Do you remember the first time you fell in love? I do. I was 8 years old. The object of my affection: a diminutive young man from Minnesota named Prince Rogers Nelson.
It was the early 1980’s, a time when life was simple and the most intense argument one could engage in in my neighborhood was “Who’s better, Michael Jackson or Prince?”
I was always Team Prince. Make no mistake, I loved Michael too. His “Thriller” poster had a special spot on my bedroom wall, but there was something about Prince. He managed to stand alone in an age of burgeoning musical icons who only needed one name. Artists like Michael, Madonna and Bruce.
I grew up with Prince. My older sister was a fan. She had the “1999” album on heavy rotation. But something happened in 1984. Something that shook my formative, pre-teen world. That something was “Purple Rain.” The album, the film, the phenomenon. “Purple Rain” was undeniable and so was Prince. It was love at first listen. The music was innovative. It was pop music, but there was so much more there. It was rock, and funk and blues and soul all fused together seamlessly. The music broke all kinds of rules. “When Doves Cry” doesn’t even have a bass line. You just don’t make a pop record without a bass line, but Prince did. And it worked.
And then there was Prince himself. Charismatic, mysterious, playful, sexy, brooding, defiant and ridiculously talented. He could play any instrument you handed him and play it well. A bonafide guitar god, the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since Jimi Hendrix. He may have been short and slight, but he was the biggest thing on stage and screen.
For me, Prince connected in ways no one else did. He made it ok to be different. He made it ok to be an individual and break away from the crowd. He made it ok to embrace you and do your thing, whatever that may be.
It may have started when I was 8, but this was no case of puppy love. My adoration for Prince only grew. As I entered my teen and adult years I grew to understand the deeper meanings behind his music. I delved beyond the undeniable sonic impact and found so much more. The lyrics that were at times a mixture of sin and salvation. The political stands. The social commentary on everything from the AIDS epidemic to race, to the war on drugs. Prince’s music, ever growing and evolving, became a prominent part of my life’s soundtrack.
And then it happened. Just when I thought I had reached the peak of my Prince fandom, I got the chance to see him live. It was 1997, and Prince was coming to town. My sister and I grabbed tickets as fast as we could. When Prince took the stage that night, my world shifted once again. The music somehow became even more vibrant. The bass lines were heavier, the guitar riffs sharper, I felt the drums thudding through my chest like a second heartbeat. And the energy that Prince brought to the stage was indescribable. He was a whirling, ball of electricity and musicianship. I was rendered speechless. I had ever seen anything like it.
From then on, I took advantage of every opportunity I could to see Prince live. When the 2004 Musicology tour came to D.C. I arrived early for the show not wanting to miss a single thing. As my friends and I entered the arena, I suddenly froze, realizing the music I was hearing was live. We rushed to the nearest doorway and peered down to the stage. There he was. Prince was going from instrument to instrument, jamming all by himself. He was on the keys, then the bass, then the drums, then a few licks on the guitar. He glided effortlessly around the stage, picking up an instrument and making it sing like no one else. A glimpse of pure genius at work. Then he flashed that sly, enigmatic smile, hopped off stage, and disappeared backstage to get ready for the actual show that was still an hour away.
He always astounded me live. And it wasn’t just me. I loved watching the faces of friends and strangers as they saw him live for the first time. They felt the magic too. Everyone did. And when the end of the show came and he played the opening chords of “Purple Rain” something special always happened. Everyone in the building would lose every ounce of cool they had ever possessed. I’ve seen grown men and women cry like babies during that song. Every time in every venue. From D.C. to New York, to New Orleans. From the first time I saw him in 1997, to the last time I saw him in 2015. That song was special and Prince Rogers Nelson was special.
I have struggled to find the words to describe how I feel about his loss. The words fail me. But words were always inadequate when I tried to tell people about the energy you feel at a Prince show, or the a-ha moment you have when you realize what he was really saying in one of his songs. My words aren’t enough. They never were. So I’ll use some of his.
“Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes it feels so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending
And all good things, they say, never last”
Yolanda Massey is a show producer at CCTV America.