As the news broke yesterday about the passing of music legend Prince, people all over the world began to mourn his public legacy. For me, however, the news was a bit more personal. In addition to being a fan of his music from the very beginning (something I share with tens of millions of people worldwide), he and I grew up in the same neighborhoods in Minneapolis, MN, went to the same elementary and high schools (at the same time), and had common friends and acquaintances throughout our lives. We were never actually friends, but I knew him, from a very young age, as one of the kids in the neighborhood – not closely connected to me, but definitely part of the larger social and community fabric we shared. And his death yesterday – as with any long-remembered contemporary – cuts close to home on a number of levels.
My first memories of Prince (his real name, and as he’s always been known) were just as one of the kids in the neighborhood and at John Hay Elementary School, which we both attended in the mid to late 1960s. Nothing really specific there (and he was two years older than I, so although I knew who he was, we never shared a class). A few years later, though, after I had moved out of the neighborhood and gone to another elementary and then middle school, I recall on one of my first days in high school sitting in band class, watching another kid walk into the room and thinking, “Hey, that’s Prince Nelson!” and feeling for a moment like I’d just re-connected with a bit of my old neighborhood, which I missed very much.
My memories of Prince in high school are slightly more vivid – yes, he hung out in the band room a lot, but mostly in one of the individual practice carrels, playing piano by himself and refusing all entreaties from the band director to join any sort of organized class. Our high school building, built in 1909, was a rather grand old pile of bricks, and among its most charming features were interior brick windowsills in the classrooms and hallways, at least a foot deep, where you could sit very comfortably alone or in pairs…and where Prince could also often be found (up in the fourth floor hallway by the music rooms) noodling quietly on a guitar.
He also had a band, called Grand Central and made up of several other Central High students and friends, which played at least a couple of our school dances. The thing I remember most about those performances was one song, in particular, whose lyrics consisted of nothing but four-letter profanities. (As a 15-year-old I was shocked by that…but now I am even more surprised and impressed that the school allowed it – an odd reminder to me of how much things have changed when it comes to oversight of teens in the last 40 years.)
Finally, a couple of years after high school, I had a work friend who was dating Prince during the time he was recording his second album. He was traveling a lot at the time, and when he was back home in Minneapolis he often stayed at her apartment for days (weeks?) at a time, running up long-distance bills on her phone while she was at work. During this period, I mentioned to my friend that I still had an old yearbook from my and Prince’s days at John Hay School, and she asked if she could borrow it to show it to him. She did, and reported that he really enjoyed looking at it. Weeks and months went by after I loaned it to her, however, and I was afraid I might not get it back again. Eventually, though, my friend remembered to return the yearbook…and I haven’t let it out of my hands since.
It was also around that time that another friend of mine and I heard that Prince would be giving one of his rather famous spur-of-the moment shows that night at a local club called First Avenue (forever memorialized several years later in the movie “Purple Rain”). We decided we should go and see him, and I was immediately glad that we did. He played for three solid hours, at maximum energy and without a break, in what still stands as one of the two best concerts I’ve ever seen in my life. Although I’d been following his career since the beginning, and knew he was immensely talented, that was the moment I had a real glimpse of what he would become. It was electric.
Last night, as the world – and many of my old friends and classmates – started to process the fact that Prince (both the public and private figure) is gone, one old friend, who now lives in London but is currently back visiting family in Minneapolis, noted with a bit of awe that several large bridges in the Twin Cities were awash last night in a memorial purple light…”all for a kid from John Hay.” I sent her Mayor Eric Garcetti’s picture of L.A.’s City Hall, similarly colored…”all for a kid from John Hay!”