When I was eight years old, I thought Prince was The Joker.
Allow me to explain this childhood delusion: The year was 1989. Tim Burton’s glorious and groundbreaking Batman movie was yet to hit our VHS libraries, and this was a time before teaser trailers and trailers teasing teaser trailers. All we had to go on with, before watching Jack Nicholson own the character, was a name and an audiocassette. And Jesus, what a soundtrack it was. Again, I was eight, sure, but there was something thrilling me beyond the Batman icon emblazoned across the cover as I looped that tape over and over, as I listened to Michael Keaton’s soft, sampled voice declaring himself the caped crusader only to instantly find that character eaten up by the magnificent howls of a singer cutting glass with his falsetto.
It’s one helluva soundtrack, with irresistibly saucy songs like Vicki Waiting, Scandalous, the smash-hit Batdance and my favourite, the absurdly groovy Lemon Crush. But what misled me into believing Prince was a mere abbreviation for The Clown Prince Of Crime was a music video — one of the few things that showed up before the movie — and this was for Partytime, the coolest supervillain song ever. In that phenomenal video, Prince wears purple — like The Joker — and half his face is painted white, half his mouth has loud lipstick and half his hair is sulphuric green. His energy is electric, his manic movements the stuff of Looney Tunes cartoons, and — as he lethally spikes a punchbowl, swings off a chandelier and lights exploding cigars for Jessica Rabbit lookalikes — the spirit of Mistah J is entirely, deliciously captured by this performer. It’s magic.
I might never get over one particular moment from the video where Prince’s half-Joker literally makes a monkey out of Batman. He sidles elegantly over to a chimpanzee in a Batman tee-shirt and, shyly, hands him a banana. Prince shields his face with his hand and melts away coyly as the chimp accepts. The chimp peels said banana which turns out to be empty of fruit, with the word “PSYCHE” written in big, marquee capitals inside it. It is a nutty gag, cruel and pointless and juvenile and impossible not to love, wonderfully encapsulating all things Joker.
Yet despite the pranks, what really comes through in that brief but vivid glimpse is the performer’s grace. And the way he, in those times without Parental Advisory stickers, held our kiddy hands and took us down dark alleyways with his songs. Vicki Waiting, for example, opens with an awfully ribald joke about organs and cathedrals, and gets far too dark and too damned sexy. Sexy.
It is the no-holds-barred sexiness of Prince’s vibe that tore into my imagination, taking me from that Batman album to his Love Symbol album. He was yet to turn himself into that very symbol, an unpronounceable (and pointy) yin-yang sign that would befuddle record labels and journalists and award-show presenters, but that white-hot album already held too many clandestine thrills. Not least of which was the instantly mythical Sexy MF, the song so perfectly, ear-scorchingly profane we had to listen to it a million times over, giggling while Prince entered our bloodstream and made us cooler without us even knowing it.
Formerly Forever Known As Prince.
He was a wonder, wasn’t he? That lopsided smirk. That thin moustache, equal parts John Waters and Jafar. That eternally flawless hair. That high, piercing falsetto, a voice that brimmed with love and anger and urgency, forever a cross between a tantrum and an orgiastic shriek.
Those words, words that sang of revolution and those songs that delivered it to us, always ahead of time. The way he made pianos cry out in bruised, purple pleasure. The way he struck up insanely melodic arpeggios in a way that still makes me wonder how fretboards didn’t dice up those furious fingers while he played like a guitar god.
The way he owned a goddamned colour.
Heartbreakingly enough, he’s gone now. And we owe it to that legend to go at least a little bit crazy, to go out on a limb, to leap without safety-nets and to hope the audience will catch us and carry us along on their shoulders. To look for our very own purple bananas.
We owe it to him to listen, like we always did whenever he commanded us, regardless of whether we were old fans or those who’d never heard him before: the mention of his name made our hearts snap their fingers, our ears perk up, our feet restless and our expectations rocket past the roof.
For his name is Prince, and he was Funky.
First published Rediff, April 27, 2016