I Danced to 'Purple Rain' and It Taught Me How to Live
On the 30th anniversary of one of Prince's most influential albums, one writer remembers his important discovery of the Purple One.
Like most of my generation, I can't remember the first time I heard a Prince song. His songs seemed ubiquitous yet hidden; they were almost never on the radio, yet everyone knew the choruses to "1999," "Little Red Corvette," and "Raspberry Beret" without having to actively seek them out. But at the same time, the first time I heard those songs they sounded almost dusty, like relics from a forgotten era that were too soaked in reverb to ever sound relevant to my early teenage years.
I do, however, remember when I really first heard Prince; it was towards the end of the Napster era, when music was becoming so accessible—before piracy complaints and better copyright protection helped level the playing field again until the industry could figure its shit out—that everything outside of your brother's basement indie band was a click away. It was in that time period that I first heard Prince's song "Musicology," off his 2004 album of the same name, and really, for the first time, got it. It wasn't Prince, per se, at the time, but it was the raw feeling of tightly-spun yet uninhibited funk that hooked its claws in me on first listen and, ten years later, has never really let go. There was a raw emotion to it that I had never experienced with the Blink 182's and the Green Day's that everyone else was into. There was something about it that just made me, against my will—and for severe lack of a better word—dance. I couldn't resist it.
From there I went into what some might call a downward spiral into then-contemporary musical obscurity, but what I would call a re-awakening of what it meant to actually connect to music. "Musicology" gave way to Sly; Sly gave way to Parliament; Parliament led to its dirty, raunchier sister band Funkadelic, and Funkadelic led me straight back to Prince. But the Prince I found back then wasn't the highly-produced Prince of the "Musicology" era. The Prince I discovered as a 16-year-old white kid from Syracuse, New York who had spent his entire life living on a quiet street in the suburbs where lawns were always mowed and kids all had to be home by dark was one that opened me up to the fact that things didn't always have to be the same way all the time. Prince made being different seem like the best thing of all time.
Growing up, I was at times acutely aware of how ridiculously normal I was. I came from a classic middle-class home with two elementary school teachers for parents who had—miraculously, and thankfully, for the time period—stayed together, with an older brother who was incredibly smart and a bedroom that I didn't have to share. We weren't rich by any standard, but my mom was always able to find money for school clothes when I needed them. I wasn't popular, but no one picked on me; I wasn't cool or brave, but I tried not to put myself in situations where I had to be. When I was eight-years-old, I got made fun of for wearing Skechers—the kids at school called them "girl shoes"—and I wore Nikes for a decade straight after that, just to have one less thing to worry about. I don't think I was neurotic so much as careful; not shy so much as cautious.
Funk—and Prince—changed that. I remember the first time I saw the film Purple Rain, and was just so completely blown away in every respect. I saw it before I had heard the album in its entirety—of course I'd heard the title track, I'd heard "Let's Go Crazy," I'd heard "When Doves Cry"—but nothing really affects you like the first time you see how supremely fucked up The Kid's life was. But as emotionally fucked up as that movie was—and Jesus Christ was it emotionally fucked up—one of my biggest takeaways from it was that doing what you love—music, writing, whatever it is—has absolutely nothing to do with being or acting cool to the people around you. The Kid—and by extension, Prince—was not cool in that way; being cool, at least in the standards that I grew up around in Upstate New York, meant being callous and indifferent to everything and not showing emotion or passion for anything other than beer and sex, basically. What I learned from the first time I saw that movie was that if you were so passionate and cared so much about something that you were purely uninhibited by your pursuit of it, then people would eventually come around. You didn't have to be cool to be cool; you could be the weirdest, strangest person on the planet, and if it meant you put everything you had into what you loved, the people would come to you. And then I heard the album.
Hearing Purple Rain was a slippery slope for me; when I got to college I was addicted to funk music, but still relatively shy; it wasn't until my sophomore year at Boston University, when I told myself that I needed to either find people like me or transfer back home to Syracuse, that I was able to actually force myself to go to events put on by the campus radio station WTBU. My first event there, I met a kid named Keith, who was the co-host of a show called The Bumptastic Brothers Of Funk, and I signed on immediately, immersing myself in everything that came with it.
The author, on the right, channeling his inner Sexy MF
I dressed up as Prince for Halloween. I smoked a blunt with Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk. I've seen George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic at least 12 times, if not more. After I graduated, I moved to New York and started working for Billboard, where my editor there was even more obsessed with Prince than I was; I'll never forget the day he came in to the office and put 12 discs of rare and B-side Prince albums on my desk and told me that I needed to burn them immediately and give them back to him by the end of the day, or fucking else. I wrote a column about funk music for a short while, and incorporated the music into almost everything I've ever written. I know the mythical language of The Mothership. I've become so synonymous with funk music among my friends that before anyone even talks about the genre, they ask me first. It's become an identity that I've cloaked myself within, almost to a fault at times (I still couldn't tell you a single thing about indie rock, for instance).
And maybe this is me burying the lede, but none of what I've done in my life would have been possible without Prince showing me that being cool meant being cool with yourself rather than being cool to anyone else. Purple Rain was just nine songs, barely over an hour, and lost to Michael Jackson's Thriller in just about every conceivable award category of the following year. But the pure, raw emotions held within that 62 minutes of music—hell, within the eight minutes of the title track alone—have been worth more to my life than any other album this side of Maggot Brain. It's 30 years after the album came out, and the best part about that milestone is that I don't even really give a fuck about it; that album could have came out 72 years ago, or 87 years ago, three years ago, and it would have stood the test of time regardless of its era.
Dan Rys would die 4 u. He's on Twitter — @danrys