In 2007, I went to the Grammy Awards. I saw, and even chatted with, a lot of famous people that day. Some of them—including a filmmaker that I hold in especially high esteem—weren’t just famous. They were icons.
The best encounter came as I was navigating the barricaded and roped-off Staples Center property, trying to get to the Town Car that would take me to dinner and then an after-party. The parking garage looked like the best way out of the labyrinth. Having sprained my ankle a few days earlier in a misguided attempt to ride a mechanical bull, I was limping. About 100 feet away, a golf cart came putting out of the garage’s dark maw, headed right for me.
The driver wore red—a Staples Center polo shirt. Her passenger appeared to be a little old lady. It was hard to tell, because she was hiding behind a sea-foam green garment that looked soft, even from a distance. There was no sidewalk, so I hugged the wall and hoped to avoid another injury. When the cart passed, I recognized Prince.
I stood there, reduced to my 13-year-old self: A chubby kid with a bowl haircut, glasses half an inch thick, and a Purple Rain T-shirt that hid that my Wranglers were hiked up past my bellybutton. I’d been a Prince fan since I heard “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.” I’d seen Purple Rain in the theater several times. One summer, I used to walk down my street with my sweet dual-cassette boom box on my shoulder, playing the soundtrack.
I hadn’t lived long enough to understand a lot of what Prince screeched and moaned about, even with context from the film. Why were the doves crying? What did “Computer Blue” mean, and—although it sounded like a capital idea—what did it have to do with Wendy and Lisa sharing a bathtub? Did it hurt when Nikki started to grind? Why would someone laugh and bathe in a purple downpour, especially when Prince caused them so much pain?
What I knew, at that age, was that the music made me feel incredible. I wanted to give Apollonia a ride on my 10-speed, hopefully to the nearest purifying body of water. I wanted to go crazy, punch a higher floor and play manic, wailing guitar solos. I’d come to understand everything else later. Through reading articles and unauthorized biographies, talking with other fans, the songs slowly revealed themselves to me, and never got old.
But it wasn’t just about Purple Rain. I’d picked up every Prince album I could get my hands on: For You, Prince, Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999. I bought 7” singles for B-sides like “God” or “Erotic City.” I got way into Prince’s cinematic rivals—but real-world pals, The Time. I even purchased the records by Prince’s manufactured girl-group protégés, Vanity 6 or, after Purple Rain, Apollonia 6. And don’t forget Shelia E.’s The Glamorous Life. Prince’s music led me to Sly Stone. I already had one album by George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, but got everything when I learned how influential they were for Prince.
And then there are the memories. Like the first time I got drunk—accidentally, after chugging a Utah Jazz Big Gulp cup of spiked orange juice after eating so much chile colorado at a friend’s 15th birthday party. We wound up parked in his cousin’s lowrider listening to Prince’s Purple Rain follow-up, Around the World in a Day. It was the strangest sing-along, ever: “Raaaaaasp-berry Beret!”
I was so sick the next morning. Kind of like I feel now. When my phone rang after hearing the news, I was surprised to realize I’d forgotten my ringtone is the funky first 40 seconds of “Controversy.” Wow. It’s a shock, this loss, especially since we’ve lost so many great talents recently: Lemmy, David Bowie, Sir George Martin, Merle Haggard, Keith Emerson, Phife Dawg…