Prince died two years ago today. His estate has released a previously unreleased 1984 recording of “Nothing Compares to You” to honor the anniversary of his untimely death. Later, Sinead O’Connor made it a big hit. I know because I listened to it often and with all the appropriate angst of the lonely and misunderstood.
The world as I knew it in 1984 was a strange one, not quite an Orwellian dystopia but strange nonetheless. Of course, my view was limited by both geography and chronology. Our nation was nearly mid-way through a decade that saw significant backlash for the movements of the 60s and 70s, and hard-gained reproductive and workplace freedoms for women came under attack. Race baiting Reagan was elected and codified racist rhetoric with his war on drugs, which depicted an inner city crack crisis and the myth of the welfare queen. Reagan’s script was a sequel to Nixon’s and he performed it much more smoothly. Today, Trump is clumsily riffing on this tired rhetoric but finding success because the rotten fruit hangs so very low.
We had entered the preppy years and my rainbow suspenders became rainbow barrettes affixed to hair with a one-curl roll of bangs. Fashion went from outrageous, androgynous, and boho glamorous to tidy. Outside of my midwestern bubble Bruce McCandless ventured into space, untethered. Indian Prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Northern Ireland was in the midst of The Troubles. Brunei became a free state and almost immediately an exceptionally wealthy one that has evolved rapidly in recent years from importing numerous sex-workers for lavish parties to instituting severe Sharia law penal code. In 1984 Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s long-serving prime minister took a walk through the Ottawa snow and then stepped down. Now his handsome son makes many Americans wish for a more northern location. At that time, We didn’t talk about Russia or Russian collusion; we talked about the USSR and the Red Scare. Divisions were wide and the Soviets did not participate in the summer Olympics, leaving plenty of room for Mary Lou Retton to vault into the gold medal and our American hearts. Patrick Swayze starred in the Cold War film Red Dawn before a few years later leading the problematic yet lovable Dirty Dancing.
Music charts were dominated by Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Quincy Jones produced a supergroup of artists singing, “We are the World” for famine relief in Ethiopia. In 1984 Bob Dylan was one of the least relevant group members, filling an awkward cameo slot among the stars of the day like Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, and Michael Jackson. Kenny Rogers was there; somebody thought to call Kenny Rogers. Thirty years later Bob Dylan is one of the most honored members of that group and looking back at a career of many incarnations. Michael Jackson, the superstar around whom the song was arranged, is dead; Cyndi Lauper stars in a pharmaceutical commercial and Kenny Rogers sold a lot of chicken and bought a new face.
A woman of color was finally crowned Miss America and then shamed out of her crown. The recently dearly departed John Lennon was still releasing songs and part of Central Park became Strawberry Fields in his honor. The AIDS virus was discovered. The McMartin preschool case ignited a moral panic and kicked off an era of not trusting teachers and schools, an era that put us on the primrose path to Betsy DeVos. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released, ushering in the PG-13 rating that was first officially affixed to the aforementioned Red Dawn. I saw Temple of Doom after school one afternoon – the first possible time to see it after its mid-week release. My friend rode the bus home with me and we changed modestly in the back from our collared school dress code shirts to our sweatshirts with the sleeves and collars cut off. In a double nod to Flashdance, we put the altered sweatshirts on over the school shirts and managed to pull our school shirts out of our sleeves.
In 1984 I finished 8th grade and started high school. The transition was, as many transitions are, hard. The guitar mass and granola Commonweal Catholic community to which I was accustomed was transitioning as well into one that supported Reagan and was galvanized around the issue of reproductive choice. A few years earlier my uncle had kicked my mother and her older sister (along with their children) out of his house on Thanksgiving Day due to their “baby killing” votes for Carter. He returned to the house and kicked their father out for righteous measure. When a friend and I were signed out of our Catholic high school during the fall of freshman year for the afternoon to attend a Mondale speaking event on the U of M campus, the school told our parents who called us in that our absence would not be excused. I saw hypocrisy and inconsistency and found that while absolute feelings about life beginning at conception were true for many, this position was also a way to have moral high ground without having to discuss any other issues. It was also a way to keep women in their place and punish sexually active women without actually discussing women’s sexuality. There was so much emotion for dead babies but the minute those babies were in this world, it was up to their “welfare queen” or “loose” mothers to feed and clothe them. If nothing else makes clear the punitive position of so many anti–choice advocates, this position does. There is nothing pro-life about it.
A few years earlier I cried when John Lennon was shot, cried when Reagan beat Carter, and when my parents purchased a new stereo, sending the older and bulkier turntable and receiver up to my brother’s room. The former two events more obviously evoke tears than the latter. Why cry over a new turntable? (And I cried hard.) I cried over all three for the same reason: change. I felt it. I felt the world around me changing. I saw it in my parents and my friends’ parents. I saw it in my own interests. I saw it in the downtown stores. The world was changing and with change comes loss and fear and sometimes that loss is huge and hard, as is was that night in December of 1980 when John Lennon died or on that November morning when I learned that a man I saw as kind, good, and just was being replaced by one that scared me. The turntable was emblematic of change though that winter break in 1980 when my family listened to John Lennon’s Double Fantasy over and over on the new turntable, I made peace with change.
Four record albums from 1984 stand out in my memory. They are Madonna’s “Borderline”, Van Halen’s 1984, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Prince’s Purple Rain. Honestly, for me Thriller was a side note. In writing this, I checked my memory. “Borderline,” which I only had on 45, was actually released in 1983. I assure you that it did not seep into my consciousness until 1984. Everything else was released in 1984. I didn’t have to look up the Van Halen album. (Thank you Van Halen for such a convenient album title!) Van Halen was the most short lived of the artists in my listening library. Despite my earlier love for Women and Children First and Diver Down (a cassette I wore out well), I was done with them before the year changed to 1985. The times they were a changing.
I was often in basement family rooms in 1984 because so many things happened in basement family rooms. They still do. I know this is true because my children are all teenagers and their friends have basement family rooms. Just today one daughter suggested that she and her friends had a preferred sleepover house because, “They have a basement.” Our crawl space is not a hangout hotspot. When I was growing up these family rooms were where we stayed up too late watching old horror movies that robbed us of our sleep days and weeks after. They were where we played Dead as a Doornail and Light as a Feather and Bloody Mary. Later, they were where we snuck boys in during sleepovers and played a weird breath-holding pass out game that some people said was a great “natural” high. It never looked natural and I never tried. Basement family rooms were where we spun records: Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road, The Who’s Quadrophenia, The SugarHill Gang, and the Dead Kennedys. I watched the movie Purple Rain in a basement family room.
The album Purple Rain dominated my freshman year of high school. In addition to the changes that come with starting high school, a family member was in an inpatient program in Toledo, Ohio (the area Michigan gave up in exchange for the UP) and we drove there weekly for uncomfortable family counseling sessions.I had recorded Purple Rain onto a cassette so that I could listen to it during the drives, saving me from family discussion or my own thoughts. The album also dominated school. We danced to it, did cheerleading routines to it, discussed Darling Nikki in salacious whispers. Prior to Prince singing about masturbation, I had only ever heard the word uttered in a pejorative manner. I was a Vatican II kid in a liberal town so I never heard weird threats about the physically detrimental outcomes of touching yourself. Plus, didn’t only boys do that? I read my Judy Blume books and listened to my rock and roll but certainly did not grow up in a sex-positive culture. We had not even reached sex neutral.
My favorite outfit of 1984 was a denim skirt, anklets, low pink pumps, and one of my dad’s v-neck t-shirts. I rolled my hair into big curls and tied a bandana on my head like a headband. My style icon was Madonna and I completed my look with a stack of rubber bangles on one wrist and a vintage Mickey Mouse watch on the other. I believed I looked fantastic yet one day my theology teacher, who I now understand to be one of the best teachers I ever had, accidentally laughed out loud at me during class and apologized by explaining (also during class) that the ends of my pink bandana headband looked like rabbit ears. We never quite project to the world what we see in the mirror but that gumdrop fashion armor was the power posing of my formative years.
I saw the movie Purple Rain at a “boy girl” party in a basement family room. A bunch of Catholic kids getting together to eat pizza and enjoy the marvels of a VCR on a small color screen. I don’t think I ever saw the movie again, until in recent years. I also suspect we watched an edited version of the R-rated movie, perhaps home-recorded from a cable station. Again, suburban Catholic family room. Boys and Girls.
One day a few years ago, after literally spending the day in the emergency room, I came home to find Purple Rain on tv. Most of the movie had passed and I was only in time for that final scene. First, Morris Day and the Time perform and then “The Kid” comes out and sings “Baby I’m a Star”. I had lost a lot of blood that day as well as had horrible and invasive things done to me so that electric final scene, which brought me comfort and joy, became the whole movie for me. Weak and pale to the point of transparency, I submitted to my sofa and that performance with such complete surrender that in those five or ten minutes, Purple Rain became a better movie than I ever realized and “Baby I’m a Star” the best song ever written. It is. There are many well-penned songs among the annals of great American pop songs. Desert island decisions about music are quite challenging but now I know that tramps like us, baby we were born stars. It’s true. Just give it a listen and Honey, I know ain’t nothing wrong with your ears.
When Prince died, I was beyond shocked. I expected Lou Reed to die. Leonard Cohen was an old man. I’m not ready to talk about David Bowie. Tom Petty was a sad surprise. I am shocked that Keith Richards is still counted among the living. But Prince? Too soon and too sad. Unbelievable. I was not prepared. It seemed unreal. I think I listened to “Starfish and Coffee” and “Rock Hard in a Funky Place” on loop.
I get it. The painkillers. When I was still teaching full time life was blurry – for too long. Chronic pain and the sleep that it robs from you make everything blurry. You are taut, forgetful, irritable, emotional, and both feral and wounded. You do what you need to do to get by, to be you. Each afternoon on my way home from work I arrived at the light at the intersection next to Seminary Square Park. This is the site of the original Indiana University and now it is a homeless hang-out. There are always people draped about the park among the huge old trees. They filter to the bench by the street, argue at the corner, and walk up and down the few surrounding blocks to the nearby shelter and support center, pawn shop, Arby’s and Kroger. It is a scene familiar to anyone who lives in a city with a significant homeless population and opioid epidemic. Bloomington has both. I have never been oblivious to homeless people and have always recognized their dignity and worth. They are my fellow community members and I know that addiction is not criminal. Still, they have always been far away. No more. Each afternoon I sat at that stoplight, exhausted, hurting, mentally discombobulated, and did the math. If not for my learned persistence, my paycheck, my husband, my children, my health insurance. . . there but for the grace of those things go I. If my resources and situation were different, would I be self-medicating in that park? Yes. Absolutely.
Watch Prince dance. Unlike another tiny man with bursting sexuality and a foppish and rococo fashion sense known for his dance moves, Mick Jagger, Prince could actually sing and dance. Go take a look at some of the scenes in Purple Rain or just pull some stuff up on youtube. That tiny man could move. He could really move. Those feet were fast and powerful yet light. Those hips. . . He had absolute control. Imagine moving your body in that way. Now imagine not being able to do so anymore. Of course you take the painkillers and you keep taking the painkillers and you keep moving those hips and jumping on those legs and you count on the fact that you’ve always had so much control. And then you have started dancing down the rabbit hole.
So in the wake of Prince’s untimely death, when the local University Cinema screened Purple Rain, I had to go. After all, wasn’t it about 90 minutes of “Baby I’m a Star?” Please know it was not. I talked a friend into joining and we brought our older daughters. I was excited to share this with them. Again, in my mind the whole movie had become that one, exhilarating final musical performance. The girls were now 15 and 16 and ready for some silly eighties nostalgia and some amazing music (certainly better than what the kids are listening to today).
I have a reputation in my household for making poor movie choices. I forget. I always forget that one scene. As we are watching, moments before something explicit or traumatic happens, I remember what is coming and I begin talking in chirpy little partial sentences. Look away! Let’s fast forward! Oh, I think a moment is coming you may not like! All three girls still like to bring up the “ after sex tractor scene” from Man in the Moon. I did not remember, or perhaps I never knew (Catholic suburban basement, VCR) the truth of Purple Rain. It is awful, just awful. So after our viewing I penned this letter to our two older daughters and their friend.
Dear young women,
I have been reflecting on our viewing of Purple Rain and I have some thoughts. I had not seen the full movie since the eighties and, true to form, did not remember a few, er, moments. I remember it wasn’t very good as a narrative piece but had great music and dancing. This holds true. In the thirty-odd years since I first saw it, however, I have refined my views on some things we all had to witness together last evening. When I was younger, these things were much more accepted as the norm. You are fortunate enough to be growing up in a more evolved world and I no longer simply watch and accept some things as the norm. Despite progress, I have a little advice to offer.
- If someone takes you out to the middle of nowhere, tricks you, humiliates you, makes you vulnerable, and then plays petty head games with you, they are not flirting. This is not fun. They are a creepy bully and you need to run in the other direction.
- If they do this on a motorcycle and without offering you a helmet, decline. Your brains are awesome. Take care of them.
- Domestic violence has no place in love, even in long relationships.
- If you are the kick-a$# guitarist in a band and the bully front man demeans you by asking you to simulate fellating him onstage and refuses to play your songs, quit. Start your own band.
- When you do start your own band, play real music. Don’t wear lingerie and a cape and sing “Sex Shooter”.
- If a feller or gal courting you invites you back to their place and it turns out to be an oddly decorated basement room below their dysfunctional parents, say no thank you. Go home.Take a shower. Read a book. You have better things to do and places to be. There are jars of food down there that were put up by a previous generation because nobody in that household has been preserving peaches. Nobody.
- If you find yourself in such a situation and this feller or gal strikes you, walk out that window and never look back. Do not continue pining for this deeply flawed individual. Hope they figure it out. Wish them well. Don’t stay. Don’t show up at their gigs and look longingly as tears stream down your face. Find another musical venue.
- If you are put in the position of choosing between Morris and The Kid, choose neither. Create better options. You can do that.
- Capes are not always practical and leather is not your best outdoor and lakeside wear. Choose comfortable, breathable fabrics. You’re gorgeous. Your bodies are strong and beautiful. You look good in everything. Also, it’s okay to wear earrings in pairs.
- If your drunken father says something melodramatic to your messed up mother and then tries to kill himself with a gun, don’t write a song with his words in which you and your band all gesture shooting yourselves in the head. Poor form.
Prince was an amazing talent and by many accounts, a nice guy. His music has been the soundtrack to many moments of my life. He had a rough childhood and was perhaps working through that by means of poorly acting a weird and uncomfortable story and punctuating it with phenomenal music. Hey, we all get to work our stuff out. So, let’s forgive him, listen to his music often, and maybe never watch that again.