The first song I ever heard by Prince was “Soft and Wet,” his first soul chart hit, but at the time the song was being played on the Black station in Saginaw, Michigan where lived, I didn’t know who sang it. Sometime later, when I first heard “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” I’m sorry to say that at first I thought it was a Michael Jackson song.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long after that when I learned the name of Prince. I was in late elementary school, and “…Lover” and “Sexy Dancer” had made Prince all the rage in funk music. This was so much so that what probably was his first concert in Saginaw was a bill with Rick James; the concert was hyped on TV as “the King of Funk versus the Prince!”
The “Rick James vs. Prince” concert was all the talk at my school, even among some of the adults. One of them was a special instructor who came to my class once a week to show a film and talk about health-related topics. He was younger man than the regular teacher and dressed in t-shirts instead of the usual formal teacher attire, so he had a great rapport with the students.
At the end of one class as the instructor was unloading his film from the projector, the kids started talking about the upcoming concert and debating who was the “baddest” between Rick James and Prince. The instructor chimed in his opinion: “I think Prince is a very bad dude, but I still think he’s…” and he held out his hand, palm down and fingers spread, and wiggled it with a twisting motion in his wrist.
Thanks to the hit TV show Sanford & Son, everyone in that class knew what this gesture meant with what he said: He believed Prince was “funny,” “a sissy,” “queer” — effeminate and gay. Prince’s press-and-curl hairdo, petite, wiry frame, and flamboyant sexual exhibitionism had already gotten him labeled “queer” by much of the public by the time I was about 11 years old.
In my class that day, I got the message: Being queer was not good, but if you were “bad” like Prince, people might still like you.
When I was 14 or 15 years old, I went out on the best date with a boy I ever had: Prince, the Time and Vanity 6 in concert at the Saginaw Civic Center. I was so happy that the boy I was dating, Barry, paid the then-hefty sum of $10 a ticket for us to go to this concert; as the daughter of a divorced mother of three who was surviving on welfare, there was no way I could get the money to go to a major concert at an arena. In fact, this was my first concert ever.
I was all dressed up and giddy when Barry and I entered the civic center and gave the staff our tickets. However, as we made our way through the crowd that was moving into the arena, we got separated. There I was, at my first concert — without the boy who paid for me to be there!
I soon gave up on finding Barry and looked to find a seat in the arena. It was general admission open seating — anyone could sit anywhere. As I tried to find a seat, I ran into some buddies of mine and sat with them before the show began.
Vanity 6 was the first act, followed by the Time. The band was amazing, and I was so keyed up by the Time’s performance that I made a bold decision: I would leave my seat in the arena stands, go down to the floor and bogart a place there so I could see Prince up close. I made my way to the arena floor.
Riding high off the 1999 album, Prince played hits from it like “D.M.S.R.” and the title song, as well as earlier album hits like “Controversy.” One memorable moment from the concert was when a bed rose from behind the stage to a place above Prince and his band during “International Lover.” Prince climbed up to the bed, took off his shirt, lay across the bed and started humping and grinding on it.
With his curly pompadour, flashy outfit and big, bright eyes, “His Royal Badness” had succeeded in blowing minds, including mine, with his sexual outlawry. Deep inside, though I looked like any other girl at the concert, I was a sexual outlaw too: dating a boy when I was enraptured with a male star who people labeled as queer — and his girlfriend Vanity!
Barry and I managed to find each other after the concert, and he took me home. My relationship with him did not progress, but my relationship with Prince and the Minneapolis Sound prospered. My best friend Tina and I later went to see Purple Rain at a theater: The whole crowd chanted, “Oh no, let’s go!” along with Prince with the movie’s opening song “Let’s Go Crazy.”
The bold, bad, funky music of Prince and the Minneapolis Sound made Tina and me brash and daring in our attitudes. We often shocked other people with how blatantly and matter-of-factly we talked about sex. Naturally, she was the first person I revealed my inner sexual outlaw to: I came out to her as queer when I was 16, and she quietly, warmly accepted it and me.
The music and images of Prince and the Minneapolis Sound kick-started my puberty, fueled the fire of my adolescence and gave me something to hold on to as a secretly queer teen. Thank you, Barry, for taking me to my first concert. Thank you, Tina, for being my best friend.
And thank you, Prince, the late Denise “Vanity” Matthews, and the Minneapolis Sound, for helping me grow brave, bold and bad!
Stephani Booker welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.