Three Times I Wrote About Prince

Chapter 14Prince pops up a lot in my personal soundtrack. The same is true for any of you who are [mumble mumble] years old.

But three of those many moments stood out enough for me to turn them into stories, and here they (or at least parts of them) are:

#1: The Time I Lost The Girl Because I Was Too Busy Trying To Be Cool (and Hide My Boner)

One rare evening my father accepted a coworker’s dinner party invitation. My parents dragged me along because the hosts had a daughter my age, which was maybe thirteen, fourteen tops. I don’t remember a thing about the parents or the dinner, but the daughter was hot. Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon hot. “The Nuge will never sign her cleavage” hot.

After dinner the parents sent us kids up to the daughter’s room so that they could talk about taxes or snow tires or whatever boring crap adults talk about. I couldn’t believe my luck. The grown-ups, oblivious to the fact that we were past the Chutes and Ladders age, shooed us off to play. With any luck I’d have her out of her Gloria Vanderbilts and down to nothing but an add-a-bead necklace before the fools realized their mistake.

Her room was in that transitional state between childhood and adolescence: lots of pastel colors, a white bed with pink dust ruffle and lots of stuffed animals. A ballerina music box sat next to the stereo on top of her dresser. The whole place smelled like The Untouchables — the girls in my junior high school who were off-limits to rednecks in army jackets and black t-shirts. Tacked to the back of her bedroom door was a poster of Prince in the shower, nude but for a thong and a belly chain. It couldn’t have been more incongruous, like watching the Queen eat Cheetos.

“You want to listen to some music?”

“Sure.”

She had maybe ten albums in her bookcase, but she considered each one carefully. “Oh, I love this record.” She dropped the needle on What Time Is It? and began to dance. I sat on the floor and watched her, hoping I didn’t get called to the board to work a math problem.

“Come on, come dance,” she said.

“Nah, I’m cool.”

“777-9311,” she sang along. “Come on, why not?”

I really wanted to dance, but my adolescent hormones did not allow for a comfortable standing position at that particular moment. Besides, the principles of the jam did not allow for such heresy. No badass guitar? No thank you. I couldn’t admit that deep within my army jacketed interior I was doing the white boy underbite and shake shake shaking my booty.

“I just don’t feel like it.”

“You don’t like The Time?”

“They’re cool I guess, if you like that kind of music.”

The Gloria Vanderbilts stopped shaking. “What kind of music?”

“You know, that stuff they play on the radio.”

“What’s wrong with the music on the radio?”

“Nothing if that’s what you’re into.”

“Oh, but I guess you listen to real music like AC/DC and KISS?”

“That’s not what I meant. This stuff is really cool for the skating rink and things like that. I just wouldn’t listen to it on purpose.”

She looked at me with the same expression as The Untouchables from my school, the “someday you’ll be pumping my gas” expression. We sat in silence for the rest of the evening and waited for the parents to finish visiting.

#2: My High School Sweetheart, and Listening To Prince While I Watched Her Get Ready For School

Fortunately at the height of Jacko Mania there existed an Anti-Michael who countered the King Of Pop’s lack of funk with a mass appeal mash-up of James Brown, George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, gospel, and the over-produced synth-heavy sound of the period. Yeah, you know whom I’m talking about.

If Prince did nothing after 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” we’d probably still be talking about him. I mean, if Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife” can survive almost 35 years surely there would be a place for a one-hit wonder Prince. Fortunately I’ll never have to defend this theory, as Prince has been a prolific artist from the beginning. Between 1978 and 1982 he released five albums, each one upping the Prince-attude. Listening to those first five in order is to hear an artist finding his voice.

The fifth album was 1999, and it was a monster. The singles were in heavy radio rotation, the cassette blared from the Sparkomatics in the primer-gray Camaros, and every white girl in my high school wore her concert tee from the Greenville Memorial Auditorium show that I was too snooty to attend (“Prince? I don’t like that poppy shit.”). Not that I was too much of a snob to hush Matt in his own basement when it was just the two of us, though, and it was time for Prince to shred the “Little Red Corvette” solo.

Every morning my rattletrap MG and I puttered over to Misti’s house. I sat among the stuffed animals on her bed like some sort of horny E.T. watching her run around in her underwear, getting ready for school — hair, makeup, five shirt changes. Tacked net to her Rick Springfield poster was the Controversy freebie: Prince in a thong and gold belly chain, standing in a shower decorated with a crucifix.

I saw the same poster maybe a year earlier in another girl’s room, and now all those Untouchables at school in Prince tees. Now keep in mind that I’m talking about Upstate South Carolina circa 1982-1983. We weren’t even a full generation removed from segregation. My middle school was the former black high school; the Klan still paraded down Main Street now and then, though admittedly few took them seriously anymore. Racial tension still lingered in the loblolly pines, and yet cute little white girls in Candie’s and add-a-beads fantasized about Prince in his thong and his belly chain.

I can’t say the same for Rick James, Zapp’s Roger Troutman, or Charlie Wilson from The Gap Band. I never met a girl with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Sly Stone, or Jim Hendrix on her wall, either. All of the above preceded Prince and all were successful in the rock world, but at least in my little town Prince was the one to smash through the last remaining color barrier. He was the Rosa Parks of middle-class white girls’ panties. (I’m not proud of that line.) (Yes I am.)

Anyway, every morning I’d sit on Misti’s bed and watch her get ready for school and without fail every morning at 7:30 a.m. the DJ spun Prince’s latest single: “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious.” Every afternoon we played Atari with her little brother and listened to Prince some more.

Nobody bothered to tell me how expensive having a car and a girlfriend was. My under the table job scooping ice cream and fielding solicitations for any number of felonies just wasn’t cutting it. Fortunately my sister’s boyfriend worked for the parent company of the Hardee’s burger chain — a regional version of McDonald’s, only with actual food. Hardee’s claims to fame were charcoal grills and biscuits made from scratch every morning.

“How much you making at that ice cream place, Jim?”

“Twenty-five a week. Something like that.”

“You a hard worker?”

“Yeah, I’m a hard worker.”

“Don’t tell me you are if you aren’t. This is my reputation we’re talking about.”

“I work hard.”

“I know the manager of the Hardee’s over by the bowling alley. She wants me, but I don’t want anything to do with that but she don’t know that. You mention my name and she’ll hire you on the spot. You’ll be making four times what you make now.”

“Cool, thanks.”

My first job interview. I didn’t own anything but jeans, tee shirts, and Nikes and that wasn’t going to cut it. It’s all about that first impression, right? The places to go for cool dress clothes in Spartanburg were Tanny’s and Fox’s in the heart of the long-dead downtown: pants with impossibly long pleats and pocket chains; dark shirts with white collars and tie bolts; Playboy shoes and Sergio Valente accessories. That’s right: My idea of interview attire at age fifteen was a cross between pimp and zoot suit.

I showed up at my first interview dressed like an extra in a Billy Dee Williams malt liquor commercial. I carefully filled out my job application and parked my pleated ass in a bright orange molded fiberglass seat at the back of the dining room.  A few minutes passed, and then the largest woman I’d ever seen emerged from the kitchen. The sheer yardage of her brown polyester uniform was impressive. She shoved herself into a pair of molded seats and picked up my application.

“You been to Europe?”

“No, why?”

“You put that little line through your sevens.”

“Oh, no. I just think it looks nice.”

Silence.

“So this is your first job?”

“No, I worked at an ice cream place and I used to do yard work.”

“Did you pay taxes?”

“No.”

“Then this is your first job. You know anything about cooking?”

“I make dinner at home.”

“Are there 150 people in your family?”

“No.”

“You eighteen?”

“No.”

“Have to be eighteen to use the roast beef slicer, state law. A cook that can’t use the slicer doesn’t do me much good.” She propped her beefy paw on the table and pushed herself up.

“Rob sent me.”

“Rob who?”

“Johnson.”

She settled back into her seats. “Rob from the main office? You related?”

“He’s a family friend.”

“Rob’s a good man. Hard worker.”

“That’s what my father says.”

“Look, my outside guy just quit. You’ll be cutting grass, raking the playground, taking out the garbage, stuff like that. You can start Monday.”

“Cool, thanks.”

“How many sick days you have left from school?”

“Five, I think.”

“Save them. I’m going to need them for inspection days.”

“Thanks, Carol.”

“Miss Dumpfey. You don’t call your boss by her first name.”

Misti and I celebrated that night with Atari, Prince, and making out. Let’s pretend we’re married / Go all night… I was going to be a tax paying working man.

#3: Meeting Prince Face to…Chest

Prince was in the building; well, hypothetically at least.

Every morning a BMW appeared in the Post Group parking lot. The car was painted a blue much too vivid for a factory color, bright rose petals visible on the dashboard through the darkly tinted windows. The tip-offs, though, were the Minneapolis license plates and the enormous bodyguards who lounged in the post-production facility’s lobby. They were friendly guys, impeccably dressed like The Time and unwilling to pony up any information.

“Is he here?”

“Who?”

“Prince.”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s he working on?”

“Who?”

Most of my workday was spent at the Post Group now. When I wasn’t driving around L.A. in a Tales From the Crypt panic I was running through the building’s hallways in a Tales From the Crypt panic. John was my boss, but everyone on the show thought that I worked for them, and as the months passed they grew more comfortable treating me like their personal assistant. I wasn’t just running between cutting rooms and mixing stages anymore: I was fetching dry cleaning, dropping off movie rentals, hanging pictures, picking up meals. I even babysat or trotted kids around town now and then.

I wasn’t the only one. Over at the Tales production office sat a growing phalanx of producers’ assistants, including one of Spielberg’s. Spielberg wasn’t one of the show’s executive producers, but he was somehow connected — probably through Robert Zemeckis. Occasionally I had to drive tapes over to Spielberg’s mission-style bungalow on the Universal lot. We called it the Taco Bell.

Spielberg’s assistant remained perpetually on the edge of panic. He was the kind of guy who would win the lottery and have an anxiety attack over the taxes, so it was no surprise to walk into his office and find him on the verge of tears. “What’s wrong, Chris?” I asked.

“Max’s birthday is Saturday,” he said.

“Who’s Max?”

“Steven’s son.”

“Okay. So?”

“I don’t know what to get him.”

“He’s a kid. Get him Hungry Hungry Hippos or some shit,” I said.

“What if he doesn’t like it?”

“Who cares?”

“Oh my god, there goes my pager,” Chris said. “It’s Steven. I better call him back right now.”

My 23rd birthday was coming up. I tried to imagine 15 years of this — James in his late thirties, paralyzed in the game aisle of Toys ‘R’ Us, panicked that he might buy Dick Clark’s kid Battleship when Boggle was the better choice. What, Dick? I’m on my way. I just picked up your dry cleaning. Yes, Dick. No, Dick. I’ll be right there, Dick.

I started hiding in the Post Group’s break room, eating free bagels and testing how many pages I could ignore without pissing off whomever was looking for the whipping boy. The break room also had the advantage of occupying the center of the building. If Prince walked past, I was bound to see him.

The Minneapolis Genius apparently was no fan of free bagels, but one morning while I cowered in the break room, pager beeping endlessly, a familiar figure walked past. Why he looked familiar I don’t know; after all, I only saw the stranger from behind. Perhaps it was his gait, or maybe his hair or fashion sense; regardless, I thought I knew the dude, but I couldn’t figure out from where. He puttered around for a moment, never facing me, and then he took off down the hall.

When if finally registered he was a good 20 feet away, but that was nothing compared to the distance from which I thought I knew him. The idea was absurd — impossible, really — but what the hell. If I called his name and it wasn’t him, the guy walking down the hall wouldn’t even know that I was talking to him.

“AJ?”

He stopped, turned, and stared at me for a moment. “James? From SCAD?”

“Dude!”

“Dude, what are you doing out here?” AJ said.

“I’m in the business now,” I said.

“Me too! This is insane.”

“I know. When did you leave Savannah?”

We went back to the break room and told lies about our fabulous lives until our pagers could no longer be ignored.

Later that day, John pulled me into his office. “What’s up with you today? You’re being a real ass.”

“It’s my fucking birthday, John, and I’m spending it playing messenger to a bunch of ungrateful fucks. No offense,” I said.

“Really? Your birthday, huh? That’s fantastic. Which one?”

“Twenty-three.”

“Still just a lad. We should go out for drinks tonight,” John said.

“Really?”

“Sure, it will be fun.” He pulled the petty cash bag out of his desk and handed me some bills. “Go buy yourself some lunch, my treat. But hurry — they need you over on the set.”

“Thanks, John.”

“Oh, and while you’re out pick up something for me.”

I stuffed the bills into my jeans pocket and took off down the hall, rounding the corner too quickly and bumping into oncoming traffic. He wore a bright red suit and tall heels, and his hair was teased high like Little Richard’s. Even with the heels and the bouffant, he only came up to my chin.

“Sorry, man. You okay?” I said.

“No problem,” Prince said, and he walked away.

Best. Birthday. Ever.

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