It’s a strange thing, this getting older business. The accumulation of time gives you perspective. Distance. With distance, you can sometimes see things much more clearly. Make sense of them… see them in context.
I have been wearing purple since the news broke that Prince was whisked away from this earthly experience, so suddenly and so unexpectedly. I have witnessed the loss of many musical geniuses over the years… Presley, Freddie, Lennon, Jerry, Michael, Bowie… Prince. Hell, I can even remember when Jimi and Janice left us, although at 11 years of age in 1970, I didn’t recognize the musical significance of those losses.
I do now. These artists didn’t merely play music. They brought something to the musical table that never existed before. Music has more facets because of them.
I also recognize now why losing beloved musicians pinches so much harder than, say losing actors and actresses. It’s because unlike those pampered Prima Donnas, who exist to soak up as much attention and cash as they can, musicians exist only to create music and give joy. (Well, OK, maybe some cash too.) Musicians are pure creation. They give us something that will last for generations, and string generations together. A particular song can transport you to another time and place. Music is magic.
You realize these things when you accumulate some perspective and distance.
Me, I’ve accumulated nearly 57 years. I’m the same age as Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. Two down, one thankfully still with us. (Note to Madonna: Please take care of yourself, babe. We’d like to keep you around a bit longer, and it just won’t be the same without you.) Maybe this is why Prince’s death pulled the rug out from under me, as Michael’s did at the time. We’re the same age. And I know that I’m nowhere near ready to cross the veil into the next phase. I have a lot of living left to do… a lot more life to stuff into my eyeballs. So did Prince. So did all of them.
I was out driving today, pondering the impact Prince had on my musical life, and it began to gel in my head. When John Lennon was murdered in 1980, it tore the musical world to shreds. It was a truly heart-crushing blow. And, what bitter irony that he was murdered just as he was reemerging from spending a few years as a mere “house husband,” raising his sweet boy, Sean, and when he did reappear, he was finally whole and healed, looking forward, feeling positive, rested and ready to create music the likes of which we’ve never heard and… we never got to hear it. A lunatic’s bullet snatched his life faster than his wire-rimmed glasses shattered against the cement.
John Lennon was 40 years old.
Accumulating perspective and distance stuns you with the concept of how young 40 is. How tragically young.
I grew up with the Beatles. I can remember when they arrived from the U.K. to go on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was still in kindergarten, but I remember the images on our black and white TV vividly. I remember that I was wearing a bright pink sundress with flowers on it, and my feet were tucked up behind me as I watched something that I didn’t quite understand, but knew that when the “Mop Tops” shook their heads while singing “Twist and Shout” — I got chills.
Conversely, I can scarcely remember a time when there weren’t Beatles. Maybe those are the bookends that clue you as to whether or you grew up in the sweet spot of rock and roll music or not: You can’t remember when there weren’t Beatles… until there weren’t Beatles anymore and they went their separate ways. If you can’t even remember the day there weren’t Beatles anymore… worse yet, when there wasn’t John Lennon anymore… you missed out on that sweet spot. Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been great rock and pop music since then… it’s just that, well, I guess you had to be there.
When the Beatles split up, although Paul’s stuff was sweet (sometimes cloyingly so — I’m looking at you, “Silly Love Songs”), Lennon’s was spicy. Me being more spicy than sweet, Lennon’s post-Beatles work was a musical beacon for me. The lyrics. The musical complexity. The pushing of the envelopes. The breadth. The whimsy. The pain. (Listen to “Mother” and just see if it doesn’t shred your soul a little.) John, was — is — in a class all his own. Musical divinity, as far as I’m concerned. When he was murdered, a part of my soul was murdered too. And, I am but a mere grain of sand on the beach where the wave of grief over Lennon’s death crashed, and inundated… and never totally receded.
When John Lennon died, it created a musical void. Post-Lennon, we had Daryl Hall and John Oates, and Blondie… the sunset of Chicago and… John Cougar (Before He Was) Mellancamp… Toto and Tommy Tutone… Charlene (remember that sappy mess? Google it.). The top song of 1982 was “Let’s Get Physical” by Olivia Newton-John.
We refer to these musical times as the Dark Ages, children.
Or just “meh.”
John was gone. What did it matter. Who gives a shit. Let’s see how many times we can play “Betty Davis Eyes” before we shoot the stereo. or ourselves. (Yes, kids… vinyl.)
And then 1983 rolled around, and Michael Jackson soared out of the forgotten ashes of our sweet youth like a glittering phoenix. Michael spun pop music around like the proverbial bottle and off it moonwalked in an entirely new direction to the beat of “Billie Jean.” It was by no means Lennon, but nothing could ever be Lennon, and Michael was just something entirely new and fresh… a big musical distraction, just when we needed one, lest A-Ha threaten to subject us to a follow-up to “Take On Me.” (Help. And no, I don’t mean a remake of the Beatles’ song.) That was also the year that Prince caught the attention of the mainstream world… we heard “Little Red Corvette” and it was “get in, sit down, shut up and hang on, baby.” By the following year, Prince ruled the number one position on the Billboard charts with the haunting, fascinating, “When Doves Cry.”
These were additionally the early days of MTV, the birth of which I also witnessed… we were introduced to Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club and Tears For Fears, and not long after that… fasten your seat belts: Madonna. If you can remember when Madonna rolled around the stage floor in a tutu and sang “Like A Virgin” at the MTV awards, and wondered, “What the fuck was that,” then you remember the third prong in the trifecta of musicians that left indelible imprints on music of the early ’80s… and filled the void left by Lennon: Michael, Prince and Madonna. The trajectory of music changed. Michael was an unparalleled performer. Madonna was an unparalleled musical business woman. And Prince was an unparalleled musician. Nobody could touch them then, or now… or ever will.
And, ah, Michael… I remember when you arrived on the scene, that little bitty boy with the honey-sweet voice. I remember when you even became a Saturday morning cartoon. I remember your picture on my wall, torn from the pages of Tiger Beat magazine, right next to Donny Osmond and Bobby Sherman.
It’s hard not to swoon even now.
But then Michael disappeared… like Donny and Bobby. And when he resurfaced… wow. This was not the Michael of our childhood. All grown up, dead sexy and exponentially even more talented than before, which seems impossible, but Michael Jackson was an otherworldly creature, where “possibility” is relative. Just like Prince. Prince was a musical gymnast. Listen to “When Doves Cry” or “Gett Off” or “Musicology” but don’t merely listen. Try to “see” the music like you’d watch a dance performance. See Prince’s music, like you’d see choreography. It’s complex and profound. And then he freakin’ defies gravity and dances to it while he’s singing! And shredding his guitar!
Like Michael, Prince was another otherworldly creature, where possibility is relative. And, like Jackson, Prince could move his body in ways that the rest of use can scarcely believe we’re seeing, let alone be able to do ourselves.
Michael, of course, eventually crumbled under the pressure of his celebrity, and lacking a true childhood experience for a solid foundation… well, all the King of Pop’s horses and all his men couldn’t put him back together again. He dissolved, physically and emotionally before our eyes…
And then… he was gone.
But Prince was different, despite the pressures of a superstar life. It seemed he’d always be with us, just as he had been for more than three decades.
Three decades, people.
Sure, I can remember when there was a time before there was Prince, but he’s been here longer than not.
Until April 21 of this year.
Like a breath — just gone.
As I write this, the cause of his death is under investigation, but rumors are boiling that it was an overdose of painkillers, and of course everyone’s ready to file that under “just another celebrity overdose.” But wait. Back up a few steps. Prince may have looked pretty much the same as he did 30 years ago, but the reality is that he was 57 years old.
I am 57 years old.
Let me tell you about 57 years old.
Shit hurts. Constantly. Chronically. Joints. Tendons. Muscles. If it bends, it’s stiff. If it flexes, it’s sore. Activity that was effortless at 30 is a whole ‘nuther animal when you hit 50. Your body will no longer do what it once did, and if you try to force it to, your 57-year-old body will take you to church about who’s in charge now. (Hint: It’s not you.) Now, I know this just from being an average, reasonably active person, and not someone keeping the high-speed schedule of a musical icon, traveling all over the world month after month, performing with crowds who still expect him to slide into the splits and back, and spin on his high heels like a dervish, and dance and jump and play guitar for hours on end. Week after week after week after month after year.
Remember those otherworldly moves Prince could do on stage? Do you suppose that those same moves started to become more treacherous in his 50s? He may be otherworldly, yes, but he was still human. Is it any surprise that Prince was probably in chronic pain? Knees? Hips? Back?
Have you ever had real back pain? I did once — my pelvic bones shifted, and pinched a nerve in my lumbar spine. It literally dropped me to my knees — that was the only way I was could move around, until a chiropractor jolted my pelvic bones back into place and the pain vanished instantly. This wasn’t a little backache. It was shocking, searing, incapacitating pain. And I wasn’t even dancing onstage like a rockstar. I just took a random wrong step, and BAM. “On your knees” commanded my back, and all I could do was whimper, “Okay.” Your 50s are like that. Your body will break in new and improved ways, and leave you to figure out how to deal with it.
But what if you couldn’t? What if that pain was permanent? Would I have taken prescription painkillers? In a fucking heartbeat. For as long as I needed to. Until you’ve experienced that kind of pain, do not judge those who turn to drugs for relief, because you don’t know. You do not know. Prince’s friends insist that he wasn’t even into alcohol, let alone drugs. He was a vegan, and a healthy guy. At this moment, however, the popular unverified verdict is that Prince overdosed on”Percocet.” But not everyone who uses pain medication, or even overdoses from it, is a garden variety drug addict. Some are merely in severe, relentless pain. I suspect Prince was one. If you’re going to villainize someone for being in pain, and trying to alleviate it, well, just… fuck you, then.
Undoubtedly, Prince pushed himself too hard. He pushed his 57 year-old body to keep the pace of one 30 years younger, and suffered the consequences. And because he is Prince, he kept pushing anyway. And, besides being a 57-year-old man, he was also a very tiny 57-year-old man. Maybe an overdose overtakes a small person more suddenly than a large one. There are a lot of reasons to not judge Prince’s use of painkillers.
There are vastly more to grieve his passing.
So, there I was today, wearing purple, driving along pondering all this, listening to a Prince CD in an effort to cling to a wisp of him, and I notice the vast expanse of blue sky while I’m driving down this empy country road I’m on. Bright cyan blue… dotted with white puffy clouds — a rarity here in hot, dry northern California… and I realize… that the cloud-dotted blue sky matches the jacket Prince wore in his “Raspberry Beret” video. Truth be told, that was never my favorite Prince song — a little too sugar-pop for my tastes — but looking at that sky, and that sweet little song and video running through my mind… it made me smile. And I decided right then and there, that whenever I see a cyan sky dotted with white puffy clouds, I’m going to think of Prince, and how I spent 30 decades of my musical life with him in it, how he was one of the stars in my musical constellation, and I’m not going to grieve… I’m going to smile, and be thankful to have witnessed such exquisite talent.
Thank you, Prince… you gave us pure joy. Pure, exhilarating, breathless joy. For 30 years. Thank you.
And so, moments later, feeling suddenly refreshed with gratitude where there’d just been the dull, gnawing ache of grief, I pull into my driveway, and walk up to my house where I’ve lived for 17 years, and in the span of time that I left, ran my errands and returned… a purple flower had blossomed along the walkway to the door… where none had ever blossomed before. I had no idea it was even there. Or even what it is. I even made my husband come look, because I couldn’t believe it myself.
“Purple… for Prince,” I told him.
And maybe that’s just sheer, utter, weird coincidence. But I choose to believe that it’s a “you’re welcome.”
Is it megalomanic to think that Prince could make a flower bloom in my humble little yard, just for me, just one of hundreds of thousands of fans, all grieving world wide? Well, maybe it’s not about me at all. Maybe it’s about Prince. And Prince could do anything.