The Righteous One: I tried to review Purple Rain but since it’s a terrible movie I reviewed my own life instead, which would not be the same if Prince hadn’t held my hand through it.
I was crying when I wrote this, excuse me if it goes astray
I skipped school the morning Prince died. Between crying and tweeting, I couldn’t seem to get myself out the door. “School is canceled,” my friends reassured me. “All flags fly at half mast.” I sat reading the Internet on the front steps of my current San Francisco squat, a luxurious three-bedroom apartment in Hayes Valley I’m occupying while my friend, its rightful tenant, does tycoon things in another city. Just a few months prior, I’d stayed up late into the night commiserating with all who were awake on the planet, posting memories of David Bowie. Prince died, improbably, in the bright morning light, while his fans were mostly at work, sitting stunned at their desks or, as I’m picturing, weeping variously into steering wheels and pizza dough and their clients’ hair.
But, daylight or no, the Internet held us together with its spidery filaments while we sent each other thoughts that not that long ago would have been merely telepathic. I finished a tweet and/or a cigarette and heard two loud thumps over my head, followed by a third as a bird crashed to the sidewalk in front of me. Christ, I thought, what do I do, am I going to have to rescue it or—
When I looked again, I saw that a) its eyes had clouded over so there was no misery to put it out of; and b) it was a dove, for Chrissakes. A golden-brown, adult, and recently healthy dove had plummeted to earth and died in front of me, as I was mourning Prince. I’m both a poet and a witch and I would never write something this heavy-handed into, say, a screenplay. Perhaps I should spell it out anyway: The first single off Prince’s album Purple Rain, the one that made him a superstar, was “When Doves Cry,” and doves are heralds and bearers of news. I’m still not sure what the news was; the dove wasn’t announcing Prince’s death, unless it was running late. As omens go, it’s both blindingly obvious and completely cryptic.
I called Animal Control for further instructions and wrapped my departed messenger in a copy of the London Review of Books I found in the dining room. FYI, you’re not supposed to compost city doves.
The first time I heard a Prince song, it was in my best friend Jodi’s bedroom, which occupied the attic floor in a log cabin her dad had built in the middle of the woods. She pulled out the 45 of “1999” and we listened to it over and over. “1999” was so different from everything on AM pop radio in 1982: Air Supply and John Cougar and Men at Work. Not only that, but Prince had devised a song about my greatest fear, aside from house fires: nuclear war, specifically, Russia bombing Washington DC, which was close enough to our little mountain town to kill us but far enough away to do it slowly. Staying up late at night worrying about Ronald Reagan and the Russians was a common hobby in my elementary school cohort.
We could all die any day, Prince sang, so why not live like it was the end of the world? I took this notion very seriously, although the idea of partying to me at age 10 was limited to eating chips and cake and dancing to songs like this one. Jodi had a dish of red hots in her bedroom. I felt like we were onto something.
I forget how long it took me to save up to buy the album, but considering that my allowance was a dime a week, it must have been Christmas or my birthday before I could buy 1999. Cassette tapes cost a lot of money back then, about $10, but if you waited until the album had been out for a year, the price dropped and you could cobble the money together.
What I do remember is playing the album on a boom box in a guest bedroom at my grandma’s house for a group of about six of us assembled cousins, having a simultaneous dance party (“Delirious”) and top-secret sex-ed class (“Let’s Pretend We’re Married.”) At 11, I was the oldest and therefore the most worldly wise, and when Prince said Look here, Marsha; I’m not saying this just to be nasty. I sincerely wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth, I had to pretend to explain what he was talking about while everyone giggled and clapped their hands over their ears. We listened to the album over and over again, howling; my cousin Christina was literally forbidden from listening to anything close to this filthy. For the first time in my entire life, I was cool. Prince did that.
The guttural rubber-band-meets-vacuum-cleaner-meets-human-voice sounds over the plink of the piano and the little falsetto shouts that open “When Doves Cry” sounded startling emerging from the stereo speakers in our living room. How could this song be on the radio? The intro opens up into an “us against the world” heartbreak sex fantasia, and I was transfixed. My father for the first time took notice of who Prince was, and derided him as a degenerate Little Richard who would personally come to our small town and corrupt me if he had the chance. I’m not sure which was more dangerous in my dad’s eyes, Prince’s blackness, his flamboyance, or his blatant eroticism, but he found the combination ominous and personally threatening.
“When Doves Cry” hit the radio in May of 1984, at the tail end of the worst year of my life, when I had been declared the most unpopular girl in school, an official position enforced by prank, insult, ostracization, name calling, the silent treatment, and every conceivable combination of these with general bullying. How can you just leave me standing, alone in a world so cold? I wasn’t singing this to anyone in particular, but I was singing it all the time. Plus, again, always with Prince, the sexual content so thick you could butter your bread with it. Dig if you will, a picture. Okay, I thought. Okay.
I plunked down the $12 ($27.50 in 2016 money) for the cassette of Purple Rain as soon as I could manage it that summer, and listened to it on repeat. The most rocking, wild, experimental song on the wildest album I’d ever heard—even among my dad’s psychedelic LPs from his long-haired days in the early 70s—was probably “Darling Nikki,” and my mother popped out of nowhere, alarmed, when I played it on the living room stereo, not really thinking about what the opening couplet said. That second line conjured my mother like a genie. I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine. “Don’t play that for your father,” she said. I was embarrassed but somehow empowered at the same time.
In the fall, I cut out a glossy picture of Prince from some teen magazine, a still from Purple Rain, and taped it to a handmade bulletin board I made for the inside of my 7th-grade locker. I wrote his name next to it in the same sort of heavy metal calligraphy as on the album cover. This was a real eyebrow-raiser for my classmates, who already thought I was weird. “Do you think Prince is cute?” they asked me. ”Uh, you know he’s is gay, right,” they’d whisper to me. They were not bullies about this one thing. They thought they were breaking sad news to me, as if I didn’t realize a family member was dead.
Since I wasn’t entirely sure what gay meant, and since I hadn’t seen the movie yet, I answered with such sophisticated replies as “No he’s not!” and “I don’t care.”
He is something that they’ll never understand, I thought. Prince was like a secret I got to keep wide in the open, a key to a far-off place that was right in front of all of us.
When Purple Rain made it to the Movie Channel—the basic cable version of HBO, with its own glossy program guide—my parents couldn’t deny me, even though it was rated R for nudity, profanity, and adult situations. I was pins-and-needles excited like Christmas morning.
In disconcerting parallel, the air of anticipation the night I went to see Purple Rain on the big screen at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre was palpable in the crowd, many of whom wore purple sequins or frilly shirts. The Castro, with its big, pink neon sign illuminating the neighborhood of the same name, anchors the gayest block of the gayest neighborhood in the city. Its baroque interior boasts a working pipe organ, a leatherette ceiling, an art deco chandelier, and 1,400 plush velvet seats. It’s the Prince of movie theaters. Purple Rain, with screenings at 7 and 9:30 on a Monday night, preempted an awards show to be held that night as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. The 9:30 screening opened with a half-hour dance party, instigated by go-go dancers in leather. I caught my breath seeing the Love Symbol projected in spotlights on the 2-story red stage curtain.
And then I ditched my friends, because they headed off to the right to sit closer to the screen, but I needed a seat in the exact middle of the theater.
The movie starts with an announcer saying “Ladies and Gentleman, The Revolution.” The familiar F# drone on the organ that starts “Let’s Go Crazy” filled the Castro, and as Prince’s silhouette appeared on the screen, the crowd erupted as if he had walked out on stage.Dearly beloved, Prince said, intoning the opening words for every movie wedding or eulogy, We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
Here’s the real reason I ditched my friends: So I could weep without comment. So I could cry without someone trying to console me. Prince was onscreen, simultaneously rocking out and eulogizing himself.
Electric word, “life”
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here to tell you
There’s something else
A world of never ending happiness
You can always see the sun, day or night
The Revolution, bathed in purple light and fog, personifying glamor and rock and roll, are crashing through the song, and then we see the opening expository montage of Apollonia, arriving in a cab and ditching the $37.75 fare—$481 in 2016 dollars—and Prince, arriving on his purple chariot to the club at which he’s currently playing. Coherence isn’t Purple Rain’s strong suit. Music, clothes, and sex are all I remember about seeing the movie when I was a kid, and the sublimity of these transcends the need for such plebeian concerns as continuity or plot. We, adults, screamed and wept at Prince licking his fingers, touching his hair, spinning around, finger-fucking his guitar to make the sounds we’d grown up with, grown old with.
My clearest memory of the movie turns out—as is memory’s way—to be somewhat inaccurate. Prince and Apollonia are having sex in a barn, facing each other, and they’re onscreen surrounded by hay for only a second or so. This much is true, but in my head, their bodies are seen from a distance, through the barn door, and they’re almost part of a landscape, like goats grazing on a hillside seen from a car on the road below. In reality—or rather, in the movie as seen this week—that view of them occupies the whole screen during a montage of Things They Did and Places They Did It, set to “When Doves Cry.” The song envelops a disturbing cavalcade of images, in which the heat between me and you involves not only sex but violence. Prince’s dad hits Prince’s mom, Prince hits Apollonia, Prince spends a lot of time riding his motorcycle on dangerous terrain and gazing pensively into the water.
The split-second of girl-on-top sex, and not the rest of the “When Doves Cry” sequence, is emblazoned on my brain in large part because that’s the moment my dad called the movie trash and stormed out of the living room. He didn’t turn off the TV; instead he sat fuming in the next room, furiously turning the pages of a book he was pretending to read, standing guard in case Prince stepped out of the television and beckoned his teenage daughter to join him in a life of depravity and glamour.
Without the costumes and the nightclub, the way Prince and Apollonia spent their time in Minnesota resembled the lives teenagers led around my Appalachian town: Driving around, skinnydipping, fucking in their parents’ basements and on riverbanks and in haylofts, maybe getting loaded, maybe fighting about that, dreaming of making it big and leading different lives.
I always wondered two things about why this movie, as opposed to any other Hollywood garbage movie with sex in it, pissed off my dad so much, and it always boiled down to the interracial relationship and the non-missionary sex. Even in a town so white as to preclude racist incidents, an ugly undercurrent of anti-blackness prevailed, and in the early 80s the Top 100 songs remained blindingly white. My dad, like many dads, was overly concerned with whether my friends were white. “Why?” I would ask. He didn’t answer: He had no justification for the racist zeitgeist, and he knew it.
In places where sex isn’t spoken of, any non-procreative sex is transgressive. Prince and Apollonia must have been a synecdoche for “things people do in bed that aren’t regular husband-and-wife stuff.” Neither the bondage gear Apollonia wore for Prince in the club the night he mocked her with “Darling Nikki” nor the lesbian relationship between Wendy and Lisa made any waves in my pre-teen head, but my dad certainly would have recognized them as either deviant or at least too advanced for his daughter to be thinking about. I don’t know if a single movie viewed when one is twelve can create one’s identity or sexuality, planting flags that unfurl through an entire life. I just know I’m glad I’m not in the control group of people who didn’t grow up with Prince.
The parts of Purple Rain that must have shocked or bewildered me when I was 13—the sex and sexuality—were not the parts that disturbed me the other day at the Castro.
I didn’t remember that Prince’s “The Kid” was an egotistical brat who lived in his parents’ basement in a room full of fey harlequin masks; I certainly didn’t remember that after Apollonia buys him a guitar—for which he doesn’t say thank you—and tells him she’s going to join Morris Day’s band, he backhands her so hard she spins and hits the floor. The crowd, for the most part, didn’t remember that part so well either, because everyone gasped and cried out No! When Morris Day has his right-hand man throw an ex-girlfriend of his in a dumpster for hassling him, someone in the row behind me said, “It was a different time.” When Prince smacks Apollonia, we all recoiled with her.
As a story of redemption, Purple Rain doesn’t ring as true for me as it must have when I was a kid and the Christian standard of leading a moral life was a simple process of contrition and forgiveness. Prince almost hitting Apollonia and resisting not becoming his father could have presented a more powerful, but far less dramatic arc. Prince likewise didn’t have to trash all the canned goods his mother put up in Mason jars in order to unearth his father’s original compositions on sheet music. I was disturbed by both the silliness of this scene and Prince’s destruction of his mother’s labor.
It’s funny that Purple Rain won a Grammy for best movie soundtrack. There’s no Oscar for “Best Film Made to Support an Album.” The live performances are electrifying—I can’t find a better word than that overused one—and the motorcycle rides and river gazes, as fraught with teenage angst as they are, present an unassailable archetype of glamorous alienation that must have fueled thousands of my fellow teenagers in our quests to make the sadness we couldn’t shake into a badge of depth. Doing so was a survival skill I might have learned elsewhere, but I learned it from Prince, and it saved me from diving into the abyss of self-pity and not climbing back out. As much as I’m grateful to Prince for writing the soundtrack for my understanding of sex and identity, I’m even more grateful that he enabled me to declare that being weird and sensitive was both cool and necessary.
The day after Prince died, I spent the night at a friend’s farm, where phone reception is weak and fleeting. I was standing on a hill above the barn trying to check messages when an email came through from my dad, with the subject line simply reading “Death.” I waved my phone in the air, trying to get the rest of the message to download. It read, in its entirety:
OMG Prince Died!!
No matter what he’d thought about the safety of his teenage daughter—and whether his fears about my moral turpitude ended up being founded—my dad knew that Prince meant something to me. Purple Rain was my Rebel without a Cause, my On the Road—both of which would have been vastly improved if Apollonia and Wendy and Lisa had been on board. Those of us who identify with the misfits, freaks and weirdos in Purple Rain did find a Revolution in Prince. It’s hard to believe he won’t be around to lead us over the barricades.