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Prince saved my life

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My father was the Sid Hartman of North Dakota. He wrote about sports in Grand Forks, then Bismarck.

That meant we drove our family Ford LTD down I-29 and I-94 to the Twin Cities once every three months so he could get his fix of the North Stars, Vikings, and Twins.

The trips were ritualistic. Take I-494 to Bloomington. Check in at the Thunderbird. Eat at Lincoln Del (no bagels or pastrami back home). Watch a game. Eat. Swim. Shop. Game. Go home. We were so ritualistic that we took 494 and 35W to get downtown once the Metrodome opened. Don’t get me started.

For my mom, those weekend trips were about sitting at the pool while father and son hit a game and, the next day, shopping downtown, particularly at Dayton’s, so she could have some clothes nobody else wore to work.

They both dragged me along, which meant I was a spoiled single child with a pretty decent Walkman and an old Disco Dan Ford Twins T-shirt. I knew I was spoiled because I resented my isolation from culture in North Dakota, especially on the way home from the Twin Cities.

Radio got worse and worse as we drove. The problem wasn’t North Dakota. It was me. And access. We had no internet, folks. No cell phones. No Spotify. I thought Casey Kasem controlled everything.

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In North Dakota in the 1970s and '80s, radio stations offered classic rock, country, Top 40, classic rock, and ... more classic rock. Death by Tanya Tucker, Hall and Oates, or Pink Floyd. Every year, REO Speedwagon and Styx sold out the Bismarck Civic Center, or some band of that type.

I’m pretty sure I’m the only human to ever see both Billy Squier and Eddie Money more than once. I once paid money to see .38 Special with Molly Hatchet, who flirted with disaster at least three times. Hey, I even saw Corey Hart wear sunglasses at night in that Civic Center.

Minneapolis was our New York, London, and Paris. On those escape trips, my mother allowed me to wander away from her in downtown Minneapolis. She didn’t want me rushing her while she tried on work clothes in Dayton’s dressing rooms. So I found the Northern Lights music store on Hennepin Avenue, where I had a musical and cultural experience that rivals that of Chris Strouth's.

There, I found Dead Milkmen, Generation X, and pre-"Love Shack"-ian B52s and their own private Idaho. There, I became obsessed with 10,000 Maniacs and Michael Stipe, which somehow made me feel cooler. Even that was edgy.

But mostly, I remember the trip when I found Prince’s Controversy album. 

I was 12. My hero, Muhammad Ali, was falling apart while my other hero, Eddie Murphy, was releasing 48 Hours, then Delirious. And here was Prince.

I get it. I was the last human to hear of Prince. I had to wait for MTV and Rolling Stone to tell me about him. He had already bombed in Los Angeles when he opened for the Rolling Stones. He had already done all the work on five important albums. He was already news, already a national figure. And Minneapolis had known about him for years, maybe even Fargo knew. But not me.

I wanted everything by Prince, and Northern Lights offered everything, including 12-inch purple remixes. But for me, the record that changed everything was Controversy. Every song a revelation. Prince was funky ("Controversy," "Private Joy"), naughty ("Jack U Off," "Do Me, Baby"), and political ("Ronnie," "Talk to Russia," "Annie Christian"). Rolling Stone had warned me about the album, but somehow I hadn’t acted.

Rolling Stone was a dubious source for cool-hunting, anyway. I read every issue cover to cover at least three times. But for every Kids in the Hall RS found, there was a Terence Trent D’Arby. I wrote an angry letter and canceled my subscription the day I found Mötley Crüe on the cover in August 1987. 

I saved up for a monster Marantz stereo system with Polk Audio speakers, which blasted Controversy when I was home alone. But I liked the Koss headphones more. I listened to Prince teach me through those headphones, which were more personal than the speakers.

I danced on my bed, wrote out the lyrics by hand, lip-synced the title track over and over. Except for the Lord’s Prayer portion of the title track, because I wasn’t sure I could go that far. I wasn’t sure I could go anywhere Prince was headed.

In simplistic terms, here’s what Prince gave me in my teens and beyond: a space to ask myself big questions, and all the other provocative questions he asked me, sometimes directly:

“Am I straight or gay?”

“Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?”

“Does my daddy cry?”

We didn’t talk about those questions in North Dakota. Not at basketball practice. Not on dates on the banks of the Missouri River. Not with our parents. Not in church.

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“Was it good for me? Was it what I want to be?”

Of course, regardless of Prince’s intent for that abstract adjective.

Mostly, I learned there was more out there. And that I should go find it and spin it on my turntable. Or maybe he, along with Muhammad Ali, gave me more to question. He gave me meatier things about which to think — beyond the small windows of Herb Carneal and the Twins, MTV and Rolling Stone, Billy Squier and Corey Hart. 

About a week before Prince died, I was swamped at work. I had dozens of research papers and feature stories and final projects to edit, grade, and judge. Final grades to give out. Tons of side projects to resolve. Overwhelmed, I did four things without really consciously deciding to do them:

  1. I made a pot of Dunn Bros coffee in my office.

  2. I turned on a desk lamp and flipped off the overhead fluorescents.

  3. I downloaded Controversy onto my MacBook Pro.

  4. I worked through it.

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That’s what you did in North Dakota, whether you were on a tractor, doing pre-calculus homework, or watching Zamboni ovals between periods. You worked through it.

“Let’s work,” Prince sang on the Side 2 of Controversy. But it had nothing to do with grading papers.

Now, living in St. Paul, I hear Prince stories from my neighbors and church friends who grew up in north Minneapolis. Similar stories flow through the Twin Cities weeks and months after Prince died on April 21.

Actually, my top two culture heroes, Prince and Ali, died within six weeks of each other, and Controversy is on repeat.

Scott Winter teaches journalism and writing at Bethel University in St. Paul. He’s the author of Nebrasketball: Coach Tim Miles and a Big Ten Team on the Rise, which is exactly what you think it is, but funnier. He plays much bad tennis.