Group Therapy: Remembering Prince

Gina Myers is the author of two full-length poetry collections, A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009) and Hold It Down (Coconut Books, 2013), as well as several chapbooks. Recent poems and reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Bedfellows, Fanzine, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. Originally from Saginaw, MI, she now lives in Philadelphia.

Joel Dias-Porter (aka DJ Renegade) was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. He served in the US Air Force, then became a professional DJ in the DC area. In 1991, he quit his job and began living in homeless shelters, while undergoing an Afrocentric self-study program. From 1994 through 1999, he competed in the National Poetry Slam, finishing as high as second place in the individual competition, and was the 1998 and 1999 Haiku Slam Champion. His poems have been published in the anthologies Meow: Spoken Word from the Black Cat, Def Poetry Jam, Revival: Spoken Word from Lollapallooza, Poetry Nation, Beyond the Frontier, and The Black Rooster Social Inn, which he also edited. He has performed on the Today Show, in the documentary SlamNation, on BET, and in the feature film Slam. The father of a young son, he has a CD of jazz and poetry on Black Magi Music, entitled LibationSong.

E. Kristin Anderson is a multi-Pushcart-nominated poet and author who grew up in Westbrook, Maine and is a graduate of Connecticut College. She has a fancy diploma that says “B.A. in Classics,” which makes her sound smart but has not helped her get any jobs in Ancient Rome. Kristin is the co-editor of Dear Teen Me, an anthology based on the popular website and her next anthology, Hysteria: Writing the female body, is forthcoming from Lucky Bastard Press. Her poetry has been published worldwide in many magazines and anthologies and she is the author of seven chapbooks including A Guide for the Practical Abductee (Red Bird Chapbooks), Pray Pray Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press, 2015), 17 Days (ELJ Publications), Fire in the Sky (Grey Book Press), and She Witnesses (dancing girl press). Kristin a co-editor at Lucky Bastard and is a poetry editor at Found Poetry Review. Once upon a time she worked at The New Yorker. She now lives in Austin, TX where she works as a freelance editor and is trying to trick someone into publishing her full-length collection of erasure poems based on women’s and teen magazines. She blogs at EKristinAnderson.com and tweets at @ek_anderson.

Justin Marks is the author of, You’re Going to Miss Me When You’re Bored, (Barrelhouse Books, 2014) and A Million in Prizes (New Issues, 2009), as well as several chapbooks. He is a co-founder of Birds, LLC, an independent poetry press, and lives in Queens, NY with his wife and their twin son and daughter. Check out his site for more.

Kenyatta JP Garcia is the author of This Sentimental Education, Yawning on the Sands and Playing Dead. They were raised in Brooklyn, NY and currently reside in Albany, NY where they received a degree in linguistics.  Their work has been featured in Brooklyn Rail, Queen Mob’s Teahouse and BlazeVOX. In addition, they are also an editor at Horse Less Review. 

Martha Southgate is the author of four novels. Her newest, The Taste of Salt, was published in September 2011 and was named one of the best novels of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.  Her essay “Writers Like Me,” published in the New York Times Book Review, appears in the anthology Best African-American Essays 2009.  Previous non-fiction articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, Entertainment Weekly, and Essence. She is at work on a new novel. Twitter: @mesouthgate


Barrelhouse: Why does Prince matter?

Kenyatta JP Garcia (KJPG): Prince matters first and foremost for his music. His guitar and bass skills as well as his vocal abilities are what make his records such enduring classics. But, we also know that he’s an incredible arranger as well as a talented lyricist unafraid to push through sexuality into sensuality and sentimentality. In many ways, there are no other songwriters like him. What’s almost as interesting as his creations (of which there are many) is what he didn’t give the world. What he edited out and what he never released. He always took control of his work. This is his legacy as an artist. He refused to be pushed around by the record labels and even went to court and took on the PMRC. He was a fighter in assless pants.

Gina Myers (GM): As a musician, there is no one else like Prince. Everything he touched was magic. There’s a timelessness to his music and to him too--going back through the catalog I am frequently surprised when discovering what year a specific song came out. And there’s something extremely permission-granting about him too. Roxane Gay tweeted, “Prince was a weird black kid from the Midwest, creative, ambitious, sexy, messing with gender. He was a beacon for a Midwest girl like me.” I can’t speak to the race aspect specifically, but as a native Midwesterner, I know the stereotypes all too well of being socially conservative, buttoned-up people, and Prince defied that. He was so much to so many people. He was sexy, androgynous, defiant, and tough. Purple Rain was the first thing I remember from him--specifically the album cover. Was it my brother’s record? My dad’s? I’m not sure. But I was immediately drawn to that image. Of course, the image doesn’t matter if the music doesn’t back it up, and the music backed it up. Prince was the total package--a showman who excelled at his craft. He was an extremely generous performer. Despite the costumes, the dark sunglasses, the air of mystery, etc., he seemed so raw and real and accessible. Bare. It felt like he gave himself to his fans emotionally. And his generosity extended to the parties he threw for his fans at Paisley Park--I’m forever jealous of my boyfriend who attended one where Prince came out in a sweatsuit and played for three hours. He is a legend. A true artist. And his death is so stunning because he seemed unearthly. I realize as I am writing this that nothing I can say can begin to capture what it was about Prince that made us love him.

E. Kristin Anderson (EKA): He matters because he has always placed value on the art rather than the spectacle. And I know that some people are like, what, Prince, who wore that yellow assless suit wasn’t a spectacle? Prince, who would go on stage wearing underpants and lace? Not a spectacle? Yes, he was a performer—and a vibrant one. But he was never one to be seen in the tabloids. He posed for the camera, and then went home and made more art. And he helped other people make art. And he gave art away. We will probably never know how many hit songs (or not hit songs or just really cool songs or just songs in general) were written by Prince because he just always was making art and giving it away. We think of Prince and we think of the purple or the hair or the sunglasses or the cheeky smile or that ass. But we don’t think about his girlfriends or his family business. Once we get past whatever our particular image of Prince is in our heads (mine tends to be somewhere around either Lovesexy or Diamonds and Pearls, usually), it goes straight to the music. That’s more than iconic. His music reached us more than any gossip or lore ever could. His willingness to always push the next boundary, try something new, and to not only do this for himself but to use his influence, talent, and knowledge to empower other artists — especially women — is a huge part of why my grief is so powerful. Who else works the way Prince does? In the industry the way it is today?

Joel Dias-Porter (JDP): He matters for a bunch of reasons not the least of which was his sheer genius. A virtuoso on guitar and outstanding player of many more instruments. These kind of people are rare and it hurts to lose one too soon. He was amazingly prolific too, if you didn't like one album there was sure to be another not far behind it.

Justin Marks (JM): How could he not matter? He was inevitable. That may be a counter intuitive statement. He was so unique, a weirdo from Minnesota who challenged and defied any number of conventions in a time and place (like most times and places) that was steeped in convention. Prince was plugged into something different--a conduit for a new truth, a universal spirit, who taught us something new about art and ourselves. When someone like that comes along, it's impossible to imagine the world without them. That was Prince, and that's what I mean by inevitable.

And essential. For me, growing up in a small, very conservative town where all roles were rigidly set, Prince was a symbol of freedom, the possibility of escaping convention and forging your own identity. But at the same time, I don't remember anyone in my town who didn't like him. When Raspberry Beret came on at the monthly roller skating parties our school had, everyone was out on the floor--a bunch of redneck white kids in mullets and backwards baseball caps, jocks, stoners, metal heads and nerds, skating, singing, clapping, busting our best moves to Prince. So add unifier to Prince's legacy. A truly transcendent artist and spirit.

And immortal (or so I hoped). Because if there was ever an artist, person--a soul--that I felt was immortal, it was Prince. "He was literally a god in human form," I said to my friend Chris over gchat when the news broke. "The best pop star ever," Chris wrote back. "Completely electric." Energy like that doesn't die, I'd like to believe. It's eternal, takes on different forms. But, god, I wish it would have stayed with us as Prince for another 30 years or so.

Martha Southgate (MS): Turns out that Prince mattered to me much more than I realized. While I haven’t actually wept, I’ve thought about him nearly all the time since it happened, become a Facebook obsessive (the modern version of wailing at a graveside) and propped my vinyl copies of his albums on my desk so that I am gazing at him (or is he gazing at me?) as I work. I guess, insofar as I thought about it at all, that he would be here for many more years and die a natural death, quickly, when he was elderly. I wish he’d gone the way I hope to, the way we all hope to--after a long and remarkable life. I haven’t followed his music closely for many years and I’ve been struck (but not saddened) by the fact that at most of the tributes, etc, that his old music has been so prominently featured. I think that’s because that’s his music that is most accessible and least intellectualized. It goes straight for the heart, the gut and most importantly, the libido.

I’m also finding that he mattered to me as a reminder of my own mortality and has provoked a lot of thought about what I want to do with my life, which I hope will go on much longer than his did.. Because he was 57 (I’m 55), I could have gone to highschool with him. He’s an exact peer. I’m from a different part of the Midwest (Cleveland) and feel a kinship with him on that basis too. We could all die any day. What do I want to do about that? What do I want to leave?

In an era when extraordinary musicianship on conventional musical instruments (guitar, piano, etc) is increasingly devalued in popular music, he stood as a shining example of the beauty and power inherent in that skill as well. Losing that is yet another loss that came with his death.

Everyone on the planet has gone on at such rich and often moving length that I’m hesitant to add my voice and I doubt I will say anything original. But I will say that he opened up doors, particularly for us African-Americans--especially men-- to be different in all kinds of ways that were less accessible before. That’s important. I will say that at every dancing occasion  I have ever gone  to, I insist that “1999” or “Kiss” or Prince of some kind be played. Yes, I’m that annoying person sidling up to the DJ. But that’s as it should be. His music brought joy wherever it was played. That matters a great deal. It always will.


Barrelhouse: Where were you when Purple Rain dropped?

EKA: I was one or two. So probably in Westbrook, Maine, probably not holding myself upright very well. I came into loving Prince later in life, too. I didn’t grow up with Prince in my house, possibly because my family leans conservative and possibly just because his work didn’t interest my parents. (Interestingly enough, we had records with songs on them that Prince wrote, like “Manic Monday” by the Bangles). But when Purple Rain dropped on me, as if hearing it for the first time (even though it wasn’t), I was a tired 31-year-old experiencing a severe depressive episode. I’ve had bipolar disorder my whole life, and during the spring and summer of 2014 I just couldn’t feel anything that I wanted to feel. Until I saw Prince on New Girl. I was charmed. And it was like hearing Prince for the first time. I had Purple Rain already so I listened to it and Dirty Mind and Controversy over and over. And the Hits/B-Sides. And collected all the records. Wrote poems to him. It was the only thing I felt. He saved my life.

Purple Rain continued to drop on me when I was hospitalized for about a month this past winter for a rare autoimmune disease. I spent a lot of time hooked up to machines for plasma exchange and crying in my hospital bed because I was stuck there, alone at night aside from the staff waking me up every 4 hours to take my blood pressure. But I had my iPhone loaded with Prince albums. And lots of folks in the hospital to talk to about Prince whether they wanted to hear about him or not. I listened to Purple Rain at night. And Parade. But mostly Purple Rain. And when I was out of the hospital in January, it was all I could listen to. In February I was back in, getting blood transfusions (the irony isn’t lost on me, re: Prince and blood transfusions) and listening to Purple Rain and harassing hospital staff about their favorite Prince albums. He has kept me safe. I’ve been writing poems to Prince for a few years because of that. But the safe isn’t there anymore. There’s a hole in the net.

JM: I don't remember exactly. I was 9. Probably in my parents house. I was pretty obsessed with pop music at the time--Michael Jackson, Duran-Duran, etc.. I listened to a lot of top 40.

But I remember when Purple Rain the movie came out and understanding that it was a big deal. My uncle was living what I took to be the glamorous life as a successful photographer in Rochester, NY. He lived in an apartment building with a bunch of other creative professionals--designers, architects, photographers. They had ALL seen Purple Rain. Were constantly playing the soundtrack. Plus, my uncle had MTV, and we didn't. Whenever I went to his place, all I did was watch MTV. Every time a Prince video came on, my uncle would tell me a little more about the movie. I didn't understand any of it. But I knew Prince rode a motorcycle (I was obsessed with motorcycles), and his music was like nothing I'd ever heard. I loved it.

JDP: I was a 22 year old nightclub DJ when Purple Rain dropped. I'd been a huge Prince fan since my Senior year in HS when the album Prince came out and every release was feverishly anticipated. 1999 had raised his profile beyond his previous mostly R+B audience and it felt like a big change was coming. It was. “When Doves Cry” was the 1st single and when I got the promo there was already a huge buzz around it. Industry people were saying crazy stuff like it was his best song ever, but it turned out they weren't so crazy. I heard the cut on the radio before I even got home from the record pool, the drum sounds were new and different as was the beat, then no bass line. Which was unheard of. And him singing in his Chest Voice the whole song. You couldn't keep people off the dance floor, all you had to do was tease the initial guitar riff and people lost their minds. No Dez, no Andre, but it didn't matter, the joint was still funky. We knew right away that he was now in Michael Jackson territory in terms of his stardom.

KJPG: I was seven when Purple Rain dropped so its release didn’t change my life immediately. It probably affected my mom much more than it did me as she was really the one who introduced me to Prince by saying, “turn it up” whenever he came on the radio. When Purple Rain came out I was much more into Culture Club and unsuccessfully trying to convince my dad to let me have a Boy George poster. But, with all that written, Purple Rain and specifically “When Doves Cry” are like home to me, immediately drawing me or maybe dreaming me back to Flatbush Ave and my mom and siblings on the sixth floor enjoying a few minutes together forgetting about the neighborhood and the world we really lived in. (And, if you haven’t listened to “Computer Blue” in awhile, check out that track again. One of the best on the album.)

MS: I see I’m the only oldster on this list. Glad I’m here to represent. I was 24 when the album dropped. I don’t remember when or where I bought it but I just did. Everyone did. I still have my vinyl. (A note: Physical albums are great. The design. The texture. We are all missing out, not having them routinely anymore). I went to see the movie, of course. And I remember thinking it was kind of dumb but his musical performances were beyond belief. I saw it again this past Saturday at a screening of mourning. Though people seem hesitant to say this now, like it’s somehow an insult to him, it’s a pretty bad movie. It’s still dumb in places ( remember Apollonia singing “Sex Shooter”?).  But it also has an essential sweetness that made me tear up again as I watched it.  He had beautiful eyes (so enhanced by that eyeliner!). He was a force of nature. And now that I do the math, only 26 at the time. What a loss.

Barrelhouse: What’s your favorite version of His Purple Badness? Favorite song?

JDP: Sign o’ the Times is my favorite album. Favorite song is too tough, I couldn't choose like that.

EKA: My top 5 favorite Prince songs, but not ordered, because I can’t:
“Gett Off”*
“Raspberry Beret”
“17 Days”
“Little Red Corvette”
“Kiss”
Ask me on another day and I’ll probably shuffle all of those around and come up with a different list. “I Would Die 4 U” often gets thrown in there. And “Anna Stesia.” But it’s hard to quantify my love for any individual song. I often will ask a new friend (or a first date, because, duh), “What’s your favorite Prince album and Purple Rain doesn’t count.” Because Purple Rain is this cultural masterpiece—even within Prince’s oeuvre, you can’t compare it to his other works. Holding up any other Prince album to Purple Rain is like holding up any other Picasso painting to Guernica. Just no. MS: Indeed!”

*“Gett Off” was the first Prince song I connected to, when I was 19 or 20, after seeing the video on VH1 Classics (I know! Ack.) or something. I went and bought the album and felt so sneaky and sexual and had all these FEELINGS for the first time. Late bloomer? Yes. But thanks, Prince. I needed that.

JM: There are so many. It's impossible to choose, but I'll say Around the World in a Day and his 3RDEYEGIRL phase . "Pop Life" is one of my all time favorite songs, period. And my uncle either gave me his copy of Around the World in a Day on vinyl or dubbed it onto cassette for me because he knew I loved Prince and would be into the idea of a "secret" album coming out while he was still riding high on the success of Purple Rain. With 3RDEYEGIRL, I got the feeling of a master getting back to the serious business of having fun. It was more guitar oriented, his band was amazing, and the songs were killer. Just watch this clip of FUNKNROLL--a masterful blend of the mix of ultra-rehearsed precision with the off the cuff improvisation that Prince is famous for.

In both phases, what I love is the irreverence. Who puts out a new album while their current one is burning up the charts? Who could stay so energetic and relevant, making such amazing new music completely on their own terms 30 years into their career? Only Prince.
I still don't believe he's gone. Can't believe it. Won't.
May his spirit reign forever.

GM: This is definitely a challenging question. I recorded “1999” off the radio when I was in middle school and used to listen to it over and over. I can’t believe that it came out in 1982 but still sounded so fresh and contemporary when I first heard it sometime around 1990-91.

I never saw Prince live in concert, but I will always remember his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show that has only become more legendary to me since watching the mini-documentary on it that people were sharing on Facebook after his death, where Prince demands: “Can you make it rain harder?”

“Kiss,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and “Raspberry Beret” have to be up there among my favorite songs, but Purple Rain was the first album I heard of his in its entirety and I immediately loved it, so that holds a special place for me. Since Thursday, I’ve been listening to Prince almost non-stop and have found myself revisiting his cover of “Creep” and Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” more than a few times. I think ultimately, on any given day, I would create a completely different list of favorite Prince songs! 

KJPG:
“7”
“If I Was Your Girlfriend”
“Diamonds and Pearls”
“Alphabet St.”
“Thieves in the Temple”
“Pope”
“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad”
And then there’s this from “Baltimore”:
Nobody got in nobody's way
So I guess you could say it was a good day
At least a little better than the day in Baltimore
Does anybody hear us pray
For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?
Peace is more than the absence of war . . .
If there ain't no justice then there ain't no peace

MS: I like most of the ones everyone likes, no need to even cite the names. I didn’t go much beyond "Purple Rain” with him in any focused way, but like I said, I always knew he was there.  I always cared.  I saw him on the “1999” tour, a couple of years before “Purple Rain.”  Never forgot it. A giant bed rose out of the stage and he fucked it. I was amazed. Still am.

But one way I do go a little off the beaten track is that one of my very favorites is a performance on “The Hits/The B-Sides.”  His own live performance of “Nothing Compares 2 U” which I don’t think he ever recorded as a single (correct me, Prince obsessives, if I’m wrong). It’s with a wonderful singer named Rosie Gaines. He wrote it, Sinead O’Connor made it a hit (in a good version). But in this performance, he takes it back. Beautiful.

Barrelhouse: What else do you want to talk about?

KJPG: To talk about Prince as a musician is only a part of what needs to be addressed. Any conversation about Prince’s impact upon society should now also include a discussion of his work within the black community and for black people in general. He was very outspoken about Ferguson, Baltimore and blacklivesmatter. He used his fame to address serious social issues and contributed to and created charities as well as specifically financially assisting Trayvon Martin’s mother. In addition, he was a face of black diversity. He was a genderb(l)ender from start to finish in a world that often shows black folks as athletes and thugs. He was a different sort of black male role model. He was a person that I and many other black and POC could relate to. He also had bands which featured women not just as backup singers and dancers but also as instrumentalists. In addition to that he also claimed to be more influenced by Santana than Jimi Hendrix and Sheila E was a longtime bandmate/collaborator which shows some serious love and respect for Latino/Latin American music and musicians. When we speak of Prince’s legacy we should also be considering how we can further what he was doing. How can we be using our art to help uplift and promote folks? How can we foster diversity and push back against white/male privilege? How can we break down archaic gender roles/presentation/performance? And how can we be our most authentic creative, innovative and emotional selves?       

MS: How I was introduced to his music: I gotta thank my younger sister. She was onto him so early that once she saw him walk alone through the lobby of Cleveland Public Hall, the venue where she’d gone to see him. No fans. No entourage. No nobody else. Yes, he was performing but he was not yet famous enough that anyone cared much. So thanks, Teci. I am forever grateful.

EKA: I’m still not at a place where I can listen to his records. I forced myself to listen to Purple Rain on the 21st. I imagine this is what Nirvana Fans felt like in 1994. (Did I mention I was a late bloomer? I was also late to the Nirvana Train.) I cried. I am still crying. When will this get better? “PLECTRUMELECTRUM” came on super loud on my iPhone the other day while I was walking home from the grocery store and I couldn’t turn it off fast enough. My fingers were just scrambling and I pulled out my headphones and I just keep thinking really, y’all? Really? How is it that we’ve lost this incredible talent, this man who took the time to lift so many of us up, whose legacy is his many, many proteges—how is it that we’ve lost him? To the FLU?! When he had so much left to do? I’m pissed. I’m distraught. I’m in denial. I’m experiencing all stages of grief at the same time. (I would like to negotiate a trade. Keith Richards for Prince. Is this a thing? Can it be a thing?) I have friends and family who think I’m nuts and are probably ready to stage an intervention. But I also had someone tell me, “He was a huge part of your support system. That’s the definition of a friend. You lost a friend.” I lost a friend. And I haven’t ever lost a friend before. Maybe that’s why I am up all night in this never-ending cycle of “Do I put on Lovesexy or not? Will it make it worse? Will it make it better?” Well, will it?

GM: Why this loss is so huge is because of what Kenyatta said above. I feel like performers of a certain generation, such as Prince and Stevie Wonder, have, on top of being incredible musicians and songwriters, been activists and role models, embracing and celebrating diverse musical influences as well as supporting and promoting other artists and causes. Plus they are artists who have taken control of their music, which seems increasingly difficult to do in today’s music industry, and have done things on their own terms. I don’t know of younger artists today who are doing the same thing. I know that doesn’t mean there won’t be someone to come along, but it certainly feels like there’s a huge void right now.

EKA: And, for me, something that keeps resonating is that we like how we see ourselves through the lens of artists like Prince, like Bowie. Especially as artists ourselves. I mean, I have .0000000000000001% of the talent these guys had. (I’m really bad at math, so someone check the numbers.) So I’m not saying I’m an artist on par with Prince or Bowie. But we relate to our heroes because of that lens, that conversation we have with them through their work. And when we lose the weird ones, the ones that stand for expressing our truths, for social justice and change, that’s a loss on so many levels—personal, cultural, creative. I just got back from the doctor and was trying to explain to him the way Prince impacted me and why I was sobbing in his office. He tried to get it, because he’s a good doctor. He said, “Prince was his own man.” Like that could sum him up. Could sum up the loss. Maybe it does, in a way. But I think that nobody outside of our little tribe of weirdos, the weirdos who loved Prince (or any artist) like we do, can get it.

MS: I gotta vigorously counter what Kristin says above about “a little tribe of weirdos.” If there’s anything that this mass outpouring, all over the world shows, it’s that he went way beyond a cult figure for a little tribe and that is a crucial part of his significance. It diminishes his importance to try to fence him off, even somewhat,  for just a few. That “nobody else can get it” thing? That’s for far lesser artists. And it’s exclusionary in a way he never was.

I’d back up what Kenyatta says above about his importance as an activist, which I’m embarrassed to admit, I was unaware of. But it’s amazing. I do feel one frustration with him. If it turns out that he really doesn’t have a solid, updated will, that he left his estate in chaos, that troubles me.  It saddens me that all the good even a small part of his fortune could have gone on to do will be lost in years of internecine fighting and grubbing by greedy people.  He could have set up a foundation, he could have prevented years of pain and confusion for friends and loved ones, he could have done so much more. Just shows that being a genius does not mean perfection. In remembering him lovingly, we need to remember that too. We all love flawed beings. He was one of them.


Barrelhouse: Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. It helps that we're all in this sad together.