I’m probably unable to process Prince’s passing with the requisite amount of grief, coming as it does hard on the heels of Merle Haggard’s death. Two of the brightest stars in my musical sky, gone. Poof. Within a couple weeks of each other. I am still stunned.
Well, hell. This week! This month! This year!
It’s been quite a cull of beloved musicians. Can’t recall a year like this. Maybe Fall of 1970, Jimi and Janis, which I only dimly remember. I delivered papers then, the now defunct afternoon daily Minneapolis Star. “Bad news on the doorstep” — I lived that! Weekly body counts in the bottom right hand counter.
I have a sense just about everybody will see Lonnie Mack‘s name on the list of Entertainers Who Died In 2016, and say, “Wait! When did THAT happen?” The day everybody was talking about Prince.
I must get this out of the way first: even though I am a massive fan and have had plenty of opportunities to see Prince, I never went to a show. Hockey rink shows are never ideal, and I probably still would not go out of my way to see anyone in a really big venue like that. But seeing Prince in the First Avenue Main Room! Where Purple Rain was shot! I passed on more than a few chances to see him in that fantastic venue.
To my shame I think I have to put it down to my Midwestern, penny-wise, dollar foolish attitude to spending money. Are you kidding me? They want fifteen bucks for those tickets. Figure in three or four Special Exports and I’ll be laying out thirty bucks for the night.
Yes, I am a garbage fan who never bothered to see Prince perform, but (I maintain) there remains some (pathetic) evanescent connection.
Prince and I were born 10 months and a couple miles apart in South Minneapolis. He went to Bryant, the public junior high school on East 38th Street. I went to Incarnation, a Catholic grade school a mile west on 38th St., on the other side of 35W, the freeway that pretty much separated black and white Minneapolis. I remember Bryant came to Incarnation once for a scrimmage, either in late ’72 or early ’73. The racial situation in Minneapolis was edgy at best, owing mainly to the ignorance of white people. Black Panthers! Rumors of black gangs riding around in cars with machine guns. (This predated Sign ☮ the Times (and crack) by more than a decade but looky! another connection — “high on crack totin’ a machine gun”). Of course our basketball team was nearly all white kids, terrified of black people in general, and more than a little intimidated by our opponents.
In addition to their massive afros, and generally being much taller and/or muscular, I remember all the Bryant players wore boxers under their uniform shorts so they stuck out. A bit of sartorial flair that I had never seen before, or since. I wonder who might have started that trend?
I told everyone for years, “I played basketball against Prince.” Now I am not sure I was on the court or if I (Blue team) was watching the Gold Team play Bryant. At any rate, I was there, but not necessarily playing. I did reach out to a couple of old Incarnation classmates on Facebook. My my best grade school pal, now a lawyer, wrote back, in very lawyerly terms, “This is consistent with my recollection”–meaning (I like to think) that we, the Blue team, were in fact the team that scrimmaged Bryant. But, for what it’s worth, his memory was that we played at their gym, not ours. I also must add that he had no memory of the machine gun rumor, so that might have been my own individual racial panic dream.
Bryant mopped the floor with us of course. The core of their team went on to form a fabled Minneapolis Central team that was undefeated but lost in the region finals to North. I was at THAT game, for sure, at the old Met Center. Johnny Hunter, Pastor and Founder of First Community Recovery Church, had the game of his life.
I always thought Prince didn’t play in high school, but today I entered a few obvious search terms and learned that Prince indeed played at Central, at least up until his sophomore year. Al Nuness, a legendary player in his own right for the Golden Gophers, was Prince’s coach for the sophomore squad. Nuness told the StarTribune Prince was “a darn good basketball player. The problem is he just didn’t grow.”
Basketball’s loss was everyone else’s gain. That seems obvious now.
Over the years I’ve come across more than a few doubters of my modest connection to Prince, and even more who could not believe that the diminutive Prince had ever played competitive basketball, so when the fantastic Chapelle Show Charlie Murphy bit came out, I felt vindicated.
UPDATE: I wasn’t going to go there, to mention the other famous music person of my youth (and in fact of my twenties, when we lived across the street from each other), but I just read what Paul Westerberg wrote about Prince and it makes what just about everything everyone else wrote kind of pointless. Heartfelt, observant, poignant and funny as hell. What you would expect.
The first time I met him was at a urinal at a nightclub in St. Paul. There he was, and I said, “Hey, what’s up?” And he answered, “Life.” One word: “life.” And I can’t say that we went on to be pals. But we did record a lot at Paisley Park, and he became comfortable enough to grace us with his presence, not bejeweled and not dressed up. He’d be wearing maybe his jammies and sweat pants or maybe a pear of jeans and sneakers. He could sort of just hang out. He may have been a little more normal than he would’ve liked people to know. That’s the treasure that we got, to be able to sit in the big atrium where you’re taking a break and Prince shuffles by in his slippers and makes some popcorn in the microwave. My sister’s a disc jockey, and he would pass by and say, “Tell your sister hi for me.” People like to paint him as a reclusive this or that; I think he was genuinely truly, truly shy. But one thing says a lot about him: I was there making a solo record a few years later, and I got a message that said that my friend had just died. I was truly rattled, and the next time I went back into the studio, he had filled it up with balloons. Now I’m gonna cry.