I bought my first LP with my own money in August 1984 at the Turtle Records in Atlanta’s Lenox Square Mall. The record I bought was Purple Rain. It came with a full-sized poster that showed Prince and his band, The Revolution, wearing pouting expressions. Two Revolution members, Wendy and Lisa, stood tightly together in a way that, back then, suggested scandalous female intimacy.
Over the past two days, countless TV and social media tributes have paid respects to a man who transformed popular music over the span of more than 35 years. The news of Prince’s death was shocking not only because he was only 57 years old, but because so many people my age vividly recall when Prince epitomized everything that was forbidden and dangerous and exciting and new about music. We think of Prince as a restless prodigy in his early 20s, not the guy who released Hit n Run Phase One late last year.
Back in 1984, Prince was not only the most popular recording artist of the day, he was Middle America’s Worst Nightmare, oozing sexuality with a decadent blend of 1970s funk and 1980s rock. He wore eyeliner and lacy outfits, and spent a portion of his concerts thrusting himself on a massive brass bed. It was rumored that Prince sometimes had sex with one of his female cohorts onstage, though nobody in my eighth grade class had any proof during this pre-YouTube dinosaur age.
In 1980s Georgia, where there was no such thing as sex education in public schools and the closest thing to pornography for most boys was the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, you could learn an awful lot by playing “Darling Nikki” over and over on the turntable, which is exactly what we did one night at a friend’s dance party. This was the Purple Rain song that described Nikki “in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,” easily the most shocking thing any of us had ever heard on vinyl. We were careful to turn the volume down low as we played the song again and again in my friend’s garage, junior high boys and girls nodding to the beat and grinning shyly while our parents drank cocktails and talked about who-knows-what inside the house.
When I bought my first record in 1984, it was more out of a wish to keep up with my peers than because I was a huge Prince fan. I listened to the record many times, captivated by some tracks (“Purple Rain,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me With U”) bored by one (“When Doves Cry”), and confused by others (What did it mean when Lisa asked Wendy if the water was warm? Were they going swimming?).
Years later, I gained a much greater appreciation for Prince’s musical artistry and lyrical prowess (is there any better description of anxious, teenage lust than “The place where your horses run free?”). I don’t have a lot of his music, I’m a casual fan at best, but the news of his death—whatever the cause—is still sad and shocking. For me and other people my age, we not only lost a another great artist to the After World, we got a reminder that Purple Rain was a mighty long time ago.