Saturday, April 23, 2016

R.I.P. Prince.

Someone else said it well.

It's true that we never personally knew the departed artists we mourn, but knowing them personally wasn't ever the point, because they helped us know ourselves.

While my respect for Prince's musical talent and artistic integrity is immense and everlasting, I'm not going to suggest that I was ever more than a casual fan of his music, if even that. Music speaks to you, or it doesn't. Prince's staggering musical output had a deep effect on millions of people, less so on me. So it goes.

Except for one song.

In 1991, I had the chance to fulfill a dream, leaving in August for a few weeks in Austria, Germany and Denmark before arriving in Prague. After a few days in the (then) Czechoslovak capital, which had escaped the Soviet orbit less than two years before, I took an overnight train to Kosice, a city of 300,000 in what is now independent Slovakia.

It was even further away from everything than simple geography might suggest. Hungary was 10 miles to the south, and the Ukraine -- in the process of detaching itself from a dissolving Soviet Union -- lay roughly 50 miles to the east. It was 15 hours by train from Munich, and light years from home.

I'd come to Kosice to teach English to doctors at the teaching hospital on the hill, overlooking the old city. It was September, winter was coming, and I set about organizing the perimeter in the room I'd been assigned within walking distance of the classroom.

Thinking ahead, I'd shipped a few books, and taken some music cassettes. The budget included money for a boom box, which I found at the downtown state-owned department store. It was a dirt cheap South Korean model that few locals could afford, but it would do well enough to play the music I brought, and maybe listen to the BBC from time to time.

What I didn't know was that in Bratislava, a new FM radio station had just begun operations, and was somehow relaying the signal to Kosice.

Cleverly, it was called ROCK FM, and in a strange new era, when no one knew the boilerplate "rules," this station was just fabulous. The play list was organized into hour-long blocks: Heavy metal followed by country, then punk, or classic rock, and after that Top Forty from the American charts,with doses of Czech and Slovak music -- and so on, and so forth.

I heard Nirvana's Nevermind and Achtung Baby by U2 for the first time on Rock FM, along with Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and numerous other groups I'd never heard of, or hadn't had time to search out back home.

Note the irony: The by-the-numbers radio stations in Louisville were playing 1970s-era Bad Company and Led Zeppelin. I traveled to a recently liberated Communist country, and heard grunge.

And this song by Prince and the New Power Generation, which probably won't ever be confused with his best work even if it reached #3 on the US chart: Diamonds and Pearls, from the album of the same name.

I've no idea why this song spoke to me when so many other of Prince's compositions didn't, although it is inextricably bound with those months in Kosice. There was no singular epiphany -- not a particular girl, or a special moment. It may have been the weight of distance, and the sort of loneliness that comes when you begin thinking about time and distance.

All I can do is offer you my love. 

In the aftermath of his death, it's taken me until today to dare listening to this song of Prince's. In fact, I'd never seen the 1991 video until moments ago, just a few months shy of a quarter century after my teaching gig in Kosice started.

Those months taught me far more than I managed to convey to my students. Diamonds and Pearls is but one song on a lengthy soundtrack, but hearing it again brought back memories in waves.

Know thyself.

Prince's music helped so very many people make sense of their worlds. Let's give thanks for that, and for him.

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