Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Purple Reign in the Basement

Big screen TVs were not that common in 1986. In fact I had never seen one bigger than maybe 24" prior to that year and most of those I had seen were in some dumb futuristic movie. So, when I first saw the monstrosity that was in my buddy Chris's basement it was like I had walked into the Playboy mansion except there were no half naked chicks or rampant drug use. That would come later.

The TV itself was an utter piece of shit. A gargantuan hunk of wood and metal, layered with some odd textured plastic at the front, that at best reproduced a picture that resembled what you'd see if you covered your eyeballs in Vaseline and dirt and were perpetually squinting. The sound was atrocious, the colors were so fucked up it looked like a moving Salvador Dali painting covered in sludge and it smelled. Yes, the TV smelled.

But I loved that thing like it was my child.

When I moved to Suffield in 1984 I had spent my previous years bouncing around from town to town with my mom and brother Geoff, usually with forty three dogs, a couple cats and a string of recalled adventures in tow. Most of those adventures involved me getting beat up by neighborhood kids because I a.) Had never really learned to fight at that point. b.) Seemed to encourage kids to want to punch me c.) Looked like Ronald McDonald but had no fries & d.) As ridiculous as I looked, I always made moves on chicks and this pissed off the locals. You know, the local 12 year old kids that don't like some new, strange red Afro sporting, K Mart fall line wearing, wise cracking shithead sneaking glances at their chicks asses. Every town has 'em. Suffield was a chance for me to have some "roots", and thanks to momma being willing to stay planted-and some coaching from my old man on how to not get the shit kicked out of me for sport and have a non-creepy conversation with a girl once in a while-the roots took hold.

When I met Chris it was actually at a football game in between Freshman and Sophmore year down at the Suffield Academy. I was a decent football player so I made an impression and ended up becoming friends with a number of guys I still talk to today. Incredibly, not my Ronald-fro nor tendency to crack wise angered them, and in fact in some ways endeared me to them...but it was Chris that I connected to most naturally, as he was a ball busting, clever, athletic little shit like me. Except he was good looking.

The first time I went into the basement of his old mans Condo-and saw that enormous fucking TV-the only thought I had was "Why does it smell like that Jamaican guy from Hartford that used to fix my dads shitty cars?" Yes, there was an olfactory party happening there, embedded deep in the DuPont shag carpet, and it was 90% Cannabis and 10% Drakkar Noir. I had smelled weed before but this was so enticing and intoxicating it's at that moment I knew I was headed for some real changes in my life. Changes that

meant I would likely be wearing ponchos made of hemp, possibly headbands, acid washed jeans and certainly expanding my musical catalog. I had a home on Mapleton Avenue, an idyllic one for the most part minus the random mushroom growing in the bathroom, but this place felt like the home of my soul. Where former adolescent loser dorks with massive feet come to escape their past and are reborn into slightly less douchey kids but with a couple joints on them at all times.

"The Basement" was where I watched a number of classic films, all on the screen of that hulking, blurry TV and through the bloodshot eyes of a lanky Ginger, but none were as memorable as Purple Rain.  The movie itself was awful-laughable dialogue, poor acting, over zealous characters making inexplicable movements and commentary at strange times-but Prince man...and that music! The guy was a tiny, somewhat effeminate, Pirate shirt wearing, goofy ass motorcycle riding, girlfriend abusing shithead but when he got on stage the dude radiated sex like Beyonce being shot out of a Nuclear Submarine on a Torpedo made of Dildo! It was the music that was most captivating though, the way he poured every passionate notion, every fear, every ounce of jealousy or anger into his words. The music bled from his lips and guitar and on that big screen-even soaked in fuzzy confusion-it just captivated the senses of this and many other teenage minds.

From my recollection, Purple Rain was on 89% of the time I was in that basement, with the rest being rounded out by The Wall or the VHS of Nightmare on Elm St., which I have still failed to return to the Freshwater Video Store in Enfield CT. The movie was on so often that I swear the room started to develop a mild purple tint after a year or so. There's a slight possibility that had more to do with what I was inhaling vs. what I was viewing but I'll leave that for scientists to figure out, as I am just a simple man recalling his memories.

Purple Rain, in truth however, was nothing more than the enduring soundtrack to an indelible slice of my young life. There were more memories made in that basement, with countless friends and random acquaintances, than I could recall if I spent the better part of a week, though some are unforgettable. Twelve to fifteen boned out teenagers crammed in front of a shitty TV, silent and captivated, unaware the value and weight of the moment they are part of. Myself and Chris, he in his bed and me behind the shuttered door on a sleeping bag, each with our girlfriends, discussing why the other should actually get the last remaining condom (safety first!). It was like an intellectual chess match between an adolescent Cheech and Chong. The time where several of us friends listened to The Final Cut by Pink Floyd, all "enhanced" by earthly substance, and let the music become part of us and not just an external stimulant. There were sometimes words spoken harshly there, as there were tears openly spilled. Relationships began and ended there, and often the basement was a place of retreat from pain suffered in our other worlds. There were no rules, no boundaries really, and no closing time, 'cept for an occasional Dungeon Master who often appeared late in the am and demanded to know who ate his Chicken Cordon Blue. Though even he, in his later years and deeper wisdom, couldn't deny the magnetism of the basement, as he often chose to celebrate with us instead of rally against.

The Purple Reign didn't last forever, nor could it have. Time moves down its unburdened trail like a ball bouncing down a hill that falls off the Earth. Friends grow-and grow apart-and other lives blossom from the roots planted long ago. The magic of the basement and the music that served as its score was that it was a time in our life where, despite the fear and "awkward teenage blues" as Bob Seger so eloquently put it-that all that seemed to matter was the moment. That time of day or night where you sought out your friends and went to that place that was only yours and served as solace and stimulation and sanctuary from anything you needed it to be. It wasn't just the sex, drugs and rock and roll it was the collective energy of youth, angst, love, passion, fear, desire, anger, confusion and lust that made the time and place so relevant and lasting. Our lives are are filled with responsibility, order, necessity and commitment now whereas those years ago in that funky basement they were about nothing more than feeling. Experiencing. Living.

As an election year gains momentum and political differences and ideological beliefs become the language often spoken on social media and in the Starbucks and workplace and corner deli, I let my mind slip away to the basement and the opening strummed chords of Purple Rain. Prince is gone now, but his legacy and music will ring out for decades to come, just like the memories that accompanied my time watching the film of the same name in that damp, cool place. I don't see most of the friends that filled that space as often anymore but that's more a function of life getting in the way than anything else. Most of us have different views, different perspectives, misaligned goals, wants or needs though we all share a common experience from so many years ago. I, for one, haven't evolved much from the skinny Ginger punk I was all those years ago in the sense that I still will choose silly over serious almost every time. I would still always prefer to laugh than cry, though I'm not as afraid to do the latter anymore. I worship music more than I ever did then, though I like to think the locale as well as the company and soundtrack(s) helped forge my deep affinity. I know, as I did then, that I would do just about anything for someone I believe is a true friend, even if that means things that are unpopular or painful with the purpose of bringing peace or truth. I know that those years spent with Chris and so many others were priceless, permanent and will be recounted often, far into my final years.

Life has gone and gotten itself all kinds or serious and intense and grown up, and I am OK with that. I don't expect to be able to seek shelter in a basement playing Purple Rain or to smoke my cares away as I did so many years ago, without regret. However the life you live now is the same life-it's not someone else's life. If you find yourself waking up sometimes and pondering where that "kid I used to be" went, just look in the mirror. Yes, you were probably an asshole like me sometimes back then and smoked and drank too much and gave your parents acid reflux before anyone knew what that was-hell you probably still do-but that wasn't all there was to that kid. They probably had dreams and aspirations and talents that now lie dormant and haven't been nurtured in years. That kid probably had some questions about things they were told and yet didn't have the courage to inquire about and instead just let it go. They probably had a vision of themselves at your age now and it's likely a little different than what you see today. Instead of silencing that kid and continuing with the status quo, why don't you jump in the car-take your own kid or two if you have them-crank up Purple Rain and try to remember what it felt like to embrace their voice and not fear it.

If you really want to connect with the feeling I speak of, see if you can find a 200lb TV made out of lead, iron, plastic, oak, wires and shit and hook it up in your basement and watch the movie instead. Cannabis is optional, but creates a noticeable improvement in viewing clarity ;)



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