In the late summer of 1984 I was lovesick and broke. I’d spent the summer at a boys camp, my first as a counselor after seven seasons as a camper, an enviable transition for any camp lifer – that first summer you get dibs on the better breakfast cereals, are asked to call balls and strikes, and earn money for something you’d do for free if anyone had suggested it.
I’d just finished my junior year in high school– confident, thin-ish, tan and oblivious to life’s complications waiting for me in the years to come. I coached tennis, hiked mountains, swam in the lake and managed a 10-year old baseball team. It was a great summer, but I’d made one mistake – I left Long Island in late June, convinced my girlfriend Beth and I would stay together, the two of us apart for ten weeks but connected by the good people at AT&T long distance. I was sure our “love” would transcend time and space. We promised to write letters, and I dedicated myself to calling her as often as possible.
This being 1984, the idea that I could text Beth before video-chatting her was like a scene from an absurd science fiction film. Instead, I had a pay phone on the wall of the Counselor Shack, a tiny cabin in the woods where we’d listen to music, drink beer, play air guitar, drink more beer and sing along to every cut on Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp album. I’d stand next to the weathered door, its hole-filled screen no match for New Hampshire’s mosquitoes, and talk to Beth whenever I could.
I don’t remember the substance of a single call but do recall things slipping away as the dog days of July arrived. Beth had her job, her friends and college to prepare for, and any experience I shared meant little to her. I’m sure we talked about how much we cared for each other, but the calls became less frequent, and Beth ended it at some point in early August. When the season ended, I was sad not only because Beth and I were on the outs, but I also knew I’d squandered so much time on that pay phone in the middle of the woods.
To make matters worse, I learned I’d just spent my entire paycheck for the summer’s efforts on my dad’s long distance calling card. Four hundred dollars gone, spent minute by minute on that wall phone as I swatted away bugs, clutched a can of beer and begged my friends to stop singing “Is She Really Going Out With Him” as loud as they could in the background.
Once the summer ended, I was at our family cottage a few miles from the camp, trying in vain to defend to my mom how I wasted every penny of my salary. “All for a girl? How dumb was that?” my mom asked, in a somewhat rhetorical way. Feeling lonely, sad and sorry for myself, I was convinced I was the biggest teenage loser in the history of teenage losers. And that’s when I was rescued by Purple Rain.
My sister Molly, a few years older, measured my misery and suggested we take a drive. “Let’s go see that Prince movie in Meredith.” My only exposure to Prince to that point was my 1999 cassette I’d hid from my friends. We were music snobs, and in high school we only listened to New Wave – Elvis Costello, Squeeze, The Clash, The Pretenders. No one could know I kinda dug this guy from Minneapolis - admitting I’d memorized the lyrics to “Lady Cab Driver” or “Delirious” was as close to social suicide as getting the “Flock of Seagulls cut” from my local barber, Mr. Snips.
Purple Rain was like nothing I’d seen before. With no internet or YouTube, I might have caught a video on MTV or maybe a Saturday Night Live performance, but this was two hours of music, major drama and Apollonia. I was mesmerized. Sure, the story’s a little predictable, and no one ever confused Morris Day with Sidney Poitier, but the scenes of Prince and his band on stage were magic – Prince’s singing, his gyrations and his eyes – even the little cookie duster mustache – all of it was spectacular. Wendy and Lisa? A guy in surgical scrubs on the keyboard? A purple motorcycle? The dude from The Mod Squad? Pirate shirts and high heel boots? What was this? I could have watched the six-hour version of Purple Rain if it had been playing.
I remember heading home in the pouring rain as my sister drove. I felt alive, confident, renewed. If Prince could put himself out there and get the girl, maybe my future wasn’t so bleak. So what if I blew my entire salary on long distance calls? Who cares I told Beth I loved her to have her cast it aside? Purple Rain wasn’t even that great of a movie, but Prince’s pure dedication to his music and his performances were enough for me to start accepting that emotion is a good thing, that feeling my own passion for something enough to make me hurt inside was okay. When I hear “I Would Die 4U” or “Let’s Go Crazy,” even these 32 years later, I think back to that wide smile on my face in the passenger seat, the rain beating against the windshield, my entire life ahead of me somewhere down that road.
(Purple Rain is available for online rental, in select theaters nationwide in tribute to Prince’s death – including Red River in Concord - and airing on MTV tonight in all its purple glory.)