In those rare times he didn’t feel like taking down the BC Liberals on this blog, my dad would write about musicians that mattered to him. In 2016, he would have had a lot of sad things to write about. And I would have learned so much more about him.
The last few days, like so many others, I spent my free time with Prince. I laid in bed and cried… while watching his Super Bowl performance… while watching the cast of The Color Purple sing Purple Rain… while watching Van Jones talk about his community work on CNN. I walked around Toronto with him in my ears. I played Batdance a lot.
The impact of Prince’s death was more like a slow quicksand than a wave. On Thursday, I learned from Facebook, as one does. I briefly got angry that TMZ broke the news speculatively, because disappointment in the media runs in my blood. Then, I went about my afternoon. I had a couple meetings, I went for a run, I walked out the door to check out a local band.
By the time I got to the venue I was decidedly melancholy. As the night wore on I got sadder and madder. People were dancing, the mood was joyful. Some would probably say that was how Prince would have wanted it—but I was pissed.
I was pissed at the band for not paying tribute. I was pissed at the two way-too-high dudes taking up the floor with their flailing dance moves. I was pissed that none of these strangers were acknowledging my feelings.
I didn’t even know why I was having the feelings. I liked Prince. I love many of his songs. I like talking about Prince. He had such a great comedic sensibility. I appreciate that in a musician. But I didn’t realize he meant something more to me.
So this weekend I spent time with Prince, trying to figure out what he meant to me. I’m writing on this blog, so you might have guessed it comes back to my dad. With Prince, I just lost another piece of him. When I grieve Prince’s loss, I grieve the absence of a conversation with my dad about his life and identity.
My dad was a gateway to the best music. Not just for me, my sisters or the rest of the family, but for his friends, his acquaintances, his readers, anybody he liked even a little bit.
After he died, a friend of mine who worked with him told me he had turned her onto Massive Attack in the nineties. Over a decade her senior and he gave her the inside scoop on one of the greatest bands of her generation. My fake-Uncle Adrian—one of several of my dad’s remarkable close friends from childhood—told me about a visit from my dad while he was studying law in Toronto. Pestered, he finally agreed to close the books and go see some new band dad was excited about. They were called U2.
A year before his death he introduced me to Spiritualized at the Rickshaw in Vancouver, prompting another friend to ask “what’s it like having a dad who’s cooler than you?” It was pretty awesome. Didn’t give me an inferiority complex at all.
Anyone who knew him could probably give you a list of bands he introduced them to that became deeply meaningful to them. Mine includes such diversity as Drive-by Truckers, Beck, Patti Smith, KRS-One (I know, right?), Nirvana, Fela Kuti, Tracy Chapman (joint effort with my mom), Bill Callahan (joint effort with my step-dad), Antony & The Johnsons, Lucinda Williams, Joy Division, Parliament-Funkadelic, and so many more. And, Prince, of course.
My dad turned people on to music like an evangelist turns people on to Jesus. I think he did it for the same reason too. Music saved him.
He wrote once on this blog about seeing Van Morrison for the first time on PBS when he was 16. Seeing a pudgy, awkward Irishman, made him realize he—a pudgy, awkward Scot—might have the miseries of his life saved by rock and roll (to borrow a line from another great). Never mind that George Ivan Morrison seems to have stayed miserable himself.
He said the Stones made him feel free. As a young teenager, when home didn’t feel like home, he occasionally visited a local drug dealer’s house. He went for the record collection.
But we never got to talk about Prince. And what I’ve realized is, we never got to talk much about that other pivotal time in my dad’s life: the huge and long leap to adulthood.
Prince erupted into the culture in 1978. Dad was 22. Over the next five years, Prince would release Prince, Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999. Dad would lose his mom to suicide, get married, have his first daughter, and begin his first professional political organizing with the Solidarity Coalition against the BC Social Credit government’s economic “restraint” policies. Like me, it would take dad another few years to get that BA.
He was already into funk. James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic were staples. But Prince was qualitatively different. He was a waif. He was effeminate. Dad once recalled seeing Bootsy Collins on bass, wearing a wedding dress; but Prince rocked feminine clothes and eyeliner as a style all his own. And he was sexy in them.
Prince was also of my dad’s generation. They were three years apart in age. What was it like for dad to hear him on record for the first time? What was it like for a guy struggling with the transition to adulthood—and very likely his own sexuality—to experience him?
And then, how did music save you in your twenties, dad? What did Prince mean to you when you welcomed your daughter into the world? Did you play 1999 for her when it came out? Tell me about the soundtrack to starting your family? Dad, I’m going to start a family soon. I want you to make my kids a mixtape. Shit, now the tears are coming.
Because he meant something to my dad, Prince was there throughout my childhood. The first song that sticks with me is My Name is Prince. I f-ing loved that song. Still today, it’s my go-to song when I feel like dancing in my underwear and serenading my fiancée. I think it was on one of my dad’s excellent road trip mixtapes. We had a box of them under the front seat of the car. I was electrified every time that song came on. “Prince and the New Power Generation!” [audience going nuts]… duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh, ahhh ahhhh ahhhhh ahhhhhh… ahhh ahhhh ahhhhh ahhhhhh… And then that screaming guitar. On those mixtapes, only LL Cool J’s Momma Said Knock You Out had a similar effect.
Then, I remember a period when 1999 seemed like it was on repeat (a period before NYE, 1999). Others punctuate my memories: Take Me With You, Little Red Corvette, Raspberry Beret, Cream. At some point, Darling Nikki entered my consciousness, way too young, while hormones were raging. Now it’s lodged permanently in my id. Thanks dad.
By the time Musicology came out, I wasn’t living with dad anymore. But I listened to that album a tonne. Prince had become mine.
But he was dad’s first. And he was dad’s at such an important time in his life. At a time that I’m now entering, a little late. And I will never get to go back and have those conversations with my dad. I will never get to sit and listen to Prince records and talk about what he went through, what I’m going through.
The loss of Prince has reminded me yet again of the absence of so many important conversations. When George Clinton dies, it will happen again. When Patti Smith dies it will happen again. I will be reminded over and over again of the adult friendship I lost with the most generous, thoughtful and hip man I’ve ever known.
But I’ll still be able to play 1999, Mothership Connection and Horses for my future daughter, and talk about how amazing her grandfather was.
RIP Prince. Thanks for rocking my dad’s world enough to rock mine.
Now hit play, turn your speakers up loud and dance.