#93: Prince, "Sign 'O' the Times" (1987)

93 Sign O the Times.jpg

Perms were ascendant—weren’t they? Wasn’t that right? Even for guys? He had just gotten it figured out, the long bangs with the perm, super short on the sides, the shoulder pads, the boots. Prince—you couldn’t go wrong. He had studied his own round, pasty visage in the mirror, imagining his limp, grout-colored hair in tight, commanding ringlets, considered that, as a homeschooled, classical-music-playing geek, he knew less than nothing about what was cool, and he had asked his mom. She assured him, yes, of course perms are in, I’m so glad you’re finally taking an interest in your appearance, Gerald. You know that song, “Let’s Go Crazy”? That little fellow has a perm. He’s everywhere.

So Gerald asked for a cassette of Purple Rain and a perm for his sixteenth birthday, and now here he was, in a salon that his mother assured him did men’s perms all the time. The damage was done—Gerald was sitting in a red vinyl chair under a heat lamp, his eyes smarting from the pungent chemicals soaking his scalp.  He was in a row of chairs full of women under heat lamps, with another row facing him across a coffee table strewn with shiny magazines.

The women ignored him. All women—his mother had been wrong, no guys were in there getting perms. Even one would have been a relief. One guy, any kind of guy, a pudgy middle-aged dad kind of guy or a public school ruffian kind of guy, the sort he usually crossed the mall to avoid, any kind of male would’ve been a relief. He imagined the wry conspiratorial smile he’d give to this other guy, who would be sitting across from him under a heat lamp, too. His eyes would be red-rimmed and watering from the chemicals like Gerald’s and he’d look at Gerald man-to-man and they’d feel insulated from the world of women around them. But there was no other guy.

Then he looked down at the magazine-laden coffee table in front of him and saw a magazine with Prince on the cover. Prince, with glasses that made him look smart in a way that Gerald’s glasses didn’t, and—oh, God—a new hairstyle. The headline said he had a new album. Sign O the Times. Was that a typo? Didn’t they mean “of”—Sign of the Times?  But anyway, the point was, oh God, Purple Rain was like three years old, you dork, and Prince had already moved on. Sign O The Times—the new album, with the silly “O” all by itself, a kitschy abbreviation like what you’d see in an ad for cough syrup or an Irish pub. But that was Prince—even the silly o would get respect, unlike him, unlike Gerald. And Prince had a new hairstyle, which meant that everyone would have a new hairstyle, and, he had figured this much out about the world, anyone with the old hairstyle would be laughed at.

Prince’s curls were looser, the sides longer, the overall look closer to pre-Raphaelite than New Wave. God, now that was a look—it was like Beethoven’s glorious hair! Gerald had secretly studied the stiff plaster-of-paris hair on his musical hero’s bust that sat atop his Steinway in the living room at home. Beethoven looked like he’d sat for his bust after fighting a lion in a high wind! That was some hair! No one else would put two and two together, but he, Gerald knew things about Prince that other people didn’t. Being a classical pianist, Gerald understood that Prince was a real musician, a musician’s musician, not just some fashion icon who could kind of carry a tune that somebody else taught him while drum machines kept a beat. Prince knew his Beethoven, Gerald could just tell, so Prince had probably noticed Beethoven’s splendid tonsorial instincts as Gerald had, and was probably paying homage with his latest look, which was so viscous, so motile, almost like his hair was an organism dancing to the music he made. Gerald realized this—this Prince/Beethoven/cool hair connection with fifteen minutes to go in the setting period of his perm.

He picked up the magazine, and as he flipped through the glossy pages, sticky with hair product, to the article about Prince and found the picture he would point to when his hairdresser asked how he wanted his perm styled, a song started that made him lean out from under the heat lamp to hear it. It was the catchiest, sweetest, bounciest music he had ever heard, a pop song like no other, a pop song that made every other pop song sound like a dirge or a nursery rhyme. Never take the place of ol’ Han? Was it about Star Wars? He listened for the chorus to come around, imagining the keyboard before him and beaming in his red vinyl seat as he heard what Prince had done. Oh, it was fantastic! Never take the place of your man, that was it. This had to be a new release from Sign O the Times.

He had heard another one, “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” inside the music store where the guy who tuned his piano worked. He had gone in with his mom to ask Todd, the piano tuner, who was also a fine piano player, if he could come over and see what was going on with his A-Flat. The store, a sunny, white-carpeted shop with plate glass windows across the front, usually had nothing newer than Mahler playing when Gerald went in, but he had found on this particular day, Prince, and not just any Prince, but a raunchy and confusing Prince song with lyrics that Gerald chose to ignore.

“He’s like Bowie, you know?” Todd had grinned at Gerald from across the counter top and pointed up, at the air, as he tapped out the rhythm of the song with his free hand.  Gerald didn’t know. “It’s like Ziggy Stardust or something. Another personality.”

“Prince has another personality?” Gerald tried earnestly to follow what Todd was saying. His mother was standing reverently by a white and gold baby grand by the front window, communing with the instrument like her focused devotion would make the instrument materialize in her dingy living room.

“Her name’s Camille.”

“That’s a girl’s name.”

Todd smiled at him. “He was going to do an entire album in his Camille persona, but it didn’t work out. Too bad, if you ask me. This song, though, it’s got to be one of the Camille songs.”

Gerald looked down at the bowl of twenty-five-cent picks on the counter. He felt like he was in a new place with a person he’d never met before instead of in old, familiar McMurtry’s Music with Todd, who had even been his music teacher for awhile in 6th grade before Gerald’s abilities surpassed him. But Todd was being different today.

“I didn’t know you listened to popular music,” he said.

“Prince isn’t like most of that stuff,” Todd said.

Gerald had told him then about his newfound love of Purple Rain, and had even made a shy inquiry about Todd’s opinions of perms. Was Todd’s hair naturally curly?

Todd had thrown his square head back and laughed. He patted his blond curls and pulled one down over his left eye, grinning impishly at Gerald.  “What do you think?” he asked.

“Prince isn’t embarrassed about his perm,” Gerald said.

“Prince isn’t embarrassed about anything, little dude, and neither should you be.”

“My A-Flat is wonky.”

“I can come by tomorrow.”

“My mom really wants that piano.”

“You don’t have the house for it.”

“I know. I think it’s that way with me and Prince hair. I don’t have the face for it.”

“Get the damned perm, Gerald. It’s not permanent.”

“It’s called a permanent. Perm means permanent.”

“I just mean, live a little, Gerald."

“I will.”

And he was. And he would. When his hairdresser finally came over and lifted the dome of the heat lamp from off his head, peering at him like he was a kitten hiding under a couch, he had pointed to the picture of Prince. “I want this,” he said. “Not what I said before,” he said.  “Can you do it?”

She patted her lips with two fingers, studying the picture.  “I’m glad you’re going for this,” she said. “It’s really new.”  She tilted his chin from side to side, narrowing her eyes meditatively.  “As long as you know you’re not going to look just like Prince.”

“I know,” he said. And truly, his expectations were modest, but after she rinsed and set, dried and styled his hair and spun him around to look at himself in the mirror, the effect was better than he could have ever hoped. He looked like a guy who could go to public school, who could go to the mall and walk right into the record store, and when Prince came on, he could make a sage remark about Ziggy Stardust, and to the kids who looked uncomfortable, he would smile and his curls would move like beings affirming his every word. As he left the beauty shop, he passed a boy about his age walking in with his mom. The boy’s expression, both mortified and hopeful, lit up when he saw Gerald. Gerald nodded, and his perm nodded right along with him.

—Constance Squires