I was folding laundry. It was Thursday. The hamper and folded tee shirts, jeans and underwear covered my bed. The windows were open. The church bells across the street struck one. I heard birds. My phone hummed, next to the folded jeans. My girlfriend texted: Prince is dead. We’re all alone.
I sat down.
My boyfriend texted. Prince died. I’m sad. Going to the record store.
It is hard to explain. Death. It’s hard to explain what Prince means to a girl who grew up an art fag in Minnesota. I miss David Bowie, terribly. I hold his records, gently. I haven’t been able to play them, yet. Once, standing beside my car pumping gas, Rebel Rebel came on the piped and canned gas station speakers and I stood in an island of false light and pavement, weeping.
Now Prince is dead, too. My breastbone is bruised and too close. This is the year the gods died, I texted back. I crawled onto the bed, laid between the folded underwear and jeans, knocked the hamper to the floor. I laid there for a while, and then I got up.
Before he was my brother in law, my brother in law was my high school classmate. There was a long stretch of years, post high school, before the night he ran into my younger sister at First Avenue and they fell in love. There’s been another long stretch of them being hitched and parenting and cooperatively, being my siblings. I’ll let you do the math while I just point out certain things: the gangliness of high school, First Avenue in Minneapolis, young love and middle age, and the weird routes of relationship. How we’ve gotten to be who we are.
In 1992, my now brother-in-law, then freshman classmate and I listened to Prince under a stairwell at school. We decided we’d be at First Ave New Year’s Eve, 1999. It’d be the party to end all parties, the time we’d sit on top of the world, and be angels. There’d be music in the spheres and we would be, all of us, beautifully alive.
That’s not what happened. I don’t remember what happened, exactly. Other than dancing, once, with a girlfriend in an elevator after we’d danced the sun up over Manhattan. Other than sliding down a refrigerator to sit on a floor, once, trying not to pee I was laughing so hard. I remember dancing in a bar in Louisiana with a man who looked like whiskey tasted, dancing with a gay man in a Sunday afternoon apartment in Williamsburg, singing with a girlfriend while walking through a parking lot. I remember watching Purple Rain as a kid. As a young adult. As a grown up in a walk up in Brooklyn.
I don’t remember how my life happened, other than that strange things happened, bad things and beautiful unexpected things happened, so that somehow I’m older now. When Prince died I suddenly remembered all of these things that don’t really matter but feel so sweet, things that I’d forgotten, but that turn out to be about the only thing I’ve got. My memories. My life. This craziness.
I don’t think we mourn for a man so much as we’re suddenly sad to realize our own lives are disappearing. We’re losing our selves.
Minnesota is crumpled, publicly weeping, singing old songs on the street that we somehow all know by heart. Flowers pile up along chain link fences, lights are lit, candles and balloons and hand written letters fade in the rain. Thousands and thousands gather and it’s unclear what they’re doing. Mourning? Singing? Dancing? They stop traffic. Cops allow this. People lift their faces into the rain and the sky is, actually, purple.
Why do we so publicly and collectively mourn idols? We didn’t actually know, them.
Maybe we mourn because they helped us to know ourselves.
Not many things, do that. It’s not often we realize who we are. When a man or a song or a guitar can prove to you that you’ve got a soul, a groove, you gangly ugly uncoordinated mess have a right to wear the sequins or fuck the gorgeous creature or be loud with your confusion and love, you feel better about the things. The things are, for rare spare moments, going to be alright.
It’s horrible to suddenly feel that isn’t so. The man who proved it, doesn’t exist and won’t be singing, any longer. We’re alone in the world, is what death means. Our hands are empty and we’ve got nothing to prove otherwise. The songs hurt because you can’t, for anything, go back.
You are not yourself, anymore, is what I mean.
I think it’s like that.
Oddly, in sadness, we sing together. We bond over the radio. Like stars, isolated and immeasurably far apart, suspended by a common gravity. We cry alone, and together. Everything looks crooked for a few days. Everyone is tender. All the eyes are big and wet.
And somehow it’s okay: traffic is softer, the news reels clot, our humanity swells. Public spaces are transformed by masses of human bodies and scraps of art. It’s strange how we sway with strangers who’s names we don’t know. How we feel together, all by ourselves at midnight, because the internet proves that everyone is listening. Everyone is mourning. We’re all in this together.
It’s terrible how close sadness comes to love. Terrible, how sweet this all feels, how important, how true to ourselves, but that it’ll fade in weeks to come. The flowers will die. The radio will stop repeating, and we’ll stop listening. Eventually, people will change their status and profile picture back to something more current and less purple. Someday the kids won’t know the words to the songs we all know, by heart.
I don’t want them to be gone. They defined, me. I don’t know how I would have understood love, and dance, and the power of rebellion and creativity and crossing over the vast cold wasteland of politics and culture to find other human beings and call them important, unless these gods first showed me how. Sang something, and even though I’d never heard it, knew that I’d go on hearing it, always. That I always had heard it, and recognized it in their songs. I could listen to those songs, forever. Somehow, I thought they’d never die.
Death is so hard. Death is such a problem. In his last Op-Ed to the New York Times, Oliver Sacks talked of being increasingly aware of the people around him dying. Of knowing this wasn’t new, and of also knowing that whenever an individual dies there is an absence born, a rupture in the fabric of the way things were, an irreplaceability and the fact that life will never be the same.
There is a platitude that is thrown about, suggesting that we become our dead. This is both true, and not true, at the same time. It’s true that we can take up our dead father’s humor or kindness to waiters and small children, but it’s not true that our father than lives again. I mean it is true, I've got every single one of my dead, deep inside me where the blood stops. But unless I somehow express it, this doesn't mean anything at all. And expressing it doesn't mean that they'll live on. It means that I do. Church bells rang out a Prince song, yesterday. People stopped in the plaza and streets below. They leaned on buildings and stood very very still, ears cocked, faces still. Separately, they listened together. This made me think of Jesus. Maybe his influence isn’t that he died and rose, but that when he died, we all did. Not that he died for us, but with us. That something died, with him.
The influence of the gods is terrible. They made us believe. In the complicated, gnawing discovery of sex, the importance of friendships, the beauty of ordinary lives. Occasionally. Every once in a while.
All the crooked love stories. The mistakes of youth. The depth of what we wanted. Sing, they say. Love. Be wild and moved and have sex and make art and call the terrible mediocrity down. Stand on tables. Crawl on fire-escapes. Open your goddamned throat. The gods teach us passion, give us a narrative and soundtrack, create a stage.
We’ve all danced in our stocking feet. We’ve sung alone in the car. We’ve drunk and knocked and crawled onto tables, once, when we were teenagers. We crawled on tables, cars, beaches, stairwells, fire-escapes, all the structures and infrastructures and directly into one another’s hearts.
I remember where I was when I heard Jeff Buckley died. And Princess Diana. My folks remember the way the world was when JFK died. Where were you, when the towers fell? When the shots were fired? When the gods, died? I remember moments of history. Mostly, as the faces of all my long departed friends.
Strange, how quiet the world can get. Our lives become a blur, but suddenly we’re all telling stories. We all, remember. We aren’t telling stories about Prince, or David, or any of the gods. We’re telling the stories of own lives.
My boyfriend and I walked, slowly, up the sidewalk to Paisley Park. I slipped my hand into his. We stopped, and started, and saw the people, and were with the people. I wanted to hum songs into his ear. But then, I didn’t. I watched six year olds set cellophane wrapped bouquets atop other cellophane wrapped bouquets. Leave teddy bears. Crayoned drawings.
I don’t want to sing a love song. I want to be one.
The influence of the gods is terrible. It means we dance for a moment, pause the mediocrity and remember who we were. I don’t think it’s true: that memory lives on. That in some weird way we’re supposed to become our dead. I think it’s more true to say that we, ourselves, have to become.
Rock and roll. Brave. Creative. And humane. We don’t remember them for their music, only. We mourn their humanity. They proved a human being can be ruthlessly gorgeous.
I am so shy. I’m stupid, really, and have mostly only ever screwed up. But on Saturday morning, when my ordinary yoga class laid down in savasana, a place of quiet and stillness and privacy, I opened my mouth. I sang. I belted. I sang them Prince. I won’t do that for long. It wouldn’t help and I can't sing worth shit. I’ve got to find my own weird beauty.
But if I ever have a child, I’ll lullaby them with Ziggy Stardust, Purple Rain, every cracked and warbled hallelujah I can muster. You’re not alone, I’ll sing, and they will be. Alone, and not alone.