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    Like a Bird Without a Song

    I'm signed-out of all social media for now. Prince died yesterday and my feeds were instantly filled with photos of him, videos, notes of grief and gratitude for all he contributed . . . anger and confusion that we lost "another great."

    Another great.

    Add him to the list. As my brother so bluntly stated just last week: People die. Sure, people die all the time. People we know and people we don't know alike, they all die.

    Another great.

    I don't want to see it all. I have nothing to add, and I don't enjoy seeing it. Plus, social media sucks. It's time for a break anyway, time to dial back the look-at-me tendencies. It's so easy to get caught up in all that crap. For now, I'm home, grieving. I'm grieving the loss of someone I never met, but it's grieving just the same. It might be worse.

    * * *

    I found out that Prince died because my husband and band mate casually announced it while sitting on the couch, putting his sneakers on. He said, "So, I guess Prince is dead?" Then he sort of smiled an awkward smile that is typically reserved for moments where absurd gossip is being shared, like, "Is that woman from No Doubt really having a ninth child with that guy from the singing contest show?" File it under Who Cares. He looked so weird and sounded so incredulous that I mostly ignored him and said, "Nah. Hoax." I walked into the bathroom and put my hair up. We were heading out to band rehearsal. I was getting ready to sweat in a gross storage unit with no air-conditioning for two hours. He went on to tell me that some site called TMZ had reported that Prince had been found dead at his home, Paisley Park. Further proof that it was a spoof, for me. What in hell is TMZ? More to file under Who Cares. We got in the car and started to drive to get coffee for rehearsal. I went to facebook, as I've been conditioned to do, and it was already starting. People posting outcries of disbelief. Billboard magazine had reported it by then, which was the first thing that scared me. (That seems like a lot to retract if you're not sure, doesn't it?) I started to feel spaced-out and numb. I felt nothing. Platitude after platitude, image after image . . . numb. Prince in the early years, Prince with the assless pants, Prince playing the Superbowl. It looked true. I felt nothing.

    By the time we were almost to the coffee place, my eyes had started to cry. I was still not actively in touch with myself, but my body had moved into a response that was happening on its own. My mother was calling my phone. My mother and I had a severe falling-out in 2011 and though she texts and emails me often (and I've seen her a couple times on tour), we don't talk on the phone. But, she was calling. I answered, crying. She was calling to tell me that Prince had died, and to see if I was okay. We spoke for a short while, in which we talked about Prince and my nephew's second birthday, also yesterday. My mother was taking him to see a real fire station. We hung up. It was starting to feel real.

    We rehearsed. I was like a robot, playing guitar and singing. We were rehearsing for a show this coming Monday, so we were just running the set list and working out kinks. Zero creativity required, thank god. I alternated between the numbness and feeling on the edge-of-tears for ninety minutes. By the time we were out of rehearsal, my phone was full of text messages, facebook messages, and facebooks posts that I was tagged in. My close friends, my not-close friends, my family members, people I hadn't heard from in years, people I used to work with . . . all offering me their condolences. It felt surreal. I said to my husband, "Why is everybody contacting me? Have I been this expressive about my love for Prince?" He said, "Yes, honey. You have."

    * * *

    The Prince thing has simply always been for me. His career spans my lifetime exactly. I'm forty years old, and so is Prince's first work. I do not have a memory from my life that pre-dates my love for Prince. It has always been. And, I suppose when I love something, I celebrate the shit out of it. I've seen him live several times - hell, I took my whole family to see him at Madison Square Garden in December of 2010 (the last time I ever saw him), I did a terrible-but-adoring cover of "When You Were Mine" when I was twenty-four years old (still my favorite song from his entire catalog), I dressed my cat up as Michael Bland of the Diamonds and Pearls-era New Power Generation the same year I was Glamorous Life-era Sheila E. for Halloween, and I talk about him probably every day in some capacity. My love for Prince is every day.

    Now, everyone loves Prince. I know I'm not special, and my love for him is nothing special either, but it's mine. Like a lot of people who grew up in imperfect, often lonely conditions, music was my higher power as a kid. The Catholic God who was in the periphery of my upbringing seemed like a dick, and most of the adults in my childhood story were compromised in ways that need not be listed here. Everyone did their best, but let's face it: humans are a mess. Music was both the time machine and the life vest. The rocket ship to other places and experiences, and the solid ground I could walk upon. Music provided permission to feel, permission to think, permission to speak, and most importantly, permission to dream. All of the music I was raised with (and then eventually chose on my own) had its place in my education. I was raised with Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Marley, and they were teaching to me to honor the struggle. Rickie Lee Jones was teaching me to talk about the struggle. Fugazi was teaching me to join the struggle. The Descendents were teaching me to have humor about the adolescent struggle. But Prince? Prince was like, "FUCK THE STRUGGLE. DANCE." And I needed that. I didn't know how to fuck the struggle, and I probably still don't. I needed to listen to thirty albums by a petite guitarist from Minnesota to remind myself that the struggle is not the only part of this life I'm navigating. I have danced in my lifetime because Prince invited me to dance. I have felt sexy and alive in my human form for brief, fleeting moments of my life because Prince invited me to honor the other, not-broken, not-abused parts of myself. I have borrowed confidence that I will never authentically feel because Prince invited me to sing along with "Baby, I'm a Star," and sing it like I wrote it. I tailored the living shit out of my stage suit for Friendship Commanders because Prince wore a suit better than any human who has ever walked this planet - a custom-made suit, to boot. I play guitar and write music because Prince invited me to participate in my own life - not only through his own example, but but by having grown-ass women of music legend like Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, and Sheila E. in his early bands. I was born into this female body; it has felt limiting at times. But every day, Prince reminded me to both fuck the struggle and "Look up in the air, it's your guitar." 

    Because it's always been, my love for Prince isn't something I've spent a ton of time evaluating. It's just been a given for me. And I'm pretty sure that everyone I've ever known is aware of it (I'm even more sure of that after all the messages I received yesterday). My ex's old bandmate once scored a Prince shirt for me when they were on the road and ended up at one of Prince's late night shows (the ones he did every night after the huge concerts). I have one of Prince's actual guitar picks, a gift from my ex. I have the 33 1/3 book about the Sign 'O' the Times album, also a gift. I have followed Prince through all career and life phases: the Jehovah's Witness period, the funk album with Larry Graham, the later stuff (Musicology and beyond) . . . I don't allow any shit-talking or eye-rolling about Prince to happen in my presence. The whole Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Prince thing seems be one of the most widely misunderstood situations in the history of music. I have probably clarified that he was protesting the loss of the use of his actual given name (due to legal battles with Warner Brothers) as many times as I've said, "Buick was a native chief." Seriously. Thousands of times. People don't care. They see someone they perceive as a weirdo, and they make fun. I can vouch for that human behavior firsthand. But, it's garbage. Making fun of Prince is so dull, so privileged. I mean, people are allowed to feel how they want, but I'm not interested in it around me. Prince did more in fifty-seven years than any other human might accomplish in two-hundred years. And he did it in heels.

    * * * 

    I lost something of an actual family member last week. My childhood best friend's father passed away suddenly. He served as an additional father figure to me when I was a kid and it was a big loss for me when he died. I wept on and off for a couple days, but I wasn't inconsolable. He was seventy-four when he died, had been an accomplished psychotherapist, a father of two sons, and a grandfather of two small children. His life was well-lived. Even as I was grieving him, I was aware that the experience was strange because it appeared to be clean grief. I had no complicated feelings about him, his life, or our relationship. What a rare gift! It was just loss, period. 

    Prince has been dead for twenty-four hours. I'm a wreck. It's not as clean.

    * * * 

    About five years ago, the Time out put a great record called Condensate. The weird thing was that they weren't called the Time. They were called the "Original 7ven." Because it was 2011, internet access to everything being just clicks away, I quickly learned that Prince had not let them use the name, the Time. Now, the story of that project is known by most (if not all) people who are into that world of music, but in case you don't know, here are the Cliff's Notes:

    The Time were part of Prince's group of diffusion projects in the 1980s. Just as fashion labels often have the main brand (e.g. Versace, Marc Jacobs) and then one or more diffusion lines (e.g. Versus, Marc by Marc Jacobs), so did Prince. The Time were formed in 1981 and he signed them, sort of assembled them (an existing inner band was already playing together, and they're really goddamned important to music), and wrote/produced their music. Prince even ghosted the music performances on the albums. It is widely known that he treated them carelessly, and eventually two of them broke off and became arguably the most important writers and producers in pop music, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

    The history of that project is fraught with outbursts by Prince, his attempts to creatively and financially control their output, and just general insanity. It sucks. And I was in denial about it for a long ol' time. After all, he's a star, right? Self-proclaimed, self-realized, a bad ass of the highest order . . . right? I don't know. I really don't. This whole thing started a several year struggle for me to love and respect my favorite artist as purely as I once had.

    So, he raked the Time over the coals again in 2011. The nicest, kindest, most generous-of-spirit group of men to ever make records, the Time. People whom I hold in the highest regard possible. Monte Moir wrote and produced one of the finest pop songs I've ever heard, and even had the graciousness to allow me to interview him about it in 2012. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are so incredible that I don't have words. Morris Day seems like a wonderful human. It goes on. But, Prince was basically like, "Screw you guys," and they quietly moved ahead without their name - thirty years into the project, by the way. How did they respond to him? This is from the liner notes of Condensate:

    Love to Prince, for the lessons & the beginning.

    That's it. Kindness, love, forgiveness, and gratitude. Right then and there I was like, "This is who to be. Be like the Time. Be able to love anyway, no matter what the other guy is doing." But, it's not as easy for me. I have to fake it 'til I make it with some of that stuff. Inside, I judged Prince. It got worse.

    Not long after that, Prince played the Jimmy Fallon show. As always, the Roots were the house band. One of the members had his prized vintage (1960s, I think) guitar there, and Prince asked to play it during his performance. The guy said yes, of course. And then Prince smashed that guitar on stage, right in front of the guy. Again, Prince was met with grace and forgiveness. The guy didn't freak out that his favorite guitar was now forever unplayable. No, he asked Prince to sign it. Prince declined.

    I posted something on Facebook about that incident right after it happened and Reeves Gabrels boldly defended Prince's actions, saying something about the right to creative liberties in a performance. Gross. I disagreed with both artists then, and I disagree with both artists now. It's shitty behavior; there's no dressing it up. 

    Just a few months ago, Denise Matthews (AKA "Vanity") of Vanity 6 died. She'd had some crazy organ crisis for twenty years and her body finally gave out. Vanity 6 were another one of Prince's diffusion bands in the 1980s, started the same year as the Time, actually. Again, the core of the project existed before Prince got involved, and then once he did, he took over. I knew all of that before. When Denise died, I sat down and read some more about that project, since I had never been a huge fan and knew only the singles.

    I want to preface this next part by saying that I have always known that Prince had weird stuff with women. Well, maybe not when I was six, but I've known bits and pieces of it throughout my adulthood. I knew that he made Carmen Electra sleep with her make-up on, I knew that he'd had intense and volatile creative/personal relationships with all of the women that had surrounded his work (Apollonia, Carmen, Mayte etc). I never really cared about it. After all, he's a star, right? This is all patented Rock Star Behavior as I understand it. It's also none of my business.

    So anyway, I was reading about Denise Matthews and the band and all that, and I got to this part about Prince meeting her and wanting to produce the band. He wanted to call the band "Hookers." As in, prostitutes. Additionally, he wanted her stage name to be "Vagina." Uhhhhh. What? I'm sorry, but a man meeting a female musician and suggesting that she change her name to Vagina and call her band Hookers is pretty bad. Not edgy-but-somehow-really-empowering-to-females bad, but dark-and-hateful-and-fucked-up bad. Thankfully (for us all), Denise passed on "Vagina" and went with "Vanity." And the "6"? Why, that's how many breasts there were among the three women in the project. I wish I were kidding. I went on to read about how Vanity 6 toured with Prince and the Time in 1982, and how Prince made the Time play as the band for Vanity 6, behind a curtain. I stopped reading. Who cares.

    But, I care. It sucks to come to terms with your favorite artist being a dick. And a sexist dick, at that. Did he bring women to the front? Yes. Was he controlling all of their motions like a puppet master? Also yes. And I know it wasn't just sexism. I think the brief discussion about the Time proves that. But, as a female musician who truly took some strength and courage from the women on stage with Prince when I was kid, it's disappointing to know what really went on.

    When I was eighteen I went on a road trip to New Jersey with my mom and my grandmother. It was the only time in my life we ever did anything as a group together. I found out my grandmother was racist on that trip. Did I still love her? Absolutely; still do. Was it disappointing, and kind of the end of any childhood fantasy that may have still been lingering? It sure was.

    Same thing here. Five years ago I started to understand that Prince wasn't a perfect being. He mistreated people. He let tons of people down. He competed with his friends and peers. He said ugly things to and about people. He held his power over others and used it to get what he wanted from the situation. I don't have to pretend about it today. I'm not a child. I also know that every single one of those people signed up for their relationship with Prince. I'm hardly the behavior police, but I'm a lifelong fan. I wanted it to be different. In many ways, I grieve my own denial.

    * * *

    Last night I was out at a friend's house for a couple hours. I'd already been off social media for half the day but was still getting private messages and texts from all over the place. I decided to turn my phone off altogether. My drive home was thirty minutes and I couldn't figure out if I wanted to listen to music or not. The grief was now huge in my body, and I was afraid that putting my ipod on shuffle would be a disaster. Fifty percent of the music on my ipod was made by Prince. I decided to listen to the farthest thing from Prince, which for some reason, seemed to be "Vindictive" by the Slits. I listened to it on repeat and it helped a little. It's hard to take anything too seriously when Ari Up is yelling "I'll shit on it!" Thanks, Ari.

    Prince was still dead when I woke up today. It wasn't a dream. I feel worse, and I imagine I'll feel badly for a long while. During that time, I'm going to abstain from reading the "We lost another great" posts that everyone makes when someone dies. Not because it's not true. we did lose another great, but unfortunately for me, he was my favorite great. I think he was the greatest musician and creative being of our time and I can't believe I'm currently living in a world without him. I can't believe I'll never get to fight with him about what a dick he was in the early eighties. I can't believe I'll never see him play again and know that I'm seeing the greatest living musician do exactly what he was made to do. I just can't believe it.

    But, my body knows it, and my body continues to weep and let me feel a hundred ways about it. I hope he's back on that planet of special beings who only visit us for a short while, alongside Freddie Mercury, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Keith Haring, and Divine. Maybe Ari Up and Poly Styrene are there, too, but I think they're probably on the other planet of fantastic weirdos, with Dee Dee.

    Forever loved, forever missed. 

    * * *

    For you, in case you need it.