I’ll never forget seeing the news at about 11:50 AM on April 21, 2016. The breaking news alert on my phone simply said something like, “Male found unresponsive at Paisley Park.” Within minutes my worst fears were realized when it was revealed that “male” was Prince.
I was at work and many of my co-workers were at lunch together. I stayed back to work on a project I had to complete, but I felt numb and ultimately little work was done over the next 30 minutes. Mostly scouring Google and Twitter to find anything to contradict the news that I hoped wasn’t true. When my co-workers got back from lunch a few of them actually checked on me to make sure I was OK because it was common for me to have Prince on shuffle at my desk.
How much can you love someone you never knew?
I love Prince, but in a way that you love a celebrity. How much can you love someone you never knew? His loss meant that I’d never hear new music from him again. I’d never see another one of his epic appearances at awards shows. I’d never see him in concert again. I’d regret never going to Paisley Park – only a five-hour drive from my home – to try to catch one of his parties or impromptu shows. Certainly the people who were around him feel a much deeper sense of loss than I do. That said, it didn’t stop me from crying my eyes out during a random listening of “7” the next day in my car. It didn’t stop me from feeling like my heart was shattering five days later when D’Angelo and Princess (Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum) performed “Sometimes it Snows in April” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. “Sometimes it Snows in April” had always been a somber song, but now it has new meaning. It’s difficult to listen to. I only play it when I want to feel sad.
Once the TV specials ended and life post-Prince started, not a lot changed. I didn’t know him. My fascination with the man and his music continues as it did before, but now with the understanding that his body of work is finite. He left a lot of himself here for us in his music. I listen to him every day and still find something new all the time.
Fast forward three years to late-April 2019. I was present the evening of Friday the 26th when my mother received a phone call from the hospital to tell her that my father had passed away suddenly. I know a lot of people move away from home and their families for reasons I can understand. For most of my life, I’ve lived within 30 minutes of my parents because I love being near my family. My dad would sometimes call me 6, 8, 10 times a day. Usually just to ask how we’re doing or just to drive me crazy. He’d call me at 9:00 AM on a weekday. If I didn’t answer he’d call again at 9:05. Then 9:20. By 10:00 he’d left me at least five angry voice mails and I’d finally answer on the sixth call and say, “WHAT?!?” He’d say, “Where are you?” I’d say, “It’s 10:00 AM on a Wednesday, I’m at work.” He’d have a predictably unimportant request like, “Can you order me a DVD of Guns of Navarone on the internet?” “Sure, dad. It’ll be at your house in two days.” Then he’d say, “No way? That fast? How do you do that? Wanna go to lunch?” Two hours later we’d be laughing and I’d think, “One of these days all of these phone calls that drive me nuts and our lunches are going to stop and that’s going to be sad.” I was right. My phone never rings anymore. I don’t get voice mails that say, “You’ve got two goddamn phones, you can’t answer one of them? Call me back.” He was the last person on Earth with a flip phone. Everyone else texts me.
That Friday night my kids stayed at my sister’s house while we went to the hospital. By the time we got back to her house at 11:00 PM they were all asleep and everyone else was exhausted. My mom and sister went to bed, too. I could not sleep. I was wide awake. My wife was out of town and couldn’t get back that night. I was alone and content to be so. I enjoy driving alone. After about 30 minutes of silence, I needed some music. I needed Prince. I uttered a phrase I’ve used frequently:
“Hey Siri, shuffle my Prince playlist.”
You can probably surmise what happened next. Call it divine intervention. I’d say dad was involved, but he wasn’t much of a Prince guy and usually referred to him as “that little freak you like.” I like to think Prince himself said to Siri, “I got this,” and of course, “Sometimes it Snows in April” was the first song to play on a Prince playlist with 200+ songs.
Normally I’d skip that song for reasons I mentioned above. This time I needed it. “Sometimes it Snows in April” was the perfect soundtrack for that exact moment. For the next seven minutes tears filled my eyes and streamed down my face as I drove down a desolate northern Wisconsin road. If I’ve ever had a moment in my life I consider cathartic, this was it.
Whoever controls the shuffling of my Prince playlist must’ve been a fan of Parade that night, because the next song to play was “Mountains”. This has always been an underrated favorite of mine and I welcomed the upbeat change of pace after the previous song slowly ripped my heart out of my chest. Within a minute I was singing along in the finest Prince-esque falsetto I could muster:
You said the devil told you that another mountain would appear
Every time somebody broke your heart
He said the sea would one day overflow with all your tears
And love will always leave you lonely
But I say it’s only mountains and the sea
Love will conquer if you just believe
It’s only mountains and the sea
There’s nothing greater, you and me— 'Mountains' by Prince and the Revolution
If you were a fellow motorist on I41 that night you must’ve been entertained because I was behind the wheel crying like a fool singing at the top of my lungs. I drove around with “Mountains” on repeat until after 1:00 AM. I know the message of the song didn’t exactly fit the moment, but it’s so uplifting it didn’t really matter to me. Music made me feel better. More specifically, Prince did. He was my grief counselor.
For the past four months whenever I’m missing dad I play “Mountains”, which is to say I’ve listened to it a few hundred times. It’s strange that I now think of it as “our” song since I’m sure dad never heard it. It’s probably also odd for a 43-year-old man to have “a song” with his father like we’re a couple, but whatever. I believe he would’ve liked “Mountains” if he gave it a chance. I would’ve had to trick him and tell him Smokey Robinson was singing it instead of that freak Prince to get him to listen, but he would’ve dug it.
I’m currently about 1/3 of the way into the fantastic Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions by Duane Tudahl. This is the fifth book I’ve read about Prince so far and it’s shaping up to be my favorite because I’m fascinated by his creativity and work ethic. One of the messages repeated in the book is that Prince wasn’t good at communicating his emotions to the people close to him. Instead, he’d write a song. I’m grateful he did, because he could communicate the hell out of his emotions in a music studio. His songwriting has helped me – and I’m sure countless others – through the most difficult loss of my life.