I can’t remember the exact reason my cousin Andy quit speaking to me — it was twenty-eight years ago — but it had to do with Prince. I vaguely remember the argument. We were in front of the lockers before band class and we disagreed about some finer point of the musician’s genius. We both liked Prince. It was 1987 and really, who didn’t. But Andy, who was a dedicated musician when I was on the verge of quitting band, liked Prince more.
Prince came to me through my sister. She was nearly three years younger and usually I discovered music first, but she discovered Prince. She told me his real name was Prince Rogers Nelson. She learned everything she could about Minneapolis. She talked about going to college there. She bought the soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon. My sister probably had other Prince albums, but that’s the one we listened to most together.
The film itself wasn’t so great. I remember it as weird and hard to follow. This is the Wikipedia entry: “Under the Cherry Moon is a 1986 American musical drama film directed by and starring Prince in his directorial debut. The film co-stars former The Time member Jerome Benton, Kristin Scott Thomas (in her feature film debut), and Steven Berkoff. The film was a critical and commercial failure, winning five Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture, tying with Howard the Duck.”
I kind of like it that Prince tried something that flopped — it means he wasn’t afraid to take a risk, especially early in his career when expectations were high. This was decades before the rumor of a secret vault somewhere containing tens of thousands of unrecorded Prince songs, the untapped potential for brilliance outweighing the possibility of professional disaster.
The music of Under the Cherry Moon was strange — a strange fit for the film and odd in and of itself. Not dance songs like 1999, not theatrical drama like Purple Rain. The songs were poetic and moody, shot through with sadness and a palpable chill. The soft pink of spring blossoms mingled with late-season snow flakes. There were characters who drifted in and out of the songs, dreamlike, though these were dreams that woke to tear-dampened pillows. Who was Christopher Tracy? He haunted the record, though we only caught glimpses of him. Prince shared his secret and kept it at the same time. Really, that’s how he lived his life, an orchestrated slight of hand. A hide and seek disguised as a public spectacle.
I thought right away — right after I thought of my sister and my cousin Andy and wondered how they took the news of Prince’s death, how their teenage selves mourned — of the prophetic lyrics of “Sometimes it Snows in April.” I’m not the only one. “Sometimes it snows in April / Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad / Sometimes I wish life was never ending / And all good things, they say, never last,” he sang. But it wasn’t a prediction. Anyone who’s lived in the snow belt knows the particular melancholy of April snow.
Lyric are poems, metaphoric and encapsulating of a moment or an emotion. Albums are a record of a time or an idea. But if there is a lyric from Under the Cherry Moon to look to for meaning, I’d say it’s the start of the title track: “How can I stand to stay where I am? / Poor butterfly who don’t understand / Why can’t I fly away in a special sky?”
Because isn’t that the human condition? The simple, unanswerable why of being — the loveliness entangled with the agony?
Under the Cherry Moon was not Prince’s most popular album. It’s sole hit was “Kiss.” But it was art for art’s sake, a private world meant to be shared. It’s the album I listened to most, the album that most reminds me of my sister, and who we were when we were still becoming us.