In March 1987, when Sign O’ The Times by Prince came out and The Joshua Tree was just out, I was in first year in secondary school. I was coming to the end of first year in a boys’ school, St Benildus’ College in Kilmacud, where I started in September 1986. That means I was almost exactly in my educational and social development where my eldest child, the beautiful, warm, compassionate and funny Olivia is right now. She is of course a completely different child than I was. Ethically engaged, climate-conscious, interested in animal welfare, aware of and respectful of natural variation in gender and sexual preference, while in 1987 I was just afraid of being called gay or nerdy or bad at sport, two of which I definitely was. When Sign O’ The Times arrived I was slightly younger than she is now because I wouldn’t turn thirteen until the end of first year in April 1987 and she turned thirteen just after starting in secondary in August. But man—I was a stupid kid. I don’t blame me entirely and our generation has probably done a better job of providing ethical guidance to our kids’ generation than the generations did before fist-clenched Catholicism declined in Ireland but it also seems quite late now to educate a generation about, say, an extinction crisis that there is little prospect of resolving.
Sign O’ The Times was released on March 30th 1987, while The Joshua Tree had been released on March 9th, 1987. What a month! As a boy in a boy’s school in south Dublin, I didn’t get Prince at the time. There was one boy in the class who did and told us all about him. This boy was more mature than I was. You could tell this through conversation, in the sense of what he talked about as well as the depth of his voice, and you could tell it in the P.E. changing room. This was at a time that there were boys who appreciated the sexual aspects of Prince’s music more than others who were on the threshold of puberty but really unfamiliar with it and its sexual implications. So a song like ‘It’ would have been a puzzle (“I want to do it baby all the time, alright / Because when we do it girl, it’s so divine, alright”). We would have had to pretend we knew what Prince was singing about and just try to escape down the corridor before being proven as bullshitters—look, there’s a badger with a gun! ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ would have been completely baffling and kind of still is.
It was safer in school to stay in the realm of male non-sexual songs like ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and even what appeared non-sexual like ‘With Or Without You’. You could like ‘With Or Without You’ and write U2 on your schoolbag without signalling that you understood the longing in Bono’s voice. You could like ‘The One I Love’ by R.E.M. without knowing what it meant for someone to be a simple prop to occupy your time, although I remember older boys boasting about getting together with, having sex with, then discarding girls. At that age I was also just about hanging on to religion, planning to get to Heaven, so the saviour-like aspects of Bono’s performance were still a way of connecting with that band. These were the aspects that resulted in Paul Wonderful of The Joshua Trio riding a donkey into the Baggot Inn in December 1987, shortly before I went about losing my religion for all time in 1988. And it was intoxicating to have a band from Dublin that was so huge. I grew up in Ballinteer and my family home is less than two miles from Danesmoate, where Adam Clayton lives and where The Joshua Tree was rehearsed and in part recorded. I remember heading up to our local Superquinn after the album release, queuing behind a man who was buying a box of Corn Flakes and recognising him as the bass player in the biggest band in the world. I left him alone.
It was about three and a half years later, the summer of 1990, when I fell properly in love for the first time, in the Galway Gaeltacht, that Sign O’ The Times hit home. I remember after my late summer departure from the Gaeltacht that we went on holidays as a family to Donegal, where my Dad is from. I was angry that I had to go because I wanted to stay in Dublin and hang with my first ever girlfriend so holiday snaps are of me looking sullenly out to sea in a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. We stayed in a house in Drumboe near Stranorlar where my Dad was born and where his father, my Granda, lived until his death in late 1982. Dad did not grow up there because his mum died when he was one year old, so he was reared by amazing aunts in Convoy, a village a few miles away. I sat out in the driveway of Granda’s house listening over and again to Sign O’ The Times, draining the car battery by using the car’s tape deck, focusing on what I considered the core songs: ‘Sign O’ The Times’, ‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’, ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’, ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, and ‘Starfish And Coffee’. By the time we got home the flame of young love had dwindled and I was dumped.
‘Starfish And Coffee’ is a spectacular song. I wonder now if I connected to it because it dealt so clearly and funnily with the problem that everyone of the age I was then has, which is fitting into school and society despite your idiosyncracies. Prince and his friends Kevin and Lucy are at school first thing in the morning, observing classmates and studying human behaviour like Björk would a few years later. Prince’s classmate Cynthia Rose is like no-one else and stuns him and Lucy. Prince praises her unpredictable uniqueness: “Cynthia wore the prettiest dress / With different color socks / Sometimes I wondered if the mates were in her lunchbox… Cynthia had a happy face, just like the one she’d draw / On every wall in every school / But it’s all right, it’s for a worthy cause / Go on, Cynthia, keep singin’.” The song’s chord structure is really simple and you can play along if you are middling on an acoustic. It has the same chords as Johnny Cash’s ‘Hey Porter’—fact. There are no solos like Prince played on ‘Purple Rain’ or ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ or on that live version of ‘When My Guitar Gently Weeps’ that, when Prince died, many deemed the high point of his career (not me).
So ‘Starfish and Coffee’ occupies a particular slot on a complex challenging album.
Prince is everywhere on Sign O’ The Times. He is sexually voracious and questioning (‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’: “Is it really necessary for me to go out of the room / Just because you want to undress? / We don’t have to make children to make love”). He is politically enraged and exhausted in the title track: “A sister killed her baby ’cause she couldn’t afford to feed it / Yet we’re sending people to the moon”. He sounds maybe preeningly self-satisfied on ‘Slow Love’ and a little spiritually self-righteous on ‘The Cross’, never my favourite song on the album despite its epic closer anthem status. As a bit of maturity set in, early teenage disappearing into the rear view and voice cracking then deepening, ‘It’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ became brave and fascinating songs, while the happily mutally agreed rapid coupling in ‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’ made a young man think: can that kind of liaison happen in real life? No: it couldn’t. No-one was going to ask me to take a bath with my jeans on and if they did—let’s imagine that something similar happened, once, on a J1 summer—I would, unlike Prince, panic, say no, and head for the hills. But it was a nice introduction to the work of Joni Mitchell outside of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’: “Oh, my favorite song, she said / It was Joni singing / Help me, I think I’m falling“.
‘Starfish and Coffee’ is one I love on this record because it takes a breath in the middle of all the surrounding intensity. It is easy, energising and relaxing. It is pro-human, pro-diversity, pro-surprise. It is an encomium of someone young who is always courageously going to be her own person. In our teens, and later, struggling to form shipshape identities, we needed to hear this kind of thing from someone who was himself, until his desperately disappointing early death, immovably his own person. It was the only Prince song of that period or probably any that could get on The Muppets. Millions of kids will have seen it, understood it, and taken it with them through their childhoods. Prince, Cynthia Rose, and her socks must be happy with that outcome.