The first time I remember seeing or hearing Prince was the “Little Red Corvette” video. I was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. I was 11 years old and I was pretty sure I knew everything about everything. I was, of course, wrong.
We laughed about his fruity look and completely missed most of the dirty references (“a pocket full of horses, Trojans, and some of them used”). Who was this guy? None of my pals were into Prince…yet.
When seventh grade started in September there was a new kid in school. Rich was a Latino kid who moved from New York, and he knew how to do the wave. I sat by him in Mr. Bergin’s homeroom and he regaled me with stories about breakdancing competitions back home. Our school district was extremely white, and we must have made Rich feel like an exotic alien. He was a badass. By the end of the year a bunch of classmates — led by Rich — had their own breaking crew who blew away everyone else in the talent show.
That summer, my friends and I would go to the Plainfield Dance every Saturday night. It was held in a roller skating rink and attracted kids from all over the area, including the inner city. You follow where I’m going with this? It was my first opportunity as a kid to be around black people. My friends and I were too self-conscious to dance, but we’d walk around the rink looking at girls and listening to music.
The music was different from what was being played on the radio, including strange electro grooves that would end up triggering us to make a big circle around the breakdancers as they impressed everybody with their latest moves. They’d challenge each other and battle on the floor. The coolest thing I ever saw was when Rich — after a dizzying assortment of helicopter spins — concluded by coming to an abrupt halt and simultaneously grabbing his nuts with one hand and pointing at a rival with the other. The place exploded.
Rich’s girlfriend was a girl I had known since third grade. Kami was cool. She shaved the side of her head like Cyndi Lauper, and she loved Prince. Rich and Kami would lean against the wall and make out when the deejay played “When Doves Cry.” It was the summer of 1984 and we were all 12 or 13. We’d get dropped off by parents or get a ride from somebody’s older brother. I have no idea how we got home. It was all pretty innocent. Occasionally we’d sneak a dip of chewing tobacco and I think once or twice we each took a slug off a bottle of Southern Comfort that somebody stole from their parents. But we were good kids.
That summer was when I really started thinking about girls and Purple Rain was the soundtrack. Dubs of Purple Rain and Eddie Murphy’s Comedian were passed around like contraband, discreetly listened to when our parents weren’t home, teaching us things we needed to learn. Eddie told us girls love singers, but Prince showed us why. Confidence and uniqueness were more important than fitting in. Prince was cool without being a tough guy. He was sensitive without being a wuss. Prince was freaky in the best possible way.
Junior high is a tough time. Puberty, general awkwardness, peer pressure. It’s like nature is conspiring against you to make you feel awful about yourself. By that age I had realized that I sucked at sports, that I was short, and that I was kind of a spaz. The cool kids were still my friends for the time being, but I knew I’d never be on the same level as the effortlessly popular football players.
Nobody from my school was in my church youth group, so when I was hanging out with them I didn’t have any of the baggage I felt with the kids who had known me since kindergarten. One weekend, our youth group went to see the Detroit Tigers and we spent the night at a church in Livonia so we didn’t have to drive all the way back across the state after the game. The other church hosted a dance for us that night and I decided to go crazy and conjured up the courage to talk to a girl from the Livonia youth group. She and her friend both flirted with me. I went from being a total dork at home to having girls fighting over me! When the deejay played “When Doves Cry” I asked one of them to dance and we totally french kissed. My first time! Unbelievably, her friend cut in on us, but then she kissed me too! In a church! (Lutheran.)
After the dance we all gathered our sleeping bags and spread them out across the gym. Nobody attempted to separate the boys from the girls so I went to sleep that night between the two Livonia girls, the three of us sharing a pillow, occasionally making out with each other all night long. Looking back, I am amazed that this is even true. But it is. And I think Prince would’ve been proud.
I came home from that trip with a swagger I didn’t have before. I no longer felt like the little dweeb. It was awesome.
But I still had a lot to learn.
When I first heard “Darling Nikki” I misunderstood the logistics of “masturbating with a magazine.” I didn’t quite grasp that Prince meant that Nikki was looking at that magazine in the hotel lobby. I had no idea how women’s bodies worked.
By fall I was in eighth grade and the Tigers had won the World Series. On Friday nights my friends and I would all go to the high school football games and, afterwards, walk to Burger King and then to somebody’s house if their parents were gone. That’s when I first heard “Erotic City.” There were kids making out on bean bag chairs in dark basement corners and the b-side of the “Let’s Go Crazy” single was the dirtiest song I had ever heard. To be honest it has only been within the past couple of years that I even considered that they might be saying “we can funk until the dawn.” The message is crystal clear. This is a song about fucking. And yet it contains the perfectly romantic line: “Every time I comb my hair, thoughts of you get in my eyes.” Prince could mix the sacred with the profane about as well as anybody.
Prince preached the message of love in all its incarnations. And while that message can sometimes be embarrassingly titillating to an adolescent boy, there are important lessons that eventually sink in. When dealing with matters of love it’s important to be direct and to be respectful. Be confident in your own funky self. And most importantly, u better live now before the grim reaper come knocking on your door.