The outpouring of praise, grief, and tributes related to Prince and his sudden death caught me by surprise. Oh, I knew who he was. Who could not? But I wasn’t a fan. Never knew the size of his following. Never bought one of his records or CDs or saw him live. Some will say, that’s your loss. Which, from what I’ve read, is probably true. I heard some of his songs in the background at bars or on the shared radio at the office, but never heard anything that said, oh, I’ve got to buy that. It’s no reflection on his talent or gifts or appeal. I tend to tune out ambient noise. That and other reasons, as you’ll see, kept me from ever digging in.
These reflections got me to thinking about our tastes, personal and collective, and how they’re shaped. I’m an aging boomer whose musical tastes were formed in the era we call the 60s, but which started sooner and ended later. Back then there were 3 television channels and a few AM and FM stations. Aside from these outlets, I listened to — or couldn’t escape — my father’s record collection. His likes included Big Band greats like Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, crooners like Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett, and acts like the Andrews Sisters. He had a thing for Connie Francis, which baffled me at the time.
He also had some classical records that he picked up as part of a series available at the local A&P, a new disc every week from Funk & Wagnalls with purchase of $19.95 or more, a pretty easy tally to reach for a family of nine. There was a similar deal on a Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia set. Dad also had a fair number of Sing Along with Mitch Miller LPs, which I came to loathe but which filled my memory with the lyrics to dozens of songs no one sings anymore. Except maybe my sisters.
After my old man, my three older sisters came to dominate my listening, so I got Elvis, Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, the early Beatles, and the rest of the British Invasion. Oh, and the Kingsmen, whose “Louie Louie” caused a stink, and on a good day, Chuck Berry, the best of the lot. Plus that damn Sound of Music soundtrack, which my sisters sang like a million times during car rides or while doing dishes: doe, a deer — is it hunting season yet?
The following years would bring, to my mind, a singularly rich explosion of talent, styles, and virtuosity. Of course, every generation throws a hero up the pop charts. Mine was no different. I filled my ears with the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, CSNY, Santana, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin, Taj Mahal, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Creedence, The Band, Bob Marley, Lou Reed, War, The Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman, and an incredible array of talent too numerous to mention — every one of them eminently googleable.
What I loved and what still shapes my tastes is dominated by the music that came to me at that singular and powerful moment of life — that time where one surrenders childhood and claims one’s self, one’s clothes, one’s loves, one’s music. For me, that was between 1965 and 1975. During that time, I was lucky to work at a record store and heard everything. Luckier still, I fell in love with classical music, too. Yet, even that love had its roots in the tracks to countless Looney Tunes cartoons and the opening and closing sequence to The Huntley Brinkley Report, which opened and closed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, 2nd Movement — for me the most beautiful piece of music ever written.
But I didn’t stop acquiring new loves in 1975. I found the Talking Heads, Dianna Krall, Patty Griffin, Beyoncé, Elisha Keys, Norah Jones, Natalie Merchant, Elvis Costello, Lady Gaga, Bon Iver, Beck, Amy Winehouse, Alabama Shakes, Adele, to name a googleable few. And as you can see from this more recent range, I fall for strong vocals, story telling, rich acoustic patterns, some jazz.
As to Prince and his tributes, I discovered Purple Rain in my iTunes library, put there I’m guessing by one of my two sons, both born in the 80s. Which probably explains why I never took to him in. When Prince hit the scene, I was busy with two tykes, a new career, the distractions of earning a living. Distractions that robs one of free time, that blessed time of youth in America, a lovingly long stretch of adolescence that let me fall in love with so many artists. So I will give Prince a long listen. Let him make his way into my head. Maybe I will one day know what so many now do.
When we lose an artist who shaped our soul, we lose a part of ourselves. And the artists who shape us all eventually disappear save for that dwindling few who will last fifty or a hundred or five hundred years. Our current grief gives way to the beauty that persists beyond our cherished top ten picks. A Purple Reign. Purple, the color of emperors, kings, nobles, priests, and in our time, one Prince from Minneapolis.

©John Hofmeister. Find me at @jwhirred. And LinkedIn.

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