By all accounts, I was a late bloomer. Someone whose idea of sensuality was shaped in layered ways by strong female musicians – Chrissie Hynde, Etta James, Janis Joplin, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith – from my childhood through adolescence, but not fully expressed in my own life until college.
Those were also the people I looked to when I performed, twisting my hips, growling and singing at clubs around Los Angeles starting in high school, and later, post college, as a sweaty, black eyeliner and neon polyester dress wearing dancer in the revival 1960s Mod scene in L.A. and New York.
Venue as bedroom. Audience as lover. Climax = song. Those singers still fill my spirit when I play now with my band, performing a mix of rock, Americana, blues and soul.
Prince – whose death just a week ago at age 57 continues to feel unreal – is the only man who similarly inspired me when it came to the expression of pure, musical, sexual freedom, a freedom both nuanced, open hearted and, yes, layered. The day he died, and days later, the floodgates of memory tore open for everyone I knew. Driving around L.A., I blared his music in my car, one of many doing the same.
I was 4 when Prince’s 1982 album “1999” came out, and I used to run around my family’s house in Hollywood singing his songs at the top of my lungs. The very first recording of me, on cassette tape, is as a tiny 4-year-old Jewish-Danish girl belting out “Lady Cab Driver” as “LAY-DAY CAB DWIVAH!!!!!” with my voice half holler, half screech, imitating his frenzied vocals on “Little Red Corvette.” I would dance innocently to his moaning orgasmic litany at the end of “Lady Cab Driver,” set to a sleek guitar groove. “This is for the women, so beautifully complex/ This one’s for love without sex,” he whisper-drawled, packing so much about interpersonal dynamics into just a few lines.
Prince’s galaxy of sex and philosophy wasn’t just “for the women.” It was encompassing of everyone, whether straight, gay, male, female, outside gender constraints, brown, black, cream, olive toned or tan. He crossed boundaries left, right and center, from his clothes – skintight, lace, cropped, spangled – to his billowing hair to his makeup and ability to dizzyingly guitar solo his way through different genres: funk, soul, pop, rock ‘n’ roll.
He also showcased women as not just love or lust objects, but as fellow musicians. Drummer and singer Sheila E., guitarist and keyboardist duo Wendy and Lisa, master Danish bassist Ida Kristine Nielsen and Canadian guitarist Donna Grantis in recent backing band 3RDEYEGIRL, and many more, all flanked him.
Every effortless split on stage in stacked heels, every bare-chested slippery move – in the video for 1986’s “Kiss” Prince glides around lithe and shirtless like a modern dancer – belied the depth of lyrics filled not only with sexual innuendo and direct come-ons, but also warmth and vulnerability. “I want to be your fantasy, maybe you could be mine,” he sings coyly in his classic falsetto on “Kiss.” On “D.M.S.R.” (Dance Music Sex Romance), an 8-minute straight-up dance grind with hand claps and synth on “1999,” he calls out, “Screw the masses/ We only want to have some fun / I say do whatever we want, wear lingerie to a restaurant.”
So in already culturally, sexually diverse L.A. – where guitar stores on Sunset Boulevard, down the street from my family’s house, were stuffed with beautiful Telecaster guitars similar to Prince’s – I learned to shake and move my body to his music, and sing along before ever experiencing much of what he wrote about. I didn’t know then, as a kid, that when he pleaded, “Little red Corvette / Baby you’re much too fast / Little red Corvette / You need a love that’s gonna last,” he was literally and metaphorically taking on the complexities of casual sex. But the words stuck – sung and repeated over and over – and understanding the meaning came later.
We children of the ‘80s grew up with Prince as a role model of multidimensional naughtiness whose influence seeped into our adult lives. He unlocked taboo subjects, and taught me that it wasn’t just ok, but necessary, to unleash my messy emotions and my voice, to think about sex and to allow my limbs on and off stage to let loose, no matter my size or shape. Through 39 studio albums and decades of touring, he never lost that confident passion and swagger.
When I recorded last year at Copenhagen, Denmark’s Medley Studios, where he recorded in 1988, life somehow felt full circle, decades after that wailing “Lady Cab Driver” cassette cover. A place he stood, performed, exhaled. A chart detailing his recording schedule hangs on the studio’s wall.
I only saw him play live briefly, in my 20s, and both times as a journalist. First, at an Emmy after-party in 2006, he flung out big hits like “Let’s Go Crazy.” I screamed, shimmied and closed my eyes, remembering being a kid again. At a late-night Oscar after-party in 2009 he walked on stage at 1:45 a.m. twirling a cane, wearing dark black sunglasses, and launched into “Purple Rain” and a stream of covers, including the Beatles’ “Come Together,” his guitar noodling rivaling Jimi Hendrix. He was a 5’2” whirling soul of melody, his black pants molded to his ass, his skin ageless.
Even in those short moments, he commanded the stage, unrelenting, joyful, full of life, steeped in a natural sensuality, completely free. The one time I met him, at the Golden Globe Awards, in 2007, I almost crashed into him. I was entering, and he was leaving. Petite, dressed in a mustard colored Nehru jacket, his black hair slicked back and up, he was my height. “Oh hello,” I said. “Hello,” he answered, his big eyes rimmed with liner, and then disappeared quickly into the night. My heart thumped loudly in my chest for minutes afterward. Tiny, quiet, he didn’t look like a stage-straddling titan. He – unbelievably – looked vulnerably human.
Earlier this year, the night David Bowie died – the day after I saw also 69-year-old Patti Smith perform her incredible album “Horses” for its 40th anniversary – I wrote a song for him, crying in bed and drenched in grief as a fan and musician. His otherworldly androgyny, his immortal songs, his Ziggy Stardust glitter and glam inspired me to pay homage, and I’ve been playing the song since with my band at shows. Music as tribute, catharsis, love.
Then Prince died, so soon. That night, weeping, shocked, I wrote a song for him, pouring my own and other people’s memories of his sheer, staggering talent, his boundary smashing performances, his deep, rooted-in-the-gut-heart-groin-sexuality, into words, to also perform.
Venue as bedroom. Audience as lover. Climax = song.
Solvej Schou is a Southern California based writer-reporter and musician whose national stories have been published in outlets including The Associated Press, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard and Los Angeles Times. Formerly an EW senior staff writer and AP staff writer, she has interviewed a range of directors, actresses and artists, including Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Alicia Vikander, Jane Campion, Xavier Dolan, Chrissie Hynde, Aretha Franklin and Patti Smith. She sings, stomps, sweats and plays a Fender Strat. Her music can be found at CD Baby, Amazon, and iTunes.