Going by the magazines in the local newsagents, whether Jennifer Aniston is or isn’t pregnant occupies the minds of many people. I’m not one of them. Likewise, what dress Victoria Beckham wore last week matters as little to me as where she went, and I’m not sure I’d even recognise a Kardasian if I came across one. My life doesn’t feel lacking because I have no clue which Hollywood star is dating whom or who has put on ten pounds.
But sometimes the life of a famous person goes deeper than a few inches in the gossip columns or the front page of Hello or TMZ. Ironically, it could be that when a famous person keeps life private that we feel most connected with them. I don’t know.
I do know that when I heard British comedienne Victoria Wood had died, I felt momentary surprise and sadness, and then got on with whatever I had been doing. The same was true when David Bowie died. Yet, when I heard Prince had died, I felt a deeper sense of loss.
What makes us feel this loss more with one person or another? It’s not that I think Prince was a better person, or ultimately more important. While there’s little doubt he was incredibly innovative in his work, so was David Bowie, and Victoria Wood was a pioneer in women’s comedy – along with Julie Walters she paved the way for many British female comedy acts. Prince was of course more famous worldwide than Wood, though not than Bowie.
However, for me it has nothing to do with that. It’s to do with what or who we identify with. It’s about the memories that come into our minds, a sense of connection, if not with the person, with their work or with what they presented to the world. Victoria Wood was cuddly, sweet, and once won a poll of people you’d most like to live next door to. I can’t imagine Prince ever winning a poll like that. Victoria Wood was self-effacing, as shown in this article from The Telegraph: “Yes, I have had accolades,” she says almost under her breath, her head bowing.Prince knew he was good at what he did, and wasn’t afraid to say so.
So yes, Victoria was “one of us,” except a bit more successful. Prince was something else, something more.
Except of course, he wasn’t. He was just a person, like any of us, mortal.
The moment I heard he’d died, his song Sign of the Times came into my mind, along with the memory of the apartment I lived in at the time I bought that record – on vinyl because it was cheaper than a CD, long before it was hipster to buy vinyl. (We all thought vinyl was on the way out back then.)
The music of that song thrilled me, and so did its lyrics. For the few people who don’t know the song, the first line is: “In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.” Those lyrics understood the essence of the time: everyone was afraid of AIDs back then, to the extent that most people didn’t want to speak its name.
That Prince could take that fear and turn it into a brilliant song was part of his genius. He wasn’t the first person to take serious issues and make them into songs, but it was the way he did it that inspired. He left space for us, the listeners, to make our own connections, to join him in discovery, to face the un-faceable.
I’m not a musician or even particularly knowledgeable about what makes music great, but you don’t need me to tell you Prince was exceptional – it’s been all over the internet and newspapers since he died. The Prince music I know best is that of the eighties and nineties. I never saw him live – the one time I had a ticket, he cancelled because of an adverse weather forecast.
Over the years, I grew less involved with music and listened less. Years of going to rock concerts left me with tinnitus, which included some sounds echoing as if they came from inside my ear as well as outside. Music was particularly bad for this, and at times listening to it felt unbearable so I rarely did.
Eventually that improved, but by the time I started listening to music again Prince was no longer the mega-star he had once been. These days, the music I listen to comes via my teenage daughters, so I sing along to James Bay, George Ezra, Marina and the Diamonds, and countless others. But rarely Prince. I had to hunt for Sign o the Times when it wouldn’t go out of my mind last week, and found it buried in a cupboard with several other vinyl records.
In early drafts of my first novel Drawings In Sand, Stella, the main character, comes home on a snowy day in April, sees flowers in the back yard, and remembers lyrics from Prince’s song, Sometimes it Snows in April.
The song’s bleak atmosphere perfectly echoed Stella’s mood.
The daffodils in the back green were hiding now. Their head closed up, their stems buried in snow. The Prince song echoed through her head.
Sometimes it snows in April,
Sometimes it seems that life is never ending
She turned her back on the daffodils and climbed upstairs to her flat. The mortise lock was done up. She had got her wish. Only she didn’t want it any more. She wanted them both there. Macklin and Kirsty. Then she would know everything was okay, everything was real. She couldn’t remember what was real any more. She couldn’t remember anything except an old Prince song. Sometimes it feels so bad.
Then I read an article by Blake Morrison about the cost of quoting lyrics in a novel – he’d paid out over £4400 to include a few lines from songs in a novel. I cut those lyrics along with all the other songs I’d quoted. (I’ll risk the quotes here because should someone slap me with “pay or else” demand, I can simply unpublish this post.) It felt like a loss, but I couldn’t afford thousands for a few lines.
All that are left in the novel are the titles – here’s Prince’s cameo appearance in my novel:
Stella had to act normal, answer this woman whose name she should be able to remember, but couldn’t. “Yes. Yes, I was supposed to be, but with all this snow…”
The woman nodded. “It got cancelled. Bit of a surprise isn’t it? Snow in April.”
Prince sang a song about that.
No, no. She couldn’t say that. It was a crazy thing to think about, now when this was happening.
Music no longer defined Stella’s memories, the way it does for so many of us. One morning, decades ago, I arrived at work as Boops by Sly and Robbie came onto the car radio. It was the first time I’d heard it, and I waited till it had finished before I got out of the car. Prince’s music had the same effect on me. The songs felt so astonishing, so different. But it was more than that: I felt alive when I listened to them, vibrantly alive in a way I didn’t always feel then.
I guess that’s why I cried a little when I heard that Prince had died.
Photo of Prince by Culture Culte via Flickr