Dear Friends of the Pub Quiz:
The first and only day that people were already in line when this particular usher showed up for a morning shift at the Tenley Circle Theatre was Friday, July 24th, 1984. That was the day the film Purple Rain opened in theaters across the country. Prince had many fans in Washington DC, one of whom that morning was wearing a white blouse with purple felt buttons, iridescent purple taffeta pants, and unmistakable earrings: purple and vinyl, they were made of 45 RPM records. Although I tore the ticket of this particular customer, I didn’t get close enough to examine the lettering on the earrings, but I was sure that the name PRINCE could be found above the titles of those hit singles.
That week in July Prince starred in the highest-grossing film in the nation, and “When Doves Cry” was the top charting song. The film went on to gross more than $68 million, almost twice that of The Terminator, and it gave us two number one hits (with “Doves” was “Let’s Go Crazy”) and one number two hit: “Purple Rain.” According to Rolling Stone magazine, Purple Rain is the second best soundtrack of all time, second only to The Beatles’ Help! Vanity Fair once proclaimed Purple Rain the best soundtrack of all time, and Tempo magazine named it the greatest album of the 1980s (even greater than Thriller).
The Thriller comparison is germane, because during that decade Michael Jackson outperformed Prince on just about any indicator that you could mention: number of albums sold, number of #1 hits, amount of money made from concert ticket sales, etc. Today, though, and especially over this last week, more of us might call ourselves Prince fans than Michael Jackson fans. Michael Jackson performed pop music, while Prince performed soul-infused rock and roll: music for adults. Even non-historians can see direct lines of influences from Little Richard (who so far has outlived everyone except Chuck Berry) to Jimi Hendrix to Prince. Perhaps many music lovers embrace Prince over Jackson today because while Jackson presented himself as innocent, childlike, and asexual (when clearly he was not), Prince presented himself in music as lustful and raunchy, when in his personal life, he was known to be considerate, and supportive of other artists. As Chris Rock put it in his 2004 HBO special Never Scared, “Remember when we was young, everybody used to have these arguments about who’s better, Michael Jackson or Prince? Prince won!”
My brother the journalist Oliver Jones has recently published a Prince remembrance that is going viral, or at least as viral as anything published on Facebook can go. In it he says that Prince “was the magical ingredient that could transform American things that suck — proms and halftime shows, sleazy hookups and soul wrenching break-ups — into beautiful, transcendent experiences.” I’m always impressed with Oliver’s writing, and will defer to him on the larger importance of Prince. I just remember all those times when I was out with friends, we would turn up “Let’s Go Crazy” and other Prince hits while driving the streets of DC, and just let loose. During that summer of 1984, Prince was everywhere, he was blatantly sexual, and we loved him. Although none of us ended up “going crazy,” he provided the soundtrack for our fun.
But was he a poet? In auditoria and after-parties, I have enjoyed talks by literary critics such as Sir Christopher Ricks, Helen Vendler, Joshua Clover and Joe Wenderoth as they reflected on the meaningful differences between song lyrics and poetry. Bob Dylan is regarded as the better lyric-writing poet, but in recent decades Prince has been the more productive lyricist, writing hit songs especially for women, including Cyndi Lauper, Alicia Keys, Steve Nicks, Madonna, and Sinead O’Connor. As with Dylan, perhaps this is one mark of a successful poet, that so many other performers can find success with his words?
As a lifelong poetry-lover and your Poet Laureate, I myself have read or heard perhaps 20,000 poems, including everything by Shakespeare, and a clear majority of the “hits” by Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson and Plath. But of all those million or more lines of poetry, the one that means the most to me was chosen by my wife Kate, a surprise wedding present presented on a day – our wedding day – when I could still slip off my new wedding ring and read the inscription on the inside. In addition to our wedding date, she had the jeweler engrave a single line of poetry that was written by Prince: “Nothing compares 2 U.” So to both Kate and Prince I will say thanks for the inspiration, and thanks for all the beautiful music.
Postscript: As you can see in the picture, above, yesterday I got to hear Stevie Wonder talk about the many talents we have lost in recent months. Stevie mentioned Glen Frey, Natalie Cole, Maurice White, and Prince. Introducing Stevie to my wife Kate reminded me how precious life is, whether it is that of a young Davisite killed on a Lake Tahoe ski slope (and the reason Wonder was performing in the UC Davis Arboretum yesterday), or that of a music icon who is beloved by millions. Our continued love and our familial and humor-filled conversations keep alive the talents, spirit, and humanity of these important and beloved friends who leave us too soon.
Tonight’s Pub Quiz, guest-hosted by my main man Jason, will feature questions on the following subjects: small boxes and big boxes, Julius Caesar, the extent to which Mick Jagger misses you, rich nations, Fords and Pages, Elihu Smails, fancy roadsters, robots, hints of fog, federations with French names, clocks, oak and mistletoe, poems about growing, fantasy football, unusual words, where the bodies are buried, annoyances, unpalatable-sounding food, people named Harris, babies, bat helpings, Princes and Queens, animals of various sorts, soccer, famous children whose names almost nobody knows, medical terminology, fashion, popular TV shows, Roseville, and Shakespeare.
I will be enjoying a show at the Mondavi Center while you enjoy tonight’s Pub Quiz. Happy National Poetry Month, and I look forward to seeing you on May 2nd.
Here are three questions from last week’s quiz:
- Internet Culture. The Prime Minister of what country evidently knows how to explain quantum computing?
- Four for Four. Which of the following B words are also shades of purple? Boysenberry, Buff, Bugle, Byzantium.
- Science. With regard to radio waves, what does FM stand for?
P.S. The next Poetry Night on May 5th at the Natsoulas Gallery will feature Matthew Zapruder, the new poetry columnist for the New York Times. Mark your calendar now!