Rebuilding My Teenaged Record Collection One Album At A Time: Purple Rain

I knew that women had sex by putting a penis up in there somewhere, so I figured that’s what Nikki was doing with the magazine -– she’d rolled it up and was, like, doing herself with it.
Publish date:
January 3, 2013
music, michelle tea, rebuilding my teenage record collection, Prince, purple rain

I was about 13 years old, lying on my couch, sulking, when I had a major epiphany: All of my purple life, I had been waiting for a boyfriend like Prince.

He was small, he was sensitive, he was sexy. He clearly didn’t care what anyone else thought of him or else he wouldn’t be parading around in majorly ruffled clothing and, like, heels. He wouldn’t be wearing eyeliner. All of my purple life, I had been waiting for a boyfriend who wore eyeliner.

If anybody in Chelsea looked like this, I would know about it, because they would have been murdered in the street and it would have been in the paper. I despaired of ever getting close enough to Prince to let him know how perfect we could be together. And I knew I was no match for Sheila E. It was impossible.

I didn’t cry. I just sort of exuded trapped melancholia into my environment, like a plant.

I’d met Prince years earlier, in a magazine. He was wearing a thong. I think he was in a shower? Maybe I put him in a shower in my mind, because he was like pretty much naked and I had never seen a pretty much naked man before and it seemed like if he was in a shower it could be okay.

The article made a big deal about how wild Prince was, and how he had a song called Controversy and said things like, "Am I black or white?/Am I straight or gay?" Prince really didn’t live in Chelsea, because in Chelsea you better fucking know if you were black or white or straight or gay and not be sort of musing on it coquettishly in a thong. Because someone in the street was bound to ask you about it in a non-friendly way and you better have your answer handy and, as he sang in 1999, "Prepare to fight!"

By the time Purple Rain came out, I wasn’t scared of Prince anymore. According to a really great essay by Hilton Als that was just published in Harper’s, that’s because he wasn’t scary anymore. He got less gay and more fully clothed and the black queens were over him and the white girls in places like Chelsea were lying on their couches mooning over him.

But let’s get serious: Purple Rain is one of the best albums ever made.

It is one of those albums that does not have a bad song on it. Not a single clunker, each one epic and gorgeous and integral to the holistic perfection of the album.

I know that the songs from Purple Rain continue to get a lot of play in the world, so acquiring it as part of the rebuilding of my teenaged record collection may seem unnecessary -- but that’s not so. The album is to be listened to in its entirety, not just a little "Let’s Go Crazy" caught on the radio. It is like an opera. And its non-Top 40 offerings are every bit as wonderful as "When Doves Cry."

"Take Me With U" is super dreamy, and so is "The Beautiful Ones," though it’s all dark and sort of cool-synth stormy. I loved when he sang, "If we got married," and then all tough asks, "Would that be cool?"

"Computer Blue" is kinetic and sort of crazed, and "Darling Nikki" was like every single YA or even adult book with the sex parts marked being passed around a classroom in a song. This girl Nikki was a sex fiend and it didn’t seem to be a bad thing! It took me so long to comprehend masturbating with a magazine.

I had only just understood what masturbating was. I had encountered the word in Judy Blume’s Deenie a while back, where it was explained to mean "stimulating your genitals." Guess what? I didn’t know what "genitals" were.

I knew pussy, twat, cunt, snatch, dick, prick, cock. I knew vagina and penis. I also knew jerking off and playing with yourself. But I didn’t know genitals or masturbate. So when, in "Deenie," the girl thinks about how she touches herself and that it feels good and that it was "stimulating your genitals," I thought about how sometimes in my bed I liked to run my fingers down the side of my ribs and give myself a little tickle.

I now understood that I was stimulating my genitals. I’d like to take a moment right now to salute my education. All of it.

Anyway, I eventually came to understand masturbating as having sex with yourself, but I still didn’t know there was such a thing as a clitoris. I knew that women had sex by putting a penis up in there somewhere, so I figured that’s what Nikki was doing with the magazine -– she’d rolled it up and was, like, doing herself with it. This didn’t seem sexy to me but I understood that Prince was occupying a separate reality from mine, and I trusted him.

The sex laced throughout Purple Rain really appealed to me in my beyond-naïve -– let’s just call it ignorant -– state. The sex was in the synths, it was in the way the guitar seemed to shimmer. It was in Wendy and Lisa’s drugged-out voices as they climbed into a bath to "begin."

It was a landscape as completely shaped by sex as a valley is shaped by wind and rivers. I believed him when he pledged he would die for whoever he was pledging death for in "I Would Die 4 U," and I believed he was and was not all the many things he claimed and disclaimed, once again shrugging off his masculinity, his androgyny, too.

In "1999," he vowed, "If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna listen to my body tonight," and in "Let’s Go Crazy," he asserted that, "We’re all gonna die." And when it gets down to it, Prince’s body and maybe mine and maybe yours contains multitudes. I wanted to live in Prince’s purple world, where you could just be a dove.

Where, in "Baby I’m A Star," you can proudly claim you got "no money" but that you’re "rich on personality." Me, too, Prince!

When the Purple Rain tour came to Boston, the disco station KISS-108FM had a contest. DJs were going to drive through Boston "hot spots" in a purple Cadillac and give away tickets to people who were wearing purple. I was seized with desperate industry -– this was my one and only way to see Prince! The show was already sold out and I couldn’t have gotten tickets anyway, being rich only in personality.

My mother probably didn’t have the money and I doubt she would have let me go to a concert where a black man rose from the stage naked in a bathtub and eventually simulated sex with the stage.

I cobbled together an outfit. I’d already outgrown or ruined my ultimate purple outfit –- a striped mini-skirt set I’d worn to my Catholic school’s Christmas Party the year before, causing a scandal wherein my mother was called and ordered to bring me something dull and soul-killing to change into.

All I had to work with was a pair of purple shorts with white piping down the side. They weren’t particularly cool. All they had going for them was that they were purple. I paired them with a pair of white lace tights and a white lace shirt. I dug from my closet a gauzy white hat, an old Easter bonnet that I hoped maybe looked cool, like a fedora. I had a pair of vintage gloves my antique-hoarder aunt had given me. I’d cut the fingers off them so they wouldn’t prevent frostbite, but they really helped my outfit.

When I put on my winter coat, it ruined everything. If I wanted the tickets, I was going to have to not wear my winter coat. It was March in Boston. That meant freezing. But I loved Prince enough to do it.

Inspiration struck: I dug a plain white sheet out of the linen cabinet and found the can of colored hairspray I’d gotten at Halloween. I spread the sheet across the floor and sprayed I WOULD FREEZE 4 PRINCE across it. Then I folded it up and hopped on a bus to SNEAK into Boston because I was totally not allowed to go there alone ever lest I be raped and mugged by gangs of people of color.

What did I know about a Boston "hot spot"? The only place I knew at all, from very rare trips into the city with family, was Downtown Crossing, the shopping district anchored by the big fancy department stores Jordan Marsh and Filene’s.

But there was also a Strawberries record store there, that was cool. And a really punk store called Stairway to Heaven that sold concert T-shirts and jewelry made of chains. It was the only place in Boston I knew how to get to so it was where I went. Other Prince people were there, too, so I knew I was on to something.

There was a male-female couple who totally looked like Prince and Apollonia, it was crazy. They had serious Prince clothing on, purple makeup, lace veils -- they looked amazing. They glared at me. I figured they would easily win the tickets, they were so incredible, but they probably figured that me, a shabby kid with a homemade sign shivering like a Dickensian orphan would win the hearts of the radio DJs.

A blond guy was there in tight white spandex pants and a purple fedora. I blinked when I saw him, I recognized him. He was my 8th grade teacher’s ROOMMATE, whom I had glimpsed when my teacher, Mr. Buzzle, had the class over to his house to watch "To Kill a Mockingbird" and eat brownies.

If it wasn’t totally clear to everyone that Mr. Buzzle was a big gay (even after his thwarted attempt to cancel math and instead stage a production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream with choreography lifted from Cats), it was pretty obvious that his roommate was, which did the trick of lodging a deep suspicion in everyone’s mind.

I couldn’t believe my teacher’s roommate was my competition for the Prince tickets! Would he tell Mr. Buzzle he saw me dressed like a child hooker in Boston, and would he tell my mother and would I be grounded?

It didn’t matter. I stood on that corner catching pneumonia for the Purple One until my curfew approached. It was a pretty early curfew -– like 5:00 -- and I still had to make my way back to Chelsea. And sneak inside in my outfit. I threw my sheet in a trashcan and headed home. KISS-108 never did stop by Downtown Crossing.

Apparently it wasn’t hot enough, and everyone who had stood there with me were also too clueless to know that. I never got to see the Purple Rain tour, but possessing an album that surpasses the passing of time, never losing its mystery no matter how much play it gets, is a gift for the ages.