IT’S THE MAINE midwinter, hardfrozen and dark.
I’m trying to live through it as best I can, but it is not going entirely well. I am in the first place a newish arrival to this place, which means that I am considerably less fluent in the protocols of madness-deflection than I might be. But I am also, in my newness, another kind of unsteadied. I have been actually employed, as an actual professor, at an actual college, for about six months, and not for a moment have I been free of the sense of an immanent, disastrous exposure. Perhaps it’s a function of being in your first job to make you feel an obvious fraud. Whatever the case (and whatever my crosscutting elation at having any kind of job at all), adult professional life is for me a precarious sort of performance, brittle and unconvincing.
I am 27 years old. It is, inevitably, 1999.
But then, from some deep yet-unfrozen reservoir of optimism, a decision comes to me — a fateful decision. I decide that I will have a party. I decide that I will have a dance party. I decide to send a mass email to every person I’ve met and to many others I haven’t.
It reads, “Please come to my apartment on Cleaveland Street for a party celebrating the 15th ANNIVERSARY OF PURPLE RAIN. Any and all non-minors welcome.”
And so, on a February night at the back end of the Clinton era, a bunch of souls wintering out in a sleepy New England college town conspire together to beguile an evening with whiskey, with beer, and with many many hours of in-house dancing, in what soon proves to be an under-furnished and overheated living room, books piled in listing towers, boots and coats stacked in a jumble in the corners. I remember looking around me, seeing even the starchiest of my daylight colleagues and fledgling friends now sweat-soaked and giddy, teetering toward a Prince-induced euphoria, and thinking, Oh, I can live here.
Among the semi-acquaintances to show that night, one makes a special impression. She was the friend of a friend and has come, decked and ready to dance, despite the fact that she is, I know, in the latter days of what has been a hard, slow-moving divorce. Her ex- must have the kids for the night. I tell her I’m glad she came.
Later I will say, You walked in. I woke up.
For years and years afterward, every midwinter, we’d throw dance parties, though these were not on Cleaveland Street but a few blocks south, in the home she and I and her girls made for ourselves after we were married. Our friends came to know these as Purple Rain Nights or, more simply, Prince Parties.
A friend in England scored tickets a few summers ago to one of those impromptu solo gigs Prince had taken to performing. Despite what was for me a near fatal onset of envy, or perhaps in order to express it, I wrote her a series of badgering emails. "Tell me about the show!" I said. What was it like?
Her response was memorable.
“It was unlanguageable,” she said.
“Also, I think I might be pregnant.”
In a similar, sadder way, this too — this week’s awful, blindsiding tear in the fabric of things, Prince’s death — is unlanguageable.
There is of course the routinely undoing power of grief, in response to deaths no matter how mediated — it is, God knows, an impressive quantity. And there is, too, the familiar drift of our metaphors, in sorrow, out toward the terrain of measure and measurelessness: the too-huge influence, the too-many songs, the too-proliferating memories, the too-great quantity of joy.
I am with you, fellow-grievers, in all this. I found out in a coffeeshop in Chicago, texting with a friend. I stood for about 10 minutes on the corner of Clark and Foster, weepy and paralyzed, unable to imagine what to do next.
Was there eating lunch, after Prince? After Prince, would we talk on the phones? Take trains?
Was there sex after Prince?
I want to say a small word about this, our newest burden of the unassimilable.
I want to say that Prince is hard to grieve because he is, in an only barely not literal sense, divine.
I want to say that the categories that most attend him, and that the light of his person illuminates, are not those made by the hands of men.
I want to say that for nearly 40 years Prince has served as perhaps our greatest conceptualist of religion, the one most devoted not only to God but to heterodoxy, heresy, blasphemy: to all that, in these latter days of privatized belief and well-bred “spirituality,” lends to the realm of the religious whatever ongoing vitality and incisiveness it has.
I want to say that Prince is the least secular rockstar we have ever known.
The greatest sentence I ever heard spoken about Prince was by my friend Gus, who was on a panel discussing Prince’s soul-blinding cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You.” To get at the magic of the song, Gus suggested, you had to understand — and the song would instruct you in this — that so much of the shivery erotic power of Prince depends upon a kind of inconceivability, a sense of Prince as not so much a being apart but a being at once here with us and, somehow, simultaneously, inhabiting a world unfathomably other to ourselves. “Prince’s spare version,” he said, “is so perfect, so airtight, that its sexiness comes from a wholly different place, a place no one has ever been except while listening to Prince’s music.”
God did I love this. (He would go on, “What do you think Prince wore while he was recording this? If I were his girlfriend, would he let me dress him? ... I, at least, don’t believe such questions have answers.”) I remember hearing it and thinking he had put a finger so deftly upon the way so much about Prince could shade off toward, or rather ascend into, a sublime otherworldliness. It could be flaky, this otherworldliness, or funny, or bewildering, or — as loving burlesques like Dave Chappelle’s made vivid — just wonderfully weird.
You were silly, like us, I’d think.
But then, as in “Case of You,” it could seem like a bottled-up dose of enchantment itself, a thing beamed in from a dimension barely imaginable, adjacent to the world, where a different sort of gravity and physics prevailed.
You have listened to Prince. You know the wondering hiccup of thought — the mind-sputtering joy — I mean.
All of this makes him kin to Bowie, of course, with his shifting intergalactic personae, as well as to cosmically-minded Afro-futurists like Sun Ra and Grace Jones and George Clinton and also, in his way, Hendrix. But Prince isn’t cosmic, exactly, or not in the same way as Bowie, as Jones. His otherworldliness is not that of an alien, a sci-fi visitant. It is rather the otherworldliness of someone very much of this world — his filthiness, his commitment to the joy of what is lewd, forever reminds us of this — but the whole of whose being seems italicized by, given substance through, a set of animating principles quite entirely apart from the world of mortal life.
You can see this inner attunement, this hearkening to the call of some organizing otherwise, absolutely everywhere in the archive of Prince. Think of the zone of impermeable privacy he creates around himself, on stage, but also in song. (There has never, ever been a male singer who’s made more of coyness — a flirtatious recessiveness and withholding. I said, Cool – but I’m keeping my pants on, he says while getting into the bath with Dorothy Parker. It kills.) Or think, sweet jesus just think, of the unrivaled power of his HOTNESS. Everybody knows that Prince is a miracle of transitivity, invoking then bewildering all the nearest idioms of race, sex, gender, time. (Think of his hotly feminized masculinity, his queer blackness that is also straightness, though one that remains, indelibly, queer as fuck.) His blackness and his maleness and his straightness and his queerness: all these roles, like the sexiest fucking Emersonian in the history of the world, he endeavors to embody after a new and unprecedented way.
Look, truly, look at the affective comportment of this man:
Look at that grin. It is the inward smile of someone watching indulgently as an entire world tries to imagine a set of terms capacious enough to hold him, to grasp the atomic-scale detonation of swagger and style and sex that is his person, and failing to do so.
Look upon my works, ye mighty, that smile says. Now let’s fuck.
This, friends, is the otherworldliness — let’s just say it: the divinity — of Prince. Without contempt, without pity, with louche bemusement and flirty solicitousness, he stands apart from the creaky organizing edifices, the aspirational little taxonomies, of the merely human. They address him, but they do not adhere to him. He speaks in, and as, something otherwise, but also, deliciously, near.
Put on his songs, any of them. Here, they say. Do you need a reminder of the exhilarating limitlessness of the world apart from the knowable and known? Here you go.
Of course, for many of us the nearest name for the possibility of that cataclysmic otherwise, unfolding here within the gardens and groves of this-wordly life, is sex.
This is what it means to call Prince the holy man of fucking. No one — I want to say, no one in the history of sound or creation — better understands the way sex is a passage to a world fantastically apart from ourselves. That is, also, us.
In jam after jam after jam, in a commitment to the deranging filthiness of fucking unlike any one else’s, he calls us to it.
“The praying hands of humans,” John Modern writes, in a sentence that has meant a lot to me, “pray to no man, which is strange indeed in a world in which modeling the human is the key for knowing the human and much else besides.” He is thinking about what it is to live, as the phrase goes, in a secular age. And he is noting that it is a hallmark of secularism to mistrust any measure of Man that is not, as it were, man-made. Under conditions of secularism, a defining endeavor is to make the human the measure of all that is.
Prince, to this impulse, is pure radiant confoundment.
And if this makes him a wonder — the prophet of the holy fuck, flooding the world with these bright shards of unconverted divinity — it also makes him hard to grieve. His death is unassimilable, I mean, because it partakes of the unassimilability that he has always, in that splendid otherwordliness, carried around with him.
He is hard for us to grieve because grief, too, is a thing, a tool, made of and for this world.
It’s a sad thought: nothing — nothing in the world — can console us in this.
We are not, however, resourceless.
An old friend contacted me yesterday — the sweetest of men, middle-aged now like me, but with whom I had done a good deal of growing up, after a fashion, back in Maine. He had attended that long-ago midwinter party. He had danced into, and well past, insobriety.
We traded the news. We condoled. And then he said something that, in a day of little implosions of heart, unraveled me.
It’s unassimilable, I said, isn’t it?
"I know,” he wrote. “Not prepared for it. Prince brought me so much joy and, oddly, courage. He made me less shy."
If you knew him, this dear and tenderhearted man, and could imagine him in some dim corner of his adolescence, heartened by a man in purple scarves and make-up and talking about Jesus while shredding a guitar, you too might find your heart breaking a little, in happiness and sudden bereavement.
“I will read thousands of tributes,” I told him. “None will be better.”
Because it is hard, truly it is hard, to encounter that radiant otherwise inside the human. (Sex is only one of its forms, though as Prince reminds us it is among the most compelling. There is also loss. There is also grief.) It requires fortitude, solidity, a devotional patience. And it’s frightening. To move toward it — not to hide yourself away — takes courage.
But there are these songs. The world beyond the world? they say. Baby, that is life. And then, with a graciousness and generosity not much in this broken world can match, they invite you into it, in these little passages of turbulent grace. Here it is, they say — electric word! You’ll find it in the rhythm and the harmony; you’ll find it in the lewd beauty of the funk, in the delirious inconceivabilities of sex; you’ll find it on the two and the four, the one and the three, in the groove so funky it’s on the run. The guitar that gently weeps. The voice that only wants to see you laughing.