This is one of the first artworks I recall seeing in the Riley Creek tunnels outside of Paisley Park. It’s a favorite of mine, partly due to the sentiment of “Ride On,” which feels exactly like what Prince must be doing in the afterlife, and also due to the depiction of Prince not as a global superstar, but rather as a dude on a bike.
In the drawing, Prince is most emphatically not wearing a helmet. Instead, the silhouette of his Afro appears to be a kind of helmet. Why Prince disliked helmets isn’t clear, but what is clear is that I have never seen a photo of him wearing one. Perhaps Prince refused to put safety ahead of personal style. Or perhaps the helmet aversion was simply part of Prince’s nature as a rebel who resisted complying with rules.
Then a thought occurred: The dislike of helmets might have stemmed from a childhood nickname.
The Great Gazoo, from The Flintstones, was a tiny, green, helmet-wearing alien. Gazoo had been exiled for inventing a doomsday machine on his home planet of Zetox. On Planet Earth, Gazoo causes constant problems for Fred and Barney, even when ostensibly trying to help the two men.
Terry Jackson, Prince’s childhood friend and the fourth member to join Prince’s teenage band, Grand Central, said the nickname was coined one day as a few friends were walking down the sidewalk of their Northside neighborhood. The sun at their backs cast long shadows in front of them. Prince’s shadow was particularly dramatic, given his huge round Afro and small body. Laughing, one of the guys declared Prince to be “The Great Gazoo.” Gazoo was small and seemed to float on air. Gazoo considered Fred and Barney to be clumsy and slow, and called them “dum-dums.” Like many nicknames, “Gazoo” had an element of truth, and had the effect of distancing Prince from the rest of the guys — something that would have felt (for lack of a better word) alienating.
According to Terry, the nickname “Gazoo” annoyed Prince. There’s an obvious reference to his stature that would certainly have provoked that irritated response. But on a deeper level, the nickname expressed the unspoken feeling that Prince was somehow different from the others. It was a feeling shared, at least at times, by Prince himself. “There’s so many reasons why, I don’t belong here,” Prince would write in his landmark 2014 song “Way Back Home.” The sentiment persisted throughout his life, and was echoed during a panel discussion at Celebration 2018, when dancer and photographer Nandy McClean referred to Prince as “a little alien.”
Prince was indeed a different breed of cat. As he moved beyond those early years on the Northside, he would learn to embrace that, and in doing so, would inspire others to value their own uniqueness.