Prince Wasn’t Just the Twin Cities’ High Priest of Funk

060712-music-evolution-Prince“You’re seeing this news right?” a Minneapolis friend texted.

What news? I was at home, playing with my toddler.

“Prince died!” That was how I learned of his death, on the living room floor.

I’m glad I learned about it from her—someone who understood the gravity of the loss and the passion of his music—instead of through a cold headline. But I was far from Minneapolis, the birthplace and childhood home I shared with Prince. And I wasn’t prepared to deal with the loss by myself, so far away.

Days later, I’m still reeling. And grappling with the facts.

This man, our beloved Minneapolitan sprite who was one day urging fans to save their prayers, would be gone days later. This man, whose last concerts in Oakland two summers ago I obsessively tried to nab a ticket for but failed, but for whom the promise of seeing live smoldered on in my heart should I one day fulfill my wish of moving back to the Twin Cities—I would now never see. Definitely. Never.

Prince will make no more of the music that inspired so many of us, and touched my own pain so deeply.

How could I grieve Prince by myself in the suburbs of California? I felt alone, heavy with feelings I couldn’t contain.

Growing up in the Twin Cities, Prince’s music helped me through childhood traumas and teenage angst. He wasn’t just a master of guitar and vocals, he was a master of weaving pure emotion into sound. His voice and his words, whisper soft or screaming heavy, full of hope, grief, lust and inclusion, touched down into the recesses of our conscious minds, into our spirits, and drew out a fullness of emotion we didn’t know was there. Prince’s music healed us.

Like Prince, but in different ways, I navigated shifting identities of gender and race. I was a tomboy. I didn’t identify with the images of girlhood that surrounded me. I made art and music. I didn’t fit in. My childhood and adolescence in the Twin Cities were spent as an outsider, between the radically different homes of my divorced parents.

Losing Prince, for me, is not just about losing an icon. It’s like losing a family member, a neighbor or friend who understood me and my experience of being on the outside. And I’m not even Black.

Denial, bargaining, anger—I’ve hit all the stages of grief. A big piece of my pain is being so far away from the Twin Cities who claimed him, and who he claimed his whole life by maintaining his residence there. Now it’s the capital of grieving, but I can’t grieve him properly, at home.

Losing Prince is the pain of losing someone who could skillfully be so many things at once. It’s the pain of losing a wild, eccentric genius who succeeded in being unusually different in our culture, who embraced being an outsider.

And that’s the thing that was perhaps the most healing for those of us who were drawn to his music. His presence led by example: if you stopped trying to be somebody else and became even more yourself, you might become as fully self-actualized, you might triumph as brilliantly as Prince had. Through Prince’s life we learned how, ironically, outsiders didn’t have to be on the outside. We could define culture as long we didn’t give a fuck what anybody thought. Prince made our lives as music nerds, as artists or high school rejects suddenly appealing through the lens of radical self-acceptance, and through active self promotion.

Prince didn’t just make it OK to be a weirdo. He showed us how it was the best fucking thing we could do.

Prince never quit toiling, both through his magnanimous craft and, less known, in multiple ways towards humanitarian need. Everything he did crossed boundaries and tested the status quo.

Paisley Park, just outside the Twin Cities where he lived and recorded, was perhaps the literal and figurative mecca of personal and musical idiosyncrasy. Prince’s music spoke about base sexuality before it gets sanitized. Prince gave us the gift of wild but carefully harnessed energy. He gave us many varieties of salve to cure whatever ailed our psyches.

With Prince’s music I grieved my first love and tended my broken heart. I grieved my strained parental relationships, rocky friendships and struggles with depression. I was different from Prince. I grew up white, but my family history rippled with intergenerational trauma and mental illness stemming in part from the Native American and Armenian genocides. So many of us who were touched by his music identified with him. We were different—we were unique in important ways. But we were like Prince. And he made us feel that way.

Prince could be who he wanted to be. He somehow bridged an audience across race, class and privilege. His subject matter were party people, sad people, horny people, both the rich and the poor. He cut across boundaries. His melodies and narratives were so accessible, anyone could find themselves in his aural landscapes. His sound was both unprocessed and finely produced, but no more than it needed to be. His instrumentals were frenetic but disciplined. He was always in tune, but he let his vocals be imperfect. He drew together these tensions and opposites to create the most erotic voice.

As in life, Prince wanted to preserve as much rawness in his music, and his message, as possible. He brought crunchy, virtuosic guitar riffs together with his miraculous bell-like falsetto that needed no enhancement. He did it in a way that was so intimate, he let us know we were already inside the magic. We needed no special pass, no secret word. We were included.

The one thing consistent across Prince’s disparate musical styles was that he went all in. He poured his body, soul and spirit into each nuance, each bar. His persona brimmed with raunchiness. He exploded with passion. And he meant every word. Each note had a purpose, a message filled with urgency that together, we would be understood.

I’ve texted friends, emailed family, bared my pain as I could. I’ve burst into tears unexpectedly, including on a family bike ride. I couldn’t get through the first page of a book with my son the day after Prince’s death was reported, as the news sank in deeper. My baby looked at me with a twisted face, confused. “Mommy’s sad,” I explained to his precious concern. This was an important lesson about accepting our feelings. Prince would have wanted that.

I haven’t known how to grieve from the bay area. Minneapolis is inherently a part of Prince and of my grief. It’s the wellspring of art, music and culture I long for but haven’t been a part of in thirteen years. Something about grieving this in Minneapolis, where I know everyone gets it, would make it a whole lot easier. To be with people who respect Prince the way I do.

I reached out to an old acquaintance, Scott Ecklein, a musician from Minneapolis who, like me, moved to California years ago. I wondered if he was going through anything like I was. He lived in Oakland where I lived for several years until recently. We were both far away from our homeland, which was now in collective mourning for the Purple One without us.

“Can’t keep it together,” I messaged him.

He felt something similar, thank god. For him, part of it was “…nostalgia for [his] youth and Minneapolis,” he explained.

“But most of it is shock at the loss of one of the most incredible humans to have graced this planet.” On seeing him live, Scott reported on Facebook: “…it goes without saying that Prince was godlike.”

Prince wailed, “Always cry for love, never cry for pain,” in Sometimes it Snows in April. I cried for the love of Prince and the gift he gave me, to all of us, through the relief we found when he got us. I cried for the power and acceptance I found in his music even when I was all alone, like I felt now.

My husband and I were again contemplating a move back to Minneapolis. This time I’ll find him, I thought to myself, before Prince died. He was known for showing up unexpectedly at Twin City venues, and he hosted spontaneous parties at Paisley Park.

But it was not to be.

Molly Howard

Molly Howard

Molly Howard (mollyhoward.org) is a bay area therapist, writer and mindfulness devotee

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