Prince of the Midwest

For one Wisconsin farm boy, Minneapolis will always be the city of Purple Rain.

Michael Perry | Under Purple Skies | Belt Publishing | May 2019 | 10 minutes (1,861 words)

 

You’d never dream it looking at me, all doughy, bald, and crumpling in my 50s, but I owe the sublimated bulk of my aesthetic construct to Prince Rogers Nelson, circa Purple Rain. The film and album were released the summer after my fresh-off-the farm freshman year in college. I sat solo through the movie a minimum of four times, wore the hubs off the soundtrack cassette, draped my bedroom with purple scarves, stocked the dresser top with fat candles, and Scotch-taped fishnet to the drywall above the bed. Intended to create seductive shadows of mystery, it wound up a pointless cobweb.

I furthermore spent time scissoring words and letters out of magazines and taping them around the edges of the bureau mirror to re-create Prince’s lyrics in the style of a hostage note, phonetic shorthand included (Prince was text message before text message). Prior to this, my idea of interior design was a pair of antlers and a linked chain of all my used football mouth guards dating back to seventh grade. But then came Prince.

In my memory I recall the scene in Purple Rain of Prince and Appolonia making love in the barn. I knew that barn.

And my perception of masculinity, of beauty, of my own Midwest, expanded. Expanded a tad more than was sustainable, as it turned out, but expanded. Prince was not my single motivator, but he lit the incense. Within a year of watching Purple Rain I bought my first army surplus trench coat, rode a Greyhound bus out of Wisconsin to work as a cowboy in Wyoming, made my first trip to Europe, and began experimenting with hair mousse.

* * *

It’s tricky, tantamount to tacky, composing postmortem paeans to people of renown. The pitfalls are plenty: reverse-engineered significance, boutique bereavement, the appropriation of grief as virtue-signaling, leveraging fame to which I have no claim.

In fact, I am simply sad that Prince Rogers Nelson is gone.

Hand over heart: I wrote the opening paragraph to this piece the week before he died.

* * *

For someone growing up in New Auburn, Wisconsin, Minneapolis was the distant mystery city. The few times I ventured across the Minnesota state line, I was a kid riding shotgun in a pickup truck with my dad and a load of lambs, and even then we went only as far as the St. Paul stockyards.

Minneapolis was a skyline cluster, a glow. Once my grandfather took me to the top of the IDS Center, but he wouldn’t spring for tickets to the observation deck. Instead we got a long elevator ride capped by a glimpse of sky. My perception of the metropolis remained that of a sidewalk-level hick craning his neck. I just remember glass and tall.

Then it was back to the farm. Two hours by sheep truck. Northwestern corner of Chippewa County, Wisconsin. Milk the cows, sling the manure, go to church every Sunday. A lean church, with lean beliefs. No movies, no radio, no dancing. Books, though? I had stacks. I was not unhappy.

* * *

In my memory I recall the scene in Purple Rain of Prince and Appolonia making love in the barn. I knew that barn. I knew the light striping through those rough-cut boards. Those rawbone beams. And while my churchly ways and other clumsinesses precluded me ever engaging in anything remotely approaching Prince’s gynecological gymnastics, I did indeed know what it was to kiss a girl with chaff in her hair.

All these rural vibes and here’s this glittering fellow in stilettos, ridiculous in the context, and yet — down there in the funk — hitting notes that resonated in the heart of a chaste doofus shod in Farm & Fleet clodhoppers. Old Man Johnson’s Farm? Where Prince took Appolonia on that Hondamatic? Its dead ringer sat right off our back forty. For real. Same barn, same surname. Ed Johnson. You could check the plat.


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But coldhearted fact-checking revealed my Purple Rain memory to be a conflation over time. The haymow scene wasn’t in the film but rather in the trailer. Even then it was just a half-second shot of Appolonia standing in straw. The lovemaking took place elsewhere.

Some of what I recollect was in the “When Doves Cry” video. And Old Man Johnson’s farm was name-checked in “Raspberry Beret,” which came out the year after Purple Rain.

But these little call-outs, these lyric and visual specifics — they threaded my coarse flannel with a strand of purple, connecting the stumblebum to the star.

* * *

Sometime around 1992, I co-wrote a frozen pizza commercial for a company in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We drove to Minneapolis to edit the video at a production company called Crash+Sues.

By then I’d come to know Minneapolis through a smattering of visits: The Metrodome for a Twins Game, a Neil Diamond concert at the Target Center, a Molly & the Heymakers show at First Avenue, an airport drop-off, a family reunion in the suburbs. In other words, as a tourist. But I knew the way, and the city felt less distant, less mysterious. A Badger State cheesehead to the core, I nonetheless came to think of it as “our” big city. Came a time when Manhattan-based publicists would schedule me on book tour flights out of Milwaukee. “It’s a five hour drive to Milwaukee from my farm,” I’d say, “But 90 minutes due west of here? Minneapolis! They have an airport there with airplanes that go all over the world!

“But…but you live in Wisconsin!” They said this more than once.

“Yes,” I always replied, “and we have an open border agreement with Minnesota.”

The Crash+Sues edit suite was set up like a mini-amphitheater. A few rows of desks and seating, and the monitors down front. There was no light but the screen-glow. The engineer said Prince had been there to work on a video. Slipped in and sat in the backmost row. Called for cuts and rewinds and playback quietly, but decisively. Then he left. I was taken by this image, of the electrifying performer in economy mode. Doing his work, then departing. Right here.

* * *

I rerun these fragments and uncertain memories not to claim Prince, but rather as thanks for the tangible good he did me. The paragraph I wrote the week before he died was for a chapter on aesthetics in a book about the 16th-century French philosopher Montaigne. That is not the sort of tangent a hay bale stacking farm boy follows without felicitous nudges.

I think of my young self trying to be Prince, a foolish pursuit on the face of it, but essential at the heart of it, leading as it did to other gracious worlds. I think of him at work in and around Minneapolis, percolating his purple explosion, and how a few grains drifted across the St. Croix River and settled on my boots.

And if my leaden feet were not lightened, if I did not morph into an irresistible sex machine, I did think, “Well, perhaps I don’t have to stay this way.” And then, with a lot more clomping than dancing, I found my way into a life beyond the farm, and for the following thirty years went daily to the keyboard, trying to make a little art.

* * *

We all end up dead meat. I can rhapsodize about the magic of a man even though I know full well he was mortal. But when I looked up from the manuscript I was working on that morning and saw the news, I wasn’t prepared for the sense of vacuum. He was right over there, I thought, casting my mind across the river. As early as this morning. Working.

Working. That was the thing. I never once saw Prince perform live. And even though I’d been to First Avenue — the seminal setting for Purple Rain — it took sitting in that little video studio for it to hit me: Minneapolis was where Prince worked. And ever since that day, I thought of him in that context. Just across the St. Croix. Working.

For plowing snow, hauling firewood, and because no matter how much French philosophy I read, nothing sorts my soul like rolling country roads in that truck.

Thanks to my background — raised by truckers, loggers, and small-patch farmers — I still struggle to get past the dumb trope of sneering at art as work. As if any given roadie hustles any less than any given logger. As if Prince’s dance-worn hips would be more honorably won had he ruined them kneeling to milk cows or trowel concrete.

I have an old pickup truck. For plowing snow, hauling firewood, and because no matter how much French philosophy I read, nothing sorts my soul like rolling country roads in that truck. So ten minutes out, when the initial vacuum of the news that he was gone had shifted to soft vertigo, I fetched the truck and drove to my neighbor’s place.

This particular neighbor had won some Grammys, and built a recording studio a couple cornfields over. It’s not Paisley Park, but it’s enough. You can rattle around some if you’re alone in there. The only person present was the house engineer, who did a stint with Prince. Some Vegas shows. We sat for maybe five minutes, talking about the artist and his work. The door was open, the spring breeze — still surprising that time of year — riffling lyric sheets on a desk. Prince was demanding, the engineer said. A force of nature. Totally wild and far out, difficult, but 100 percent knew what he wanted. “And if he had more arms and legs and hours in a day,” said the engineer, “he would have done it all his own damn self.”

* * *

Right around the 3:55 mark of “The Beautiful Ones,” Prince goes to screeching and subsequently tosses off a Hoo! that I could never hope to utter, but am utterly able to feel. Here, he seems to be saying, let me articulate that for you. Then he shoots that shy-sly grin, message being: Try to keep up, and you will eat my royal dust.

In a box in my barn there are snapshots of me reporting for skate-guard duty at the roller rink in 1986 wearing pink hair dye and a satin magenta head scarf. Goofy as hell and so short of the mark, but further proof that Prince precipitated profound change.

A friend said Prince created his own creative world around him, something many of us in the Midwest have had to do in one way or another.

A friend said Prince created his own creative world around him, something many of us in the Midwest have had to do in one way or another. When I heard Prince, when I saw Prince, I felt moved to be more than I was. The flat-footed white boy lip-syncing “When Doves Cry” in the mirror knowing full well he couldn’t so much as polka in shitkickers, let alone do the splits in high heels, was being propelled down a path toward what the philosopher Montaigne said was the greatest thing in the world: To know how to belong to oneself.

* * *

The other day I had to explain the Prince symbol to a thirty-something graphic designer. Time roars on and we soothe ourselves with generalizations and memories. Minneapolis is still a million things I’ll never know. But when my book tour is over and the plane descends, I am still a country boy looking for the Metrodome. I can still see Grandpa marveling at the Foshay Tower. I am still riding that sheep hauler home, but in the mirror the skyline glows beneath a thin purple scrim.

***

Excerpted from Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology, edited by Frank Bures. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Perry. Reprinted by permission of Michael Perry.

Michael Perry is a humorist, radio host, songwriter, and The New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including Visiting Tom and Population: 485, as well as a novel, The Jesus Cow. He lives in northern Wisconsin with his family.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath