The Death of a Great Vol. 5: Prince (1958-2016)
It might seem like tempting fate to run a memorial series while we’re only halfway through the year, but Grub staffers are not known for their superstitions (we’re known for our realistic dinosaur impressions). With the loss of so many cultural luminaries in the first half of 2016, writers in the Grub community and beyond needed time and distance to process what those collective losses meant to them. Some of those losses, like Bowie and Ali, were felt across the globe, while others you might not have heard about at all. In this series, writers come to grips with what we gained and lost in the lives and deaths of key cultural figures this year. In the fifth installment of this series, Elke Thoms reacts to the death of Prince.
The Power of the Opening Line
“I guess I should have known / By the way U parked your car sideways / That it wouldn’t last,” Prince purrs, his voice resigned but clear in between slow synths. This is the opening line to “Little Red Corvette,” which I first heard when I was twelve years old. Suddenly, I was in the middle of Prince’s strange heartache—never mind that I barely understood what a one-night stand was, I was hurting, too.
After I discovered Prince, his songs became the stories I couldn’t put down. His lyrics range from prophetic to downright silly, yet I could always count on getting hooked from the start. In “Little Red Corvette,” it was that unnervingly perceptive detail that pulled me in. In “When Doves Cry,” I loved the humorous way Prince asks for permission—“Dig if U will the picture”—before professing, “Of U and I engaged in a kiss.”
When I began writing as a teen, it was Prince who taught me to take extra care with that valuable first impression: the opening line. He wasn’t afraid to shock—“Darling Nikki” infamously begins with “I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess U could say she was a sex fiend.” Still, Prince did not limit himself—he could be a raunchy lace-covered sex machine one minute, a tailored-suit wearing worshipper of soul mates the next. The epic love ballad “Adore” begins with the chorus, no buildup needed. “Until the end of time / I'll be there 4 U / U own my heart and mind / I truly adore U.”
“(There'll Never B) Another Like Me” is the sugary first track on Prince’s 2009 album MPLSound. Like many of his songs from his final decade, it’s light and carefree. In six minutes, I am led through a typical day in Prince’s lux lifestyle. It opens with the hook, a self-aware, sassy line—“It really don't matter who U get with / Cuz it just ain't meant to be,” he smirks. “It really don't matter / Cuz U never shoulda woulda / Ever coulda been like me.” Is this the poetry of his heartbreak in “Little Red Corvette”? Maybe, maybe not—but it’s exceptionally fun.
The 1984 album Prince will forever be known for, Purple Rain, begins with “Let’s Go Crazy.” This song also famously opens the film Purple Rain, starring Prince. In the movie, “Let’s Go Crazy” plays behind a montage of one of his shows at the famed Minneapolis club First Avenue, as well as shots of Prince re-touching his makeup and preparing for the concert. “Let’s Go Crazy” is the pep talk I blast in the morning while I get ready for class or work, pumping me up for my day as I apply about a quarter of the amount of eyeliner that Prince does.
One afternoon last April, I found my social media feeds filled to the brim with the opening line to “Let’s Go Crazy.” “Dearly beloved / we are gathered here today / 2 get through this thing called life.” That day, it was a song of mourning.
Every other day, though, it is my song of celebration.
Elke Thoms is a writer studying psychology at Northeastern University. Her work has appeared in Northern Virginia Magazine, Tastemakers Magazine, and Spectrum Literary Arts Magazine. She is a published author of plays, poetry, prose, and also performs stand-up comedy.