The recent death of musical genius Prince Rogers Nelson triggered memories of the first time I truly heard his music.
Let me just say, I’ve never identified as a Prince “fan” or anything. I didn’t, and don’t, go in for celebrity idolatry. But anyone alive in our culture during those times probably has a few memories brought to mind by his songs.
Flashback to 1992, and I was fourteen. Radio stations at the time had seen to it that I knew most of Prince’s big hits. But I’d never paid much attention.
My elder brother Joachim (Yok — five years my senior) had successfully intimidated the crap out of me for most of my childhood.
Though rarely present in the family home, Yok did return at times to occupy his bedroom. We hardly had any clue what he was up to, other than the upside down pentagram drawn on his door. Us younger kids left him to it, mostly because he had a habit of knotting my collar with his fist if I came too close. Now that I’m an adult I can see that mostly I was scared of how much I looked up to him.
When he did emerge from his dingey pit at the front of our weatherboard house in Lyttelton, for mealtimes mostly, it was in full leather jacket and boots. He usually carried an LP or several under his arm, which he’d flip onto the family record player and educate us with over dinner.
My own nature lacked what others seemed to just grok: boundaries. Social boundaries. Physical boundaries. Imagination (and imaginary) ones. Emotional boundaries. I had an internal confusion about raising walls between myself and others, both internal and external. I’d love to say I had a rare ability to keep my heart open, limitless, my interactions free of prejudice … but I don’t think that was the case. I just wasn’t very cluey about keeping things on the level.
My primary school days had been studded with unwise revelations on my part. I recall whispering to a new friend, “maybe we can get Leah and Elizabeth to come stay at my house in the holidays”, hoping it would make us a team, only to have those notions repeated back to me with elaborations, sing-song nicknames and group laughter the next lunch hour. Another time, it was a made-up language that I offered for playground ridicule.
I had a copy of the Lord of the Rings printed on the finest of rice-paper pages. When I took this to school, the other nine-year-olds found it hilarious, and not thought-provoking as I’d hoped.
Eventually I became good at hiding, and at fighting with my back to a wall. I became, ironically perhaps, both open and alone.
Hagley High School was like a new start. I formed friendships with the most startling of classmates — another boy like myself fascinated with Celtic myth and rituals. We dabbled with Egyption magick and astral projection. I befriended girls who laughed at my jokes instead of my long hair, who teased me in ways that left me breathless — for more.
I didn’t work so hard in class, but I did work very hard to find interesting music that might hold currency with my new clan.
Yok was away one day about that time. I was bored, it was Saturday afternoon, and I came up with a plan to raid his music collection. The plan was: A) sneak into his room. B) take his stuff. C) head to my own sanctuary.
Sepia light through undrawn curtains revealed my brother’s messy bedding, walls covered in posters — Zeppelin to the Pixies, Metallica to Morbid Angel. His floor and desk were equally strewn with empty mugs, greasy plates and cutlery, hand drawn maps of fantasy lands, overflowing ashtrays (at least three of those) and D&D books. My nostrils blended briney sweat, the must of unwashed clothes and stale tobacco into a reek that I barely let myself inhale for fear of choking. Or perhaps it was his imaginary fingers around my neck?
An oasis of tidy, his vinyls were stacked against one wall, plastic sleeves meticulous. I knew most of them from his dinnertime sessions. Black Sabbath — “Paranoid”, Talking Heads — “Stop Making Sense”, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Dire Straits, Split Enz, Judas Priest.
Though jealous of his LPs, they were no use to me, being without a record player in my room. His tape collection, though, was less free from my predation because I could retreat with the family’s portable tape deck.
I went straight for a careless scatter of cassettes on his carpet. Most of them were dubbed off a mate or girlfriend, with scrawled names like “scott’s wicked part one”, “spacey stuff” or “to Yok from Libby”. One caught my eye: “the genius sex dwarf”. What was that all about? I grabbed it and a handful of others impulsively and scarpered before he could return home.
My bedroom was a space where I could dream up a new self, every day. I had draped the walls with mystical velvet hangings and crafted a canopy for my rickety second-hand bed. I’d fashioned my dresser into an altar, bedecked with candles, skulls, charcoal and fragrant herbs set out to dry at cardinal points. Mirrors and chalices to catch moonlight and quill and ink for automatic writing. I wish we’d had digital cameras back then to provide proof of this stuff.
I set candles, burned incense, and in this mystical funk, beneath my admittedly vainglorious canopy, I lay back, eyes closed to tune out the world. “Feeling the music”. (This was something Yok was fond of saying).
I think it was some rather weird guitar drone from Sonic Youth that masked the sound of his footsteps. I later pieced together that actually he had alerted mum and the two, not without an Irish sense of humour, waited outside my room for the best time to sneak in, when the music was loud enough. I didn’t notice the crackle of the hinges as they opened.
His impression of a drill sergeant was legendary in our house-hold and he knew how to use it.
“What the fuck!”
My ears ached at the loudness of his voice, my skin prickled with fright at his apparent nearness, and my eyes flew open. There he was, inches away, veins out, face red, mean smirk somehow still visible around his wide open mouth.
“… are you doing!” he finished, grabbing me by both sides of my collar and twisting mercilessly. He lifted me upright. The canopy above my bed wasn’t very high off the mattress. It tangled around my face. I could barely breathe, nor see him. He gave me a shake.
“That’s my fucking music! Ask first!!”
“Yok!” came the warning voice of my mother.
“OK, fine! I’m sorry!” I shouted back, over the muffling fabric and the sounds of Sonic Youth, quailing from an expected dead arm at least.
“You little shit!” He shouted.
But the blow never came — maybe because of mum’s nearness, or maybe because, as I found out later, he was secretly pleased that his music taste was rubbing off on me. Whatever, instead of thumping me like I probably deserved, he threw me back down on the bed, jabbed the stop/eject button twice and removed his stolen contraband. He grabbed up the others too, then stood and spun around, dreadlocks flying — the sergeant, checking for stragglers. Finding none, he stalked to the door, then paused to survey my room. He saw the altar and sneered.
“You can’t borrow ANYTHING for a MONTH! Stay out of my room!” He stabbed a menacing finger from the doorway, turned away and slammed the door, shutting my mum in the hall, carrying all his tapes with him.
Once my heart-rate slowed a bit, I shakily stood. Mother had left me alone, mercifully.
Sliding canopy fabric along lengths of dowel I’d used as rails, I saw the edge of a cassette sticking out from beneath the altar. He or I must have kicked it there in our haste. All except one eh, Yok?
I retrieved the remaining item. One side was unlabelled. I flipped it in my hand: “the genius sex dwarf”. I slipped it into my pocket, nonchalant with no one around, and carried on tidying my room. Awaiting a better occasion to listen, when I could be sure of my brother’s extended absence.
I’d been dreaming (asleep and awake) about “the girls that tease” for a long few years. Songs like Little Red Corvette removed the need to ask anyone else’s permission for that.
Maybe it was because of the period in my life that I deciphered Prince’s lyrics, or maybe it was a sheer transmission of energy that Prince embodied on radio and television in those late decades of the 20th Century.
But I like to think it was because from that day onward I wasn’t really scared of my brother any more. And despite his threats, in fact he gave me a bit more leeway with his music.
Regardless, whatever it was — all of that probably — the sounds of the Genius Sex Dwarf — Purple Rain, When Doves Cry. Sign o’ the Times. They evoke liberty, passion and potency. A feeling of utter urgency to be heard that was so apparent in Prince’s vocals.
It’s these feelings more than anything else, that will be his legacy to me. I am by no means attempting to be just like him. Even were that possible (let me assure you it is not) God knows, one was enough. But his unapologetic expressiveness is something I do admire, and aspire to. May his particles scatter freely to the four winds.
Oh and one final thing: my brother never cottoned on. To this day I still have that tape in a box of flotsam somewhere.