My first real memory associated with Prince does not involve listening to his music. First, I should point out that I am a child of the ’80s so Prince’s music (and Michael Jackson’s and Whitney Houston’s—both also gone from this earth) was playing in the background everywhere as I grew up. The kind of stuff that you recognize the moment it comes on the radio, that you know, even when you don’t KNOW. And I didn’t KNOW Prince until this particular moment.
It was 1987. I had moved to the United States from Colombia with my mom that year. We lived in upstate New York, in a small town called Watertown, where we knew exactly one family when we arrived. The dad, an American whose name I don’t remember, had worked with my mom in the past and was married to a Colombian woman. He had two children from a previous marriage. Both of them were blond and blue-eyed and looked to me exactly like what gringos were supposed to look like. The younger of the two was Dusty. He was 12, I think. Older than me (I was 9) but not so much older that he was too old to play with a 9-year-old girl who barely spoke his language. We got along fine for the short time we knew each other, though I bet he probably doesn’t remember me the way I remember him. His older sister was a teenager. I can’t remember her name. Or how old she was exactly. I have a single memory of her, but it’s a vivid one.
The memory is this: We are in their dad’s car, going I don’t know where. Dusty and I are in the back seat, and she’s in the front. I’m behind the driver’s seat, so I can see her face when she turns toward her dad. At one point, he asks about the music she is listening to on her Walkman and she turns and looks at him with the kind of surly look only teenagers are capable of and spits out, “PRINCE!”
I know that I had heard his music before that moment, but I didn’t KNOW who Prince was, what he was and what he gave to young people. At 9, I was too young to get it, but in retrospect, it’s easy to see why that memory—of all possible memories to have of the first friends I remember mom and I having in the United States—has stuck with me for almost 30 years. Prince, his music, his persona, his artistry—all of it is freeing. Listening to him makes you just want to let go in the best possible way.
I think of that memory now and I think of a girl asking to be left alone to listen to music that lets her be herself by herself. And I think, “Leave her alone, dude, it’s PRINCE.”
Some time later, while we were still in Watertown, Gary Shandling hosted the Grammys. He did so for several years in a row, and at one point, he told a joke about the accountants who tally the votes. The accountants were standing on stage smiling and awkward, and Gary Shandling says, “Accountants all over the country are saying right now, ‘Those guy are hot!'”
It still makes me laugh. He still makes me laugh. He’s also dead.
Celebrity deaths hit harder now because the ones dying now are ones I recognize, ones whose work I know and sparks a flood of memories and emotions. I remember the accountant joke, but what’s worse, I also remember laughing about the joke. And I remember how the laughter felt, which makes me remember being a child. I can still go back to the memory. I can still watch old episodes of The Gary Shandling Show or The Larry Sanders Show. I can still remember Gary Shandling bantering with David Duchovny at the Emmy Awards. I can still listen to Prince or David Bowie (or Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson). I can still watch Hans Gruber fall in slow motion on YouTube. I have every Harry Potter movie and could rematch every “ob-viously” Alan Rickman ever uttered until I wear the DVDs out. So in effect, I haven’t lost anything. They are all gone, but I didn’t lose anyone I knew personally. I still have them in my life in the same form the existed in before they died.
So why do their deaths make me sad? Because I don’t exist in the same form I existed in when they were alive. That’s what I’ve lost. The piece of me that they made a little bit more alive is only a memory now. All I have left is to be grateful that they made me laugh and dance and be a little bit more myself.