I’ve been struggling for almost a week to process the death of Prince and describe what he meant to me.
He’s not the first musician of note to die this year, of course. David Bowie’s sudden defeat at the hands of cancer was shocking and a huge loss.
But it didn’t affect me personally. I liked David Bowie — how could you not? The man was brilliant. But I was never into Bowie.
I was into The Eagles. Despite coming of age in the 1980’s, long after The Eagles broke up, I had both their Greatest Hits albums and played them religiously.
But I was much more of a Don Henley guy than Glenn Frey. Henley’s vocals and solo music spoke to me much more than Frey’s. So the death of Frey wasn’t a devastating blow to me either.
But Prince is different.
I was just hitting high school when “Little Red Corvette” broke through. Something about the sound of that song drew me in. The words intrigued. The follow-up, “1999,” became one of the major anthems of my generation (and naturally resurfaced in the lead-up to Y2K).
But it was Prince’s 1984 motion picture, Purple Rain, that really hit me. I identified with Prince on some visceral level I couldn’t explain. I was not a multiracial rock genius from Minneapolis. I didn’t have the kind of skill and virtuosity Prince displayed in virtually every song he recorded.
But I was a skinny kid with a deep love of just about every kind of music, and I couldn’t seem to find people who really got me.
The music of Purple Rain got under my skin, spoke to my heart. The catchy, dance-inspiring sound of “Let’s Go Crazy” made me want to celebrate being alive. The tragic regret of “When Doves Cry” spoke to my developing adolescent consciousness. I longed for someone I could sing “Take Me with U” to. The brazenness of “Darling Nikki” popped my eyes and made me wish I had Prince’s unap0logetic sexual confidence.
Thirty-two years later, I can still only partially describe how Purple Rain made me feel. But when I was learning to play guitar, I told my teacher I wanted to be able to play like Prince at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy.” And after my mother watched the film with a jaundiced eye, I declared it was brilliant over her objections.
Prince was such a part of my youth and young adulthood — I heard “Kiss” for the first time at my Senior Ball, and “Raspberry Beret” practically forced me to dance whenever it was on — that I failed at the time to notice how much I loved his music. It was ubiquitous. Someone always had Prince on, and I enjoyed everything I heard.
But I think the thing that stayed with me the most was his fierce individualism. No one was was like Prince — not musically, not personally, not culturally. He was gloriously weird, bombastically unusual. He did things no one understood and declared them the height of cool.
And because it was so difficult to define him, to fully grasp what he was up to, it was hard to argue with his thesis. It was cool. It was brilliant. And it was impossible to imitate.
I’m a writer, a wordsmith. Describing scenes, characters, and emotions is what I do for a living. But thirty-four years after I first heard his music, five days after his death, I struggle to describe Prince, his music, and his impact on both pop culture and me. He is, if you will, indescribable.
So I grieve for his death and celebrate the life and the music he gave to us. Only in my wildest dreams will I ever make the kind of contributions to art and culture as he did. And I’ll never be as brilliant.
Rest in peace, Prince. I can’t describe you or what you meant. But your music and charisma mattered — to me and to the world.
If you’ll forgive me, this is what it sounds like when doves cry.