Prince, the American R&B artists famous for songs like “Purple Rain,” “1999,” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” died last Thursday. Cause yet unknown, suicide not suspected. Although I have always loved his music, I have no particular insight about his place in the pantheon. I saw him only once in concert and it was during a time when he was struggling terribly and, unusually, could barely perform.
But I have a story.
When I first got out of business school I worked for a Fortune 250 chemical company. I spent 11 months in headquarters analyzing who knows what, and then flew off to Silicon Valley to become a salesperson. Although I was good at the job by dint of sheer perseverance, it did not suit my temperament or experience in the world. But I had a good boss. His name was Rich. He’d been a football player for Syracuse University. When I asked him once why he was good at football – did he run fast, did he catch well – he said, “If they told me to run my head into a brick wall I’d just run my head into that wall over and over again.”
He was a good enough manager that one quarter we held a sales challenge for our whole team and we won the prize. An overnight trip to Monterey Bay, the five of us. At least I think we were five. Could have been six.
We went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. In the time-honored tradition of sales teams, we drank. Beers, and then tequila shots. I was unfamiliar with tequila.
I should point out that I was the only woman.
The restaurant had a jukebox. We’d been there a while, long enough to finish dinner. The floor was tiled, saltillo maybe, the tablecloths were white, napkins in all the primary colors. Someone put on Prince’s song, “Kiss.” It might have been me?
This sounds like nothing but I will say that it was the only time in my professional career that I felt wholly safe acknowledging my body. (Until I got old enough that it didn’t matter any more.) By which I mean I could dance to Prince, which one cannot do without implication, and remain part of the team. We danced through the lacuna in “Kiss.” The lyrics go, “I just want your extra time and your (guitar riff, pause, breath) kiss.” Nobody batted an eye. It sounds like nothing, but remember 1986, remember we wore suits, remember all kinds of things.
Partly I credit Rich, who along with the brick wall talent was an honorable man, and established good behavior as part of the group’s culture. But partly, and I cannot say how much, it was Prince, who knew how to both pause and say it all. Artists who break barriers for themselves can do so for others too.
I wish I’d been brave enough to carry that moment forward. My being a woman wasn’t my problem, now was it?
When I heard Prince had died, I regretted that I’d never written him to say thank you. I think I’ll thank Elvis Costello for “Clowntime Is Over.” I know famous artists get recognition and a lot of money, but then when we hear some of them are lonely or shy or struggling, I dunno. More thank yous rather than fewer are in general a good thing.
Have a wonderful weekend.