Electric Word Life

The phone made its angry little blurrrt and it was Katie. “Prince just died.” I immediately didn’t believe it. I had two Macbooks open. One of them had been playing James Brown all morning, because I’ve spent the last two days reading James McBride’s new book on the Godfather, Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul. He mentions Prince on page 22 in a discussion of Brown’s profound influence among the Motown greats and blues kingsmen:

“There are other great American pop-music wonders of those years whose work will stand up to history: the extraordinary team of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan and Prince come to mind, along with several others.”

The Internet has taught me to beware of hoaxes. Prince passing would be a whopper, I thought, one easy to imagine His Purpleness creating, Him just not wanting to be Him anymore, like James Brown wearied of being James Brown, as every star wearies of the constant nuclear fission required to make the light we take for granted when we dance and shout.

So that’s what I thought. I texted back, “Are you sure?” At that second, a TMZ blurb was the only result in Google search, and even it was hedging a little, saying “someone said” that a corpse had been removed from Paisley Park and it was supposed to be Him. I wasn’t buying it yet. Couldn’t. Then I hit refresh, and the confirmations began.

I acted abnormally normal. I walked to lunch, ordered a taco, and had that feeling you get during world-changing events, the bewilderment at everyone acting like nothing just happened. I felt a bit of maudlin outrage, though I don’t know what I should have expected: that maybe for a few minutes girls would stop coming out to eat in activewear? That the fishing show on the TV over the bar would stop showing fishing, and I don’t know, show something else? What are those people talking about at the next table? Shouldn’t they be crying or at least looking glum over their guacamole?

I ate and held my phone in my left hand, refreshing. The messy awkwardness of the now-with-a-small-“i” internet started to reflect the tumbly, non-sequitur world in the taco bar, as appropos of nothing as a small mouth bass. No one really knows how to act about death except for medical professionals, funeral parlor people, and clergymen, so from that standpoint the Dali-esqueness was unsurprising. Scheduled “content” rolled out among heartfelt RIP’s and single-paragraph recaps. (Evidently His Royalness was not in the obit file. I imagined inexperienced journalists scrambling and Googling together a hasty obit while slightly more experienced editors texted madly for copy.) The Tennessean informed me after five straight Prince tweets that Ms. Cheap’s tip of the day was a “Spirit of #Nashville posters sale.” Good to know. A country artist hawked a new booze product while Google Fiber tweeted, “Avocados don’t just ripen overnight, unless you put ’em in a paper bag with a banana.” My own random synapses fired and in my head I heard, “let’s look for the purple banana til they put us in the truck. Let’s go crazy! Let’s get nuts.”

I will sound like a Luddite when I say I think this is one failure of digital culture, all these pathetic attempts to contentify. Everyone’s a publisher, including actual publishers, so I could sense everyone tiptoeing toward the biggest keyword term since “Bowie” while trying not to sound like they’re doing what they’re doing, which is pimping the man’s passing for clicks. Streams started to warm as my beans and rice cooled, then rushed. Listicles listed, slideshows slid, photos shopped and grammed in a half-auto-generated context of underwear ads and think pieces on demography. And this:

Another declared: “This is not a content opportunity.”

Katie texted, “Why is everyone around here going on as if nothing happened?”

•    •    •

I was, and am little better. I retweeted a few things, including a New Yorker article from 2009 and a lame attempt at a clever hashtag (#ELECTRICWORDLIFE), which I already regret. Since I was alone, I could not resist the typical morbid and professional curiosity that sucks us all to the webs, our basic need to congregate in the face of loss, even if only in hyperspace. I made myself take a breath and slowly read the New Yorker piece, having retweeted it before reading, which is a barely pardonable sin. Then I indulged a memory.

“Let’s Go Crazy.” My mind went back 1984 and the “album-rock” FM radio station I’d just joined after a salad decade at a 1000-watt waffle iron of an AM Top 40 station in Clarksville. The program director who hired me, who went by Smoky (and whose real name was Fred), had been in Top 40, too. He called me into his office to listen to a song called “Controversy,” and another called “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Smoky had a smartass, yukky laugh that would spill out of the side of his mouth and a complete lack of deference for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kansas records. MTV had just turned the world upside-down, and the station was awkwardly playing Duran Duran records alongside “Stairway to Heaven” for the nth time, and Smoky believed we should go where the eye makeup was going. I think he asked me into his office because I’d spent the last decade playing KC and the Sunshine Band records alongside Helen Reddy. I’d also worked in a dance club, and had played “Soft and Wet” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” more times than I could count. “Redd? Hyuk-hyuk. Should we play this? Hyuk.” He pushed a button on the boombox by his phone. I heard an organ. “Dearly be-lov-ed…”

“Hell, yes.” My own lack of deference for request-line callers who wanted to hear “Smoke on the Water” had ebbed pretty quickly after my big move from small-town Top 40 to medium-market rock radio. I wanted to play AC/DC and Prince, and talk over the records. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how anyone with the slightest taste in music didn’t want some actual R&B with their white-bread mainstream REO. Hell, Eddie Van Halen was on “Beat It!” I was jive-assing over song intros—an FM radio no-no in those days—on my 8:00pm-12 midnight stint like a top 40 boss  jock, imitating my radio heroes like an egomaniac who thought he could make the songs sound better simply by introducing them on the air. I wanted to mash things up. Prince was mashing. 

For the record, we did end up playing Prince on that station. Michael Jackson, too. Listeners HATED them. This was Nashville in the 80’s, mind you. People called and used the N-word, as if Led Zeppelin had invented a single lick they’d been riffing since ’68. The afternoon newspaper (yes, Nashville had two newspapers back then, boys and girls), published a scathing article on its front page about the death of rock radio, as if that mattered to anyone at all.

Later on, I became program director of that station. You know what? It did die, though we rode it out through the Pearl Jam years until the owners took it country and sold it to a company that got bought by a company that got bought by a company. And Steve Jobs stood on a stage and said, “One thousand songs in your pocket,” and that was that.

Prince. Michael Jackson. The station played copious amounts of Fagen and Becker, too—I loved them. For years, if people asked me my favorite artist, I would always say, “there are several,” and list Prince among them. At home, I wore out a CD of his 3-disc anthology and a vinyl copy of Sign of the Times. (The live track, “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” with Shiela E on drums, is electrifying.) I also saw him perform in the Fox Theatre in Atlanta during the New Power Generation days (you sexy motherfucka!), the night before a snowstorm sent Hot ‘Lanta into lockdown and we were stuck for two days in the Ritz. His entourage was rumored to have had the entire 9th floor, but I never saw him. The night before, during “Purple Rain,” a cloud of actual satin fabric rose petals fluttered from the ceiling. It was maybe the best show I’ve ever seen.

It’s a crazy mashup, this random world. Queen Elizabeth turned 90 today, and she was upstaged by a Prince in Minny who was only 57. I haven’t looked at the latest while I’ve been writing, though Katie sent me a text about a half hour ago that likely has links to more developments. I also have actual paying work I should be doing, but I am thinking that a nice purple playlist and a run outdoors is in order. It just started raining.






One thought on “Electric Word Life

  1. This is very good writing about a very sad thing. I enjoyed this more than anything I have read lately, and I read a lot…

    I see purple when I meditate. I don’t know what that means. He did.

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