First Bowie, now Prince. For people my age, whatever else is happening in our lives, this is the year we start saying goodbye. I've been immersing myself in music and stories, perhaps as a way of celebrating life or maybe just to prolong the moment of departure.
In February, only two months before Prince died, one of his great loves died. Her name was Denise but, as Prince tended to do with his many lovers and musical protégés, he had wanted to rename her. The name he chose was Vagina (pronounced Vah-gee-nah). Quite sensibly, she declined, and took the name Vanity instead. Of their split, Vanity had said she loved Prince and missed his sense of humor but, "I needed one person to love me, and he needed more." She died a born-again Christian and the two hadn't been in touch for many years.
Prince learned of her death right before going onstage to perform in Melbourne, Australia. The feeling was very intimate—no band, no backup singers, no dancers—just Prince on the stage, all 5'2 of him, and a grand piano—for his Piano-and-a-Microphone-Solo Tour. Before playing "Little Red Corvette," he told the audience, "I just found out a little while ago that someone very dear to us has passed away, so I'm going to dedicate this song to her." He then proceeded to dedicate every single song to her, in one way or another, working her name into the lyrics and the mood. Denise, Denise, Denise.
When he returned to the stage for an encore, he said, "I am new to this playing alone. I thank you all for being so patient. I'm trying to stay focused, it's a little heavy for me tonight. Just keep jamming...
"Can I tell you a story about Vanity? Or should I tell you a story about Denise? Her and I used to love each other deeply...
"She and I would fight. She was very headstrong cause she knew she was the finest woman in the world. She never missed an opportunity to tell you that." Prince told a story about a fight where he had threatened to throw her into a pool and she replied, You can't throw me in the pool, you're too little. He then asked his female bodyguard named Chick—who was 6 feet tall—to do it for him.
Love is strange, isn't it? Unpredictable, un-pin-downable, it shows up at the strangest times, in strange ways, taking flight and reappearing in another form. What makes Prince's story so funny and touching? Maybe it comes down to timing. Love in your 30s feels different from your 50s, love after separation, love after love, after betrayal, after death, each leaves a different imprint on the soul, and a different kind of longing. We all have stories, but after awhile the way we tell them changes.
I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints.
I'm frightened by the devil
and I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid.
The first time I first heard Joni Mitchell's song, "A Case of You," I was around 13 and had never been in love. But right from the start it was my song. I mean, you can't always be in the mood to listen to a melancholy love song, but that was irrelevant. For as long as I can remember, that song has been my touchstone. Anguished, maybe a little embarrassing, but comforting, too, like a beautiful prayer I sing for myself.
The point is, I'm 53 now, and even after 40 years of life experience, Joni's song was still my song up till last week.
The first time I heard Prince's cover of Joni's song, last week, I was transformed. I know that sounds really corny. I know I had probably changed long before but still, without Prince I might never have noticed. With the very first line of "A Case of U," Prince's voice could easily be mistaken for Joni's—but then the earth moves. Breaking through that pure, sweet falsetto the deeply masculine emerges, intimate as pillow talk, from the lower end of his vocal register.
He subtly alters the lyrics and some verses are dropped entirely—gone are the bitter lines
and I said,"Constantly in the darkness, where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar."
Instead he extends the lines
Remember you told me love is touching souls?
Surely you've touched mine.
Part of you pours out of me
from time to time in these lines.
You're in my blood like holy wine, you're so bitter,
so bitter, so bitter, so sweet and
I could drink a case of you, darling
and still be on my feet,
and I'd still be on my feet.
Also, Prince is singing Gospel.
So the same song, but absolutely different. Prince is still a lonely painter, but he's no longer afraid. That's in the past now. I think if I could use only one word to describe the transformation in Prince's version, it would be matured.
He could have sung this wearing a purple feather boa and lace gloves, high heels and assless pants, and that still wouldn't be the biggest difference between his rendition and Joni's.
When Prince sings it, "A Case of U" is a spiritual. Here, with Prince, these lyrics seem inspired by Rumi, channeling love in all its guises, tapping into the very source of the beloved from within, and turning longing right into praise with every breath.
Joni's version ends almost abruptly, the way a candle, or love, sputters out. Prince ends the song in a lower key. His closing bars are a completely different, moodier melody that repeats, insistent, over and over like a promise of returning love.
Since the news of Prince's death, I've been listening to this song on repeat, the same way I used to listen to Joni on my record player when I was 13. Like a beautiful prayer we sing together, I feel less alone. There is a plaintive and surprisingly masculine quality in his voice that is so true. It stirs and soothes some deep yearning and I want to stay in touch with it just a little while longer.
I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints.
I used be frightened by the devil and
drawn to those ones that weren't afraid.