Prince: A Memory
To write a live review of a Prince show never occurred to me. You were — God, that past tense jars — so much in the moment, and with the people around you. Who wanted to be making mental notes, retaining a set list in order in your head or on a credit card receipt or a matchbook cover, sneaking a photograph when he’d told you no and he meant it?
This is not a live review; it’s just memories, decades old, never written down before. There was nothing, no one, like Prince the first time I heard him live, in 1988 — or the last time I heard him, in the summer of 2013. For going on 40 years, he was frantically and globally imitated, but never even remotely equaled.
The Richmond Coliseum is a concrete behemoth that seemed vast to me when I was a kid and it was brand-new — it held more than 13 thousand people. It still sits on a city block or two in downtown Richmond, Virginia, though it is to be pulled down and replaced, they say, in coming years. Elvis had a gig there once upon a time, as did the Harlem Globetrotters, the Jacksons, hosts of sports teams and monster truck drivers, and Prince. The first live show I ever heard there? Shaun Cassidy. It does not count, though, I think, if you go with parents and a babysitter.
There was no babysitting being done at that Prince show. It wasn’t sold out, though the show had been hyped for the past couple of weeks on WRXL 102FM, Richmond’s rock leader, XL102. It was easy to buy a ticket at the door, as many people lined up to do. It was a weeknight — a school night — but I had my own car and Charlottesville, where I was in school, was only an hour and a bit away via I-64. In a city where Monty Python’s Life of Brian had been shut down just a decade earlier by various churches — and screened at midnight by the intrepid old Lee Art Theater, a burlesque and X-rated movie house down on Grace Street — it was quite something to be going to a show called “Lovesexy.” And that was what you got, in big bucketfuls, from a slight man in patterned white with a floppy Byronic tie. He looked to me like a cross between Michael Jackson and Little Richard, but sexy as all get-out — as, to my mind, neither of the other guys were. He never once stopped moving: capering, skipping, strutting, gyrating, slinking, shooting baskets … yes, shooting baskets, and hitting them, too, to howls of glee. Before the days of intense-detail jumbotrons, you had to strain to see performers, but you didn’t need to be up close to see what Prince was up to. The whole stage was, literally, a playground, and the Coliseum took on a touch of its Roman original in a fleshly, sweaty carnival. I remember everything lit up to dazzle, and songs paced at blazing speed to start, with a slow span toward the end that was calm and cool.
Thank heavens a fine Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter was there that night: Robin Farmer, for many years one of the best feature writers, and concert and movie reviewers, for the paper. A guy I’d met when we were summer interns at the paper, now a staff photographer, P. Kevin Morley, took the shots that accompanied the story. Farmer nailed the spirit of the evening to the wall. I remember the bed on a lift, and the basketball hoops, and Prince’s hot moves with Sheila E. She was stunning to me: a gorgeous, talented woman with a swirling storm of hair, as the drummer in a band. All the drummers I’d ever admired had, up until that night, been men.
The order of the songs, and what Prince said from the stage, are long gone from my head. But reading Farmer’s article brings it all back, along with my skinny dancing self, with a richness that makes me smile today. Good music writing is hard to find; be grateful to Farmer, along with me.
My father, who asked me about the show and read about it in the morning paper, said, “It sounds like a camp meeting.” He was right — the love of Lovesexy was both down and dirty, and fiery as an old-time sermon could be. The Coliseum had managed to feel like a tent set up under the pines, where people sang jubilation in the front rows and someone was selling whiskey out the back, and anything went after sundown.
“Americana” music has as many definitions and genres as there are instruments on which to play. I love the fiddle and the banjo — yes, even the banjo — as much as anyone could. I was raised in the sound of them. However, don’t try to tell me that sweet spirituals and fabulous funk, blues, rhythm and blues, and that spectacular smash-up when funk and psychedelia come together and bump and grind until they parent funkadelic aren’t Americana to the heart and soul. Prince made unique music from all the strands to his hands — much like the man who remains our best-known Minnesota musician, Bob Dylan.
Just as all flowers look good together, in Prince’s grasp, all musics sounded good.
One of the last pictures taken of Prince, posted on Instagram by @princelivethebest, shows him in a purplish jacket, riding his bicycle alone down an empty street. It clashes in my mind with him on his motorbike in Purple Rain (1984), sending up swirls of autumn leaves as he zooms with Apollonia toward what is not Lake Minnetonka. It makes me think, too, of what F. Scott Fitzgerald — a Minnesotan, born in St. Paul — called “nostalgia or flight of the heart.”
Fitzgerald is the American writer most associated, still, with nostalgia and heart-flights, with the terrible tragedy of youth spoiled too soon, and life ended before too long. Dead himself, of a heart attack, at 44, Fitzgerald wrote of “all the sad young men,” of “the regret … for lost youth.” He is celebrated, particularly, for a quotation from The Diamond as Big as the Ritz (1922), proclaiming that “Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” Beware: there’s always context in a text.
Here’s the whole quotation:
“What a dream it was,” Kismine sighed, gazing up at the stars. “How strange it seems to be here with one dress and a penniless fiancé!”
“Under the stars,” she repeated. “I never noticed the stars before. I always thought of them as great big diamonds that belonged to some one. Now they frighten me. They make me feel that it was all a dream, all my youth.”
“It was a dream,” said John quietly. “Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.”
“How pleasant then to be insane!”
“So I’m told,” said John gloomily. “I don’t know any longer.”
Prince in 2013 was not Prince in 1988, any more than I have, or anyone else has, stayed the same for 25 years. Yet I have not been able to think about the last time I heard him — since I know now that it is the last time — or listen to any of his music this past week, except for this concert, below.
Out of respect to a man who sternly and seriously believed artists should be paid for their work, I post no links to surreptitious photographs or videos from his recent shows — though I am thankful they exist. Here is Prince, in all his raging glory, from well before I knew him and his music. Live at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, 1982: forever young.