I can’t remember the first time I heard his voice, that falsetto scalded by screams. Some pop stars make it easy: Michael Jackson’s “Bad” entered my young ears as a hypnotic suggestion, since kids already want to run around hollering the same two words over and over again. But Prince? I shied away from his songs back then, even the ones that ‘90s radio could safely play. Sex roiled beneath their surface like radiation, warping the landscape—a desire that left its subject unrecognizable. All of that confused me until I saw the poster for Purple Rain: shadows poised against blue wisps of séance smoke, as light flowed molten over Prince’s ride. It looked like the wake of an electrical storm.
In a 1986 issue of CREEM, the critic J. Kordosh wrote about dreaming of Prince: “I suspect we both received serious blows to our respective heads by two big rocks, which were fragments of the same meteor.” During these nocturnal encounters the two might meet at an imaginary bus stop, or over some infernal game of checkers. Kordosh framed the conversations as deadpan comedy (“I guess we’re condemned to this checkers match in hell because of your lyrics, mostly, and my Starship review”), but the jokes come out nervously, tripped up by awe: “It wouldn’t be going too far to say that I actually want to be Prince,” he says. Kordosh was trying to decipher a symbol that still remains mysterious, even though everybody notices it.
“I don’t do interviews; I do dreams,” Prince says to Kordosh at one point during his dream. In truth it sounds more like a fantasy rather than a dream, where a lowly critic finally gets to make sense of this sinuous, abracadabrant figure. “It’s like a commentary on my ever-changing music or my very image,” dream-Prince muses on this particular format for an "interview". For a while during the late ‘80s, he planned to release an entire album as his pitch-shifted alter ego Camille, and vanish magically inside the upturned hat.
Hilton Als dreams in Prince songs, too. A longtime New Yorker staff writer, his new memoir My Pinup swivels around encounters with the star, from a crowd, or up close, each one witnessed by a different self. By the time Als interviews Prince backstage, midway through 2004’s Musicology tour, the halter tops have likewise been exchanged for suits, and now he glorifies God instead of showing his ass. (“As far as we can tell from listening to the lyrics,” an outraged minister once told People magazine, “his Lord is a penis.”) Gazing through candlelight, Als sees the lingering form of a changeling: “There was more silence, and as it unfolded, I took in his face, which had the exact shape, and large eyes, of a beautiful turtle.” They tease out a trembling rapport. Would the reporter go live at Paisley Park with Prince, write a book together? Our narrator demurs: “I knew that if I went to Minneapolis I would never come back.”
Fandom hinges on thwarted desire. If it were even possible to cross that threshold, what would you yearn to return with—a demo duet, some coveted outfit, their scrawled number? My Pinup recalls Als’s cool response to the canonical mid-‘80s Prince albums, which felt to him like a studied rejection of “the black queens who lip-synched to "Sister" while voguing near the Hudson River in the clear light of night.” 1988’s Lovesexy won back his devotion, with its cover of Prince lying nude inside flowers, shyly obscene. For the concert tour that same year, Als brings a peach pie to his haughty white boyfriend, who rejects the offering: “The pie grew sticky in my lap.” Maybe a peach pie wasn’t the ideal snack; think of those crumbs flying around during “Alphabet St.” But lovers can be charmed by the most absurd gestures, and this boy did not love him back.
One of my favorite Prince lyrics comes from the bridge of “Alphabet St”: “You kiss your enemies like you know you should / Then you jerk your body like a horny pony would.” A Bible verse for erotomaniacs, this line was actually rapped by the dancer-singer Cat Glover. “With her long, curly hair and well-toned biceps,” Als writes, “Cat was the girl Prince had been before he stopped being a girl: outrageous and demanding…Prince smiled behind his guitar, behind his own shimmering ass as Cat became him and sang his lyrics: a twinning for the ages.” Als longed for such a twinship. On the cover of the “Sign ‘O’ the Times” single, Cat poses behind a paper heart; people often assume the model is Prince himself en femme.
The music itself staged a dialogue of contradictions. Some were left implicit: How could Prince be so encouraging towards his many protégés and then so controlling? The closest thing he ever had to an equal partnership, with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, could not survive that Boss Man impulse (as Als describes it). His affections always hedged against betrayal. Speaking to Wax Poetics magazine, the Time’s guitarist Jesse Johnson later remembered: “Prince took Morris [Day] on the road. When Morris left, he was wearing jeans, sneakers, a regular shirt, and an Afro. When he came back, he looked like the Morris we know today. He was completely different. I never saw him in jeans again.” A strange intimacy, when somebody presses clothes upon you. To be their mannequin, draped with beauty; “Sometimes,” Prince once sang, “those are the things that being in love’s about.”
Als met another man when Lovesexy came out, the summer of 1988, whose ringed fingers moved like Prince’s. They go out clubbing: “I inched closer to him as he danced to you, Prince. But already he was you, Prince, in my mind. He had the same coloring, and the same loneliness I wanted to fill with my admiration. I couldn’t love him enough. We were colored boys together. There is not enough of that in the world, Prince—but you know that.” This passage has the beseeching cadence of an incantation, but the spell glinted off-target; Als introduces the man to another friend, and she becomes the lover he wanted to be, a mercurial Dorothy Parker, like the ballad. Memoir shifts towards eulogy: “My female friend held fast to his love, and she held fast to me.” She adored Prince, too. They would all come to share that.
How could Prince be so encouraging towards his many protégés and then so controlling? His affections always hedged against betrayal.
How do you care for someone after they’ve hurt you, your kiss searching for their own wound? Writing about his friends, Als recalls: “He took photographs of her because he did not want to misremember her in his love; she changed her mind, and thus her shape, all the time.” I imagine him watching this, the witness at the wedding, and not flinching as the camera goes off. Prince’s music gives a lexicon to anyone who’s exhausted their body language, so that they might dance inside ambiguities. When Dorothy Parker got sick, Als brought balms and salves with her lover. “As she lay dying,” he writes, “her white skin took on a number of shades or different colors, as if she had absorbed those aspects of Prince’s race or my race that belonged to her beloved’s race too.”
I recognize myself in Als’s Dorothy Parker, who cherished looking on at “complicated boyness.” I throw together an outfit and convince myself that it sort of resembles Prince’s. I peer into a miasma of bootlegged concert footage. When I finally watched him play, Prince had retired his kinkiest fantasies, no longer the bashful pervert muttering, “I sincerely wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth.” But he still sashayed across the stage while winking at every member of the audience simultaneously. None of us knew that this lithe sylph depended on opioids to quiet old injuries, or that a year later he would be dead, alone inside an idle elevator. Like a pharaoh, decoration masked the mortal body. We only saw turquoise and lapis lazuli.
I found my Prince jacket not long before he died. I had wandered into a vintage shop, run by Helen Williams Nurse out of her Bed-Stuy brownstone, when I picked it off the rack—that purple leather made me think of a nebula glowing with dust. Metal studs adorned the shoulders, adding some butch camp. The store’s owner was playing “The Glamorous Life,” written for Sheila E. by Prince: “She thought real love is real scary / Money only pays the rent.” I bought the jacket. Soon this omen would gather other meaning, and I started to feel like I’d thrifted somebody’s funeral shroud.
A few weeks later, my key sat ignored in its lock as a friend texted the news. I lay around for hours listening to Prince cover “A Case of You,” where he locates Joni Mitchell’s clarity to a new source, an isolated room, rather than skin flushing against skin; he swallows every vowel of “holy wine.” After that became unbearable, I went to the gym, wearing that purple jacket, not thinking about it. The clerk paused when I stepped inside. She smiled at me absently, as if coming across a lapsed friend, and then began to sing: I never meant to cause you any sorrow, I never meant to cause you any pain…