art photo from Nick Lacke on Dribble
Bio: Colleen Wells writes poetry and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, magazines and journals. She is the author of Dinner with Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness and Recovery and Animal Magnetism.
Out of Chaos Comes Art
Once dubbed manic-depression, bipolar disorder is a potent malady, that wreaks havoc, making the ordered brain disorderly, a broken puzzle. Of the psychiatric disorders in the DSM-IV, it is a machine gun. Rapid-firing tongues, Sadness engulfed in inertia psychosis destroying marriages, leaving children addled in fear. A friend of mine who shares the affliction streaked through his yard like a white, hot comet. Lithium, Lorazepam, Loxapine, Wellbutrin, Depakote, Haldol, Mellaril, Seroquel, Abilify. And don’t forget the Prozac. I’ve swallowed them all to regulate my moods. Genetic or environmental factors? The uncertainty belies the certainty that without them, some of the greatest writing would be missing: Sylvia Plath bled poetry in the blue hours before dawn, then stuck her head in the oven, Two orphaned children, left in her wake, one to wonder, another to follow suit. Hemingway was silenced with a gun, leaving behind his stark, limpid prose and a family to pick up the pieces like gathered river rocks that started as sand. Narrative arcs, incomplete. “Dearly Beloved, we are Gathered here Today… An Homage to a Legend also on Nuvo.Net By Colleen Wells At ten years old, two records I probably shouldn’t have been listening to found me: Dirty Mind and Controversy. I’m certain when I saw the cover of Dirty Mind, my little girl eyes got as big as flying saucers. My experience with that record left me yearning for more. At the time, I wasn’t aware Prince was a burgeoning star with other records from the late 1970s already blazing trails behind him. His debut album For You was released in 1978 followed by Prince in 1979. This misguided notion evinced an intimate setting on a stage I’d be on for the rest of my life because I felt as though I had discovered him before anyone else. CHURCH After church on Sundays, I faithfully listened to Casey Kasem announce the weekly top 40 hits. I wrote all of the song titles and artists down in a series of little black journals and endured every cheesy long-distance dedication, sometimes so heartfelt they made me cry, to get to the number one song. I was always rooting for a specific artist’s song to claim that coveted position. Once I placed the Dirty Mind album on my shitty record player, the kind that shuts like a small piece of luggage, sitting next to my Sea-Monkeys, everything changed. When I heard, “Uptown,” “When You Were Mine,” and “Head,” there was something sacred welling up inside me as if I were a plant discovering my own root system. Listening to Casey Kasem’s top 40 was a ritual I did after church, but this music I had tapped into was church. A few years later, in 1984, “When Doves Cry” hit #1. The song reached the top ten again, coming in at #8, after Prince died. In numerology, eight is a power number and Prince was into numerology and astrology. He put a ton of thought into his symbol which has elements of both, including a backwards seven, which is known to be spiritual. Gemini, the sign of the twins, is also incorporated as the male and female symbols. Prince, born on June 7, 1958, is a Gemini, a sign marking creative, imaginative, communicative types. Back then, in Noblesville, Indiana, my small hometown, I could count the number of black people who lived there on my fingers. It was the polar opposite of Prince’s Minneapolis, a major city and fertile ground for musicians and artists. What exactly had I discovered behind my bedroom door in 1980? First, I recognized the guitar was different. There was this thunk-plunk-funk sound as if he was not only playing guitar but getting ready to bitch slap the strings at the same time. It felt playful, experimental, and confident all at once. I knew, but in the moments of joyful listening I forgot that something unexpected was just around the corner, like being startled in a fun haunted house. I began to understand that when Prince was playing an instrument it was an extension of himself, emanating from his soul. I would later learn he could play twenty-seven instruments, some say as many as forty, with prolific genius. Even as a child, I felt like a puppet when I listened, the music pulling me by an invisible string, commanding movement. Second, his rich, sexy voice was unusual. I knew he was using it in a manner I had never heard on Kasem’s lists. What I now understand to be range, and Prince had a wide one, explains why he could sound so animalistic. His transitions from hyena to lion were seamless. Prince.org explains it this way: “Prince had the technique to reach G1, as his lowest note, and C7, as his highest note.” The site has a chart that illustrates how other notes which “aren’t necessarily a part of his vocal range, as they weren’t reached with reliable technique… makes Prince's vocal range a total of 5 octaves and 5 semitones. If we count questionable notes, it would be 6 octaves and 4 semitones.” As if his vocal calisthenics and mastery over his instruments weren’t enough, at the top of the trinity were his lyrics. While Dirty Mind and Controversy had albums preceding them, the two records were the perfect introduction to my lifelong relationship with Prince. MUSIC & LYRICS Many of Prince’s early songs open with a story of an impending, scandalous hook-up. The very first time I heard those songs, I anxiously awaited what was going to happen next. “When I met you, baby, you were on your way to be wed. You were such a sexy thing. I loved the way you walked, the things you said,” the singer croons in “Head.” Those lyrics struck me, in part, because the Catholic church I attended every Sunday taught us to take the holy sacraments seriously. Prince was about to crash a wedding in a whole new way. The narrative in my head of Prince and me was blossoming. As a young girl crashing into early adolescence, I was more than aware of his sexual appeal, and I felt he was teaching me through his lyrics how one day I too could feel just as sexy and free. Dressed in only high cut black underwear, a jacket with studs on one shoulder, and a bandana, it was easy to assume what the guy on the cover of my Dirty Mind album was singing about. He was about to do it with the woman in the song. In some sense, I wanted to be that woman. If “Head” was an instruction manual for ways to view sex, “Uptown” was an anthem for how to be free to express who we are and harness the power of non-judgment, not just in terms of sexuality, but in attitude, style, and in one’s human essence in general. And it was packaged as an invitation; I felt like I had been invited to a huge dance party in the streets, and even though the people would be different from me, I was still welcome. “Uptown,” with its upbeat tempo, helped reinforce the golden rule that we should love one another despite…despite what? Despite nothing else. There is no reason not to. This is the purity we are born with before we get polluted by what we are exposed to. “Now where I come from, we don’t let society tell us how it’s supposed to be. Our clothes, our hair, we don’t care. It’s all about being there.” I didn’t know where “there” was, but I wanted to arrive at that place, and the sooner, the better. My life as a kid pretty much sucked. I sometimes compare it to The Brady Bunch on a bad acid trip. Prince became my lifeline into the world of imagination. I learned to question things and not buy into fear and bias. In the album, Controversy, Prince wears a mauve jacket, again with silver studding on one shoulder, a white tuxedo style shirt, and a black tie and vest. His gorgeous doe-like eyes pop against all these accents and he looks serious, maybe even a little upset. Behind him is a hodge-podge of newsprint with headlines referencing some of the content on the album. There’s an attitude exuding from his countenance which was different from his image on Dirty Mind. The title song opens with the lines: “I just can’t believe all the things people say. Controversy. Am I black or white, am I straight or gay? Do I believe in God, do I believe in me? Controversy.” In just a few lines Prince hit on the most divisive identifiers of people—race, sexuality, and religion. I was too inexperienced to really understand how these themes were so deeply rooted and interwoven into our culture. If ever there was a song of the times in response to the signs of the times, “Controversy” would be it. Yet “Annie Christian,” another track on the album, would have a hauntingly more meaningful impact many years later. IF THERE AIN’T NO JUSTICE, THEN THEIR AIN’T NO PEACE As an adult who adopted three black children, I became well versed in how racist some Americans can be. I awoke to a higher level of awareness on May 25, 2020, when in Minneapolis, the city where Prince lived and died, George Floyd, a citizen, was murdered by four police officers. When I was younger, I sensed the discord in the Annie Christian song: “Annie Christian was a whore always looking for some fun. Being good was such a bore, so she bought a gun, she killed John Lennon, shot him down cold. She tried to kill Reagan, everybody say gun control. Gun control!” At that time, all I knew was Annie Christian was not a good person. Now I recognize one interpretation of the song as the tale of what happens when individuals strive for some sort of recognition through killing. While the motivation for killing Floyd may not have been the same as the interpretation of those lyrics, a white cop killed a black man, and the video went viral. I could not comprehend what kind of Annie Christian lurked in the souls of Chauvin and the three other police officers responsible for George Floyd’s death. Floyd’s death triggered memories of racist events that have occurred in the lives of my kids who are now young adults. From the time a soccer goalie said to my daughter, “Get out of here you little n***er” as she approached the net, to when my son, who wasn’t driving, was asked to get out of the car at a traffic stop while his white friend, the driver, was not. Minneapolis, Prince’s beloved hometown, is forever stained by George Floyd’s murder. Prince was a fiercely independent individual and just the kind of visionary and citizen Minneapolis could use right about now. I wonder how he would have responded. His family’s roots are in the Louisiana slave trade. He spoke out about MTV’s policy of only playing videos by black musicians late at night. Part of his mission was to fight for artists to gain control over the rights to their music. He appeared with the word “slave” on his face and went by his symbol–the artist formerly known as Prince–in protest of such. He spoke out about chemtrails and other controversial issues before his untimely death. According to Dan Piepenbring, who co-authored his memoir, The Beautiful Ones, Prince planned to use his scaled back microphone and piano tour in smaller venues to speak out against oppression and corruption. He would have responded publicly about the death of George Floyd. His song “Baltimore” was a rallying cry to end police brutality there after Freddie Gray died from injuries while in police custody. I wish we could hear what Prince would have had to say. Prince, who largely taught himself everything he knew about music, used his artistry to express what he wanted for himself and for the people. He wasn’t part of a broken-up boy band battling for more fame than the disenfranchised members, more hit songs or the procurement of one another’s girlfriends. He made music for the masses. He “wish[ed] there was no black and white he wish[ed] there were no rules,” and he definitely made up his own along the way. I WANT MY MTV “When Doves Cry” hit number one on the music charts in early July, 1984 and ran for five weeks in that coveted spot. The MTV music video gave me a bird’s eye view of my hero emerging from a white claw-foot bathtub beckoning with his finger. It also included footage from the movie Purple Rain: Prince decked out in black from head to toe riding his motorcycle with Apollonia, his character’s love interest. I longed to be Apollonia and visualized that it was me riding on the back of his bike. As time went on, Apollonia played not only Prince’s love interest on screen, but off. When I had to select a saint’s name to receive the sacrament of confirmation, I chose her name. At first, I was kidding, then I was delighted to discover Apollonia is the patron saint of teeth! To this day I can say “Look Mom, no cavities!” My family did not have cable television, but my best friend Susan’s family did. I would often get off the school bus at her house, eat Buddig meat and Cheez Whiz sandwiches on Wonder Bread, and fill up on the eye candy of MTV. She was bonkers for Duran Duran and had her own faux romance with the band’s front man, Simon Le Bon. If it makes me look like less of an idiot for choosing Prince’s girlfriend’s name, Susan’s confirmation name is Claire, chosen because actress and model, Claire Stansfield, was LeBon’s fiancée at the time. For a couple of teen girls who, prior to this, had Shawn Cassidy and before that Jimmy Osmond to consider, things sure were getting a lot more interesting. When the film Purple Rain was released later in July of 1984, I saw it over the next several weeks 17 times, and it was not easy for a 14-year-old kid to get into an R rated film back then. I was creative and I was dedicated. APRIL 1, 1985, MARKET SQUARE ARENA INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA The year was 1985, and I was going to see Prince and his Purple Rain tour in downtown Indianapolis at Market Square Arena. Apollonia 6 and Sheila E. were going to be with him. Unfortunately, he was rumored to have dated both of them. I had gotten tickets and a ride, but there were issues. I was going with my boyfriend and my best friend, Susan, but I wasn’t allowed to date. I was only 14. Moreover, I had to come up with a reason why I was going to be gone so long, so I just told my parents I was going to stay at Susan’s and let her deal with deluding her dad as to where we were going. She told him we had to go to a classmate’s choir concert. It was as close to the truth as we were going to get. My boyfriend seemed nervous. He knew we weren’t allowed to go to the show, plus Susan and I can be a handful. He was also well aware of my near Prince obsession, which could sometimes be awkward. Inside MSA, we found our seats; I was in seat 4, section 16R, Row AA. Prince mesmerized me from the time he took to the stage, opening with “Let’s Go Crazy.” It was an explosive show, and he ended with a second encore, singing “Purple Rain.” At one point he was gyrating on the floor, just like in the movie. I loved how he grabbed the microphone like he was pissed at it. PAISLEY PARK IS IN YOUR HEART (OR THERE AREN’T ANY RULES IN PAISLEY PARK) Fast Forward to January 2017, roughly 30 years after Paisley Park opened, Susan and I went to Prince’s beloved home in Chanhassen, Minnesota. The hulking 65,000 square foot structure looked like a cross between the headquarters for a high-tech company and living quarters for a contemporary cult. The exterior was white with a round dome at the top of one of the building’s wings. It seemed mysterious and endless. In 1987 when he moved in, it would have offered more privacy, but the area is now built up with office parks and residential areas nearby. I can’t picture him riding his motorcycle nude in the early dawn hours as he is said to have done there. Inside an entryway, we gathered with our cheerful tour guide who led us past a wall of gold and platinum albums to a grand foyer where the ceiling looked like it joined with the clouds. I felt an odd pull to a central part of the floor and stood shrouded in energy. That’s when the guide told us his ashes were housed straight above us. I moved silently aside and turned away when the tears came. I felt pockets of energy throughout Paisley Park. There was a heavy contemplative feeling in his office, less so throughout the more museum-like areas such as where his cars are on display, or various exhibits related to epochs of his career. I paused at a display of one of his custom-made outfits. He was so small and yet so fiercely mighty. There are music studios inside Paisley Park. In fact, recording at home and having the ability to jam with friends was a major goal of Prince’s when he had Paisley Park constructed. It was in the largest studio where I had my meltdown. We were ushered into the huge room with gleaming floors and beefy sound equipment. There were partitioned mini sound studios in the corners where Prince could collaborate with others, but those musicians could be in their own studio within the large space. I was overwhelmed, and felt he was in the room standing next to me. Had he really jammed with both Lenny Kravitz and Stevie Wonder in this studio? I walked to a corner and wept. Because he had such an impact on me throughout my life, when Prince died I compartmentalized my grief. When I learned of the tragedy, I was unable to cry. Shock lasted for a while. In fact, my sister-in-law, Betty, lives not too far from Minneapolis. I asked her for the local newspapers recounting his death. Knowing how well he was loved there, I decided that would be the first news I would digest. And yet, once the papers arrived in the mail, it seemed too official; I did not open the envelopes. To this day, I have not read the Minneapolis papers outlining what was lost on April 21, 2016. Prince’s discography consists of thirty-nine albums. He was nominated for 38 Grammys and brought home seven. There is said to also be enough music in his vault to release a yearly album for 100 years according to the New York Daily News. In that way, his music really does live on. It’s been over six years since his death. Prince would have celebrated his 64th birthday on June 7. It’s still hard to fathom he is gone. I know I’m not alone. No musical icon I know of in recent history has been grieved so expressively as Prince. From the Forum in Los Angeles to the Eiffel Tower, cities across the world lit buildings purple for Prince. Niagra Falls turned purple. A Delta flight from LA to Minneapolis bathed the cabin in purple light, and countless billboards sprung up around the country paying homage to Prince. Closer to home, the Indianapolis Power and Light Company went purple, and so did the South Bend river lights. I like to hope the opening lines from “Let’s Go Crazy,” of one of his most beloved songs are prophetic: Dearly Beloved We are gathered here today To get through this thing called life Electric word, Life It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time But I’m here to tell you There’s something else The afterworld A world of never ending happiness Where you can always see the sun, day, or night