black, white and “purple rain”

Soundtrack in my head: Prince and the Revolution, “Let’s Go Crazy”
1022 Lake Street, Oak Park. Thomas W. Lamb, 1936. Once a nearly 1500-seat movie palace, it’s now a modernized 7-screen movie theatre.

At the bargain bin of a record store during I picked up a used DVD copy of Prince’s movie classic, “Purple Rain.” It was the “20th anniversary edition.” I finally got to watch it a few days ago.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in this thing called nostalgia. Electric word nostalgia, that means years ago, and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else–the afterword…

I was seventeen and arguably at the height of my adolescence when the movie came out, and so in watching it sort of catapulted me back to that time.  It was also interesting to see recent interviews with members of The Revolution, and seeing Wendy and Lisa and Dr. Fink, now middle-aged, talk about that era.

Prince has never been my favorite musical artist, but “Take Me With U” still nicely encapsulates for me the excitement of newfound love. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that within a couple years of the movie’s release, I gave a girlfriend one of my earrings to wear just as Prince did in the movie for Apollonia–an 80’s update of the “class ring on a chain.” The same girlfriend once, at my suggestion, swept her hair to one side a la Wendy and Lisa when we went out to a dance club (though I really wasn’t thinking about Wendy and Lisa at the time). And occasionally I still might catch myself inaudibly chanting, “Jesse! And now, Jerome…yessss…”

Okay, before I embarrass myself further…

There are other memories associated with the movie that were also significant, though not intended by the moviemakers. The second time saw the movie I was with friends and a French foreign exchange student who’d recently agreed to be my homecoming date. Because my hometown of Oak Park, Illinois was and is somewhat of a racially mixed suburb, roughly equal numbers of white and African-American people were at the Lake Theater, (which, at the time, was one single giant screen and auditorium) where the movie was showing. With about twenty minutes of the movie to go, one of my friends whispered that a rumor was circulating in the theater about a race riot that was supposed to break out after the end of the movie. I was pretty certain that no such thing was really being planned and that someone was likely just trying to play a prank and instill fear in people. Nevertheless, we did not want to take any chances and so we left just as Prince was beginning to sing “Purple Rain.” When we exited the theater, the street was surprisingly full of people who also clearly had heard the rumor. We quickly made our way to our cars. My French foreign exchange date was confused, and kept asking “What about Purple Rain?” as we left.

The incident is something I didn’t think about much at the time, but looking back at the context of the early 80’s, the incident was quite significant in many ways. As the 1970’s gave way to the 80’s there seemed to be strong segregation between white and black music, which at that time was embodied at that time in the conflict of “rock vs. disco” (even though disco, in reality, was a multi-racial phenomenon.) Among most of my peers, I wouldn’t have be caught dead listening to anything even closely resembling disco, and in fact I got a lot of ribbing from friends for buying the hit single “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. (Oddly enough, they were a Minneapolis-based act like Prince). I bought about eighty 45’s between the ages ten and fifteen, and out of those, only four or five were by African-American artists. To what extent racism played a role in this is debatable, but from everything I could see, very few white kids were listening to Donna Summer and very few African-American kids were listening to AC/DC.

In my high school, social segregation between African-Americans and whites was very noticeable. It’s interesting, because such segregation was less common during grade school, and the African-American students I was most friendly with were people I’d known since kindergarten or fourth grade. One frequent comment heard in my school was that the only places whites and blacks socialized were in the honors classes and on the football team.

But as the early 80’s continued, more musical artists began to develop crossover appeal to both whites and blacks. Michael Jackson was probably the earliest and the biggest crossover act of that decade, though I never was really a fan of his. But below the mainstream radar some interesting things were happening, too. Rap was starting to attract a fairly diverse audience. And WBMX 102.3 FM which, interestingly enough, broadcast out of Oak Park, began to perfect the art of “the mix” as disco tracks blended with the new dance music coming out of Britain and Europe in the years as the station was becoming known as a pioneer in house music. There were a few kids my age, both black and white, who would imitate the DJ’s by doing their own “’BMX mixes” on cassette tapes.

Prince had some appeal to us music snobs. While I considered him a bit creepy the first time I saw the video to “1999,” he grew on me. In addition to the new wave music coming out in the early 80’s, I also had an interest in the psychedelic rock of the 60’s, and I noticed with “Purple Rain” how he’d mix both of those influences in with other influences. He was definitely not the first musician in the 80’s to dress in weird and creative ways, but he was still unique—like his music, he borrowed from influences all around and blended things into a rather unique style. He was not the first artist in the 80’s who through his actions was saying, “It’s okay to be weird and different,” but he probably helped elevate the notion to a level of popularity higher than Boy George or Depeche Mode had until that point.

Who knows why someone was motivated to spread rumors of a race riot that one evening? One can only speculate, but times were changing. Issues of race haven’t gone away by any stretch of the imagination, but nowadays, I don’t think there is as much concern about the race of a musical artist. One of my current housemates—a white guy about twenty years my junior from Chicago’s south suburbs—recently tried to explain to me why the late hip hop artist Tupac Shakur had such a profound personal influence on him. At my school circa 1979, young white boys expressing their appreciation for any black musical artist (other than Jimi Hendrix) would have been looked down upon by many other white kids.

Nostalgia sometimes has a way of turning people of a bygone era into caricatures that fit neatly into one’s view of the world. Many people automatically think cheesy pop and hair metal when they think of the eighties. But sometimes hindsight can help provide clarity as well, and Purple Rain is but one small reminder of just how complex and interesting those years were.

Because in this life, things are more complex than the afterword…

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