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Summer of (Purple) Love

by Gretchen Lieberum

It was the summer of 1984, and I was eleven-years-old. I was living, as I did every summer, with my Italian Catholic grandparents in their claustrophobic, non air-conditioned apartment on the Jersey Shore; Long Branch to be exact, famous for its Haunted House ride on the boardwalk and not much else. I spent my days playing with the neighborhood kids on the beach, boogie boarding and searching for sand dollars, and my nights listening to my Thriller cassette tape over and over again, dreaming about a chaste courtship with Michael Jackson. In my fantasies we’d hold hands, slow dance, and cuddle. Occasionally, he would steal a kiss, sans tongue.

But lately, someone else had been creeping into my daydreams. He wore eyeliner, pirate shirts and high heels. But I got the feeling he liked ladies. A lot. I’d first heard his single, “When Doves Cry,” on the radio a few months before. It was kind of dissonant and strange, not really like anything else I’d ever heard before… and I was obsessed. I had yet to buy the album but brother did I want to. As of yet all I had was a portion of the song I’d recorded from the radio with my boom box.

I knew that this character named Prince had a movie that had just come out called Purple Rain. I had no idea what it was about but I was dying to see it. Immediately. I got the feeling that perhaps my grandmother wasn’t the best person to see it with, but how could I possibly wait until September when I would return home to my parents’ house in Berkeley, California? (My hippy parents would let me see anything. In fact they’d taken me to see Scarface, me in my pajamas, a few years earlier when they couldn’t get a sitter.)

I nonchalantly brought it up to my grandparents that I would love to see this movie that was out about a singer I liked, but suggested that they probably shouldn’t take me because they wouldn’t like the music and maybe their friend Phyllis should take me. Phyllis lived in their building. She was in her thirties, single, wore lots of gold chains and smoked Virginia Slims. She liked me, and she liked Prince, too. My grandparents agreed to let Phyllis take me to see Purple Rain one hot and rainy Saturday night and off we went. Little did I know that my fifth grade mind was about to be irreparably blown to pieces.

Phyllis and I sat in the dark of the theater as Purple Rain began, that first organ chord of “Let’s Go Crazy” ringing in my ears… ”Dearly Beloved… we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…”

Holy shit! The lights! The smoke! The dancing! The ruffles! The lingerie as outer-wear! The silvery eye make-up! The sweaty, dirty girls and sweaty, dirty boys doing sweaty, dirty things to each other!

And sweaty, muscular, glaring, sighing, screeching Prince, writhing around humping things! And of course… the music. My God, the music! The energy, vibrancy and newness of it… it took my breath away.

And then came the stark, graphic sex scene between Prince and Apollonia… as mesmerized as I was, I was also acutely aware that I was sitting next to Phyllis. Horrified and embarrassed, I slowly craned my eyes towards her to see if she was looking at me… thankfully, she wasn’t.

Finally the movie ended. As the lights came up, Phyllis sighed deeply. “Gretchen,” she said, “this might not have been the most appropriate film to take you to.” I silently nodded in agreement. “So, I’m thinking… let’s not tell your Grandma all of the… plot details. Deal?” Again I nodded. What, did she think I was nuts? Of course I wouldn’t. (15 years later, when Phyllis was the mother of an eleven-year-old girl herself, we would laugh and laugh about this.)

That night as I lay sleepless in my tiny, humid room, I felt weird, anxious, excited, uneasy, vaguely guilty and definitely tingly. Looking back as a forty-one-year-old woman, I would describe this feeling as “horny.” Lying there on the sofa-bed, I had so many questions running through my mind…

What, exactly, is “masturbating,” and how would one do it with a magazine?

Would someone ever do to me what Prince was doing to Apollonia? Did I even want them to? (Yes, I did.)

How would I ever someday meet Prince? Because, honestly, I have to.

That night, I became a life-long, die-hard Prince fan.

Maya Rudolph and Gretchen

 (Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum)

So much so that, 30 years later, I am now in a Prince cover band with my good friend Maya Rudolph.

Lately, I’ve thought back to my eleven-year-old self lying in that room and wished that I could tell her that one day, 30 years later, she would actually meet Prince. He wouldn’t be wearing a pirate shirt. He would be fifty-five-years-old. I would be married with kids and we wouldn’t run off into the sunset together. But I could honestly say that, like the film Purple Rain, it would be fucking awesome.

Gretchen Lieberum

About Gretchen Lieberum

Gretchen Lieberum is a singer, a writer, and a mother of two. She is also the greatest rapper in the history of rap itself (no she isn’t).

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