To George Hartner, light is a sign of celebration.
You ignite the candles on a birthday cake before joining in song, hang softly glowing lanterns or a dazzling disco ball to set the scene for backyard barbecues and dance parties. And it’s not officially Christmas until that warm glow of the white bulbs on the tree.
Even in the midst of sadness, Hartner believes a little light can take away the darkness just a little and serve as a reminder of brighter times.
So when Audi Cape Fear co-owner AJ Aliah asked Hartner, who runs Outdoor Illumination, to change the car dealership’s lighting scheme to purple last week, a light bulb went off.
“Lighting things is happy…There’s healing in that, and we can bring some healing to others by doing it,” Hartner said.
The purple is, of course, in honor of the iconic, eccentric and wholly unique rock god Prince, who died unexpectedly at his Paisley Park estate in Minnesota on April 21 at the age of 57.
As generations of fans across the globe mourned the massive loss, so, too, was Hartner—who entered adulthood concurrent with Prince—reeling from the news.
“I instantly went back to that place and time that was formative to me. It affected me so much because I was a fan of what is now classic rock but I was really liking what was going on with the punk scene and now comes along Talking Heads and Blondie. And around the same time Prince comes on the scene and it’s like, ‘Who is this?’
“The thing that blew my mind about Prince early on was, I noticed right away that he could play guitar like Hendrix, and I remember thinking, okay, this guy is the next Hendrix…But he also moves like James Brown and sings like Michael Jackson and channels David Bowie. And then I realized that he was my age,” Hartner recalled.
A little lost in reminiscing, Hartner admits Aliah’s idea to turn lighting into a local tribute to “the purple one” was one that had not occurred to him.
“He beat me to it,” Harnter said, laughing. “But it was genius and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
In turn, Aliah confesses the brilliant concept was not an original. It was sparked when his wife, Courtney, showed him Facebook photos of major landmarks like the Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis and New Orleans’ Superdome that were given a purple hue in recognition of Prince’s passing.
“I never saw him live unfortunately,” said Aliah, who was in high school when Prince was coming swiftly into his reign. “To me, though it’s one of those things where you don’t appreciate it as much until it’s gone…So, seeing all this stuff on social media, I realized, wait a minute, we can wash the Audi wall in purple.”
Hartner and his wife and business partner, Jane Cockrell, were instantly on board, heading out the evening of April 22 to get to work on reprogramming the lighting system and installing illumination. Hartner said the computerized system contains literally 16 million different colors.
After Cockrell picked out the perfect shade of purple and Hartner had the lights in, a passer-by – a professional photographer in town for a wedding shoot – pulled over.
“He said, ‘I am the biggest Prince fan and this is so awesome, I had to stop and take photos’,” Hartner said.
Aliah has been hearing a lot of that lately, which is saying something considering Audi’s modern building is known for its unique nighttime lighting.
“I’ve gotten some fanfare for the LED lighting before, but I’ve never had this much,” he said. “I have had so many people thanking me for changing them to [purple]…and these were truly diehard fans. It was unexpected how many people have come up to me and texted me and called me about it.”
Unexpected, perhaps, but understandable for both Hartner and fellow musician Aliah.
“He was a phenomenon on every continent,” Hartner said.
Aliah, who describes himself not as a “diehard Prince fan” but as a “diehard Prince believer,” agrees.
As a teenager picking up the electric guitar during the “Purple Rain” craze, Aliah said his connection to Prince came through his wailing, intricate and complex solos.
“For me, I didn’t own all of his albums or listen to all of his songs but I would hear one and go, ‘wait, whoa, I’ve got to learn that lick.’ But he was so much more than just a guitar player. He was so profoundly talented as a human. And there are not many people out there like that.”
No matter how they relate to Prince’s music, fans are connected by their connection to the music, Aliah and Hartner said.
Hartner felt the connection as he listened to his wife recount silly teenage tales of trying to imitate dance moves, as he chatted with some 20-something co-workers who were just last week discovering his music, as a stranger pulled along the roadside to snap some pictures.
And as Aliah watches his pre-teen daughter, Marley, put together her own rendition of “Purple Rain,” he knows a light as bright as Prince won’t go out anytime soon.
Audi Cape Fear, 255 Old Eastwood Road, will keep its homage to Prince up through Sunday, and Aliah already plans to make it an annual acknowledgement of the anniversary of the performer’s death.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.