 1999. There was even a TV movie about it the previous autumn that burned its nightmare into our impressionable brains. We could look around our clean, tree-lined suburb and picture the devastation of the mushroom cloud.
Then he arrived. Not in a spaceship – on a motorcycle. He was different. He was weird. You could look at him, you could study that Purple Rain album cover or that video for When Doves Cry and wonder … who was this guy? Was he black? White? Was he even a guy? We didn’t know – all we knew was Let’s Go Crazy was rock and roll distilled into its purest essence jabbed through our sternum to roar through our veins and feed our impressionable young minds.
He was everything we thought a rock star should be.
He got me through some rough times. A move to a country and a city and a school I couldn’t stand. Where I’d feign sickness just to avoid one day of it. Where some days I’d make myself too sick to leave the safe confines of my home. But any time Raspberry Beret or Kiss popped up on the local top 40 station the clouds would part for a glorious moment and I’d feel whole again.
I moved. I moved on. We all did. By Batdance we wondered if it all hadn’t been a joke. We found Grunge and flannel and angst. Prince went on doing what he was doing only he wasn’t calling himself Prince anymore. He was always there, making music, touring, making news from time to time. We thought he’d be with us forever, in the background, occasionally popping up on our radar when we’d hear I Would Die 4 U blast from an anonymous radio. And, of course, we did make it to 1999, and you couldn’t escape that song written and released 20 years before. It was like despite all our fears of our impending nuclear obliteration Prince knew in the end we’d be alright.
When he performed at the Superbowl, I watched. We all watched. I still knew the words to every song he performed. You didn’t have to own his albums or listen to his music with frequency to know those songs. They were etched into our 80s kid DNA.
Now he’s gone, and we mourn him and celebrate him, but deep down we realize all our rock stars are leaving. There will never be another Prince or a Bowie. Music isn’t valued anymore. Money (and the lack of it) is the motive. So is social media outreach. So are Facebook likes. Rock and roll is fading from the airwaves, like a weak radio signal as you drive out of its radius, flickering out before going to static. Alternative rock is too fragmented to make a difference. Rap and hip-hop have gotten boring. Pop is disposable more than ever. We’re living in the future Warhol predicted. Everybody’s famous; especially the ones who don’t deserve to be. Our 15 minutes are almost up. Our rock stars are dying off. Soon our radios, our Spotifys, our streams will be filled with the voices of ghosts.
We mourn him because he was the last of the rock stars – the genuine, no-holds-barred, unapologetic rock star. No-one who came after could come close. By the late 80s earnestness was in. By the early 90s nobody wanted to claim the title. And by the time the new century rolled in everyone wanted to be a rocks star but the ship had already sailed.
I realize now that I mourn Prince because with his passing, that small, too-brief piece of a childhood he provided the soundtrack to is gone with him.
Until I put on Purple Rain, and it comes roaring back on the wings of crying doves.