I was given permission to like Prince’s music by my friend and longtime collaborator John Gillespie.
This happened soon after our graduation, in 1987, from Chapel Hill High School, when John started at UNC and I took a job with Dickinson Restorations; he and the right reverend Elaine Tola formed the band Nikki Meets the Hibachi and I skipped off to Mexico.
The following year, when I went north to college, Nikki Meets walked forward into the giant brilliant footsteps of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, those beautiful Girls of Indigo, making music that included all, excluded none. Kind, hard-working music. No violence. No coercion. Pure joy.
Throughout high school I’d been pretty firmly entrenched, musically, in the archaeological vestiges of my parents’ generation, also known as long-playing records, or LPs. The red and blue double-album Beatles compilations, first of all, in early childhood. Then, when the Fab Four’s delicious pre-sexual aesthetic began to seem a tad stifling, a touch too British, Jimi Hendrix. There was the real thing, good god, dead at 27 like so many other geniuses of the age. Jimi was Icarus, you could hear it in every note.
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I was wary of the music of the ’80s. Its hooks were brutal, compressed and synthesized, Mike Tyson-like in their quickness and relentless pure sonic power. My arms were nowhere near long enough to ward off those annihilating blows, so, for the most part, clear I steered. I wasn’t going to go down like Michael Spinks every time Phil Collins played that tom-tom fill in “Coming in the Air Tonight.” Not me.
Until, that is, Mr. Gillespie drew for me one of the lines which transects both Lennon&McCartney&George Martin studio gamesmanship and Hendrix’s ecstatic sky-kissing virtuosity and then showed me how it passed right through – in fact warped, eddied, slowed down and sped up around– the man we knew as Prince.
And the thing about a line, geometrically speaking, is this: it extends infinitely in two directions. All those who came before Prince, and all who came before them, pass through him. And it’s not just one line. All the rays of light (and the shadows they cast) arriving from all over at the event horizon known as Prince Rogers Nelson shot off again in all directions after passing through him and they continue to do so today.
Prince was a hub. The ultimate go-between. He was Hermes, Caduceus. He shifted shape, much like his chameleon brother David Bowie, who preceded him in death so awfully recently. He was Man/Woman, Black/White, Gay/Straight, Love/Sex, Sex/God.
He was trans.
Prince transcended his background, he transgressed against the sexual and racial mores of his age, he cross-dressed. He transported us, helping us, in turn, to transcend our own conditions. He was the antidote to church; he was Church itself. He was blasphemy and salvation all rolled up in one glorious purple package. He crossed over. We crossed with him. Over, and over again. Joy in repetition.
(Hilton Als, in a brilliant 2012 Harper’s article, seems to attribute a nearly mythical sexual magnetism to Prince. He could seduce anyone, Als implied, and not through coercion, but with a glance, because anyone who fell into the tractor-beam of his gaze was likely to go along willingly, full of glee.)
During my brief, desultory musical career, it’s possible I played no song with more frequency than “The Beautiful Ones.” When I first learned it, 1988 or ’89, I auditioned it for John G. before taking it on stage. After the first verse he said, “that seems a little low for your voice.” I jumped up an octave for the second. He helped me work out the chords in the bridge, decide which notes to leave ringing, which to damp down, where to coax out a melody on the guitar, when to chop it like stovewood.
For years it was the only cover in my solo set. I found it harder to learn other people’s songs, really honor them, than to write my own, which could be flippant or misshapen, that was my right, I figured. But I kept trotting out “Beautiful Ones,” often at the end of a night, or as an encore, and I always felt a little sheepish about it. I’m no Royal. What right did I have to take on a song like that? Alone, always alone, over and over again?
To quote a local hero, James Taylor, here is the main thing I want to say:
Prince gave me the intimation of a different identity, a different way of being a man. The guise of a performer, transgressive, a vessel for the beautiful struggle between darkness and light. And John Gillespie helped me learned the tools to be that person, a person I have mostly retired, but cherish in memory.
Baby, baby, baby. What’s it going to be? Aw baby. Baby, baby. Is it him? Is it Him?! Or is it me?
John Svara lives with his family in Durham. See more of his work at www.formandflaw.com.