The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Loving Prince’s music helped get me through prison

My fellow fans always had my back.

Prince performs in St. Paul, Minn., on Dec. 25, 1984. (David Brewster/Star Tribune via AP)
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I was writhing, tossing and turning in the top bunk of a cell at Mecklenburg Correctional Institution. It was 2008. Months before, I had been sentenced to spend 3 ½ years in prison, after a horrendous lapse in judgment and sanity had gotten me into the biggest trouble of my life — I got hooked on drugs and tried to rob a bank.

A former maximum-security prison that was then a processing facility for Virginia offenders, Mecklenburg was a brick and concrete monolith baking me by day and breaking me by night during one of the hottest Junes in years. None of the buildings were air-conditioned or well-ventilated. During the rec hour that day, a spider had bitten me in the mid-section while I was doing push-ups in the yard. But I hadn’t realized that yet as the creases in the sheets I was lying on captured pools of sweat. I started getting even more feverish and dizzy, praying for the slightest bit of breeze to blow through the grated window. I could barely lift my head as a corrections officer poked his head into the cell during count time.

“You all right, Orlikoff?” he asked.

“I’m just delirious, that’s all,” I said.

“Well, let me know if it’s life-threatening.”

And then I started singing to myself:

I get delirious whenever you’re near

Lose all self-control, baby just can’t steer

Wheels get locked in place

Stupid look on my face

I started silently singing other songs from “1999.” It went on like that all night, the Prince catalog playing in my head. The fever and poison were still with me as the sun rose, but I was happy to have made it through the night, and to sing and hum, “Welcome. Welcome to the dawn,” before I got up the strength to go to breakfast.

It had always been that way for me — humming or singing Prince to myself to get me through good times and bad. (And don’t even get me started on the drug-fueled, wild-and-loose karaoke phase that led up to the trouble.) For most of my newspaper life, fellow copy editors who sat near me knew that, well before the first deadline, I would make a nightly Prince reference. Obligatory, in my mind. Eyes would roll. Heads would shake. I could always find a way to weave Prince into the daily discussions, or — as at Mecklenburg — into my desperation.

My love for Prince had started years before, in 1983, when a girl I knew begged me to take her to see Prince with the Time and the Vanity 6 at the Armory in D.C. (at a show where we both wound up smoking PCP, without realizing it at the time). The more I heard and read, the more I identified with Prince Rogers Nelson. He was born on June 7, 1958; I was born on July 14, 1958. He sang about the things that interested me — religion, politics, race and sex, sometimes all in the same song. I could dig it. In the era of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and the “Footloose” soundtrack, Prince’s sound, full of seductive synth lines and soaring guitar solos, was a breath of fresh air

Memorials for music icon Prince are growing, one day after his death. (Video: McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

From Mecklenburg, I was transferred to Southampton Correctional Center, a minimum-security set-up. Finally, I could use funds in my commissary account to order a CD player and some Prince music. I only had enough money to order two CDs, so I chose “1999” and Disc 2 of “Prince/The Hits.” After weeks of anticipation, I got the call to pick up my CDs. I sat at a table in the general area and unwrapped “1999.”

An incredibly muscular, large man named Grip walked up to me. I had never met this fellow offender, but I’d seen him working out. He was a beast. He was to be avoided.

“What do you know about Prince?” he said.

I looked up at him and responded, matter-of-fact, “A lot.”

From that point on, I settled all arguments concerning Prince — especially his connection to Michael Jackson — between Grip and his guys. I answered the trivia questions. (“Yes, he wrote ‘Manic Monday.’ Yes, he wrote ‘I Feel For You.’ “Yes, he is the ‘Jamie Starr’ who wrote all of the good Time songs.”) One evening after chow, they called me down to a cell in their wing of the facility. It was Talent Night — unofficial and technically against the rules but still happening.

“All right, Orlikoff. I know we got you now. Let’s hear ‘Pussy Control.’”

“Oh, we got you. We got you. He don’t know that joint.”

I took a breath.

“Good mornin’ ladies and gentlemen, boys and m——f——’ girls. This is your captain with no name speakin’, and I’m hear to rock your world. With a tale that will soon be classic …”

The place erupted with laughter and screams. For the rest of my sentence, I never worried about my well-being. Prince lovers had my back. Plus, a lot of guys liked and respected me as the facility’s librarian because I made sure that Jet, Ebony and Vibe were not only ordered but distributed and returned properly. (Yes, they did nickname me “Shawshank.”)

Eventually, I got to my final stop my ordeal — the pre-release program at Powhatan Correctional Center near Richmond. After the eight-week program, an actual graduation ceremony was held, complete with caps, gowns, refreshments and a paper program we wrote and designed, along with an audience of actual, real, non-offending people. I was chosen to be the emcee. The ceremony would begin with a procession. As all of the tough guys began the walk to their seats, I motioned to Ms. Moore, the pre-release coordinator, to hit “play” on the boom box.

A tiny, falsetto and tinkling piano broke the silence.

Don’t sleep ’til the sunrise, listen 2 the falling rain

Don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, don’t worry ’bout your pain

Don’t cry unless you’re happy, don’t smile unless you’re blue

Never let the that lonely monster take control of U

Be glad that U r free

Free 2 change your mind

Free 2 go most anywhere, anytime

After everybody was seated and the music had stopped, it was time for me to offer a brief introduction. As God and Prince are my witnesses, I stood before the microphone, proudly, looked out among all of the faces, and said:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…”