Towards the end of my freshmen year in high school, in the Spring of 1981, a classmate handed me a cassette tape and said, “check this out, I think you’ll like it.” If you’re old enough to remember before Napster and recordable CDs and Youtube, this was the original form of “file sharing.” You bought an album and if you liked it and thought one of your friends would like it, you taped it onto a blank cassette tape. If you were nice enough you also hand wrote the track-listing on that little cardboard insert. And then you passed it along.
I had one of the original Sony Walkman’s back then. It was only slightly smaller than a cigar box and it clipped to my belt and used up about 4 C batteries every 3 days. It was bulky and heavy compared to todays iPods but the amazing thing about life is what you don’t know you don’t know. The only thing written on this particular cassette that I was handed was “Prince Dirty Mind.” I didn’t even know if the artist was Prince and the album named Dirty Mind or vice versa. But I listened to the whole thing on the way home that afternoon (my commute to and from high school was a subway ride to a bus ride which gave me plenty of time to listen to an entire album, sometimes twice). I was amazed. It was this weird amalgamation of funk and punk with these nasty lyrics that at 15, with hormones in full on rage mode, made me long for more. Who the hell was this?
That was my first introduction to Prince. I had graduated from my KISS phase and also my short lived fascination with Blue Oyster Cult (which not coincidently coincided with my short lived fascination with Dungeons and Dragons) and was probably subconsciously looking for something I could call my own. In the beginning of my sophomore year of high school Prince released “Controversy” which I bought on vinyl (we didn’t call it that back then, it was just “an album”) and then a year later he put out a double LP called “1999.” Even though he was starting to get some radio play and MTV exposure with hits like “Little Red Corvette” I still felt like Prince was my little secret. Not that many people were into him, especially at the all-boys high school I attended where you had your “Rush crowd” and your “Led Zeppelin group” and your “Doors aficionados” But then right after I graduated high school he blew up. “Purple Rain” was ubiquitous that summer. The singles were all hits and the movie was huge. Almost overnight Prince went from my little secret to everyone’s favorite artist.
I was actually happy that his next album wasn’t that big. While I thought “Around the World In a Day” was great (and still do) the pop world largely ignored it. This became a trend throughout most of Prince’s career and it’s something I admire. He’d follow up a big hit record with something more niche oriented for his true fans. It was almost like he enjoyed filling his bandwagon, and then clearing it off again. But for me, from that very first listen of “Dirty Mind” I was hooked. I’ve followed his career through all it’s highs and lows. I’ve had to answer numerous times to questions like “What’s up with your boy Prince?” when he was writing “slave” on his face or changing his name to a unpronounceable symbol. But for me it’s been an incredible ride. He’s given me so much phenomenal music and so many incredible moments in concert (I’ve lost count now but I’ve seen him live over 30 times). And I’m proud of the fact that he’s stayed true to himself as an artist. He’s always been the type of musician to dabble in multiple genres and he’s never denied that curiosity even when Warner Brothers I’m sure was just screaming for more hits. He never put out a “Purple Rain 2.” He was too busy moving on to his next muse.
I am admittedly biased but I don’t think there’s a performer alive who can touch Prince in concert. His dance moves are up there with the best, his musicianship is incredible and his confidence and stage presence are off-the-charts. I’ve sat front row twice for Prince and those concerts have been two of the absolute highlights of my life. My man can play. As a fan probably one of my proudest moments was the night he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He went in the same year as George Harrison and so when the show was ending and they got all the musicians on stage for the final jam they used Harrison’s iconic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Despite the fact that there were plenty of great guitar players on that stage they let Prince take the final solo. And he shredded it. I watch that clip on Youtube sometimes just to see him finish the solo, toss his guitar in the air and strut off stage. That’s the brashness and cockiness that makes it impossible for some people to like Prince, no matter how talented they may begrudgingly admit he is. But it’s also the attitude I’ve loved these past 30+ years. He’s a rare talent. And he knows it.
Happy Birthday Prince. Thanks for the great memories
In the summer of 2004 Prince’s Musicology Tour came to Madison Square Garden. I had tickets for all 3 shows. One of them happened to be front row seats. I smuggled a disposable camera into MSG that night and got these shots. A night I’ll never forget!