I think of myself as inured to celebrity deaths.
I did bawl that one time, when Kurt Cobain killed himself, but the announcement came over MTV as I was nursing my three-week old; weeping came easily postpartum. Also, the sudden loss of someone who’d been providing a soundtrack to my life hurt – there was that. But that predated Facebook and Twitter and the public airing of private grief and thus also the conditioning to it.
When Bowie died, I was startled – his music had been a bridge between childhood and adolescence – but he was old enough that it wasn’t unfathomable.
When my iPhone suggested I might want to read a news story about Prince being dead, however, I wasn’t sure what it meant. Prince who? Some random royalty I hadn’t paid attention to? Not Prince, the musician whose track “Head” had made the Antelope Valley High dance team infamous for daring to do a routine to it, the musician who had validated all the naughtiness inherent in our teenage minds – especially when “Erotic City” came (haha) on the radio and did we truly believe he was suggesting we could “funk” until the dawn? The musician who had made the – albeit awful, but wow, the soundtrack – Under The Cherry Moon movie that, terrible or not, had led to the first makeout session with the man who would become my husband and father of our three children, the musician whose “Gett Off” would stop me in a parking lot in Long Beach one day, so entranced was I by the sexyhotfunky groove? The musician who wrote the song I’d sing to my beautiful girls, could they be the most beautiful girls in the world? Yeah. That Prince.
And with his death, like Bowie’s, I was startled to discover that a musician I’d embraced as a teen had become a mainstream icon along the way. All the tributes! When I’d fallen for Bowie, few of my peers knew who he was. And if they did, the response wasn’t a good one – he was a weirdo, a man who wore make-up and costumes. Likewise, Prince was frills and eyeliner – people didn’t know what to do with that back then – and on top of that, black and sex manifested in human form. To be a Prince fan in the mid-‘80s should have been a no-brainer – the music being so brilliant – yet, you could be beat up for being a Prince fan.
My first reaction to his death was the admittedly uncharitable thought of, “Oh, hell. My Facebook feed is going to be ruined.” I did not want to muddle through everyone’s tribute links and woe. And then I realized my attitude was less than cool; social media is where we share, and the collective grief over Prince’s death brought people closer together, spotlighted a link that connects me to you to them to us. A golden chain of admiration and love and meaning. Someone posted a quote – I wish I could remember whose – about how we grieve not because we knew the famous musician, but because the music helped us know ourselves. That, I could relate to.
But it was not until tonight, washing dishes in a friend’s house after she’d made dinner – curry boasting mushrooms, carrots and squash perfectly cooked – with Prince’s music soundtracking the evening, that I finally found myself, amidst the soapy sponge and running water, on the verge of tears as “Sometimes It Snows In April” played through the speakers.
“Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
But all good things, they say, never last”
I am never going to see Prince play live. The music that defined my younger self-awareness increasingly belongs to artists who are now dead. All this life has passed and I want to hit pause. Let me catch up. Let me be ready. Nobody was ready for this. I feel 14 again, on the verge of everything, only also cognizant of how much loss is ahead.
With perfect timing, a dear friend posted a poem by Merritt Malloy and it, too, broke through my hardened surface like a spoon smacking into crème brûlée. I am gooey, sweet and soft inside. Of course this did me in –
“When I die
Give what’s left of me away
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you
And when you need me,
Put your arms
And give to them
What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something,
Look for me
In the people I’ve known
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.
You can love me most
Hands touch hands
Bodies touch bodies
And by letting go
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when all that’s left of me
Give me away”
To meditate on the death of an icon feels above my station. And/or cliché. Yet, here I am, doing just that. Perhaps the need stems from the lack of actual elders in my life – I have no grandparents and the parents I have are distant and scarcely seen, so instead I mourn dead rock stars. The music served as lights along the path, helped me find my way. A brilliant thing about being an artist: You die and your work is cemented for everyone, forever. Prince left behind more than most. His influence is quantifiable. If infinity can be measured. In starfish and coffee. Without him, the world would have been different, duller.
After dishes, as the music continued, the five-year-old in the room began to dance. He had no context outside of the visceral, irresistible groove. My sadness evaporated into a smile as I joined him. Prince, Legos, dancing, building, joking, playing – it was life in the moment. And beautiful.
“So beautiful, beautiful.”