by Jim Warner
It’s only after he’s gone that he’s everywhere. And nowhere. Through the labyrinth of First Ave.’s backstage, spilling out into the night. Where one would expect catharsis there is only desperation; cageless tiger pacing within the frame. So much energy spilling out: that manic cry of love or loss or anger or what-the-fuck-happens-next, brick alley’d future, lipstick red fire door. When he genuflects at his custom purple Hondamatic CM400, the crowd noise finally catches up to him. Jumpcut sea of purple-lit hands crash against the bandstand beachhead. From out of the inlet, a river of noise floods the alley. For the most casual of Prince fans, then and now, it’s a moment where performance meets identity meets that part of us we want so desperately to know—about him as an artist and us as an audience. By the time the bottle blonde waitress darkens the doorway, that vulnerability has steeled itself, and sparked the ember which ignites the film’s ending encore.
Two weeks later and he’s everywhere on Youtube. All those performances that Prince alone seemingly single-handedly kept off the site to control his artistic vision (as well as provide a still generally unheeded lesson in music rights/royalties) have flooded us with digital rips of albums and grainy concert videos. The searchable drought is over and all that’s happened is we’ve poisoned the well–not out of crass commercialism but out of a sheer desire to somehow bring him back through by access. The music was not enough; it’s our desire to make Prince tangible which has made him mortal in death. He’s slowly becoming an echo in 24 hour timeline/wailing wall. A hammer of hashtags flattening characters and sentiment into steel scales of an armor no one really sheds but everyone carries with them to protect heavy hearts.
As the credits rolled through multiple playbacks of Purple Rain on VH1, the resonance of his music is slowly being consumed by the sharpening of knives, waiting to carve out parts of a legacy—be it those who are interested in the tabloid-eyed last days or the music industry feverishly preparing next year’s Record Store Day limited edition 180 gram purple and bone swirled reissues. It’s a catch 22—we fetishized the dead because we are so desperate to be alive. That’s what the best art is supposed to do; remind us that all this living and struggle and magic and loss has weight and purpose. A crescendo of cymbals and guitar and keyboards are only rising to meet our soaring silent voices in the wilderness, bathed in the knowing desire to connect and be connected. It’s why we lay beneath our turntable and wrap ourselves in Parade and fall asleep to the soft rumble of a stylus against the end of album side.
The first time I saw Prince is now searchable on Google: 1985, the American Music Awards. I was ten years old. In a house where Elvis was the King and Kenny Rogers was the Gambler, where Otis was heard but not seen, watching someone of color be so free and vivid was a revelation. He’s the first nonwhite musician I remember on television, and not that I had the language or space to really articulate what it meant to me at that very moment, all these years later, its value and impact are apparent. This was a time where cable was at its infancy, and cable was a luxury for the lower-middle class, so four channels were it. It didn’t matter what he played, and until a few days ago I couldn’t remember anything about the performance that stood out to me other than the fact he was Prince. There was a permission that Prince offered which slowly availed itself to me as an invitation—you didn’t have to be white in order to create art. It was my first real exposure to punk—maybe not the circle pits and straight edge XX’s but that attitude—freedom and empowerment of owning identity were as true as the Rude Boy button pinned to his lapel on the cover of Dirty Mind.
Near the end of his Tonight Show tribute to Prince, D’Angelo stumbles over a lyric, drawing the collective grief of an audience in his breath. The backing singers catch him, pick up the threaded lines—Prince in heaven, once again waiting for us to follow in his wake. There is an anguish in D’Angelo’s cover of “Sometimes It Snows in April,” and as the camera stays with him through the recovery of the line, he looks into the camera like Wendy Melvoin does onstage in Purple Rain’s climatic performance. As the song reaches escape velocity, Prince leans over and kisses his lead guitarist on the cheek. A private moment of grace awash in stage lights, devoid of performance. Watching D’Angelo stare into our shared loss, you can almost see Prince, closer than he has ever been to any of us.
Jim Warner‘s poetry has appeared/is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, Hobart, No Tokens, and is the author of two collections as well as the monthly music column “Footfall” for BULL. Jim hosts the literary podcast Citizen Lit and is a member of Arcadia University’s MFA poetry faculty.