It’s summer, 2004. I’m in the audience at the Palace of Auburn Hills with my girlfriend at the time. Prince is onstage, playing “Purple Rain.” Tears are streaming down my face. We’d had a fight on the way to the venue; we had a lot of fights. I was 20 years old and my first year of college had awakened the clinical depression that had been lying latent in me, probably since birth. I cried a lot back then; I felt everything too much. The first hour or so of the concert was uncomfortable. She was fuming, not speaking to me. I felt numb–like my insides were hollowed out, but the emptiness had somehow taken form, like a black hole. Then he started “Purple Rain,” and the dams broke. “I never meant 2 cause you any sorrow…”
It wasn’t even my favorite Prince song, by a long shot. But it felt so personal to me at that moment, even cloyingly so, that the absurdity of it almost made me laugh. So I listened to “Purple Rain” with my heart in my throat, halfway between laughing and sobbing, and we put our arms around each other and everything was all right, at least for that night. We managed to get together the money to see him again when he came back to the Palace the following month. That night there were no fights, and any tears were entirely because of what Prince was doing on stage. It’s still one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.
It’s summer, 2008. I’m watching Purple Rain at home with another girlfriend; the first one and I had broken up, finally, when I went away to grad school the previous year. The new one and I had met in the spring, in a weirdly specific, early-21st-century digital meet-cute: both of us were on Last.fm and had been listening to the same, obscure Prince song (a 1986 outtake from Sign “☮” the Times, “Rebirth of the Flesh”). We’d started chatting and I visited her a few months later. Now we’re almost to the end of the movie–the scene where the Kid and the Revolution play “Purple Rain” on stage at First Avenue–and a familiar lump forms in my throat. At some point, I tell her about that other night in 2004, when Prince reduced me to blubbering in the middle of an arena. It comes out like this: this song will never mean that much to me again. I’ll always associate it with that other woman. She takes offense–justifiably so. But I meant it in a positive way: I’m not that exposed, raw nerve anymore. No one will ever hurt me like that again, and that’s a good thing. Except it’s not true. I’m just as bad in this relationship as I was in the other one. When I fly back to Arizona at the end of our first summer together, both of us think it’s over, can’t imagine it not being over. We get married a year later, have a kid three years after that, and are divorced within a year after that.
It’s April 21, 2016. I’ve been feeling numb since I saw the first headline confirming that Prince was found dead in his home at Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Not black-hole-in-the-stomach numb–just regular, stunned numb, the way I felt a few months ago when I heard the similar news about David Bowie. The mother of my child reminds me that if it weren’t for Prince, our son would never have been born. For the first time all day, I feel like crying.
My feelings today about Prince are inescapably personal. I’m sure I’m not the only one. His music was so deeply intertwined with my life: the most dramatic, emotionally wrought, weirdly desperate years of it, at that. I just don’t feel things the way I used to anymore. And thank god–I don’t think I’d be here, writing this, if I did.
I also don’t associate Prince so much with my romantic life anymore (my last two girlfriends were/are bigger Michael Jackson fans). That’s probably a good thing; it’s hard to listen to the kind of all-consuming, half-mad, savagely carnal, capital-“R” Romantic love Prince sang about and not want some for yourself, whatever the cost. Prince sang a lot about bathing in love, or drowning in it (“let’s drown each other in each other’s emotions“). He sang about being consumed, even possessed by desire. That’s the kind of unfettered passion you want in pop music, but not so much in your life. What Prince did at his best was to take that passion and contain it, turn it into talisman-like music so we could handle it without fear of being devoured. Everybody’s had sex to a Prince album, or fallen in love to one. He was the shaman that channeled those delirious feelings, let us borrow them without having to actually live inside them. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be Prince, to actually feel those feelings firsthand. I also can’t imagine what my life would be like without the second- or third-hand feelings he shared with us.
Today, my current girlfriend–the M.J. fan–texted me to see how I was handling the news. I told her how it felt, and she said that she understood, that it was so strange how a person we don’t know can be connected to us so profoundly (full disclosure: I care more about Prince dying than most of the relatives I’ve lost). It is strange. And powerful. If anything like magic exists, then this is it: the ability for one human being to create something that becomes inseparable from the fabric of thousands of other people’s lives, forever. That’s the closest thing to religion I believe in, to be honest. So I guess Prince, ever the evangelist, made me into a believer after all. May we all live 2 see the dawn.