James Leon resides in an undisclosed desert sanctuary with a beautiful significant other and their tribe of furry kids. He writes screenplays...read more & essays, in addition to shooting his own films. His first feature, Dropping Like Flies, is due in 2017. Currently editing 3 books and working on a 4th.
My day had started out rather slow, being fatigued from the epic walking that I did the day before. My girlfriend and her brother had gone to the psych ward, so I was home alone at the apartment in Ogden, Utah. If wasn’t for this place, she, our fur kids and I would have been homeless in California. We were lucky to have what little we had. Until things drastically improve, this is what we have to make do with.
This day, I had intended to celebrate the birthdays of both Iggy Pop and Robert Smith by playing their music. I brewed some coffee, do some household chores then later finish my film reviews list. Just then, close to 10am, there was online report of a death at Prince’s compound, Paisley Park, named after one of his songs and record label. My heart sank and any activity I had planned laid dormant. I searched every reliable news source. By 11 in morning, it was confirmed:
PRINCE WAS DEAD AT AGE 57.
Immediately, a purple funk had shrouded my day. I don’t recall what the first song that it was possible for me to play was, but the first quote that came to mind was a lyric from “Sometimes It Snows in April”. With that changed my cover page to black and white photo from “Under The Cherry Moon” and posted:
“Always cry 4 love, never cry 4 pain”
Of course, those words were easier said than done. I was heartbroken for many reasons, but the biggest one was that I knew that I no longer possessed any of his physical albums or 12 inch singles, having sold my massive record collection to buy an HD camera in 2012. Luckily, I found a Spanish website that contained many of his videos and live performances, many of which I had never seen. As the day progressed, my only communication with the outside world was Facebook and friends of mine whos were also in mourning. With each video or article posted, we shed rainstorms of tears, reflecting on how that man changed our lives.
The first song that I recall hearing from the Minneapolis Genius or The Artist Known as Prince was “Delirious”, which was maybe 1982 or 1983. It was on the radio, catchy and appealed to my preteen sensibilities towards the spastic joys of a great song. Many years later while working in a record store, it would become realized that the song was about getting a blow job! Once again, literally blowing my mind about how much of a great sense of humor and a knack for song crafting “That Skinny Mother-Fucker with The High Voice” has! Then maybe I heard “1999” or “Little Red Corvette”, but not making the connection until the release of his most known album and movie, Purple Rain. And given the background from which I come from, it had struck a life-changing chord similar to the way punk rock, psychedelics and forward thinking politics did.
In 1984, which in other people's speculations, is probably when the world ended. I was eleven years old and felt some significant change, but couldn't place it. Also, what could I do about it? My priorities were shifting from toys and cartoons to thicker interests in books, music and films. Around Halloween of the previous year, a librarian had given my fifth grade class and I an assignment to write a scary story. From that moment a bell went off louder than any concert I would later attend and a ringing that has yet to cease. I had decided to be a writer for films, long before realizing the dedication that one needs to in order to pursue that career. There was never anything else that I really wanted to be in life than that. Getting there, that would be the tricky part!
I was born in Racine, Wisconsin and one of the cities west of us was Minneapolis, Minnesota, the home of Prince. Geographically, they are similar and encounter the extremes of all four seasons. Purple Rain was released that summer and things were hot. I had experienced an intense car accident and felt it shifted my consciousness. Sure, maybe it had something to do with those last few months before your twelfth birthday and puberty sets in, however it manifested heightened awareness of changes to occur. My life seemed programmed by authority figures and a false sense of blind faith in religious beliefs. Meanwhile, the conflicting opinions regarding the generations and the oppressive behavior politically kept the country at odds. The era of “Just Say No” and pre-PMRC witch trials. To be an eleven-year-old was no great shakes. No matter what you want to do, you are regulated by your parents or other authority figures.
During that time, I was an awkward loner searching for something that I could call my own. The radio, television and trips to record, book and video stores were my choices of escapism. MTV was still playing all types of videos, but we as kids didn't think of it as a brainwashing tool at the time. My musical tastes consisted of what the pop music was at the time. To name a few favorites: Duran Duran, the Police, Culture Club and John “Cougar” Mellencamp. Also, “Footloose” had set the wheels in motion on a subconscious level to develop my love for dancing as a form of expression, exercise and exorcising demons. However diverse these musical tastes were, they, for the most part, appealed mainly to vastly “White Audiences”. Which to some degree, it might have pleased my parents, whom weren't so open minded. Their tastes were equally homogenized, listening to only the Oldies or Country Music stations and they hoped that my tastes would mirror their own interests.
It's difficult to pinpoint what intrigued me so much about Prince as a poor white boy living in a white bread world. The video for “When Doves Cry” was probably the start, which is probably pushed me to own the cassette and then eventually see the movie. Even though the hype was strong, it was rated “R”, which meant the likelihood of my parents taking me wasn't going to happen. They, if memory serves well, weren't fully aware who the film was about, but they didn't allow me to watch anything with nudity in it. War films were okay somehow though. Thankfully I had an aunt (named Pam) whom would be the one to take me. The urgency to see it was probably strictly from peer pressure and the worry of being isolated was too unbearable to fathom. Blindly, my parents agreed to let me go with my aunt. Outside of the music videos or the trailer, I really had no idea what to expect from this experience.
“Dearly Beloved, we R gathered here today 2 get through this thing called life...”
The illuminating glow, the purple words that read “Prince, Purple Rain”, the fog machines kicked up high, the organs similar to church sermons that were spiritually uplifting, the drum beat and the guitar madness. If there was any way to make an impact on a young boy's world, the first ten minutes of this semi-autobiographical film was more than enough to keep the intrigue building. Once the once story began, the people within represented a kaleidoscope of another kind. “White, Black, Puerto Rican, Everybody Just a Freakin...” Then a light skinned man with facial hair, long Jeri-curl and applying his own eyeliner. The interest wasn't that of a sexual one, until Apollonia’s dip into the lake, but then the awkwardness of being with your aunt who was a Catholic with conservative values. Perhaps my dad should have taken me, but then again maybe not.
At such a young age, many of the themes I found it difficult to relate to. Being in a band looked exciting, but the ability to play and practice with an instrument wasn't my focus. At the same time, being a singer seemed easy, but I was discouraged from joining bands later for being tone deaf. However, the merging of music and visual accompaniment, left an impact on my developing young mind. There's great debate about how “Video(s) Killed The [Music] Star”, leaving the listener little to imagine on their own and absorb the music, versus having the quick visual fix. Then of course there is the commercializing and marketing strategies. None of that registered as an eleven-year-old boy. The music, the story and atmosphere was larger than life. Electricity of another kind shot up and down my soul, before I could articulate the reasons why until much later in life.
During this time in pop music, Prince, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen were toe-to-toe. Shortly after the release of the “Thriller” video was released, I had used the song in one of my early scripts, heavily ripped off from what I had surmised were the plots of the “Friday The 13th” movies before I was allowed to watch them. Most notably, Vincent Price's “rap” with laughter when one of my characters got killed in the shower! This was also shortly after I had seen “Psycho” at the age of nine or ten. However, fascinating John Landis' mini-film for Michael was or whatever Working Class Ethics or Patriotism Springsteen might have represented, Prince was way more exciting. He could play over thirty instruments and always had beautiful women around him. Jackson was hanging out with Ronald and Nancy Reagan or his exotic animals and children. Prince, on a subconscious level, affected me more than just a love for the music and mystique.
With the advent of VCRs, Beta-maxes and Laser Disc Players, home viewing was a new market for musicians to bank from. Before Christmas of 1984, “Purple Rain” was on video and that meant finally my parents would see what this Prince guy was all about. I don't recall my mum being in the room, but while watching it with my dad (and younger sister?), the breaking point came during “The Beautiful Ones”. What started out with this endearing quiet piano piece with the singer's falsetto sincerely asking “What's it going be” turned into intense, demanding and screaming “Do you want me” followed by collapsing and writhing on the stage for the song's climax. My dad stormed out of the living room, declaring the movie and the musician sickening, with a hurling of insults and profanities. Yet, I was allowed to keep the tape in and finish watching the movie.
The next morning or night whilst sitting around the kitchen table with the whole family, my dad gave his overall review of “Purple Rain”. Having only seen the maybe the first half an hour, which was all he could take, his belief that it was “degrading towards women”. My dad was not a feminist nor really good with words, given the limited education he acquired. He had never even received his GED until ten plus years after dropping out of high school to join the Marines in the height of the Vietnam War. Regardless, if anything, my dad was your average, run of the mill racist, sexist and narrow-minded mid-westerner, always telling tasteless jokes with lost 1950s ideas of he thought the world should be like.
“We're not living in Leave-It-To-Beaver-Land here.”
What he got out of this music film was nothing more than “white women going out with [black men]” and from that point on, he always hated Prince. However, when somebody is so violently hateful towards something, it makes that subject or person all the more intriguing to those who are fascinated by it. Meanwhile, the kids at school weren't any easier on me. As the winter of 1984, bitterly turned into 1985, break-dancing was hanging on for dear life and various pop musician's popularity would come and go. One of the many things I found difficult with my peers was how quickly they would get into fads or pop culture icons for a limited time, then switch gears drastically. After the glow of “Purple Rain” died down, many of the kids at school would give me shit for still liking Prince.
“Aww man, that movie's old!”, “Prince is a fag!” and “Eww why you like him so much, are you gay?”
It was coming from kids of all ethnic backgrounds, which were mainly Caucasian, African-American or Latino. They failed to realize that I was branching out in my musical tastes. I suddenly found an interest in Soul Music, via what was popular on the Top 40 Radio and when I could be around somebody who had MTV. To me it was music and there wasn't a need, at that age, to have a set identity, yet. Then with words like “faggot” and “gay” tossed in your direction, you start to ask questions, usually to the people you know best. Normally, your parents. However, mine were always selective with their information should it question their own double standards. At the age of eleven, I had asked my mum what a “faggot” was and her response:
“I don't want to tell you, because your father will probably say I didn't explain it right.”
These conflicts that were encountered got me to question much of the authority within my sheltered, but unhealthy living and learning environments. Then once I turned twelve, another form of consciousness took hold of me: puberty. Midway through my sixth grade year, I decided to pack up all my toys and absorb any means of entertainment solo. I was a TV Baby, but started spending more time in my room, listening to music or reading books. When I ventured outdoors, it was to go to the movies, hang out at the mall or wander through book, music or video stores. Then there was sex. From a very young age, I had a healthy interest in girls, which by today's standards may seem to be unhealthy, but not without innocent mischief and not overtly sexual. Depending on where the lines are drawn. When I got word that kids as young as I was being having or attempting to have sex, I wanted in on that action. Also, many of the 1980s films usually centered around geeky teenage boys trying to get laid, party crazily and get over on their parents, school and/or police. Wow, My Generation was conditioned to be disruptive and rebellious, only to be curbed by the same generation that rebelled against their elders! (Screw You “Baby” Boomers and your “Do as I Say, not as I Have Done” arrogance!)
By the age of twelve, I started developing interests in a variety of women. There was Lisa Bonet, Sade, Vanity and Apollonia to name a few. I couldn't put my finger why I found these women just as appealing as say the blonde beach girl or whatever was the standard for All American White Girl. Then the expansion on musical tastes as well. Even during family meals, while we listened to my dad's Oldies Station, a Motown or Stax song would come on and I would rush over to turn it up. When I would return to the table, my dad would shake his head and say:
This was just the beginning of many of the battles I would encounter getting through this thing called life. It didn't stop with the parents, peers at school or any authority figure. I played the right games for as long as I could before it was obvious that I wasn't going to be “One of Them”. More isolating ways set in through the duration of my middle school years, but even through my own choices of input, I could call the shots as I sought best to do so. During the mid-to-late 1980s, the teenage suicide rate was at an all-time high, with many religious and conservative people blaming it on the entertainment industries, drugs or overt sexual debauchery that they believed had spawned AIDS. The Reagan-Bush Administration had tried to transport the country (or world) to the 1950s mindset propaganda with scare tactics of an apocalypse of their great biblical expectations, if you didn't follow their agenda. I couldn't vote or make a difference politically, but it raised my awareness of what it means to stand up for who you are, what your beliefs are and fight against oppressive forces.
By 1989, Prince had recorded the soundtrack for “Batman” and that logo was everywhere. Musically, I had shifted interests once again. I had gone through Hair Metal and Hippy phases in grades seventh and eighth, but by my freshman year in high school in 1987, I cut my long natural blonde hair into a spike and wanted to identify more as being Punk Rock. The kids that supplied me with tapes of their choices were usually skaters with multi-colored hair, then a year later, I started dying mine black for the next two decades. Hip hop was on the up-rise and through my interest in Soul Music, I secretly warmed up to that as well. It wasn't encouraged where I grew up to have eclectic tastes and it brought on a string of minor upsets. As I lost interest in mainstream entertainment, I discovered having an identity of your own was really what mattered. It was all a gradual process and if other people couldn't accept than “Fuck Them”.
When I listen to Prince now, depending on which album, it takes me right back to the beginning. As early as out of the womb, I was a Music Junky. By seven, I was a Beatles fan and was aware that John Lennon had just been shot. At ten or eleven, Prince had entered my world and consciousness that was part of my own generation's development. Be Yourself, no matter how shocking. Embrace your own individuality! I'm really fortunate to have allowed myself to bathe in the “Purple Rain” from such a young and impressionable age. If I had continued to listen to the likes of Kenny Loggins, Huey Lewis and The News or god-forbid My Parents' Choices in Music, who knows how I would have turned out!
“Ladies and Gentlemen...The Revolution!”
In July of 2011, I attended a Peaches Christ screening of “Purple Rain” at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. As many times as I had seen this film since 1984, this was going to be the first time on the big screen in twenty-seven years. It was a big event, with a line of people going around the block. Apollonia was even there for an interview session, followed by signing autographs during the feature. One of my housemates and I ate mushrooms while we waited for one the actresses (Serena Toxicat) of my film to arrive. I was wearing black PVC platform boots, black velvet pants, a lengthy purple shirt and a long, thick black wig. Once the film began, I watched the first music sequence, “Let's Go Crazy”, then spent the rest of my shrooming experience and rest of the film waiting in the line that leaked into the balcony seats for Apollonia’s autograph. When face to face with this short, but very beautiful Mexican woman, I told her:
“Thanks to You, Prince and Everybody who was a part of this film. I saw this in theatres when I was eleven and it really influenced my life in many ways!”
Apollonia looked shocked, but playfully responded, “Oh my god, you were so young! Who let you in?!”
Then she signed my vinyl copies of “Purple Rain” and “Apollonia 6”, gave me hug and I kissed her on the cheek. Now if I could only get Prince to put his signature on the former. It would be framed and put in the office of my next apartment. The Purple One is an active Jehovah Witness now and would sometimes go door to door with bodyguards to “Spread The Word”. In my fantasy, Prince comes to my door and I actually let him in so he can preach for a while. Upon getting a word in, I would just talk about what a gifted musician and inspiration he is. Then combat his religious dogma with questions of god being an energy rather than a person, or maybe share the embarrassing story of me lip synching to his “America” song while auditioning for a talent show at age of thirteen!