Our family lost a home in the Great Recession of 2008. Eight years later, we were living a simpler life – one that was leaner, greener and richer. What I didn’t realize was that in order to take the final step in healing, I needed to add the color purple to my life’s palette.
Author’s Note: Happy Valentine’s Day! Today, I’m hitting “pause” on the regular schedule of “Living Like a Prince” blog posts to share a personal story. It’s my way of sharing some of my heart with you all on a day celebrating love, affection
The bass is thumping, the club is dark and concertgoers are jockeying for position in front of the stage. As a young person, I would have felt right at home at Minneapolis’ legendary First Avenue, the nightclub where Purple Rain was filmed. But tonight, I haven’t been drinking, I’m with my husband of 15 years and our plans for later include making sure our kids get to bed at a decent hour. In a word: I feel out of place.
As Prince’s former band, The Revolution, takes the stage, a surge of energy lights up the crowd. Some instinctive part of me, apparently having been in a Rip Van Winkle-esque slumber for decades, comes to life. At first I tentatively clap on the two and four. Then I’m lifting my arms to the sky to wave them. Is that me, cheering? Muscle memory kicks in and soon I’m singing every lyric. I dance, and dance some more. Halfway through the show, The Revolution launches into the searing ballad from Purple Rain, “The Beautiful Ones,” and whatever discomfort I’d experienced has dissipated. What remains is the realization that the former strangers surrounding me feel more like kin.
The next morning, bleary eyed, I’m brewing coffee when something catches my eye. From our kitchen window, I see a purple balloon tied to our neighbor’s deck railing, blowing with the breeze. Hot tears pool in my eyes as I flash back to our family’s recent experiences. One thing seems clear: God has brought our family to the right place.
I didn’t always feel that way. During the Great Recession of 2008, our family got caught in the housing bust with a too-big mortgage on our dream house. We wound up selling at a loss and moving into a rental down the street. What should have been a tragedy for our family turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We started living leaner, greener and richer. We cooked at home instead of going out, rode bicycles around town and with the money that used to go to a big house payment, take trips and do activities together as a family. Out of financial necessity, I set aside my career as an author and went back to a full-time office job. In 2014, we were able to buy another home.
Mere months after we moved into our new home, my husband came to me with news of a job offer in Minneapolis. Before my brain could interject with concerns about the weather or another major upheaval, my heart said, “Minneapolis sounds good.”
That was how, in March 2016, I landed in the purple state of Minnesota, much like Dorothy falling out of the sky and crash-landing in Oz (this time, no witches were killed in the process). What I didn’t realize was that three miles down the road, my musical idol was living out the final days of his illustrious life.
In the 1980s, Prince Rogers Nelson had risen to worldwide fame, in the process achieving arguably the greatest run of creativity in the history of pop music. He took the proceeds from his 1984 smash album and movie Purple Rain and built a sprawling studio and recording complex in Chanhassen, a suburb west of Minneapolis. He called it Paisley Park. He’d invested his newfound riches in two things he held dear: his music and his home state.
On April 21, 2016, Prince died of an opioid overdose. Yes, we lived only a few miles from Paisley Park, but I had arrived too late to see Prince perform at his legendary compound. (The cry of “but I just got here!” wasn’t my first reaction to his death — although it may have been my second). Emotions came rushing in like a purple tidal wave. I’ll admit it: I lost my mind that day, a day our younger son recalls as “the day mom started crying and didn’t stop.”
Minneapolis radio stations played Prince’s music 24/7 in the wake of his death, and it became apparent that I had missed a lot of Prince’s career. By “a lot,” I mean nearly a thousand songs. While I’d been changing diapers and packing lunches, Prince had continued to live a life full of creativity and audacity and dedication, and he did it just down the road from me. What excuse did I have not to follow suit?
A persistent voice inside me insisted that there must be a reason that I, a writer, had landed in Chanhassen. Tearing open dozens of as-yet-unpacked cardboard moving boxes, I emerged triumphant, grasping my copy of Possessed, the one book I owned about Prince. I decided I should let the author know that I was in Chanhassen, in case he wanted to do an update and needed research assistance. Alex Hahn and I struck up a friendship, which grew into a partnership, as we started out on a journey to tell the story of Prince’s rise to fame. After having left my beloved writing career in favor of more practical paying pursuits, I was back in the game. This time I would be a biographer, with an insightful and generous writing partner. This was a small miracle as well as a tremendous gift, and it wasn’t the last.
As I listened to Prince’s early songs with their infamously provocative lyrics, I recalled my shock and delight hearing them as a teenager hanging out in my friend’s paneled basement rec room. Thirty years later, I was the parent of a teenager, and while “Purple Rain” was still a song about a romantic break-up, the image of purple rain emerged as a metaphor for the redemptive power of God. “I Would Die 4 U” could have come directly from Jesus’ mouth. Some lyrics of “Diamonds and Pearls” sounded a whole lot like God talking to Prince. And “When Doves Cry” was more than a heartrending story of Prince’s family life. Crying doves symbolize hope. Prince was sending us a message of hope. Could it be that all along, Prince was showing us that yes, you can have all those feelings of growing up as a teenager, and still love God?
As I explored Prince’s catalog, it became clear that what I’d noticed was no aberration. Prince had moved beyond the purely raunchy songs that had caused our parents to raise eyebrows or worse, ban us from buying 1999 or Purple Rain. As the years progressed and his fan base grew older along with him, Prince put on shows that fans could bring their kids to without fear of what might happen on stage. The tremendous adversity that Prince overcame in his dazzling rise to fame – including obstacles such as the entrenched racism of a music industry that separated artists onto either the “black charts” or “white charts,” and a difficult childhood that had him leaving home at the tender age of 12 — Prince’s personal and musical journey caused him to mature spiritually. He was still on that journey when he died.
One night, I stumbled upon a playlist for a monthly radio show that Prince had launched in 2000 (Prince had a radio show, in addition to recording 38 studio albums, rehearsing and touring? Did this guy ever sleep?). This show, which aired on Sept. 18, 2001, seemed to have special meaning and significance. In the wake of 9/11, many people were looking to celebrities to make statements, and Prince’s was a God-centered message of peace and positivity. The songs, largely unknown to mainstream audiences, included “Eye No,” “Love …. Thy Will Be Done,” “The Plan,” “I Wish U Heaven” and “Still Will Stand All Time.” Informed by his faith, Prince was sharing messages of hope.
In those first months after Prince’s death, you couldn’t go anywhere or do anything in Minneapolis without being reminded of him. Bridges were lit purple, Purple Rain played at cinemas and artists painted his likeness on restaurant walls or across buildings in gigantic murals. As brand-new Chanhassen residents, wherever we went – the dry cleaner, the tailor, restaurants, the grocery store — my husband and I made a hobby out of asking locals if they had a Prince story. It turned out to be a remarkably effective icebreaker as we explored our new town.
While Prince was widely acknowledged as the epitome of cool, he was also a regular guy who shopped at the hardware store, and who would get cravings for cherry pie from our local grocery store. My hair stylist had been a server at Perkins and would wait on Prince and his band when they’d come for pancakes on Sunday morning. A woman whose property bordered Prince’s recounted how she was invited to a bonfire where Prince played guitar with his back facing the fire. She had the impression that he kept his back to the others because he was shy. Others said they’d see him walking the shoreline of his beautiful, wild 180-acre property that ran between two of Chanhassen’s nine lakes. A Verizon salesperson fixing my phone shared that he’d appeared in “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” video as a boy. (Only five years old at the time, he’d horrified his mother by boldly asking Prince, “Why do you wear high heels?” Prince had smiled and replied, “Because I can,” then spun on his heel and walked away).
Prince was more than a neighbor. He was a loyal Minnesotan who’d given many locals the opportunity to work at the highest levels of their profession, whether that was costume design or sound engineering. In many ways, he’d put Minnesota on the musical map, pioneering and promoting a style of music called “The Minneapolis Sound.” As a result, he was dearly beloved in his home state. I reflected on the virtue of loyalty, and Prince’s unusual choice to stay in Minnesota rather than decamp to a major cultural capital of the world – a choice that most newly minted pop stars would have made. It was a touching act of commitment and faith that made me feel an immense swell of gratitude for the opportunity in my own life to put down roots after a decade of upheaval and instability.
In the name of research, I struck out on my own to attend book signings, browsed at Prince’s favorite record store and went to concerts at a jazz club where they marked his former table with a purple flower. I found myself eating chicken wings with one of Prince’s childhood friends and then driving around their former neighborhood as he recounted stories of forming Prince’s first band together. Friendships formed naturally as I would bump into familiar faces at concerts or gallery openings, and I soon had a solid circle of friends. The people I met at Prince-related events were remarkably open and welcoming, and I quickly adopted the same attitude. One of God’s gifts is community and connection, and I marveled at the richness and diversity of my new friends, who were always up for seeing a show. Some say that Prince’s greatest legacy is his music, but I think it’s his fans. Of all of Prince’s talents, his greatest feat may have been bringing together people of all races, ages, backgrounds and creeds, and my gut said he was doing that with intention. Connecting with people who might be outside of my usual sphere lifted my spirits, brought joy and brought me closer still to God.
In February 2017, Alex Hahn and I published The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988. I like to joke that Prince made me an author again, and on publication day, my older son said he could imagine Prince calling to me: “It’s your turn! Get up on stage!” Through Prince, I had been given the opportunity to excel at my craft, as had many others before me.
Only God knows his favorite color – and of course, like his children, all colors are his favorite – but ask me what mine is, and I’ll tell you it’s purple.