Prince for Mormons
I. Nothing wrong with the machinery
Knew a girl named Nikki
I guess you could say she was a stamp fiend
Met her in a hotel lobby
Clipping coupons from a magazine
That’s how I managed Prince when he first came into my life. I gelded him with a joke, one I told anyone who would listen. It was all I could do.
We all knew the record in 1984, and its maker. It was the something in the water that did not compute. Many are surprised to learn that even Mormon children listen to pop music: that while they are taught they are in the world, not of it, they are still good and IN it. It was a cool and aloof Mormon boy who first played me Run DMC and Kurtis Blow. And it was the Mormons who first played me Prince.
Counter to what Footloose may have taught you, Mormons love to dance. I grew up in a church world where every month brought a “Super Saturday.” Mormon teenagers from all over the area would come together in one building for a day of classes, testimony meetings where we would serially affirm that only Mormons were correct in their understanding of the world, and a big dance.
I remember none of the classes. I remember only in aggregate the thousands of hours of testimony I grew up hearing, queasily. I remember the dances in vivid, 1080p resolution.
They were in the basketball gym (nee “cultural hall”) that every Mormon church has right behind the main meeting room, divided from it by an accordioned door that could be opened for overflow seating. Mormons love basketball the way they love Boy Scouting and covered dish dinners: its general salubriousness, its chance for fellowship while also providing low-level cultural norming. One of the driest jokes I ever heard was that the “Spaulding Theory” actually referred to the belief that any boy who touched a basketball one million times in a Mormon church would eventually go on a mission. There was a stage at the other end for the frequent Mormon incursions into amateur drama (that’s another essay). The room was usually carpeted in a thin and noxious material that dampened sound but, when you fell on it it, left a hell of a rug burn.
Having a gym meant it was easy to throw a dance every month. Easier than doing one at the the high school, really: no coach fussing about the floor. These were real-deal dances, with DJs and light shows and playlists that were mostly up to the moment. I remember Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” and all the Michael Jackson hits, lots of Whitney Houston. It’s not a stretch to say that Mormon dances in the early 80s might have been more integrated than MTV.
There were two kinds of dances, as there shall always be: fast and slow. Fast lent itself to circle-jumping and gyrating, and some half-assed swing moves among the braver of us. Slow — well, that could only mean holding a damp young woman you sort of knew, who lived two hours away, sort of close, and rocking back and forth with one hand on the small of her back and one holding the other in the air, Lawrence Welk-style.
You couldn’t get away with too close. That strange Mormon two-mindedness about so much was in full evidence here: socialize, laugh and eat together, abundantly, that you may soon marry each other and bear Mormon children. But whatever you do, don’t touch each other. In the south, Baptist chaperones prowl high school dances ensuring couples are far enough apart for a Bible to comfortably fit in the gap (“space for the Spirit to grow”). Thus it was also in these dances, though a Book of Mormon was substituted. Lucky us: it was thinner.
The jokes are easy to make, but the Mormon abhorrence of teen sexuality wasn’t funny. Still isn’t, I hear.
Sex was the most powerful force in all our lives at that age, but we had to pretend it wasn’t. If you ever owned up to it — which I did, once, in a spasm of guilt induced by one of those youth testimony meetings — you paid for it by being put on a very particular hit list. Interviews by your bishop every month, whose purpose was to make sure you weren’t doing it, with others or alone. Or thinking about it, really. Every month, one-on-one in a cold painted-cinderblock room discussing your non-sex life across a crummy brown Formica desk with a middle manager in a suit and tie. And then spending every waking hour of your life outside that office trying not to think about it, and beating yourself up for not being godly enough not to.
Anyway: despite the thick coat of toxic shame about sex that was spread on everything like mayonnaise, Prince was a mainstay at these monthly boogies-down. A testament to the ever-loving power of his mojo. He was the universal solvent.
Purple Rain’s hits offered peak experiences of both kinds. “Let’s Go Crazy” was an epic fast-dance song, for jumping and FREAKING OUT. Its long spoken-word intro gave you nearly a minute to run and gather all your friends from the restroom and the hall to join you in the middle of the floor. It’s hopped-up rockabilly groove was, as we‘d soon learn to say, so choice. Even the beat drop near the end with the screeching solo allowed you to air-guitar in unison, and pound the end of the song into the athletic-carpeted floor with your penny-loafered feet.
It was a potent packet of word-up groove, transcendent, custom-built for shaking hands with Jesus. It invariably left us crumpled in sweaty, shirt-and-askew-tie, broken heel glory, gasping for the punch bowl. Prince was a prophet of boogie, the one we had been waiting for.
Those skills, in that setting, transformed the title track into church too. It was always the last song of the night. Other slow dance numbers would be peppered throughout the evening: ballads by Styx and Journey, Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” somehow, always.
But what could follow “Purple Rain”? The slow gospel guitar cadence brought a solemnity to the dark hall. In silence, you sought out whoever you could right now best imagine marrying and raising children into hazy eternity with. And you held each other and rocked, so slow, for the long seven minutes that song afforded you.
As close as you could manage, but dignified now, somehow. This wasn’t lust. It was a godly connection, because of what it might one day mean. “You marry who you date,” our leaders repeated over and over again, a gentle but clear signal that we should keep our attentions among the people assembled here, in this room, with us right now. You are to have children and an eternal family, take your place in God’s endless vision of creation and fruitfulness, with who you marry. And you date who you dance to “Purple Rain” with.
The weird thing was it sure sounded like Prince got this: the God / love / sex continuum. Almost the way Mormons did — but without the shame.
When the rhythm fell away and the song evaporated into string sostenuto, more times than not we all just stayed there rocking slower and slower. Time stopping and holding us green and dying in its hands, offering us to eternity.
That was it, for Prince and me, for a few months. “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain” at dances: alpha and omega, planets circling my monthly boogie / not-sex consummation.
It was plenty. But he wasn’t done with me yet.
The full record came to me early 1985, when a friend finally copied it for me on her dual tape-deck. (I wonder what it backed on that 90 minute TDK — EBN OZN? Sade? What backs Purple Rain?).
To a Mormon boy’s ears, Purple Rain is all about how far you are willing to go. To a boy for whom just thinking about it is a sin, it’s a tortured slide down that you know you’ll regret, repent for on Sunday, but just can’t seem to turn off.
“Let’s Go Crazy” loses nothing in its jump from dark church gym to my boombox. Take it away! Yes, do — I’ll join you, friend. So far so good.
But the vertiginous drop of the intro to “Take Me with U” slams the door to the basement open. Drums crashing down the stairs and finger cymbals chiming exoticism and (maybe) waking in a hypnotist’s thrall, your will no longer your own. All I want is 2 spend the night together. All I want is 2 spend the night in your arms. Chugga chugga chugga. Uh oh.
“The Beautiful Ones” elevates again to something near the celestial love of the church slow dance, brings us together. What’s it gonna be? Is it him or is it me? If we get married — would that b cool? But then the menace creeps up again, slow at first, escaping the square corners of the song in a tiny dissonance here, a guitar squib there…until the tempered progress toward a righteous coupling is kicked over all at once, double bass drums thrumming into the lift and the soaring arc of the only question that ever mattered:
do u want him.
or do u want me.
coz I want u.
And the minor wells up beneath, something dark and oily swelling the song through its climax and burbling afterglow.
But we’re not done yet.
“Computer Blue” jams us back into the funky mechanisms of the deed itself, ready or not. Maggie Nelson explains better than anyone the song’s first revelation:
I cannot overemphasize the importance of Wendy and Lisa. That they were just there, the first women I’d ever seen as fundamental parts of a band, a band that shredded. They were the stoic dudes keeping it together to Prince’s histrionic grace…You just knew, because they were always together, because they played their instruments without self-consciousness, and because Lisa says, “Wendy?” and Wendy answers, “Yes, Lisa.”
Understand that, by “Computer Blue,” you had already decided. If you were a listener for whom listening had a cost, you had already, deep down, decided to pay it.
So those are the stakes you bring to its crunching assertion that “nothing’s wrong with the (your) machinery” — because even though it feels true, you can’t believe it. You’re not allowed to. Of course something’s wrong with you if you have come this far, have so fully ignored Tipper Gore’s sticker on the front (I know, it wasn’t there yet — but for me it sure was).
But maybe nothing is. Wrong. Maybe nothing will be wrong for another few minutes. Just don’t turn it off, not yet, not yet.
And then it’s time for Nikki.
The screeching and whooshing at the end of “Computer Blue,” even now, raises the hair on my neck, because it means it’s time to turn it off and skip “Darling Nikki.” You can justify the record up until then. If anyone asked (and someone would) why you were listening, there was plenty going on but it was veiled, halfway, like that little hat he wore in the “When Doves Cry” video.
But if you’re listening to “Nikki,” you’re good and gone.
I usually skipped it: I did. The whooshing and yelping meant it was time to dive for the FF button before that tom lick dropped into the snares-off striptease beat. Check please — I’m out past curfew.
Now, of course, I can hear the humor in the song. There’s so much of it: the “bump-bump” in the kick after he declares her a “sex fiend,” letting the words just lie there, fizzing like soda on the lawn. The little guitar gliss up to the 5th before the second verse. He’s playing with you: sex is funny too.
But to a kid well-cooked in sex as godly consummation of the eternal plan and the box you don’t open until God tells you you can, there was nothing funny about it.
Again, Maggie Nelson has her finger on why the song opened the world for many of us, but locked it down tighter for others:
Yeah, he’s telling Apollonia to come back, but you can tell he doesn’t really give a shit about Apollonia. He’s possessed by something else, his life force onstage.
My “life force” wasn’t mine to take control of yet, not really. I could make any life choice I wanted to, as long as it was the right one. This guy — the guy who sang “Darling Nikki” — he’d decided to make his own choices, and he wasn’t asking permission, and he sure as hell wasn’t repenting.
He was a serious guy, under the pants and the splits and the eyeshadow. Deadly serious about being a whole person, about mainlining the thing in him that burned brightest and going where it led. No matter what.
He was incredible — and terrifying, existentially annihilating. The church president gave a talk in 1980 that we were told to read over and over. It also pulled out all the stops: to keep us from ever going where Prince went. Insisting that if we followed him, then “when it was late — so late — so everlastingly late — we [would wake] up to the meaning of what we had done.” That we would lose our souls, assuredly, unless we then took up an arduous road of self-purification that may or may not work, because we might be too far gone.
These were the stakes, dearly beloved, of getting through this thing called life. The celestial promises of Purple Rain were fraught on all sides by the chance that you might screw it up, permanently, eternally.
When I hear Purple Rain, I feel so much now. Mainly gratitude that I’m out of that story: that against odds I’ve built another world that comports with reality about sex, and about most things.
But I still aspire to his courage; to his energy; to his living on compliments and herbal tea.
I know I never lost my bead on him again, through the rest of his astonishing career. That I always ended up having his record, whatever he had out right then, and knowing all the words and all the licks on it.
I think it’s the “life force onstage” he never didn’t have. When it was time for me to leave the Mormons, he somehow signaled somewhere to go.
He helped me connect to mine. Maybe he gave it back to me.
hey take a listen
baby do u like what u hear
if it don’t turn you on
then just say the word and I’m gone
but honey I know
ain’t nothin’ wrong with your ears