Catharsis

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Catharsis

Purple Rain

Purple Rain, by Prince & the Revolution (1984), encountered 1984

Buy it here | See it here | Lyrics here | Sheet music here

If you asked me to name the most perfect week of my life, I would answer without hesitation that it was the one that began on Saturday, September 29, 1984. On that date, I caught a pair of flights that took me from Baltimore to Lincoln, Nebraska. And Mary, the woman who had flown out of my life on Halloween of the previous year and quite properly left me to deal with all my issues on my own, was waiting for me at the gate, her yellow Capri parked outside, ready to drive me to her new home.

Tight as a Spring

Even with the occasional flashes of ecstasy over being single again that came and went, it had been a hard eleven months since that Halloween, one hard thing after another, eleven months that had left me emotionally tight as the mainspring of an overwound watch.[1]  I’ve written about much of it in these pages, and I’ve left much of it unwritten.

But on that Saturday, the hard part stopped for a while. We walked out to the airport parking lot, neither of us quite able to believe I’d made it. But I had. And so it was possible for me to do something that would have seemed inconceivable eleven months earlier: sit down in a car in a strange state, and let a beautiful woman drive me to her home. Openly, with nothing to hide from anyone.

From the parking lot, then, to Mary’s apartment complex. From the car downstairs to Mary’s apartment upstairs. Then the door closed behind us, and, to paraphrase Michael Franks, I was hers and she was mine. And the week that followed that instant is largely a blur of good things.

Wahoo to Denton

WahooOne thing I remember clearly is that I fell in love with Lincoln, a town that greatly (and only to its credit) reminded me of Ann Arbor, my hometown. Some events do stand out. There was a leisurely drive through truly rural Nebraska, including a visit to towns named Wahoo and Prague (pronounced with a long a). My face in the photo tells the story, not just how much I enjoyed Wahoo, but also the magic that whole week was working. We saw the movie Places in the Heart at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. We dined in and we dined out. We visited the Joslyn Art Museum and The Old Market in Omaha. We played Trivial Pursuit with some of Mary’s new friends. We attended the University of Nebraska’s homecoming game. We dined at Parker’s Steak House, then a legendary spot in Denton.[2]

For a week, nothing intruded on the bliss. I’ve never experienced another whole blissful week, before or since. I’ve never had a week go so exactly according to plan. And a week like that does release you from cares and tensions.

Of course we talked about what the future might hold. On our last night (over dinner at Parker’s, in fact), we began an indirect discussion of our aspirations, which for both of us turned out to include parenthood (in my case parenthood again). No one used the “m” word exactly; no one had to. The unused word notwithstanding, negotiations over a joint future were beginning. Only just beginning, since we lived and worked 1200 miles apart, we were each separated but not divorced, and I at least came with considerable baggage. There was no realistic way we could have done anything more than compare life objectives at that stage. And we didn’t try. We knew better.

Newfound Vulnerability, Newfound Power

On the third night, we went to see rocker Prince’s fictionalized cinematic self-portrait Purple Rain (out since July, but still playing). It was the perfect movie for that moment in our lives. The Kid, Prince’s character, is tormented by his past, which has left him wild, angry, and hurtful to those who care for him, and prone to self-sabotage. But at the end, confronted with the emotional corner into which he is painting himself, he stops painting. You can tell he has reached that moment when he agrees to sing a song that the women in his band, Wendy and Lisa, have written,[3] after he had been condescendingly and unproductively brushing off their proffer of the number all through the movie.

The song, of course, is Prince’s big over-the-top hit Purple Rain. What it means exactly has been a topic of great debate,[4] but for my purposes both on that October night and now, the answer to that question (even assuming one true meaning exists) is not important. What matters is that, for the Kid, the song is a moment of both newfound vulnerability and newfound power, a fact immediately apparent to the audience on the screen, a crowd of hard-eyed youthful cognoscenti of the 1984 Minneapolis music scene. The spectators are first mesmerized and then energized.

After pulling off this triumph, the Kid explodes off the stage, dashes down to his dressing room, where he paces up and down for a few moments, in awe of what he has done, and then, in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards interwoven with the rousing songs he sings when he returns to the stage (I Would Die 4 U and Baby I’m a Star), he sets things right, or as right as he can, with his parents (the source of his angst), and with Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), his girlfriend whom he has been abusing.

I was tired when I saw that performance. But the cathartic quality of it spoke directly to me through any fatigue I felt. I could dare to recognize then that I had been engineering my own catharsis. I had gotten single, I was doing good work in therapy, I was getting this love business right for once. And so for that night Purple Rain was my anthem.

A New Level

When I boarded the plane home the following Sunday, we knew we were still 1200 miles apart, and all the rest. We knew there still could be no exclusivity and no promises, that each of us was wide-open exposed to the risk that one or both of us might find someone else, that all sorts of other things could also drive us in different directions. But what with the overwhelming rightness of that week, and the oh-so-tentative negotiations, we, like Prince in the movie after his breakthrough, were playing at a new level. As Mary said, it was the most adult relationship of our lives.


[1] Probably a 20th century metaphor that dates me, but I understand that wind-up watches are still available in low-end and very high-end models. Most of us just check our cellphones now, of course.

[2] It’s funny how some things are so clear in memory and others, right next to them, fade. I know Mary still had work to go to at least some of the days in the following week, and yet I have no recall of being on my own.

[3] Wendy and Lisa, the characters, were portrayed by Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, who were then real-life members of Prince’s band, the Revolution, and are still musical partners, performing and songwriting for the screen, as of this writing (2014). In real life, however, Prince apparently wrote this song.

[4] This much seems clear: the singer has apparently been misunderstood by the woman he’s addressing, and apologizes, saying that he only wants to see her laughing in, bathing in, or underneath “the purple rain.” Whatever the purple rain might be, it’s a good thing, probably a wonderful one. And the singer’s impulse in hoping to place her underneath it is fundamentally generous, whether or not (and here’s where a lot of the debate lies) he also is trying to establish or reestablish a romantic relationship with her, presumably for his own gratification.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for cover art

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