Remembering Prince Rogers Nelson

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We’re collecting remembrances and mini-essays from current and former Knoxville writers about the artist who will forever be known as Prince—we’ll be adding new ones through out the day. 

Lee Gardner: Total Ubiquity

A few thoughts about Prince.

I first heard about him because a bunch of cool, cute white girls at my high school were fans. This was pre-1999 breakout, but somehow they knew. This knowledge taught me something about girls at a critical time, as well as something about Prince.

Then I remember the stories about him opening for the Rolling Stones and getting regularly bottled because he was a tiny black man dressed in thigh-high high-heel boots, a fruit smuggler, a trench coat, and that’s all, playing a better hybrid of black and white musics than the Stones ever came up with. Clearly he was undeterred.

And then Purple Rain came out and it was everywhere. Everywhere. The radio was playing it. MTV was playing it. Passing cars were playing it. The lifeguard at the lake was playing it. All summer it was inescapable. It was the first time I can think of when a musician of roughly my generation achieved total ubiquity, which only happens to anyone about once a decade or so. And yeah, MJ was everywhere, but a lot of people also clowned him. People clowned Madonna, too. Nobody really seriously clowned Prince.

And then there’s the Revolution. When he rolled out his band, it was black and white, men and women, gay and straight and all the stops in between, and other than naming it the Revolution, he treated it as if that was no big deal, the way it should be, why wouldn’t it be. And that’s still pretty rare more than 30 years later.

And I won’t even get into the run of Around the World, Sign, and the Black Album and the rest of his ’80s. Even Parade is great. Even Lovesexy.

Also, Prince was totally right about the internet. It meant him no good, financially, and he knew it. And everybody’s extra bummed today because they can’t go to YouTube and listen to or link to one of his songs, but that’s because he saw the whole thing coming and was totally right.

My personal talismanic Prince song is “Pink Cashmere,” which is sweet and gorgeous and has a GTFOH guitar solo and a great, weep-worthy string arrangement, and he let it slip out as an extra track on his greatest hits package. The spit out of his metaphorical trumpet was better than most folks’ best day ever.

Lee Gardner is a Knoxville Mercury contributing writer and is a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Deb Barnes: His Own Brand of Musicology

Broiling myself on a metallic tanning mat in the August sun in 1979, I heard “I Wanna Be Your Lover” for the first time. Besides the magnetic beat, the first thing I noticed about the song was the sly way the singer slipped R-rated lyrics onto mainstream radio with “I wanna be the only one to make you come….runnin’.” I was 19 but woefully naïve and uptight, and although I knew what the singer meant, I’d never heard someone actually say it. I felt naughty just listening to it. My skin was already warm from the heat, but I could still feel myself blush.

Fortunately for my skin I eventually gave up sun worship, but not my dedication to Prince. For decades I bought every album and wore the grooves out. I smiled when he tweaked the media and public opinion on Controversy: “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” I staged my own private protest when he lost Album of the Year at the 1985 Grammys to Lionel Richie. At the 1987 MTV Music Awards, I was at the show when Prince opened with “Sign O’ the Times,” entering from the rear of the venue accompanied by a drum corps, marching right past me down the aisle to the stage, so tiny, like everything superfluous had been removed from his body and all that remained was a core of pure power, like he was his own little unit of energy.

In every Prince performance, I marveled at his musicianship, his swagger, his energy and his sexy playfulness that still, even into my 50s, could make my cheeks turn red. His songs plugged right into my spinal column and I couldn’t resist moving—as one writer said, Prince could make anything sound like percussion. He always made me dance, but more than that he made me think. I admire lots of artists, but with most I can understand what they’re doing—not that I could ever do it myself, but I can see how they do what they do…the recipe, the craft. With Prince, I couldn’t grasp where those ideas came from, how he got so many of them, how he could make things sound the way he did. He worked magic and I could never see the wires. He served up a course—a whole university—in his own brand of musicology.

Thank you, Prince, for always making me dance… and blush.

Deb Barnes was an editor at Whittle Communications in Knoxville and is currently a contributing editor at Disney Publishing and Music & Musicians magazine.

Jesse Fox Mayshark: Unlimited

“People call me rude
I wish we all were nude
I wish there was no black and white
I wish there were no rules”

“I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand”

“Am I black or white?
Am I straight or gay?”

In some ways, it’s easy to see Prince as representative of no one but himself. He was his own country, his own planet, orbiting a sun that was also him. (Baby, he’s a star.)

But he was also a heartland American, a black man from the white Midwest who was at home in a seemingly endless stream of cultural forms–funk, rock, R&B, pop, disco, folk, New Wave, psychedelia. He eventually stubbed his toe on hip-hop, but that was just the human exception to his superhuman rule. And even at that, he never really lost his balance.

The first album I heard was 1999. The first one I bought–the first album I ever bought by a nonwhite artist, as far as I can remember–was Purple Rain. I knew I needed it before it ever came out, because one night I was sitting at the kitchen table doing homework with the radio on and an electric snarl erupted from the speakers behind me. I dropped my pencil and just listened. Dig if you will a picture of a straight suburban Reagan-era white kid having his mind blown in real time.

Inside the LP sleeve was a promotional poster of Prince and the Revolution, in all their lace-and-pearled, multi-racial, multi-gendered splendor. I was bewitched, boggled and bewildered. I had no reference points for the existence of people who looked or acted like this, so confident in their bodies and cool in their collective. They didn’t just suggest an alternate reality, they manifested it on the page–and even more, in the music.

Segueing from the monstrous rock of “Let’s Go Crazy” (with its shamelessly shredded guitar climax, designed to make all my Rush-loving friends admit that, OK, that guy can play) to the spry, groovy come on of “Take Me With You,” with the dirty secrets of “Darling Nikki” buried at the end of side one, before the astounding quartet of Doves Cry-Die 4 U-Baby I’m a-Purple Rain on side two, it was (is!) a manifesto of liberation and revelation, satiation, salvation and resurrection, gobbledygook about purple bananas and computer blues, saturated in sex and religion and as confounding and exciting as either.

And it’s not even his best album.

(Probably. I don’t know. Don’t make me pick.)

Fluid by instinct, unlimited by instrument, genre, gender, race, sexuality or even the alphabet—who else would so casually throw away a name like Prince?—I’m sure he used whichever restroom he damn well felt like.

So much more to say, so many songs and moments, the Purple Rain and Lovesexy concerts I saw, the samizdat thrill of scoring a muddy cassette dub of the Black Album from a Manhattan street vendor, the confused and endearing politics (and maybe prophetic too—Ronnie did talk to Russia), the eventual enduring sense of him as a national trickster, popping up on rooftops, in jazz clubs, at the Super Bowl, playing music for no reason except that nothing made him happier and no one did it better.

He enacted a world (of never ending happiness), and inside it he made room for everyone. White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’. Let’s go uptown, let’s go crazy, let’s pretend we’re married, go all night.

Jesse Fox Mayshark is the communications director for the city of Knoxville and was the former editor of Metro Pulse.

Shane Rhyne: This Thing Called Life

Some of My Favorite Memories Involving Prince (in no particular order):

1. Finally getting a chance to see Prince perform live when he brought the Musicology tour to Knoxville in 2004. A great night of dancing and singing along with friends. He did not disappoint. Music is joy.

2. The first time I made out with a girl in a theater? Purple Rain was the movie and somehow we got in to see it even though we were barely 15. Prince and Apollonia set a high bar for the evening.

3. Remembering one of our first boy/girl parties when we were 13. Chris snuck in a new album under his Members’ Only jacket, waiting to reveal his treasure until adults had left the basement. “Guys, I bought this today at Cat’s Records. You have to hear this,” he half-whispered as he pulled a brand new copy of the 1999 double LP out from under his coat. We sat and listened to the whole thing, transfixed and probably confused by what we heard. But, we did not worry about anything because Prince (was that a person? A band?) told us at the very beginning that he didn’t want to hurt us; he only wanted us to have some fun.

4. The look in my college girlfriend’s eye every time she’d hear the opening doorbell chimes of “Scandalous.” The grooves on my vinyl copy of the Batman soundtrack were well worn on that particular song.

5. Walking out of the Baptist Student Union at Memphis State and declaring I would not return after the youth leaders suggested we should stop listening to Prince. “If God didn’t want me to listen to Prince,” I declared, “then He shouldn’t have created him.” Keeping my promise, I never did return to the BSU. Sorry, not sorry. Prince was something they could never comprehend.

6. Purple Rain again, but almost 30 years later. Celebrating my friend Suzy’s birthday with a dance-along sing-along screening of Purple Rain and realizing happily I could still remember most of the moves to “The Bird” and “Jungle Love.”

7. Coming home from school one day to hear my well-worn copy of the 1999 LP blasting throughout the house. Prepared to confront my sister for swiping my albums, I stormed into the living room to discover my mom listening intently.

“Is this your album?” she asked. “It’s amazing. Does he have any other ones?”

Years later, after Mom had died, while going through her things I found among her many Elvis records and CDs, a copy of 1999, Purple Rain, and Diamonds & Pearls.

Shane Rhyne is a Knoxville comedian/freelance writer/producer. 

Todd Ethridge: A Brave Artist

Like Bowie’s death a few months ago, this one stings and makes me think about the impact of the music on my life.

When the Purple Rain movie came out, I was in high school and a doorman/projectionist at The Grove Theater in Oak Ridge. I liked Prince ok, but I was the punk and hard rock kid. After watching Purple Rain on a night off, I caught myself going into the theater to do “temperature checks” more often during my shifts, just so I could see what part of the movie was on and stand in back longer than I should. I watched it countless times in the months that it was held over. I became a big fan and revisited those early albums. As the cliche says, his music was definitely part of the soundtrack to my high school years and beyond.

Like Bowie, I didn’t love every direction he took over the years. But I LOVED that he was brave enough to try those directions. Nothing bores me more than artists that churn out the same thing over and over and over. We’re seeing icons fall this year and it’s part of our own aging process. Everyone ends up in the same place, but some sure do make a gigantic impression while they’re here.

Prince did that and more.

Todd Ethridge is a Knoxville voiceover talent and musician. 

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