The first time— let me emphasize: it was the absolute first time— I heard Prince, I was an awkward twelve year old heading awkwardly into adolescence: a terrible time of life in my opinion, a unlovely & ignorant state, where one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know. Some people had a better time. Not me. I didn’t love it, that raw, unfinished ignorance.
I like knowing.
I was spending the night at my friend’s house in Hemet, California, which is the low desert. In those days, Hemet was almost wholly undeveloped. There was no ambient light. There was no urban noise. It was still.
We had opted to sleep in the family RV, the better to talk and giggle and complain and muse over all the stuff: boys, relationships, discontents, our annoying siblings, lies about who we’d kissed, fictional boyfriends, wonderings about our period (when?) breasts (WHEN? And how big?)…all the stuff. She fell asleep. The scratchy radio was still on. I was still awake. I was laying under a window and I could see the stars, the ivory-colored stars in the midnight blue sky of the desert.
I can’t describe the opening strains of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”; I don’t remember them because I heard Prince’s voice first, breathy, high-pitched and telling me things. I ain’t got no money, he informed me, and then went on to muse, complain, and finally declaim: I don’t wanna pressure you baby. But all I ever wanted to do…He wanted to be my lover. I said yes to that voice.
It’s a full body memory, remembering that amazing voice, which I knew was not his “normal” voice: he was singing that way because he was possessed of desire and was encouraging the listener to be possessed as well. The synthesizer, the bass, the voice, the words…they all combined to create the amazing and terrible beauty of sexual desire, which was so strong and so beautiful to me, as I lay there in my unfinished state, that my heart seemed as if it was pushing aside the bony confines of my body, to leave me and my child’s body behind, to float through the aether, to join the song, humming and swimming through the air.
It was the first time I ever felt beauteous desire and yearning. And it strikes me how inadequate any other word is for what I felt: beauty is the only word that suits. Glamour, grace, exquisiteness, elegance: none of these terms work to describe the absolute beauty of desire in his voice. I was in the presence of pure beauty, such as drives Salieri to tears in that moment in the movie “Amadeus” when he reads Mozart’s music and is thunderstruck: he is humbled, yet elevated to state of shocked exhilaration and astonishment. It was beyond belief. As if he were just taking dictation. And music. Finished as no music is ever finished.
I closed my eyes, and my heart trembled and leapt. This is what I don’t know, I thought. I don’t know this. What is it? I understood desire in one moment and it entered me, piercing my heart. I was listening, through the cage of my unfinished & unknowing mind and body, to an absolute beauty.
Years later, I moved into the Mission District in San Francisco. There was an apartment on the corner of 24th and Bartlett, and in the door of that apartment was a full length poster of Prince from the album cover of Controversy. The impact of the poster was always exactly what he intended: you were forced to run your eyes over Prince’s beautiful, wiry, small-framed body, with that chest, those doe eyes, those thighs. He was dressed in black bikini thong and his eyes looked straight at you. My friend Alexis and I often remarked on the sense of place the poster evoked: you knew where you were when you saw it—in the Mission, probably running for BART. The poster (which got progressively more sun-bleached and faded as the years went by) made Prince the unofficial genius loci of the neighborhood in that spot, to our way of thinking, capturing the Mission as it was, sensual, embodied, louche, smutty, occasionally orgiastic in one way or another, but always with a sense of purposefulness.
It sounds glib to say that the Mission went when the poster got taken down, but it feels sort of true for me, anyway. It was at least a strong sign that a corner had been turned. There was no going back. Alexis and I and everyone else who lived in the Mission for a long time had been watching the changes come, and we knew that the cleaner-whiter-brighter tide which was busily scrubbing down the Mission was going to take cherished placeholders like the poster with it. This is exactly what happened. One day, not long after the turn of the century, the poster and the apartment (and probably the tenants, too) vanished under a thick shroud of black netting and scaffolding. The apartment re-emerged a few months later, with a shiny new paint job. The door where Prince’s body was displayed, was painted in sober shades of brown with an tasteful accent trim of marigold orange. No more Prince in all his glorious provocation, inviting passers bye to—just for a minute— hear, in their heads, his music, those forbidden and frequently censured words, hear that knowing and amused voice, feel for a just minute, in the middle of their busy workday, a flash of ecstasy, a bolt of rapture. The pure, pure beauty of total desire.
Revelation is unified knowledge; a sweet, sweet union, indeed. It is total and immediate disclosure; divine intervention, essentially, and Prince and his song of pure undiluted erotic longing intervened with me in the best possible way. I did not know what erotic desire was before I heard him sing, and afterward I was filled with the knowledge of it. “…so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…” said Saint Theresa, speaking of her encounter with the seraph and its golden lance.
I know how Theresa felt. I felt as Prince intended I feel, I think. O Holy, O most Holy. Beauty, beauty, beauty. I have never wished to be rid of it.
Rest in peace, Prince. Rest in pure beauty.
The news is breaking and so is my heart; they don’t know yet why he died, but what really matters right now is that people are listening to his music. And a rainbow appeared over the Paisley Palace this afternoon.
written as the moon strains towards full in Scorpio.