Let’s back up a few decades. Too many, alas. It’s 1982, I think. Dinkytown USA. It’s late night at the Valli restaurant, a 24-hour joint that served cheap breakfasts and weak beer. We got our share of celebrities who stopped in before or after a concert, so it wasn’t all that surprising to look up at the front of the restaurant around 2 a.m. and see this guy standing there by the WAIT TO BE SEATED sign like some exotic faun, accompanied by a woman who brought to mind the Raymond Chandler line: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
I went over, nervous. What you want to say, while kneeling: “You have deigned to bestow your Princeness upon our humble tavern. Command me, that I might fetch the menus.” But you want to be cool. As it happens, we were about the same age, and I think I have (had, dammit, had) about three-quarters of an inch on the guy. I spoke the words I’ll never forget, because it was the first time I’d met a guitarist of his astonishing skill.
“Smoking or nonsmoking?”
“Nonsmoking,” he said. I led them to C-1, the worst table in the house. I felt bad, but that’s all we had: The nonsmoking section consisted of two booths and two tables downwind from the chain-smokers two feet away. It was also by the salad bar, which was closed but still had a bouquet of expired herring. The booths were filled; he could only have a wobbly table. They didn’t complain; they sat and regarded their menus with interest.
Just a couple of kids out on a date.
Everyone knew it was Prince. Here’s the Minnesota thing: Everyone left him alone. There just seemed to be an understanding that you were not cool enough to go bother him. It wasn’t personal. It was just a fact. There’s Prince over here on the cool spectrum, and then there’s you, waaaay over there, and somewhere in the middle is Don Knotts.
I returned to take their order. I don’t know what she had, and the only reason I remember what he ordered was that somehow it was naughty. Prince was naughty, after all. At least he played naughty in the songs.
“I’ll have the pigs in a blanket,” he said, and I thought: Of course you would. It’s the only thing on the menu that could possibly be considered salacious, if your mind was so inclined. The cook got the order out quickly; when I set it down I hoped he’d say “Baby, you move too fast!” But he thanked me, and then made a request, the sort of thing a guy never forgets.
They ate in silence. Maybe they chatted; it’s not like we were all watching THE ROCK STAR AND HIS HOT DATE from around the corner. Much. They paid, and left the two things a waiter likes: a nice tip and a clean table.
I’d better stop here, because it’s the kind of story you embellish as the years pass. And then we ran outside to see him go and they were in a little red Corvette! And purple exhaust came out of the back, I’m serious!
We didn’t keep in touch after that. I quit the Valli and went to work at a convenience store; he created the astonishing “Purple Rain” album, which made all Minnesotans feel cool. Rudy Perpich probably walked down the street listening to “I would die for U” on his Walkman shouting “BABY IF YOU WANT ME TO” out loud, not caring if anyone looked.
As the years went on, I realized how much of Prince’s work was the soundtrack for a time that won’t come again — not just youth, but a time when Minneapolis had a sound, and the sound made you happy.
Those ecstatic solos didn’t just sum up what it meant to be young, but what it meant to feel alive. You were saddened by Thursday’s awful news. But you were probably something else as well, after the shock had ebbed: grateful. Such gorgeous joy his music gave, and still gives.