By Nicholas Ward
Starfish and Coffee
Dig, if you will, this picture: me, as a teenage boy standing in front of my suburban classmates, who wear glazed-over expressions of bewilderment and don’t know whether to laugh with me or at me. I’m wearing a thrift-store-bought purple blazer and trying to sell them on Prince’s greatest hits package for a speech class project. This was 1996, the era of Tupac and Biggy, of Oasis and Bush, of Jewel and Toni Braxton. Prince sang the embarrassingly sincere “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”; he released the 36-track Emancipation where he wrote “Slave” on his cheek; he’d changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and adopted the moniker The Artist. I was the only one who thought Prince was still cool.
But if only my classmates knew what I did. If only they’d been there, when I played “Sexy M.F.” on the house sound system for the first. In a five and a half minute period, Prince says the word “Motherfucker” approximately twenty-seven times and “Shakin’ that ass” an uncountable amount. My parents, cooking dinner in the nearby kitchen, were displeased. “Nick, this is not appropriate for us to be listening to,” my mom said. “I’m VERY disappointed,” said my dad.
If only my fellow students had seen that. I was a relatively well-liked high school kid. I’d played football for a season and stared in all the school plays. I was academically curious without challenging the status quo. I even went to school drunk once, earning a modicum of respect. I represented the baseline.
Loving Prince felt like my only available act of subversion. But I really shouldn’t claim my insurgency too strongly. In school, I defended him to the other boys over charges of homosexuality. If you actually listened to the music, I’d say, you’d know that dude likes to fuck women. I don’t know why that mattered. I don’t know why I needed to normalize him for the outside world. Why I couldn’t just love him and leave it at that.
Prince adored Detroit. He played there at least once a year, sometimes more. Rumor had it he’d give out the first fifteen rows to friends and close associates. I liked thinking that if Prince had that many close friends in the city, Detroit must be special.
He wasn’t the only Prince that Detroit would claim as it’s own. Later, after I left the city’s suburbs for college, the Pistons rolled to the NBA Championships thanks, in large part, to the defensive contributions of Tayshaun Prince, a long and lanky forward, whose block against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals saved a game, maybe a series, maybe even catapulted them to the title itself. A few years after that, the Tigers would sign baby-faced slugger Prince Fielder to an exorbitant $214 million contract. He’d collect four paltry hits in the ALCS against the Red Sox and get traded in the off-season amidst rumors that a teammate slept with his wife. It’s the kind of gossip-y slander The Artist would’ve appreciated.
The second, last, and best time I saw Prince play was at the Joe Louis Arena in downtown Detroit. My friend, Maria’s, dad worked for one of the auto-makers and somehow hooked us up with floor seats. Surrounding us on three sides were rows that rose into the rafters. The Red Wings skated on that floor, gliding to back-to-back Stanley Cups, while the fans pounded on the glass.
I was there with Maria and her boyfriend, Eric, and our mutual friend, Margo. She was a skeptic. She wasn’t sure Prince was worth all this fuss. She only went because the tickets were free.
I didn’t sit for much of the concert, cheering on a parade of musical explosions: Larry Graham followed by Chaka Khan followed by His Royal Badness himself. Goddamn was it glorious, a parade of hits, one after the other. At one point, Prince sat down at his piano and tore through “Adore” and “Diamonds and Pearls” and “The Beautiful Ones” before ending on “Darling Nikki”. A few years after that, he’d stop playing that song altogether, devoting himself to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and refusing to play his dirtier tracks.
In the car on the way home, shooting along the highway that connected Detroit to our suburb, Margo couldn’t stop gushing. “Ohmygod, he’s so sexy. . .he’s just. . .so. . .ohmygod.”
I smiled. I felt vindicated.
I Wanna Be Your Lover
What was it about Prince that turned me on as a teenager? Was I attracted to him? I’m a straight man but surely attraction doesn’t mean sex. Attraction is a pulse, a presence, an insatiability, a delirium, a little red corvette. I loved the brazenness of his sexuality, the way he named what he wanted, the openness of his desire. I wanted access to that bravado. When Prince screamed, “I wanna do It baby all the time!” I wanted to know what that felt like. I wanted to fuck and find love and sweat and divinity in the act. I understood sex in a vague way. My body was screaming and crying out for it but in terms of what might actually happen once I got there, I was beyond my element. I made mixtapes for every girl I liked but I’m not sure what they were designed to achieve. I wouldn’t have known what to do with reciprocation.
Little Red Corvette
I didn’t feel like a sexual being until my mid-twenties. I’d had sex by then. I’d even dated someone for almost a year wherein I fucked more than I had in the previous twenty-one years combined. But in college, I didn’t really understand the way sex played out amongst my peers. From what I saw, unless two people were in a fully committed relationship, men on campus treated women like non-entities. It was either the hyper-masculine fraternity life or the casual indifference of “lady friends”. I didn’t want either. I wanted close-ness. I wanted a calling. I wanted both the drunken hook-up and the falling in love.
I didn’t date a lot back then.
When I moved to Chicago, I met a woman who saw me as sexy. I didn’t know sexuality could extend that far. One night, knowing my love of Prince, she asked me if I wanted to come over, bring a mix of my favorite Prince songs, and get naked. I’ll never forget that night. I won’t give away all of our secrets but I felt a charge, a heat, an electricity course between us. I recall looking down at her, at one moment, and feeling a power within myself that I’d never harnessed before.
We wouldn’t last. More my fault than hers. I think I was scared. To know I could be desired. To deserve it.
How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?
My junior year of college was the most lonesome in my life. I lived in an apartment off-campus with a tiny gas heater that erupted in feral-sounding screams every time it kicked on. I took baths and smoked cigarettes, flicking my ashes into the sink above my head. I wondered if Prince ever felt the same way, playing this song late at night, a diminutive man at a giant purple piano, surrounded by tall windows over-looking the Minnesota winter, a grey sky, crescent moon, shadows, some light, solitude. Maybe it was the last song he ever played for himself. Or maybe he just ceased to exist.
Nicholas Ward‘s writing has appeared in Hobart, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Great Lakes Review, Post Road Magazine, Eunoia Review, HYPERtext Magazine, and HowlRound. Nicholas is a company member with 2nd Story, a Chicago-based storytelling collective, where he is the Director of Education. This essay was written, in part, at Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, IL. He lives in Chicago with Fati, the poet, and Amadeus, the cat.