It’s funny. I have been a Prince fan for sometime now and I thought I could write a subjective piece about his appearance on the Grammy’s and his place among rock’s most productive and enigmatic superheroes without Fanboyin’ out.
But, this is also an opportunity for me to voice a perspective you don’t hear that much. As a young immigrant from the West Indies in the 80’s, I sometimes felt like Bowie’s “Man Who Fell To Earth”. Every reference I had of American pop culture was dated by TV shows like “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “Different Strokes.” I religiously read Rolling Stone and Creem and had just graduated from the black, teen zine “Right On! (the only black, teen mag I might add that didn’t treat Brotha Prince like a heretic right off the bat).
My feelings were that funk was supreme, hip hop was new, and everyone was probably feeling this punk thing in some way. Rick James was the king of punk-funk dammit!
So I raided my Uncle’s closet for older stuff like long, Shaft Jackets, shirts with disco collars and a leather cap. I blended the Prince Dirty Mind cover with Shaft. “I AM COOL,” I smirked to myself.
I get to school the first day and I gotta tell you straight up, my semi-70s, proto-punk funk vibe might of gone over in grungy ’92, but in ’80 it caused an eruption of laughter from Izod and Jordache jean-wearers. The Sweat-hogs were nowhere to be found. I got home that night crushed, popped in my cassette of Dirty Mind and blasted it with head phones on. My adventure in the jungles of the American High School had begun. It was okay though, the soundtrack of my own punk-funk rock opera was being written, arranged and performed in my head by Prince Rogers Nelson himself.
High school was no joke. I had dropped into a actual moment of change from the ragtag funky 70’s to the preppy 80’s. Thankfully it was a Catholic School smack-dab in the heart of Boston’s South End, a bastion of diversity, so I didn’t have a wall a racism to deal with too. But don’t get it twisted, what I was dealing with was pretty intense. I had already ditched my Barbadian accent, opting for a more middle-of-the-road American accent.
Still, I couldn’t ditch my tendencies to not follow the straight line. Prince’s Dirty Mind album made every other album in my collection obsolete. I started to drift further from Michael Jackson and closer to The Specials. By the timeControversy dropped and The Time’s first and second albums, I was diving into the colorized version of the 2-Tone movement. The Time was The Specials filtered through James Brown, The Cars and Little Richard. So my wardrobe reflected the early 60’s soul-boy/ska-boy look — skinny ties, white shirts, and even a Strummer-style Mohawk. Although the older friends found it amusing, it drew the ire of many a classroom bully. I was thrown in lockers, hung out windows and had books stolen. High school was tough enough but I chose to live out my sepia-toned Quadrophenia fantasy in real life. This was a little too different for some.
When most of my older, tough-guy friends went to college, I was once again alone. One particular kat took it upon himself to despise me. And with his cronies, life was hell. And despite having a bevy of attractive, female friends, I was too chicken to take those extra steps. 1999 came out and it was where I would hide. A brilliant album, if my so called punk-funk opera had an arc, it ended season 1 with 1999. Painful teenage crushes and fantasies of revenge against the bullies bounced around, as I hid in my room listening deeply and reading the Basketball Diaries and Frank Miller’s run of Dare Devil. Although I was alone, everyone sang on my soundtrack now and I hated it.
Prince’s next arc of albums were also brilliant, from ‘Purple Rain’ to the Sgt. Pepperish ‘Around the World in a Day’ to ‘Parade’ (soundtrack to the wacky second movie outing ‘Under the Cherry Moon’). The double album Sign O’ the Times came out while I was in my second year in college. I think I bought that and Husker Du Warehouse around the same time or at least it feels that way.
However it was, The Black Album, a super dark slice of punk-funk, filtered through the organic prism of hip hop that caught my soul. It was then that I realized what Prince’s music had done for me in high school– it gave a scared misfit a red flag to survive the onslaught of conformity that spread throughout the 1980’s. Without the the gateway drug of Prince, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have abandoned myself just to fit in, but I know that with it, I didn’t have to.
I started to like being an outsider. I was never going to be cool, so I celebrated being different. So here I am, an older man, broke but holding on to what’s left of my cred looking at Prince, and thinking: “Of course this guy is an outsider. He can’t help it!” I once thought maybe he was mad at us for not having his back when he was trying to get out of his contract, or mocking him for trying to retrieve the name his father gave him, or always being pushed just a little bit behind Mike. Now, with so many greats gone, we turn to him to save us and he’s like “NO!”
Then I realized something — this guy is traveling through this life with us and the reason that music in the 80’s saved me is because Prince was a misfit too. He went instinctual on us and trusted his gut and overcame it all.
I can’t say that I have loved Prince’s recent albums because his exploration of his faith does not satisfy my Rock ‘n’ Roll heart, but even with his weary, rebel salvation, the love affair continues with the Prince of Rock’n’ Roll.
‘Screwdriver’ may signify a new arc, but with so many bodies being sacrificed to keep the Rock bonfire burning, Prince being around is a fundamental blessing to thank God for.