By James Tate Hill
Once upon a time I wrote a novel about Prince. This will surprise no one who knows me except perhaps the friends unfortunate enough to have read it. In the novel, a small-town copy editor befriends a pro wrestler trying to get out of the business following a divorce. The wrestler’s marriage ended shortly after the sudden death of the couple’s infant, the only detail of Prince’s biography that survived the novel’s expansion from what was originally a short story about a reclusive, enigmatic musician. The novel’s flaws were legion, but I might be most embarrassed, looking back, at how foolish I had been to think I could capture the essence of Prince in fiction, a genre so dependent on language and a certain amount of logic.
Years earlier, while enrolled in a Master’s program in English I attended because I hadn’t gotten into the creative writing programs I applied to, I wrote a seminar paper exploring the identity politics of Prince’s 1990s name change to an unpronounceable symbol. It was, like everything else I wrote during those two years, a horrible paper, not least because my interest in Prince far, far, far exceeded my interest in critical theory. For my research methods course, I presented a critical history of Purple Rain, the film, the most memorable moment of which presentation was my mispronunciation of Proust so it rhymed with joust rather than roost. I was trying, on one level, to intellectually validate what I did most in my free time—listening to and dissecting an artist with whose work I had spent more time than any writer—but I was also trying, quite earnestly, to solve the mystery of Prince. Days after news of his death at age fifty-seven, I’m asking the same questions I asked then and coming no closer to any answers.
Miles Davis compared Prince to a blend of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, and Charlie Chaplin. Critics have also likened him to Little Richard, David Bowie, Al Greene, Teddy Pendergrass, Mick Jagger, among countless others, but all these comparisons say less about Prince than our desire to make sense of an artist whose life and art so thoroughly resisted definition. To listen to Prince is to listen to possibility, and never was the sound of possibility as appealing as the years in that graduate program when I lived in a tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a building that had once been a mental hospital. No friends lived closer than an hour and a half away. I ventured out of the building sparingly, many days not speaking to another person. My groceries, largely cereal and eggs, came from the convenience store across the street. I felt trapped by my own talent or lack thereof, uncertain about my future, frustrated by the pointlessness of everything I was reading and writing, probably depressed, but when I put Dirty Mind or Sign O the Times or 1999 in the CD player I felt worldly, inspired, and capable of joy.
Eulogies and obituaries have noted how effortlessly Prince straddled binary categories like the sacred and profane, masculine and feminine, black and white. From elements of disparate genres, his music forged a new sound as unique as it was universal. All this is true. He did these things, was these things. But the lingering question is how. How did Prince rescue so many of us from the fear of becoming who we wanted to become? How did he know where we needed to go and how to take us there? It’s the job of writers to express the ineffable through stories and language, but only now, trying to make sense of Prince’s death, have I acquitted my failed novel of its inability to answer these questions. Words, Prince knew, are only one of our many languages. An interviewer once asked Prince about the meaning of one of his more ambiguous songs. Prince responded with an elaborate narrative, complete with characters, conflicts, and historical context.
“Wow. I never really got that from the lyrics,” the interviewer said.
“It isn’t in the lyrics,” Prince said. “It’s in the music.”
James Tate Hill is the author of Academy Gothic (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2015), winner of the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. Fiction Editor for Monkeybicycle, his stories and essays have been published by Literary Hub, Story Quarterly, and Sonora Review, among others. www.jamestatehill.com @jamestatehill