Prince, Todd, RuPaul, and Me

Prince and Rupaul LP covers

Prince and I did not get off, so to speak, on the good foot. While he would ultimately influence me — both personally and musically — as much as Bowie or The Beatles (my Trinity), his presence initially challenged the most important friendship of my life. Then, it cemented that friendship and led to funk n’ roll adventures alongside a superstar-in-exile named RuPaul. My life radiated outward from there.

Todd and I had been tight since age seven. When hormones hit, we decided to become musicians, as both of our fathers had been. We spent the summer of our fourteenth year – 1979 – huddled over Led Zeppelin records in Todd’s family’s suburban bungalow in Atlanta. Todd, the better player, was the alpha. He took on the guitar parts, and patiently showed me the rudiments of bass. The plan was to make music together, form a band, and be rock stars. Like you do.

All was going well until 1980 when rec room metal band Iqee Phudj offered me a seat on their rocket to fame. Todd, a shy, overweight redhead, loathed the rich, heart-throbby kids of Iqee Phudj, and they had no time for him. They’d had no time for me, either, until they discovered I could sort of navigate some Zeppelin songs. But Iqee Phudj was, by far, the best way for me, a bespectacled beanpole, to meet girls. So I joined and practiced along to Rush, Pink Floyd, and Black Sabbath records. I was an avid pupil of the metal. I enjoyed new popularity with the affluent, cool kids, and affection from the Bonne Bell lip-glossed honeys.

Todd and I drifted apart. He resented my defection, I felt guilty, and we saw much less of each other. Each of us stayed busy on our points of the spectrum. While I partook of run-of-the-mill adolescent kicks, Todd lost a lot of weight, and became that rare punk rocker with knowledge of chord theory. He wore a biker jacket emblazoned with KILLING JOKE across the back. Bullies tormented him at school, so he cut the word FEAR into his arm. They let him be.

Despite the cooling in our friendship, I dropped by Todd’s house when his new best friend, our classmate, Stephen, was visiting. (Todd lived on the same street as me, mere minutes away.) My tiny mutt, Pee Wee, accompanied me.

As soon as we arrived, Stephen launched into a tirade about how he hated dogs. He was aloof at school, holding his books to his chest, but at Todd’s, he was an extrovert. I protectively petted Pee Wee’s head while Stephen and Todd worked themselves into an ecstasy of hatred, citing various stupidities of the world.

“Oh, my mom was sooooo dumb last night,” Stephen said to Todd as if I wasn’t there. “So dumb! She got lost trying to find the Omni! She’s retarded!”

“Todd and I saw Kiss at the Omni a couple years ago,” I said meekly. Todd cringed. “Yeah, and Rush, and Aerosmith, too. At the Omni.”

“Oh,” Stephen barked a nasty laugh. “So awesome.”

“Who’d you see at the Omni?” I asked.

“Rick James and Prince.”

Prince. I’d seen a poster of Prince’s eponymous sophomore album in Peaches’ record store. I was standing in line to meet Ted Nugent. (He gave me a signature pick and mussed my mullet.) Prince loomed over the cash register behind the Nuge, beaming freaky sex; androgynous face haloed by a relaxed Afro, thinly muscled torso; insolent doe eyes. In my memory, he’s a god of love disapproving of the Nuge’s belligerent hyper-masculinity. But I did not clock that then. I was just confused. (I was easily confused.)

All I knew of Prince was that arresting photo. I knew even less about Rick James. This was 1980, and although the soundtrack to my early 70s childhood was colorblind AM radio, the Ohio Players alongside The Sweet, I was now listening exclusively to white, disco hating, FM rock radio, and playing carports and such with Iqee Phudj. If you needed to know anything about, say, the new Kansas album, I could tell you.

“Wow,” Todd said. “Rick James and Prince.”

“Oo!” I said in a fey voice, like John Ritter’s character Jack Tripper on Three’s Company. “Prince! Oo! How was that?”

I may have done a limp-wrist thing, may have lisped. I’d never had a problem with gay people, but faux gay got a laugh with the fratty Iqee Phudj guys. Todd, in fact, could rock the faux gay. In any case, being faux gay to Stephen was a mistake if I wanted him to like me. But maybe I didn’t want him to like me.

Stephen’s eyes burned into me. “It was an incredible show,” he said.

“Yeah,” Todd jumped in. “I’ve heard Rick James is, like, the best shit around.”

“He was great, yeah,” Stephen nodded. “But Prince. Oh my god. Oh my God.”

At that point, Pee Wee jumped onto the bed next to Stephen, and he pushed her to the floor. “Damn dog!” he shouted.

“Hey!” I said, scooping up my startled pet.

“She’s OK, she’s OK,” Todd tried to reassure me, his eyes apologetic.

Indeed, Pee Wee was OK. But we left anyway. My blood boiled with jealousy. I decided to hate Prince, and to hate my best friend’s secret lover, Stephen.

Over the next year or so, Todd and I barely spoke. My life was girlfriend, band, and rock n’ roll fantasy. I got my driving license and explored Atlanta, radio blasting in my ’68 VW Bug. It was 1981, and new wave was seeping into the mainstream. Bands like the Knack, the Pretenders, and Blondie resonated in me, deeper than anything had before, in hungry areas I did not know existed, places that became hungrier the more they were fed.

Styx and REO Speedwagon, et al, began to lose traction. Girls sporting new wave fashions – parachute pants! Spandex! ripped t-shirts! – distracted me. I wanted to take more risks, explore. But I lacked the courage. The brazenness in the reverberations of punk, even diluted into new wave, felt accessible. I circled around my future.

The coup de grace on my “old life” came in 1982, when Todd and I transferred from a largely white, Catholic high school, to an integrated public performing arts school. There, the outsider punkiness of the rising queer community – actors, musical theater kids, dancers – and the cultural diversity in general, further inspired me. When my acting teacher gave me a copy of Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries, fireworks went off in my head.

Within months, I metamorphosed: I quit Iqee Phudj, broke up with my girlfriend, and wrote favorable reviews of the Go-Go’s, Bow Wow Wow, and Elvis Costello in the school newspaper. (I panned Meat Loaf’s movie, Roadie.) A beauty school dropout gave me a disastrous new wave haircut, after which Iqee Phudj burned me in effigy at a keg party. My crime: “going new wave” and “being a fag.”

Todd was watching. Stephen had stayed behind at Catholic school. Todd invited me to see him perform as Riff Raff in the weekly midnight screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. He’d been doing it for months with a band of fellow misfits, his first clique, the new wave queer underground of Atlanta. Upon meeting this coterie of teens and young adults traipsing around a repertory cinema in their underwear (erstwhile wallflower Todd sported a corset and stockings), I was smitten. It was a “Road to Damascus” moment.

Thus began Todd’s and my rapprochement. I was pivoting, and Prince, who’d also recently “gone new wave,” would play an integral role in the path ahead.

“Bring your bass over,” Todd told me on the phone in late 1982. “I want you to hear something. And you gotta meet this guy, RuPaul.”

During our estrangement, Todd had hunkered down on guitar, branching out from goth-y punk to funky bands like New Order, Yaz, and Heaven 17. He’d also picked up a compilation LP of D.C. Go-Go music, which he wore out.

When I walked in, Todd was blasting something very funky, but also quite rock. He bobbed his head as he played along to a pounding kick drum, pulsing bass, and blasts of synthesizer, over which a falsetto screamed. He didn’t need to tell me this was Prince. Even though I’d not yet heard him, I knew.

Dirty Mind had been out a year, and Todd bought it used. Like the sleeves of Ohio Players records at Peaches, the cover image radiated sex, but decidedly non-heteronormative sex. Here was a monochrome shot of Prince, in bikini briefs, thigh-high stockings, and a studded raincoat, standing in front of an upended box spring mattress, staring down the camera with both invitation and warning. But, unlike when I’d been in line to meet the Nuge, I wasn’t confused. I’d crossed a few thresholds since then.

I instantly loved Dirty Mind. (It is my favorite Prince album, to this day.) Todd and I spent that afternoon listening to the LP again and again, bonding as we had over the Tolkien-meets-the-blues of Zeppelin years before. The pop of “When U Were Mine,” the funk jams “Partyup,” “Uptown,” and the title track. And yes, the fearless taboo-breaking punk rock of “Sister” (incest!), and the grind of “Head” (oral sex!). For two kids looking for ways to be brave, to evoke “emotional reality” from our “totally fake” world via something, anything, this irresistible, pansexual funk-punk-rock was the ticket. It was made for us, two curious, sex-crazed white southern kids, but clearly, it was also made for urban kids – male, female, whatever – of color. Or, as Prince sang on “Uptown”: “White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’!” It connected us to the other, made it not so “other” after all. In this way, Prince, although edgy and modern, embodied the “hippie dream” of yore; even though my mom would never “get” him (would, in fact, loathe him), to me, he and his music personified the professed goals of her generation more than, say, her CSNY records.

Naturally, we pored over the liner notes. Like you do. In inky Courier font, Prince (his real name!) gave props to God and… Joni?

“Joni Mitchell!” Todd said.

This would send Todd and me to the Joni canon and spark a whole other enduring flame of fandom. (Prince’s consistent shout-outs to God did not send us to church, however.)

Also: but for a couple exceptions: composed, performed, and produced by Prince. By 1982, I’d spent enough time learning bass to understand what it took to master an instrument – much less dozens – and I was stunned. A recording auteur was nothing new – Warner Brothers initially marketed Prince as “the new Stevie Wonder,” in part because Wonder also did it all. But Prince was my first auteur. He was one of my own.

In time, I would grasp the mechanics of recording, and come to appreciate the distinctive lo-fi nature of Dirty Mind. It is more intimate than any other Prince album. Technically speaking, I think I know how he did it. (I won’t bore you with that.) All I knew at the time was the feeling that Prince was right there.

What about Prince’s friends? Who hung out with this guy? Who shared this dream with him and played his songs on the road? Ah, there they are, on the inner sleeve photo. Of course: a sexy, freaky, interracial band of men in slinky new wave attire, plus a sullen, hot woman.

Todd grabbed his guitar. “I already figured out ‘When U Were Mine,’” he said. “I’ll show you.”

While doing that, Todd informed me that he’d invited this guy he’d met, RuPaul, over to play music. Todd told me RuPaul was the biggest Prince fan of anyone he knew. He’d be taking the bus over tomorrow, and was I free to come by and play some music with them?

I was.

Twenty-four hours later, a six-foot-four, skinny black guy with a radiant smile was walking through the shade of the oaks and pines on Todd’s street. Although he was dressed relatively simply – clam diggers, Chinese slippers, and a bolero jacket with safety pins, if memory serves – my first thought was, “He looks like Vanessa Williams. With freckles.”

Todd, fake ID in hand, had met RuPaul at a club where Ru was go-go dancing with two large black women; they were billed as “RuPaul and the U-Hauls.” The trio added backup vocals, between-song patter, and compelling visuals to Todd’s favorite band, trashy, queer-friendly, new wave funk quintet the Now Explosion. Ru wanted to start his own band.

Indeed, RuPaul was a huge Prince fan, going back to Prince’s ’78 debut For You. Although he would ultimately rise to fame a decade later as a drag queen, in late ’82, RuPaul was, like Prince, more new wave crossdresser, in part because he was dirt poor, and good drag is expensive. Ru was quite inventive, though, incorporating aspects of punk, P-funk glam, New Romantic, and boho thrift store into his outfits, which he wore onstage and off. As much as I wanted to emulate Prince, RuPaul actually did it, while adding much of his own original flair. He even used only his first name. (Full name: RuPaul Andre Charles.)

Soon after that first meeting, RuPaul, Todd, and I formed our band, Wee Wee Pole, and booked our first gig, opening for the Now Explosion about six weeks hence. In lieu of a drummer, we incorporated Todd’s dad’s ancient drum machine, later adding percussionist, David Klimchak. We churned out songs clearly influenced by Prince: sexually frank numbers like “Body Heat,” (banned from college radio for faux orgasms), “Hips,” “Lisa,” and others. We carved out our own niche, too, with funny songs like “Pizza,” “Tarzan,” “Fun, Happy, Fun,” and “Who Wants Gum?” We sought to occupy the funny/sexy axis.

Within months, we were headlining clubs. All of 1983 was about Wee Wee Pole, and it was a heady time. A few months in, RuPaul hired a kid named Javier to be his onstage valet, a la Jerome to Morris Day in Prince protégés the Time. (This concept only lasted a couple gigs. During a gig at Atlanta new wave club 688, Javier was caught stealing from the till.) I booked us a tour to New York, where we played triumphant gigs at Danceteria and the Pyramid Club, returning home exhausted from our adventures.

The fun was a bit much for me, however, and I quit soon thereafter, joining Athens band Go Van Go for musical and lifestyle adventures of a different kind. Everyone went on to other projects. Todd and I remained very close until his 2004 death. RuPaul, of course, achieved his dream of superstardom, getting closer to the actual Prince than any of us.

As a fan, I stuck with Prince all through his golden period, i.e. the 80s. While on tour with the Fleshtones, I saw him on the Lovesexy tour in Paris in 1988, and it was, of course, mind-blowing. (Sheila E. almost stole the show. No small feat.) As an album artist, he lost me around Graffiti Bridge. But his singles, presence, enduring artistic energy, and his David v. Goliath stance on the recording industry – all of it continued to captivate me. He was a moveable feast. When my son was very small, I happily sang him “Kiss” and “Starfish and Coffee.”

In the wake of Prince’s untimely, tragic death, I recall all of the above with heightened clarity, in part because Prince’s songs are everywhere, and songs are potent time travel devices, intensified in blindsiding grief. His lawyers are either overwhelmed or taking time off, because the internet is chock full of Prince, and this has never been allowed before. It’s both wonderful and excruciating.

Other musicians’ deaths – Bowie, Cobain – have occasioned such experiences of elegy and both communal and private pain, but not with the same intensity as Prince. Not nearly. Not for me, at least. He was one of my own, just six years older than me. His art shaped me – and many of my peers – more than any other musician. Most crucially, he brought me back to making music with my dear friend. That friend is now also gone, but in the magic of music, he is revivified anew, as much as a presence can be, in the songs and images of the strange, willful man who made us unafraid.

– Robert Burke Warren

Editor’s Note:
This article originally appeared on TheWeeklings.com.

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Robert Burke Warren is a writer, performer, and musician. He's traveled the world as a bass player, played the lead in the West End musical Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story, and had his songs performed by Rosanne Cash, the Roots, and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. His writing is widely available online, and his debut novel "Perfectly Broken" is available now.

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