When I was a kid, riding around Maryland and D.C. with my dad in his black Saab Turbo 9000 was special to me. Today, I stand tall at about 6’5, but I’m talking about back, back in the day when I was half this length. Dad would be getting ready to run an errand—a trip to the bank, to his tailor, to the store, wherever—and I’d sheepishly ask if I could come with. After I got the green light I’d toss on my sneakers, head down to the garage and sneak into the front passenger seat, hoping that it was a day where he was feeling cool enough to not banish his too short son to the back row. Once we’d get on the road, once the warmth of my behind melted away the chill of the brown leather seat beneath me, my attention would quickly turn to what music we’d be playing.
Cassette tapes used to jut out of every crevice and pocket our Saab’s interior had to offer. Anita Baker’s Rapture album here. The singer appears lovestruck and in a variant of the fetal position on the cover. Michael Jackson’s Bad there. MJ stares stoically at the viewer in a bad-ass biker boy get-up for that album’s art. We’d play those and more.
One album that also got much burn was Prince’s Sign o’ the Times. Unlike the aforementioned albums, the focus of the artwork for Times was not an image of its artist. Sure, Prince is on it, but he’s barely there. Half of his face is blurry in the bottom right corner. More-so seen in the picture is a drum set, keyboard and a guitar. I probably stared at the picture the most. “The music must be really good on this album if the singer doesn’t care to be on the cover,” is likely along the lines of what I was thinking then.
And it was. On a nice day, my dad would put the windows down and let our music ring out. On many occasions we’d turn quiet streets into open air concerts as we whizzed by. Prince’s Sign was an special album on several fronts and stayed in constant rotation in the car.
As a child not yet able to grasp lyrical depth, all I knew was feel. Songs like “Housequake,” “Play in the Sunshine,” and “Starfish and Coffee” were my favorites. They sound like wild, genreless joy. The title track, cuts like “Strange Relationship” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” always made me feel a bit uncomfortable. It’d take some more life experience for me to even partially understand the perils of drug use on society and how love could make someone trip out the way he did over the girl he’s singing to on those last two. I knew they were great tracks, but not why. That’d come later.
Memories, man. That’s what I thought about when I found out that Prince Rogers Nelson unexpectedly died this morning at age 57. He’s one of the guys that soundtracked good times with my dad when I was a kid.
Minutes after I got the news, I called Dad up at work to break it to him.
“No kidding?” he asked. No kidding. Another one of our guys is gone.
Michael Jackson passed in 2009 during my rookie year as a professional journalist. I was working at Vibe Magazine when the publication was on its last legs, weeks away from folding. Green, I didn’t quite know what to do. The veterans on staff shifted into an emergency mode of sorts, delegating tasks for top writers to handle. I was not one of them. So I sat there, sad. I pulled up Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker movie—one I watched endlessly as a youngster—on YouTube and tried not to cry as people went crazy around me.
I had that nostalgic feeling again today. Being a kid and enjoying that Prince guy whose album cover says, “It’s about the music” to me. So I opened up my Tidal app, the only streaming service that hosts Prince’s catalogue, and bumped Times.
Mourning people that didn’t know you is a strange thing. I never met Michael or Prince (Though I did at least see Prince in concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City years ago.) But he’s given me so much. And with those memories, Prince is still alive. Just like Michael is.
So I must correct anyone that speaks about prolific creatives like him in the past tense. Michael Jackson is, not “was.”
Prince is, not was, an icon.
Memorable art will always outlive its creator, as magical as they may be.
Legends are forever.