Actual grief? For an over-exposed stranger? I’ll save mine for people I love, thank you very much.
That’s usually how I feel about the deaths of celebrities, even talents like David Bowie or Glen Frey or Robin Williams. Yes, reflection on the talent. Yes, consideration of the work. Yes, appreciation of the place in history. But all done at a distance, with the brain before the heart. The last celebrity death that actually shook me was probably David Foster Wallace’s suicide: I so loved his books and his mind, and his end was so bleak. But that was eight years ago. And he was not even really a celebrity.
Then around noon Thursday the news came through my twitter feed: a death at Paisley Park. Prince. Prince. I gasped audibly, felt a cold spike in my spine and a weight in my gut that still hasn’t really left. That afternoon, I drove home past First Avenue, my usual commute from downtown Minneapolis. As I crawled through the crowds starting to gather at the Prince star on the wall, a star I’d idly looked at a thousand times, I snapped a selfie, tinted it purple, posted it on Instagram. It was a teenage move, from the ghost of a teenage me. I received messages from friends, siblings. My brother and sister were headed to Paisley Park like church ladies dropping off a hotdish at the home of a grieving neighbor. This one was different.
Even as I’ve been thinking so much about Prince’s death, I’ve been thinking about why I’ve been thinking so much about his death.
Am I mourning the music? Maybe. Sure, of course I love his music. Of course. Who doesn’t? Prince was an astral-level pop music genius. Not liking Prince would be like not liking Shakespeare: it’s just not an opinion a reasonable person can hold. His art signifies something mysterious and wonderful about the nature of humans and the nature of quality. But his music, though transcendent, was not necessarily my native type, what I sing in the shower or add first to a new Pandora channel. The music I favor has a bit more bonfire to it: Neil Young or Ryan Adams.
Am I mourning the person? Maybe. After all, the man did something no scientist ever has: he proved the existence of the soul. But unlike every single other one of my fellow Twin Citians, I don’t have a great personal Prince story. My Prince stories are second-hand. My brother mowed Prince’s lawn; my high school pals were extras in Sign o’ the Times – I was invited, couldn’t make it for some reason or another. But me? Never met the guy.
I think this funk is local. Like most people, Minnesotans think our place is the best place; unlike most people, we may be right. But one of our least redeeming qualities is our insularity. It’s probably something about our weather, our distance from other cultural centers, and the way coastal Americans tend to misunderstand or ignore us – it all makes us a little aloof, turns us maddeningly provincial, aggressively defensive. You laugh at our accents? You think our sweaters are overthick? OK then. Your loss then. We will go about our business leading great companies, producing smart and happy people, breaking the hearts of our sports fans, and making great music. And if we can’t or won’t convince you of our value ourselves, we’ll send out a representative on our behalf. He will be very much like us, and very much unlike us, or anyone. That was Prince. Our emissary, speaking for our cold edge of the nation as he speaks his unique voice to the world, and possibly even to other worlds. Weirdly, losing Prince reminds me a bit of how I felt when the North Stars fled for Dallas: it damages my memory of the particular place and time, the Twin Cities in the 1980s, that formed me and so many of friends. And damage to formative memory, my friends, makes for a funk.
A couple months ago, I was at my daughter’s volleyball tournament in a town outside of Minneapolis. There was a gap between her matches, and I found myself killing time in an antique shop. On a Queen Anne table and next to a pretty awesome Hamm’s beer sign was a bin of old records. Amid the minor forgotten artists I came across a masterpiece: Purple Rain. I held the vinyl to the light, examined the sleeve and the cover. This would be worth owning, I thought. But it was like 11 bucks, and I had already picked out a few other small things: lesser records for a friend and my brother-in-law, a jigsaw puzzle for my dad, and a book for myself. And how much cash was in my wallet, and I don’t think this store even took plastic, and of course I need some cash to buy a snack at the volleyball concession stand. So I put it back. I would have other chances, I was sure. After all, this was Prince, and this was Minnesota: he was everywhere and for all time, right?
To which I now say: Uff da. Uff da 2U.