In June 1984, Purple Rain came out. In July I got a hand-me-down Walkman, and in August we visited my youngest brother at West Point military academy. For these three things―and the way their convergence furthered my musical and sexual development―I am still and repeatedly grateful.
That summer was very good to me. I was 14 and hungry for the world, but not at all ready for it. And I was well into my first “without music I would die” phase, where every experience and memory has its own inseparable soundtrack.
I was already a neophyte Prince fan, having been introduced a couple of years earlier to 1999, which detonated a hole in my consciousness upon contact… and, I’m pretty sure, eased open the increasingly willing space between my virginal legs―exactly as the local guardians of chastity were afraid he would do.
But I knew precious little about Prince then. I didn’t know really what he looked like. I didn’t even know yet about the Controversy and Dirty Mind albums, which would a few years later help release the tiger completely from the cage―rejoice, all ye horny Jheri-curled teenage boys of Anderson, Indiana! Until this summer, though, all I had to go on was the music from that one album―and even that was on cassette.
Thank god for that last part, because just before we went to visit my brother, I found a Walkman in his old room at home and claimed it for my own. (My much-older brothers had been leaving home one by one for most of my life, so by that time I knew that one of the consolations was the stuff they left behind.)
I convinced my mom to take me to the mall so I could go to Peaches Records. West Point was 750 miles from our house, and we would be driving my dad’s pride and joy, a 1967 Pontiac Tempest that went about 55 at top speed. On this endless trip through unfamiliar terrain to a dubious destination, I was to be wedged into the back seat with my brother’s girlfriend. I liked her just fine, she was cool, but still I was gonna need some music to get me through the trip. I put the Purple Rain soundtrack on the counter at Peaches and, to my utter surprise, my mom bought it for me.
Looking back, I can see that the headphone experience was another thing I wasn’t really ready for. My brothers were young dudes in the 70s so I’d grown up around lots of stereo equipment―there’s even a photo of me as a bobble-headed baby wearing headphones twice the size of my cranium―but I’d never listened to an entire album through them before.
So, we took off. At about the Ohio border, when road hypnosis had begun to settle across all of us in the car, I put on the headphones and stretched across my allotment of back seat. Knees wedged against the front seat and head against the door, seeing only sky through the windows, I closed my eyes and pressed Play. I heard the organ chords and then, “Dearly beloved…” and I didn’t come back for a long time. I heard the fervor in Let’s Go Crazy. The pain in The Beautiful Ones. And I gradually came to terms with Darling Nikki and her reading habits.
I kept finding myself shocked by what tiny sounds I could hear. It was so intimate. And there were so many tiny sounds to hear on that album! When Doves Cry was an endless parade of bizarre and unfamiliar yet somehow tantalizing sounds. Right alongside the splashy 80s instrumentation and the vocal melodies, every falsetto coo, lascivious groan and coquettish pant in the background were brought up front for me to absorb, as well. To this day, I think I learned all my sex noises from the Purple Rain album…
By the time we stopped for gas at a truck stop in Pennsylvania I was, shall we say, fully steeped in the purple. The emotional journey of rewinding and replaying Purple Rain a dozen times had evoked so many expanding feelings in me, I felt like I was housing an extra person in my skin. My mom turned to ask me a question, and even after I’d ripped the headphones off―in that by-now classic gesture of the put-upon teenager―I could barely understand the words she was saying. I felt like I’d been deposited on the moon in my sleep. At least I could buy fresh batteries inside.
From that point, it became my goal to engage as little as possible with the goings-on around me and as deeply as possible with the world in my ears. Now I fervently wished that the drive would go on unbroken for another 1,000 miles, since every time we stopped I was made to take off the headphones, leave the Walkman in the car and― gahhh, mommm! ―actually talk to people for the duration of a meal.
But as we neared the state line, the hills started growing into mountains and the terrain changed, and soon I couldn’t ignore the scenery. In New York the land became lush and dramatic, the roads narrower and steeper, the towns more Yankee and foreign―all of it an appropriate counterpoint for the inner transformation happening to me. As we crested the face of Storm King Mountain to the sounds of Baby, I’m a Star, I could feel it, starting with the sensational sounds entering my ears, translating through the spectacular sights in my eyes, picking up speed in my pounding heart, and finally splashing down with true urgency in my pants. By the time we arrived at West Point, I was a newly hot mess.
For my family it was a busy weekend of academy-sanctioned social activities―a tour, some dinners, a ring ceremony, a dance, a cruise on the Hudson. For me it was a 72-hour blur of indelible impressions: Watching cadets parade to the opening drum riffs of Take Me With U; witnessing a ceremony in the cemetery, the 21-gun salute drowned out for me by Prince’s soaring falsetto at the end of The Beautiful Ones; my family strolling together at the wharf while I lay pinned flat against the Pontiac’s back seat by Darling Nikki’s unapologetic raunch. I still associate the hotel lobby, the castle and the phone number on the stairs with a warm breeze and the sound of lapping water.
The most unforgettable moments, though, were the serendipitous ones. The album had just recently come out, a massive summer hit, and it was being played everywhere we went, not just on my headphones. The DJ on the Hudson River cruise made my night when he started Computer Blue just as I made my way to the rail for some solitary time watching the sun set on the water. In the motel one night, between the collective snores of my family, I heard Purple Rain faintly wafting in from a neighboring room.
But the pièce de résistance was when my brother agreed to take me to the cadet dance. His girlfriend tarted me up for it quite inappropriately, and before long (to my surprise, delight and throat-clenching fear), the Cutest Cadet Ever asked me to dance. Naturally, When Doves Cry was the song to which we executed my first super-clumsy pelvic grind. It was more than I’d bargained for, but I wasn’t about to back out in mid-swirl, so I kept my arm on his shoulder and learned how not to be afraid of a dude grinding his junk on my hip. By the time the song was over, I’d conquered my fear—and developed a new move in my ever-expanding dance-floor arsenal.
I came back from that trip a different person, naturally. I had seen and heard and learned things I couldn’t even have imagined before. A few weeks later when my sophomore year started, people asked me what I did over the summer. I told them I listened to Purple Rain, but then I walked away. Because I could never, ever explain everything that meant.