Did I ever tell you about the time I touched Prince? Plenty of people have had it on their bucket lists to see Prince in concert. But no one had it on a bucket list to touch him, even if they wanted to. Because nobody touches Prince. But I did touch him, by god.
Figuratively speaking, no one touched Prince because no one in the rock era ever achieved such greatness across so many categories — as a singer, a songwriter, an instrumentalist, a record producer, a dancer, a live performer, a visual designer, a videomaker — with the blinding genius of Prince. Add to that a totally unique vision of what a human being can look and sound like. Prince created himself as we knew him by harnessing his own wildest (and probably wet) dreams, his lifelong anxieties, and the riot of music continually rushing through his head.
Literally speaking, no one touched him because you couldn’t get close to him. In fact, no one was sure if he was actually real or not. What kind of human was this? No one ever saw him eat, for instance. Celebrities, we are often reminded, put their pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. But with Prince, we couldn’t be too sure (especially in the ‘80s, since his pants were often assless). It was impossible to imagine Prince doing the things that normal people did. Because Prince wasn’t normal.
From the moment he first appeared on TV in 1980 on The Midnight Special, Prince was already a fully-formed sex-funk freak, commanding the stage in zebra-striped bikini bottoms and Jaclyn Smith hair, singing “I Wanna Be Your Lover” in a falsetto that, like his cat-in-heat dance moves and his licentious hump-all-night lyrics, boldly went where no man had gone before. Or woman, for that matter. As Prince tells his lover, “I wanna be your brother / I wanna be your mother and your sister, too.”
No male rocker ever bent gender harder while playing the role of the girl-crazy sex fiend, declaring a manifesto of “D.M.S.R”: dance, music, sex, and romance. Everyone has their favorite filthy Prince lyric, but Nikki masturbating with a magazine in 1984 was the dirtiest thing I’d ever heard come out of my stereo. Legend has it, Tipper Gore caught her daughter listening to “Darling Nikki” one day and marched out to form the PRMC, so the “Explicit Lyrics” label starts with Prince. But Prince had already been as nasty as he wanted to be for years.
His first single, “Soft and Wet”, came out in 1978, and “Head” on 1980’s Dirty Mind described Prince deflowering a virgin who was on the way to get married to some other man. Needless to say, her body would never be the same. Prince knew no limits on the stage or in the sack, putting an androgyny on display that went deeper and realer than the preening glam rockers before him. Prince paid no attention to which gender role he was supposed to play; he just wanted to know if the water was warm enough yet. Prince was not a woman; he was not a man; he was something you can never understand.
Much of the mystique that made him seem otherworldly, of course, was his elusive nature, his insistence on privacy, the rarity of his sitting for an interview. Yet his eccentricities — his isolation in Minneapolis, his occasional religious intensity, his name-change to an unpronounceable glyph, his scrawling “Slave” on his face — caused people to see Prince as crazy. But Prince wasn’t crazy. He was just super weird. Delightfully, mesmerizingly weird. Weird in the way that he wrote a song nearly every day of his life or wore flankless onesies on stage or would break into a serpentine-coitus crawl or wrote “Let’s look for the purple banana until they put us in the truck” or put his keyboardist in surgical scrubs or a million others things that made Prince rock’s most fascinating creative force.
He could be frustrating. He went long stretches of refusing to play his hits. He released a string of albums in the ‘00s that were messy and self-indulgent. Some concerts devolved into acerbic jazz-odyssey and caustic funk-rock meandering. He was the sole ‘80s superstar to decline Quincy Jones’ request to appear on “We Are the World”. He would never grant Weird Al permission to parody any Prince songs. He threatened to sue his biggest fans for posting pictures of him on their websites. Even upon his death, fans were reminded of how out of reach Prince kept himself from his fans, as his music is blacked out from YouTube and most streaming services. At one show I attended, he told all of the meat eaters in the audience to leave the building. He had letters sent to award-show attendees asking that they not make eye contact with him.
And this was the guy with the hardest-working eyelashes in show business. But he parceled out the eye-would-die-4-you looks selectively, as though we could only rave unto the joy fantastic gradually, lest we all be blind. What became clear, though, despite his horny-pony dance moves and his demands and his pimp-strutting, was that Prince was tremendously shy and suffered from penetrating insecurities. In Purple Rain, he was The Kid, the loner child of abusive parents, a reflection of the real-life Prince Rogers Nelson, the epileptic kid whose warring parents divorced when was ten, an upheaval that eventually saw Prince living with neighbors.
He had a lifelong complex about his height — the heels, the phallic props, the cane, the lyrics like “This is 4 why I wasn’t born like my brother, handsome and tall” from 1992’s “Lady Cab Driver”. Prince jealously guarded his own image, hid himself behind mountainous bodyguards, press embargoes, and Minneapolis winters. At times, you could catch Prince casting a sideways glance at some unknown recipient in the crowd, offering a knowing smirk as though sharing an inside joke with someone. Then you’d realize that he wasn’t really looking at anyone. No one could ever take their eyes off of Prince, yet he always appeared decidedly alone.
But most of the self-indulgent excess was just the wild rumpus within him that had to come out. And most of the time it was a spellbinding thrill to witness his brain-to-fingers continuum. I once saw him take a 15-minute bass solo that his band had no idea was coming. I saw him do six splits in a row between vocal lines. He’s credited with playing 26 different instruments on his debut album. As a guitarist, he created an incredible amalgamation of styles as a self-taught slinger with a brain shifted 30 degrees in his head — tossing off machine gun riffs and orgasmic squeals, playing with incredible velocity, articulation, and intuitive phrasing that came from somewhere spleen-deep.
He was a shape-shifting singer like none other — the street-tough rocker, the helium-voiced prankster, the growling lothario, the adenoidal party-starter, the bawling girlfriend — with a broader collection of squealing, yowling, ululating vocal tricks than anyone before or since. So extraordinary was his musical prowess that when he would show up for a rare collaboration, as with the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony to jam on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty, he descended like SEAL Team Six — dropping in, slaying everyone, and vanishing before anyone knew what hit them.
In 1984, even the metalheads who loved Def Leppard and Motley Crue had to cop to digging Prince, if nothing else for that guitar solo at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy”, which Prince peeled off just to prove that the shredding hair-metal heroes had nothing on him. The sullen rockers at the middle-school parties might have refused to dance to Prince’s “Delirious”, but they stepped up to play air solos to “Let’s Go Crazy”, figuring if Prince could manhandle a Telecaster (and Appollonia, for that matter) like that, then this little dude was not to be underestimated.
Even as a songwriter, he broke all the boundaries, just as he obliterated distinctions of gender, race, and genre. And again, even punkers and college-rockers couldn’t resist Prince as a perfect pop craftsman. The dudes in R.E.M. covered “Raspberry Beret” with Warren Zevon. Sinead O’Connor proved that Prince had inconceivably great material laying around unused. The Replacements played “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Prince wrote so many great songs, he started forming other bands just to have them play new songs he’d written.
And now he’s gone. How could he just leave us standing, alone in a world that’s so cold? When I first heard he had died, I had the same reaction that I had to David Bowie’s death. It didn’t seem possible. A lot will be made of the Bowie/Prince similarities — reclusive artistic chameleonic geniuses whom no one knew were deathly ill. But with Prince, I wondered if it weren’t a hoax. It was too hard to believe he was dead at 57. And the timing and other details lined up with too many lyrics: “Sometimes it snows in April”, “If the elevator tries to bring you down”. Really?
There are days when you wish your bed was already made. But just as it’s hard to wake up on our first Prince-less morning, it’s just as hard to believe that someone like Prince could ever be real in the first place. Details will surface any minute now about how he died. I’m more interested in how he lived. Like, how was he possible? But he was real. I know because I touched him, remember?
How did I end up touching Prince? I found myself alone in Milwaukee one night in November 2000. When I arrived in town, I discovered that Milwaukee’s three downtown adjacent concert venues were all staging shows on the same night. NSYNC, at the height of their popularity, were playing the big Bradley Center arena, and there were sign-holding prepubescent girls everywhere. In a middle-sized venue, George Clinton was leading a classic-funk showcase featuring P-Funk, Morris Day, and Cameo. And in the smallest of the three venues, Memorial Hall, was Prince. Sold out.
Determined to get in, I scrambled for a ticket for hours, and, just before show time, I scored a floor seat. It was an intoxicating lottery win, positioned 30 rows from the stage for a surprise Prince concert in a city in which I knew no one. The concert was part of the “Hit n Run Tour”, his first since changing his name back to Prince, and the setlist was subsequently packed with his biggest smashes and fan favorites. It was an amazing night.
As usual, though, Prince kept his distance from the crowd. There would be no Springsteen-style crowd-surfing for Prince. However, during the last song of the evening, “Pop Life”, Prince shimmied over and danced, guitarless, on a speaker jutting slightly toward the audience. Miraculously, I saw daylight open up between me and Prince, a window of opportunity, a clear unobstructed aisle from my position directly to Prince’s feet. I flew into action.
I booked it fast and hard stageward, elbows and karate hands chopping at the air, screaming past row after row until I was thrust against the speaker. I reached up toward him with chaotic desperation. He swiped at my hand… and just the faintest of touches, a wispy grazing of one of Prince’s fingertips across one of mine. Naturally, I felt a velvety, purple electric shock go coursing through my body. I stood paralyzed as though having just been purified in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. I was one of the Beautiful Ones.
A security guard broke the spell and pushed me backward. I returned to my place in the crowd, and some people around me tried to high-five me, but I would only do it with my left hand, not wanting to lose any Prince particles from my right.
And now we’re all left to hold on to what we can of Prince in a world without him. Life is just a party, and parties aren’t meant to last. Thank you, Prince, for the 40-year party.