Yesterday when I heard that Prince died I was in total shock, but then I realized this is 2016 – the year the music died. Adding him to the list that includes David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and Merle Haggard seems particularly cruel but apropos in a year where every month seems to be the cruelest one until the next month comes along.
When my kids noticed I looked sad I told them why – “I just heard that Prince died.”
Now my kids listen to Taylor Swift, Megan Trainor, Justin Bieber, and I’m not sure how many other current acts, but my daughter’s reaction was priceless. “Oh no, which one, William or Harry?”
I shouldn’t be surprised because though Prince made an indelible mark on the music world he was before her time – way before it. I explained who he was and then the kids started looking up stories on the iPad about him. “He was pretty good,” my son said. Out of the mouths of babes indeed!
I went outside on a glorious spring day and stared at the blooming flowers in my garden, recalling a time long ago (32 summers this year) when I was a very young man travelling through Europe by bus, train, and on foot. This was an exciting time in my life, and it would be when Prince came onto my radar and would stay for a long time.
I recall riding on a bus between Paris and Lyon when I started striking up a conversation with a pretty young girl named Erika sitting next to me. She was from Sweden and was listening to her SONY Walkman (I had mine in my backpack). Erika put her earphones on her lap, and we talked about our lives (hers in Stockholm and mine in New York).
After a while I asked what she was listening to and she said “Prince.” I had heard the song “Purple Rain” on the radio before I left home in June, but I didn’t know much more than that. I took my Walkman out of my bag and said, “I’m listening to Dylan.”
“Want to switch?” she asked with a smirk.
So I gave her my Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (1967) tape and she handed me Purple Rain. I started listening to “When Doves Cry” and began tapping my foot and hitting my hand on my knee. When I looked at her she smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. Thus began my real introduction to the artistry that was Prince’s music.
By the time we got to Lyon I was definitely hooked on Prince. Purple Rain might as well have been called a greatest hits album because every song was amazing and could be a number one hit in its own right.
As we got off the bus I said, “Erika, this is a fantastic album.”
“It’s a copy so why don’t you keep it,” she said.
I hadn’t bothered to look at the cassette but my Dylan tape was also a copy so I said, “That’s a fair switch.”
She was making a connection for the train, and I was waiting in town to meet my friend Dave the next morning. We said our goodbyes and off I went to the small hotel on a dark lane in the shadow of the cathedral. After grabbing a quick meal, I spent the night staring out the window and listening to Prince.
For the rest of my vacation that took me through southern France, down into Italy, up through Austria, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, I would spend part of my travel time listening to Purple Rain. I also had Led Zeppelin, U2, Springsteen, and a few other tapes with me, but at least once a day I would listen to Prince’s entire album while watching the beautiful scenery going by my window.
One night in Austria Dave and I went to a local weinstube (wine bar) and sat down in a large courtyard and started sipping glasses of ice cold wine. We got friendly with a group of people there who had a cassette player and were listening to Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward. When the tape finished playing I popped Purple Rain out of my Walkman and said, “I think you’ll like this.” It wasn’t long before the girls got up with the guys and started dancing and laughing. Prince had cast his spell on them too.
All these years later I so fondly remember that voyage through Europe as a young man, and Prince’s Purple Rain was an integral part of that journey. I do think of the castles, the cathedrals, the rivers, and cities I visited and all the people I met, but even after over three decades that trip is vivid in my mind and that time is inextricably linked to Prince’s music.
Ten years later I went to the Late Show with David Letterman and Prince was the musical guest. It was December 1994 and now he was known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Letterman, with his penchant for being silly, had to fool around with the symbol that Prince now used instead of a name as he announced him before his performance, but once he started playing the guitar and singing the song “Dolphin,” his talent shone through and it was a grand performance.
At the end of the song Prince fell down on the stage and pretended to be dead. Someone came along and carried him off the stage, and all these years later that moment of his playing dead came back to when I heard that he had passed away.
Now Prince is gone – another great talent taken too soon. He joins a growing list of music legends, actors, and other notable people who have passed away during 2016. There has never been another year that I can remember in my lifetime like this one in terms of so many losses. It is only April, and we have lost so many people already.
Prince has left us much too soon. Alas, though he made an indelible impression on our lives, his loss leaves us shaking our heads and asking why. As so many people around the world mourn him, it is indicative of the impact he had on music and his legacy will live on.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet Horatio bid another too soon dead prince a fond adieu with the words: “Goodnight, sweet prince/And fights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” and they are more than apropos here.
Rest in Peace, Prince Rogers Nelson.
Photo credits: CNN, Amazon