In the summer of 1984 I had just graduated from high school and the world was my oyster. I had car and a hot girlfriend, I was heading off to college in late August, and I quit my job without telling my parents — I had nothing but time. My girlfriend and I went to the beach, we sneaked off to find places to be alone and we did whatever 18-year-old kids do. And the soundtrack to that summer was Purple Rain.
Prince was already huge by then on the heels of 1999, which catapulted him from a fringe R&B artist to rock and roll royalty. MTV was in its heyday and Prince had enormous hits with 1999, Delirious and Little Red Corvette. Purple Rain was released in June, though we had already heard tracks from the album on the radio and by June we knew all the lyrics and dance moves from the videos. When the film hit theaters, we lined up to see it at the largest theater in the area to take it all in with the giant screen and Dolby sound. It was, for us, a revolution.
Prince was larger than life and one of the first true crossover artists with appeal to R&B, Soul, Rock, Pop and Alternative music fans alike. He was George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson rolled into one. Thriller had come out six months earlier, and like everyone we liked it and danced to it and loved the music videos. But Michael was safe. He wasn’t really dangerous. He wasn’t subversive. He wasn’t sexual. He was mainstream and our parents liked him. Prince was everything MJ was not — and he made our parents nervous which made us like him even more. If Prince came on the radio while we were in the car with our parents, they blushed at the lyrics and we secretly laughed inside knowing we alone knew Little Red Corvette was not about a car.
Eighteen year old kids are like halflings — not really kids and not yet really adults. We were exploding with sexual energy and Prince made us feel grown up. I heard someone once describe Prince as “oozing sex” and that feels right. His lyrics were sometimes raw and sometimes double entendre, but almost always sexual in nature. They hit us right in our sweet spot and we couldn’t get enough.
And then there was Purple Rain. After watching the film the first time (and we watched it over and over) we felt like we understood Prince. We knew the film was semi-autobiographical, whatever that means, and we knew he expressed himself through his music. Purple Rain was about a young man overcoming his rough family life and his desire to have his music understood to reach his dreams. “The Kid” breathed via his music. And we felt it in our bones. When he plays Purple Rain after his father shoots himself, we are in that audience feeling his pain and his love. And like everyone else, we finally understood Prince.
But the movie is secondary really. Purple Rain is about the music. Top to bottom, song for song, it is a marvelous album. It’s a rock opera. You can dance to it, grind to it and cry to it. It’s soulful and it rocks. A lot of great mainstream albums came out in 1984 including Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Van Halen’s 1984. But 1984 will always be about Purple Rain for me and my friends.
Purple Rain was (and is) a great album and it has the most meaning for me because of when it came out and the impact it had on me. But it’s not even my favorite Prince album! That honor goes to 1987’s Sign ‘o the Times, which is a much more mature record musically and lyrically. In Sign ‘o the Times Prince shows us he can write about more than sex and women. The Village Voice wrote that it: “established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era—as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer.”
I admit I haven’t listened to much of Prince’s more recent efforts. I’m sure they are wonderful and I’ll probably spend some time with them now that he is gone. It’s been about 24 hours now since we first heard the news that he was gone, and I’ve listened to nothing but Prince since then and I’ll probably listen to Prince all weekend. I will relive the hits and marvel at how great they were (1999 is actually playing on the radio in the car dealership service waiting room as I write this). And I will listen to deep tracks and remember them too. I’ll probably download Sign ‘o the Times and Parade and Around the World in a Day and listen to them in their entirety as well. And I will miss Prince. But he left a lasting legacy. We’ll always have his music. And for that we should all be grateful.
‘Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last’