I just can’t believe all the things people say…
It was 1981. I was 14 and one night I was listening to the radio. That’s pretty much what I did at that age if I wasn’t outside goofing around, I’d sit in my room and draw and listen to the radio. Anyway, I’m sitting there and I hear this song come on that just sort of hit me. I’d never heard anything quite like it and it sent me scrambling for the phone to call the radio station. “What was that song? Who sang it?” I asked. The DJ asked if I liked it, I said “Heck yeah” and he told me that it was the title track from an album called Controversy by this guy named Prince who was, he said, gonna blow up soon.
“Prince. That’s an interesting name”, I thought. This was before using one name was fashionable. Sure, there was Cher, Elvis and Bozo, but none of them were as cool as being called Prince.
Anyway, a few days later I hopped on my bike and rode to the mall to hit the record store where I found a copy of Controversy as well as Prince’s previous album, Dirty Mind. I was surprised by the overtly sexual songs – most of the stuff I’d listened to up to this point was classic rock (well, back then we just called it rock as it wasn’t classic yet), light rock and some pop. Yes, I knew of and listened to Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, old Motown, the growing rap scene and disco – but none of what I’d heard had been so… frank, I guess. Of course, being 14 meant I thought I’d found some mother lode of stuff I probably shouldn’t be listening to, so that was cool.
Released 35 years ago today (October 14, 1981), Controversy was critically well received and garnered mostly good reviews. Peaking at #21 on the US Billboard Top 200, it only spawned two Top 200 singles – ‘Controversy’ at #70 and ‘Let’s Work’ at #140 (although both fared much better on the R&B charts, coming in at #3 and #9, respectively). Of course, those sort of things didn’t matter to me – I was more concerned with Prince singing about his sexuality, gender, religion, and racial background, all of which combined blew my mind. Remember, I was barely a teenager and this kind of stuff was all still new to this white, suburban kid. Heck, I even memorized The Lord’s Prayer thanks to this cut. The 15ish minutes combined run time of ‘Jack U Off’, ‘Sexuality’ and, ‘Do Me, Baby’ all probably taught me more about the birds and the bees than I’d learned up until that point. (Side note: sighing the words “I’m so cold” sounds erotic when Prince says it at the end of ‘Do Me Baby’ but uttering those words in reality usually just gets a “Do I need to go turn up the heat?” response).
I managed to track down copies of Prince’s first two albums, For You and Prince, over the next few months. I’d never been inclined to buy entire albums before this, keeping myself happy with 45s and recording stuff off of the radio. But Prince’s music… I don’t want to say it spoke to me because that sounds pretty dumb, but it did something. He was the first artist I knew as more than just a singer or someone who played an instrument, and my eyes were opened to more than just catchy beats and lyrics. The funk of the drums, horns and guitars created one helluva experience.
It’s still hard to believe that he’s gone. Prince was the first musician whose music I loved. My first concert was the Purple Rain tour in 1984 and while I saw many other acts in the years that followed, he and his music transcended all of the others. He was a musical genius who entertained and inspired countless fans, not the least of which was a little suburban white kid who hasn’t stopped grooving to the funk over the past 35 years. Thank U, Prince, for every suggestive lyric and funky guitar riff U blessed us with.