We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life —
He certainly did more than “get through,” though, didn’t he? Equal parts icon and iconoclast, superstar and outsider, there was always a sense that Prince was something other than, or at the very least apart from, the rest of humanity. Mind-bogglingly talented on a level most of us can scarcely conceive of, watching him perform a guitar solo live is the closest thing many folks will ever have to a truly cosmic experience. Surely this virtuoso energy, creativity, and freeform mastery that was flowing through him came from some otherwordly, perhaps even extradimensional, source. I mean — how else to even explain it, right?
Unless you’re from here. His home town. Minneapolis. In which case, he’s not only the most impossibly gifted musician of his generation (as well as any number of those that preceded and followed it), he’s one of us. And that’s doubly true for an Uptown kid.
Everybody’s going Uptown — that’s where I wanna be — Uptown — set your mind free.
There’s a line in Ang Lee’s generally-reviled Taking Woodstock that’s always stuck with me, melodramatic as it might be — when Liev Schreiber’s transgender character tells the film’s young protagonist, played by Demetri Martin, to go down to the concert and “see what the center of the universe feels like.” Been there, done that, thanks to Prince. I was about 12 years old at the height of his Purple Reign, and Minneapolis was ground zero for a new sound, new style, and new sensibility that was sweeping the nation. And ground double-zero was Uptown, well known as the burgeoning mega-star’s favorite neighborhood. It’s also where I grew up. And where waiting around for a chance to see our local royalty was not just a thing to do, but a bona fide way of life for a good couple of years there. Whether you were loitering at one of the tables they used to have in front of the McDonald’s on Lagoon and Hennepin, or standing in line for tickets for that evening’s midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which played every Friday and Saturday at the Uptown Theater to packed houses for at least a decade), one way or another you were on a Prince-sighting mission — and more often than not your efforts weren’t in vain, as he’d cruise by on his purple motorcycle, no entourage in tow, just taking in the sights and sounds of his city. Yeah, we all know he put First Avenue on the map — but when he wasn’t performing or practicing or writing or producing or acting he was Uptown. It’s where he wanted to be, after all. Was it really the center of the universe? Of course not, but it sure felt that way when you were an impressionable little kid and the star of the biggest movie in the country at the time who had a string of number one hit singles to his name hung out five minutes from your house almost every weekend.
I guess I should’ve known, by the way you parked your car sideways, that it wouldn’t last.
Here’s the thing, though — it did. Prince didn’t just have a moment, he was the moment. Even when he was tanking his career on purpose to get out of his contract with Warner Brothers, or changing his name to a symbol, or directing movies when he had no business trying to, or going bankrupt — he never totally faded from view, and still commanded the attention of any and every room he entered. At his career’s lowest ebb, there was never any sense that he needed a “comeback” so much as that he was biding his time waiting for another breakthrough — for the world to catch up to wherever he was at. From time to time it did and he’d be back at the top of the charts with a surprise multi-platinum single or album, and once Musicology cemented his place as the modern king of funk/dance/R and B/rock and roll all over again, he went from legend to “guy for whom legend is too small a word” and stayed there, on his self-made throne, arrived at in his own time via his own singular methodology, until today. He exists — and I suppose always will — as a genre unto himself. Someone whose name will immediately be linked with a sound that’s entirely his for as long as people have ears to listen with — and feet that can tap along to the beat. Go out and find me somebody who doesn’t like at least one Prince song. I dare you.
Sometimes it snows in April.
It didn’t today, but the sentiment from that song, which Prince wrote for a dead friend, certainly applies, especially here in the Twin Cities. Hard-core fans are understandably in mourning, more casual fans are in disbelief, and even folks who hardly followed his career seem a little off. Minneapolis has a palpable sense of loss hanging over it that you can feel, and complete strangers are striking up conversation with each other about something they have in common — an event they can relate to — in a way I haven’t seen since the Twins first won the World Series back in 1987. Back then it was random high-fives and “yes!!!!!!!”s — today it’s a shared sense of sorrow that our greatest living vessel of civic pride is gone, and that maybe we didn’t even realize all he’d done for us until it was too late. Yes, his untimely passing at only 57 years of age (just a handful of weeks after the death of his former protege, Vanity) is front-page news the world over, but it takes on added weight and significance here. I met some of the most passionate Prince fans you’ll ever find anywhere when I saw him in concert in Melbourne, Australia in 2003, and I have no doubt that he’s got zealous adherents all over the globe who are devastated by today’s events, but we’re still, in many ways, a provincial backwater (“fly-over country,” as a former football coach who went on to greener pastures once said of us), and nobody let the world know we were here the way he did. And while we’ll still be here tomorrow, our favorite son won’t — and that’s the most quietly seismic happening this community has arguably ever felt.
A world without Prince is really going to suck. But it’s going to suck even more for us former Uptown kids.