Purple Pain

In the aftermath of an assault, Matthew Miles Goodrich considers the effects of opioids on himself, the culture, and his musical hero, Prince.

Matthew Miles Goodrich | Longreads | July 2018 | 11 minutes (2,837 words)

 

I came to inside a CAT scan machine. Not a revelation  — I didn’t spring up and bang my bruised face against the cool metal of the medical marvel  —  but a recognition, a lugubrious return to my cognizance. I surmised I was in a hospital and, broken bones considered, that was a good place to be.

At least my trauma had a sense of humor. I couldn’t remember where I had been before landing inside the CAT scan machine, but I could tell you the song that had been rattling around my concussed head. It was Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

Inside the giant X-ray assessing the damage, I became aware that I was humming along to the song’s rhythmic chug. As the fog of my brain injury lifted, cueing the sharpening of the prickly sensations upon my skull, I eked the lyrics out of my memory: “Never meant to cause you any sorrow / never meant to cause you any pain.”

***

I cried the first time I heard “Purple Rain.” (This puts Prince in a broad category of musicians that runs the gamut from Television to Miles Davis to Taylor Swift.) It’s not only, in my opinion, Prince’s best song — a tough contest, to be sure, considering “Little Red Corvette” — but also one of the best songs ever written. That’s a rare achievement for a ballad, a genre whose slow-burning schmaltz tends to yank at the heartstrings rather than soar for the stars. “Purple Rain” does both, thanks to Prince’s lilting lyrics, addressing a hurt and harmed “you,” and that teasing, probing, undulating guitar solo. Prince carries us with him along every bent note, with the ebb and flow of a prom-night sway. “Purple Rain” is sad, tender, and triumphant, the sound of the most painful part of any relationship: the letting go.

“Purple Rain” is a letting go.

Price died on April 21, 2016, the same day I turned 23. He achieved a rare ubiquity in my adolescence: His iconography was everywhere and his music was nowhere. I knew he was once the “Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” the only satisfying pronunciation of the unpronounceable symbol that he performed under for a spate in the ’90s. His stare on the cover of “Purple Rain” — which has him festooned like some courtier draped around a fanged motorcycle as mist threatens to envelop him — told me everything I needed to know. Just as his career was fraught with disputes with record labels, making for spotty access to his albums in the post-Napster era, Prince’s stare was a diva’s: pouty, churlish, provocative, longing, damaged.

My first exposure to Prince came in high school. It was around the time I started playing guitar. Looking for a hero, I found a 2004 video of him, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, and others paying tribute to George Harrison at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, trading verses of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The version of the video I saw promised “the BEST guitar solo in music history.”

Prince’s histrionics begin after the final verse, his solo coloring the A minor chord with a chromatic descent. He takes a few bars, then a few more, barrelling over Petty’s attempts to steer the group back to the chorus. With his shirt unbuttoned to his midriff, Prince kneads the frets, thrusting the guitar into his groin and wielding its neck like a phallus. With each elongated note and ecstatic contortion of his lips, he scales a new climax, thrusting and weaving and longing. The panache with which he falls onto a cameraman only to rise again, still playing, would have been unworkable from any less of a showman, but Prince sells it with orgasmic euphoria. Harrison’s son beams at Prince from onstage. The band finishes. Prince tosses his instrument. The camera zooms out. The guitar goes up. It doesn’t come down.

***

Prince was a colorful player. While he wore his flamboyance in scarlet satin during the memorial for Harrison, the color most emblematic of Prince’s style was still more regal. The history of the color purple, however, begins neither with royalty nor riches, but with a snail.

Hexaplex trunculus evolved some time in the Pliocene, an ignominious epoch unknown both to dinosaurs and none but the most primitive hominins. Before the first known early human, Dinknesh — alias Lucy — wandered (on two feet, we think, an important evolutionary milestone) to her death and entombment somewhere in a desert her descendants would call Ethiopia, the Hexaplex trunculus oozed unbothered along the littoral reaches of the Mediterranean. This happened for several million years.

I couldn’t remember where I had been before landing inside the CAT scan machine, but I could tell you the song that had been rattling around my concussed head. It was Prince’s ‘Purple Rain.’

Hexaplex trunculus means, more or less, “a tip with six sides.” It is a marine gastropod mollusk. If you asked a malacologist, she would tell you that this gastropod’s shell — like any gastropod’s shell, really — is composed mostly of calcium carbonate, with a hefty dose of proteins called conchiolins. The shell of the Hexaplex trunculus displays a dextral coiling pattern, meaning that its whorls spiral to the right. (If they spiralled to the left, they would be sinistral, a cousin to our word sinister.) After six or seven whorls above the shell’s aperture, the calcium trunk forms a tiny peak. Hence: Hexaplex trunculus.

What makes this mollusk special, however, isn’t its spiny and angular shell. The value that Phoenician royalty (for example) bestowed upon the snail stems from a secret of its hypobranchial gland, a mucus-secreting sac located just inside its mantle cavity. The mucus, which moistens the snail’s viscera and protects against foreign agents, is a spectacular indigo. If gathered by the thousands and boiled by the millions, these snails produced enough snot to stain through wool.

In other words: Hexaplex trunculus sneezed purple.

And in the Mediterranean circa 1000 BCE, purple was gold. Phoenicia, an ancient civilization of seafaring traders and raiders, likely means “purple country,” famed as its people were for their chromatic alchemy that turned mollusks magenta. The purple demanded more than 10,000 snails for every gram of dye, an expensive and laborious recipe. Thus the Hexaplex trunculus’ secretion, along with the dye produced from another mollusk, the Bolinus brandarus whose own fuschia brightens with age and sunlight, was a mark of status, available only to the richest men of Phoenicia.

As the centuries passed, the color lost none of its distinction. In Byzantium, purple’s exclusivity was constitutionalized. Reserved as decoration only for the most elite, it became synonymous with royalty. The enforcement of who could flaunt purple dye and who would be put to death for wearing it is an early example of sumptuary law, the expression of ritual and right through fashion. A son born of a noble would remain merely noble. A son born of a king, however, would be porphyrogenitos — born in the purple. He would be a prince.

***

The greatest amount of pain I’ve endured was delivered to me by a nurse. The thing meant to suppress my nerves — turn my senses “insensible,” as the word anesthetic suggests — tortured me for hours.

Once the CAT scan machine relinquished me, I was pleased to discover that my sense of hearing still worked. There was a man in the room next to me, babbling to himself. He sounded terrified when questioned by the nurses as to whether he had taken any drugs the night before. I heard the results of a dizzying toxicology report (opioids, mostly) that refuted his ashamed denial. I wondered, dimly, if he had anything to do with my own battery of bruises.

Staring at a fluorescent ceiling for hours gives itself to wondering. I wondered what time it was, where my friends were, and how I’d go to the bathroom. At this point, my head had been stitched up. With however many IVs depositing who-knows-what into my veins, I was straying out of my stupor. The nurse needed only to set my middle finger in a cast and then I’d be free to begin the task of piecing together what had happened to me.

In preparation for the suturing, I got a shot of lidocaine straight into the phalanges. The lidocaine, the nurse explained, was a numbing agent to make placing the fractured pieces of bone together more bearable. “It still might hurt a little, but you won’t feel much after that.” I braced myself.

Anyone who has endured a campout in the frigid months knows that “unfeeling” is not a proper synonym for “numb.” The pain — the numbness — began in my left hand. My left hand had gone unscathed in the incident. It was also not the site of injection of the numbing agent.

I mentioned this errant numbness to the nurse. She dismissed it, frowning. It grew.

Intent on ignoring the unsettling pricks in my flesh, I released my restless mind to wandering about the room. It kept returning to my helpless body. Distraction brings us out of our sinew, into a realm more spiritual, or at least less corporeal. There aren’t many distractions in a hospital room.

Then the clenches started. The muscles in my forearm spasmed, drawing the tendons tight against my bone. My hand formed a mangled claw, my fingers sticking at odd angles, defying all motor command. I willed my fist to open, to release me from the agony. My hand disobeyed.

The vengeful tingle crept up my legs. It caressed my neck. A phantom was relieving me of control of my body, replacing the easy grace of locomotion with the rage of paralysis. I opened my mouth to speak, only to wrestle with my lips to get them to part. “Get the nurse,” I slurred, words limping like sludge off my tongue.

“Don’t panic” is always sound advice and also always easier said than done.

My chest heaved with shallow breaths, my senses becoming foggier as oxygen melted from my brain. Finding a comfortable pace for my lungs meant taking a deliberate gulp of air one inhalation at a time, while my body writhed against the unforgiving trundles of the mattress. Shorter breaths  —  more panic  —  dulled the pain, slightly. I chose panic over pain.

This is how I discovered I am allergic to lidocaine. I’ve placed that allergy next to “sulfa drugs” on every patient intake form I’ve filled out since. The episode doubled my stay in the hospital. When I was discharged at last, the doctor left me with my purple patient gown and a prescription for Oxycontin.

***

A month later, Prince collapsed on an airplane bound for his Minneapolis estate, Paisley Park. In misleadingly benign bottles, marked as aspirin, the Purple One hid a secret: an addiction to fentanyl, a narcotic derived from the same plant as Oxycontin.

Millennia before entrepreneurial mariners harvested snails along the banks of the Mediterranean, a civilization lodged between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers cultivated a species of brilliant purple flower.

Sumerians weren’t concerned with the status of the color that the bud conferred. They were interested in its seeds. When collected and dried, the poppy’s seedpods release a bitter alkaloid substance, which can be concentrated into a tincture and consumed. We call this tincture opium, a word we bastardized from the Greek ὄπιον meaning “juice of a plant.” (Compare the Arabic al-qalwī, ashes of a plant, which likely gave us “alkaloid.”)


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Opioids are thus the oldest drugs on earth. Unlike anesthetics like lidocaine, which (are supposed to) reduce sensation entirely, opioids are analgesics, targeting and eliminating pain. In the parlance of hospital administration, they’re painkillers.

Opioids’ painkilling capacity stems from the drugs’ ability to bind to protein receptors throughout the nervous system. As an agonist to some receptors, the opioid provokes a response, and as an antagonist to others, it prohibits a response entirely. The agonistic-antagonistic dance of the opioids diminishes reaction to pain.

Although that, I guess, depends on what kind of pain you’re feeling.

In 1804, the chemist Friedrich Sturner isolated an alkaloid compound from the opium poppy. He called it morphine, after the Greek god of sleep Morpheus. Morphine, like most opioids, is analgesic, soporific, and addictive  —  lulling users into the grip of the seductive unconscious. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Romantic poet known for his feverish sketches of poems, was treated for crippling depression and anxiety with an early morphine medication, beginning a lifelong descent into opium addiction. In order to combat the drug’s vise-like clench over a repeated user’s psyche, pharmacologists synthesized other alkaloids to mimic morphine’s analgesic qualities, hoping a rotation of the opioids would stay addiction. In 1959, chemist Paul Jansenn developed fentanyl, a drug whose potency is many magnitudes greater than morphine.

Like me it seems, America prefers panic to pain. There isn’t a specific threshold an outbreak has to breach before winning the label “epidemic.” In a little more than a decade-and-a-half, the number of prescription opioid medications sold in the US has quadrupled. So too has the number of opioid related deaths. According to the Center for Disease Control, fentanyl is one of the most common culprits of opioid overdose in America. Opioids claim the lives of 91 Americans every day, enough for the CDC to classify their abuse as an epidemic.

According to the Center for Disease Control, fentanyl is one of the most common culprits of opioid overdose in America. Opioids claim the lives of 91 Americans every day, enough for the CDC to classify their abuse as an epidemic.

By late 2016, the crisis emerged as crook and cause of Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. Reporters sent to diagnose the elusive Trump voter emerged with similar findings across the country: White communities ravaged by opioid addiction, broken, hopeless, riddled by the killer pain of painkillers, sent Trump to the presidency in protest of the status quo. This narrative produced a cottage industry of speculation: Veterans of Iraq, traumatized by the horrors of a futile war, returned to America addicted to painkillers; the Rust Belt, abandoned by American industries thanks to free trade and outsourced labor, was left to assuage its depression with drugs; Big Pharma bribed doctors into prescribing dangerous pills after minor operations, locking patients into a cycle of dependency. A drug designed for temporary relief from suffering has become an agent of it. Never meant to cause you any pain.

***

A few days after my birthday, the local cinema in Manchester, New Hampshire, hosted a marathon of Prince films to honor his recent passing. Manchester — or Manchvegas, as millennial locals have ironically dubbed it — is depressed and dilapidated. The city had egged outsider candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders onto victory in their party primaries two months earlier. According to a report commissioned by the city’s mayor, 2016 saw more than 19,000 visits to a recovery center by people seeking treatment for opioid addiction.

This crisis, to be honest, wasn’t on my mind. I hoped to snag a kiss at the movies. What better place than an empty theater to lock lips in, frenching to Purple Rain? I wasn’t going to miss a midnight screening and, with it, the chance to smooch another melancholic twentysomething.

I ducked into the restroom to survey how my face was healing. A sorry sight stared back at me. The caked gore had receded into the remnants of a black eye and the makings of scars on my cheek and brow. It had been a few weeks since I was stitched back together. The trauma surgeon, roused at dawn to treat me, assured me that my wounds wouldn’t disfigure my appearance. Still, a subconjunctival hemorrhage doesn’t inspire suavity. By some mountain majesty, I retained all my teeth, an intact nose, and sight in both my eyes. The scabs that marred my visage, however, also lent it a rare color. My face was a princely shade of purple.

But any hope for a kiss was dispatched, not by my sight but by my memory. In the scene that stirred a faint recollection, Prince’s cinematic alter ego returns home to find it ransacked by his abusive father. He glares down the wreckage in provocative silence — no guitar strum, no falsetto coo. Just the flick of a light switch, a gunshot, then the sirens.

The cacophony of red and blue transported me instantly out of the empty theater, to a memory I didn’t know I had. Suddenly, I was prone and paralytic, lifeless on the side of the road and stuck inside my head as chaos unfolded above me. I was taken back to muffled voices, bright and unfocused lights, and a delirious acceptance that my body had been taken over. No panic. No pain.

The sound of Purple Rain’s sirens summoned this memory from its depths in my reptilian brain. It was a somatic sensation, furrowed deep in the mire of concussion, again brought to bear on my viscera.

Two men attacked me. I had been walking on the outskirts of town in an unfamiliar neighborhood, alert but not alert enough. My body doesn’t remember what the aggressors looked like or what they wanted, but it does remember the barrage of knuckles and the limp crash onto the curb. Sometimes, I can picture two pairs of sneakers sprinting beyond the reach of headlights. Mostly, it’s blood, bruises, and “Purple Rain.”

* * *

Matthew Miles Goodrich is a writer and an organizer. He serves as digital editor for Guernica and trains with the populist climate movement Sunrise. His work has appeared online in Dissent, The Baffler, and Catapult. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and through several other platforms.

Editor: Sari Botton