I remember seeing Purple Rain for the first time. In the theater. I loved that album and I remember listening to it on vinyl in my room. I have no idea where that album is now — Prince in the long coat on his motorcycle — probably buried in a box deep in my parent’s basement. I liked the movie even more than the album in some ways, and my now 44-year old self is happy to admit that my 12-year old self liked it a lot because of Apollonia.
I remember sitting and listening to Darling Nikki: “I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you can say she was a sex fiend,” and not knowing what at all that or really any of the lines in the song meant, but I knew it wasn’t something I was supposed to be listening to. Even at 12, it was pretty obvious that Prince was cool. He was unique. Beyond talented. He was Michael Jackson…but he could play all the instruments on his albums. I read yesterday that someone once asked Eric Clapton what it was like to be the greatest living guitarist and he answered, “I don’t know, ask Prince.” (Watch this if you want to see for yourself).
And now, at 57, Prince is gone. It doesn’t matter how it happened, just that it did. He joins David Bowie, Glenn Fry and a few others in 2016 alone, as the musicians of my youth fade away. Music really is the greatest medium. It’s so easily accessible because we can keep an entire catalogue of songs in our head, etched in our memory forever. Author Pat Conroy died recently and I didn’t even for a second contemplate re-reading The Lords of Discipline (a great book by the way). But, I’ve been humming Purple Rain all day.
Days like this make me think, and observe, and sometimes write. Following David Bowie’s death, I wrote about how watching famous people we “know” die in “normal” ways (Bowie had cancer) makes us all think about our own mortality. I’m kind of fascinated by it all, in addition to being saddened. Today, as the cashier at Whole Foods scanned my avocado rolls for Alex’s lunch, she quietly cried over the register as yet another customer asked her if she had heard about Prince.
There were a number of things I thought about as I processed the news. Social media is always a good place to start. What’s going to go viral? The purple rain cover of The New Yorker (pretty cool), the “re-branding” of the Prince Street subway station in NYC (also cool) or will it be a brand (hello Cheerios) tweeting than deleting their unfortunate meme? Who will change their FB profile photo, what celebrities will tweet, and will CNN screw up somehow? The answer to that is yes as Wolf Blitzer referred to Prince’s album as Purple Haze; sorry Wolf, that was the other African-American musician who played the guitar. Geez. Part me thinks it’s all too much. There are 10 annoying social media posts for every 1 authentic or creative one. But I get the irony as I ask you to read yet another article about Prince and that I’ve told you about via social media. I’m intrigued by how people generally struggle demonstrating empathy and compassion within social media, a mostly narcissist platform.
I thought about the song American Pie today…the day the music died. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper die in a plane crash in 1959 on their way to Minnesota of all places. Bowie, Frey, Prince — the music seems to be dying this year too. American Pie came out 45 years ago in 1971 and while the song is in parts about the plane crash and “loss of innocence,” in 2015 interviews Don McLean talks about the song being about how America was heading in the wrong direction in 1970. It was becoming “less ideal, less idyllic” and that he saw a decline in American culture at the time he wrote the song, and that things would be getting worse.
Kind of like how so many of us feel about the state of our country today. Perhaps that’s why those of us over 40 especially are feeling the pain when the great cultural icons of our youth are taken from us before their time. We can’t think of anyone quite like Bowie or Prince today to fill the void.
I knew this guy in college. He so badly wanted to be cool. He would cut out Nike ads from magazines or interesting quotes or photos of Living Color (the band) and hang them up in his college dorm room. He had this one article about “what’s cool” that he put on his freshman dorm room door for all to see. It defined cool. I can’t remember all the things it said, but it kind of went like, “Abraham Lincoln was cool. George Bush is not.” Stuff like that. At the end of this long list it said “if you call yourself cool, you most certainly are not.” It could have easily said that if you hang this article on your wall in college, you’re also by definition not cool.
That’s the issue with today’s celebrities — social media has them telling everyone, every day, just how cool they are. Sure, there’s an Adele or even Beyonce that have transcended (though I would argue only Beyonce has any real cultural relevance), but even my favorite musician Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters tries way too hard to be cool.
Prince and Bowie — they never had to tell anyone how cool they were. They were sometimes androgynous, wore make-up and were fashion icons. Prince could write lyrics like “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand” which would get him beat up today for just going into a men’s room in some states, sadly, and it was cool because he had a point to make.
Prince and Bowie, they took risks with their art and careers, were generous, talented, hard working and authentic.
And that’s what we’re mourning.
We’ll always have the music, but we can’t replace the cool.
Photo courtesy of Team Soulful on Flickr/Creative Commons