Prince was playing two nights at Madison Square Garden for some reason. He had announced his retirement from the live stage only last year, hadn't he? Perhaps he was going out in support of his dreadful movie, Under The Cherry Moon, which has been gleefully panned by the critics and is going into a bomb at the box office.*
Perhaps he was already nostalgic for the thrill of a real crowd, since he is doing a full World Tour that arrives at Wembley this week.** I had been disappointed to miss Run DMC two weeks previously at the same venue and was determined to catch His Royal Badness, but I was supposed to leave America on July 31. Happily, my prayer was answered and my departure was eventually delayed, leaving four days later to fit in all I had to do and not returning to the City.***
While up at Jordan's, one of his associates, Paul (aka DJ Jungleboy) called to say he had a ticket for him. J. was psyched, but I freaked out: "I want it! Ask him if he's got one more! Or, give yours to me!" On Saturday, I was with my girlfriend, at her place, when she mentioned that her pal whose dad worked for Warners might have an extra ticket for her. That reminded me and I called Jordan, who immediately announced, "I have a ticket for you to see Prince tonight!"
We met up - Jordan, Jungleboy and my bad self - at Zen Café on 8th St. around six before heading over to the Garden, picking up Paul's date along the way. She turned out to be tiny, with big tits and a retroussé nez. Over on the West Side, there was a line around the building, but it was moving and we were soon enough inside the awesome auditorium. It is more of a sports arena than a concert hall, with the stage taking up half the length of a basketball court. Our seats were off gangway 21, behind the stage, giving us a good view of the black and white paisley patterned speaker cabinets and drum kit, flanked by banked keyboards. As the seats slowly filled an atmosphere was tangibly building. We smoked some excellent 'Bolt (prototypical skunk weed, developed in Humbolt County and traded at connoisseur's prices among the pot head cognoscenti) and the screams started reverberating in waves, like the sound of surf on the beach or the noise you hear when you hold a conch shell to your ear magnified a thousand times.
I got up to get beer and immediately the house lights went down, triggering pandemonium. Coming back from the bar, as I re-entered the hall, a voice boomed, "Ladies & gentlemen: Prince!" and the decibel level was cranked way past ten as a capacity crowd screamed at the top of its lungs. Prince sang a song in darkness that I now know to have been Around The World In A Day but it was not possible to be sure from behind the stage and above the screaming. When white lights finally swept the stage they revealed Prince, topless, chest naked to the waist in those toreador pants he wore in the Kiss video. Silhouetted, from behind, he appeared to grasp all the energy in that arena and pull it into himself so that he grew visibly bigger, like some alien entity that feeds on hysteria, as he pranced and posed through several unintelligible songs.
|Photo: Richard Corkery for New York Daily News.|
It was like a video we were watching from behind the screen, in that opening segment of the show. Every action must have been minutely choreographed with the gestures of Parade: pulling something in from the sky with fluttering hands; the snake-hipped sidle. Prince leapt off the drum riser to do the splits at the microphone, pushing its stand away and rising to catch it on the return. I didn't recognise the tunes, even though I consider myself an expert on Prince, the man & his music! I guessed they were songs from Parade, the current record, but I realised it didn't matter. That opening segment wasn't truly about the music, but more to break the ice, diffuse the tension and get the party started. The band was The Revolution in its pure form: drummer, Bobby Z; Dr Fink attending the keys, with Lisa and Wendy on piano and guitar, respectively (I don't recall a bass player). All of a sudden and all too soon, it was over.
Lisa sang I Wonder U against a barrage of impatient, hysterical screaming and then the lights went red and more band members came out and Prince reappeared in a yellow suit to do Raspberry Beret. Now his persona had changed from bigger Little Richard, superstar, to badder ass than James Brown show man and his band had expanded into the nastiest funk troupe about. They moved into Mutiny from The Family album (which was the only record I bought in 1985) and stayed in that groove for ten minutes or more, sequing into a version of Ice Cream Castles (by The Time), featuring Jerome Beonton playing The Fool. While Prince introduced Jerome and the gang who would be singing backing vocals and doing synchronised dance routines for most of the rest of the evening, Jordan and I moved our asses forward, or rather around the arena to be in front of the stage where the sound was a lot more distinct and we were able to appreciate the full force of Prince's showmanship.
As this review of the inevitable bootleg notes, 'this show was much more of a soul and funk review, with Prince rarely on guitar thanks to the addition of Miko Weaver to the band'. Its second section became a serious, extended funk jam with Prince taking time out from his singing to dance with Jerome; climb onto posing platforms atop the speaker stacks on each side of the stage to greet his people; leading the classic chant: "The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. We don't need no water, let the motherfunker burn. We don't need no party, let the motherfunker burn. Burn, motherfunker, burn!"
He's so obviously having fun. At one point, Prince was lying on the stage with his band wailing behind him, gurgling deleriously into his mic: 'The Purple People know! The Purple People know!'
At another point, he strapped on a purple axe, but sensed that the crowd just wanted to jam, put down the guitar and instead relieved the drummer to hit out a blinding drum solo! He played just about every instrument on that stage and took time out to tell us a story:
"When I was 17, I ran away to New York City. Got a job with my sister's boss and took his sister out on a date. We were riding past Madison Square Garden and I was bragging, you know, to impress her. I said, 'Yeah, maybe I'll play there one day.' Well, here I am! It's taken a long time, but here I am."
|Photo: George Kalinsky for Madison Square Garden|
He did a trio of tunes from 1999: Lady Cab Driver, Automatic and D.M.S.R. and was gone again, momentarily, before coming back in a different aspect of his inimitable persona. Having given his Little Richard and done it to death like James Brown, he then got his Hendrix on. I was struck by his choice of material. Prince can now pick and choose from six albums under his own name and more that he has had a finger in or been at the pulse of. He didn't do straight covers of the recorded version of his songs except, perhaps, the big hits: an immaculate When Doves Cry, later; a perfect Kiss to close.
The third section of the show featured Prince in a white turtle neck blouse with black waistcoat, slowly stripping to the waist to the screams of the crowd which, at one point, almost pulled him off the stage and into its midst, causing him to rock back on his Cuban heels,exclaiming, 'You're so nice!'
He went off again but returned through the red dry ice like Rambo with his killer guitar strapped on like an assault weapon. He is bathed in white light for AnotherLoverholeInYo'Head; does I Wanna Be Your Lover and an extended Head, then climaxes with two hit singles, Pop Life from Around The World In A Day and Girls & Boys from Parade.
He encored in a lilac duster coat with a beautiful, delicate Sometimes It Snows In April and the giddy, triumphant Purple Rain with its majestic guitar solo executed upon his trademark white scrolled instrument, morphing into a version of Whole Lotta Shakin'.
When Prince left the stage, the building reverberated with clapping, shook with stomping. There's cheering, chanting and roaring for more. Lighters and flaring matchbooks were held aloft, illuminating the arena like stars twinkling in the firmament. We figured there would be no more after that and were out in the foyer buying souvenir t.shirts when Prince reappeared on stage for hot, delirious versions of Mountains and Kiss. And then it really was finally all over and we were outside on Seventh Avenue, getting wet in the real purple acid rain; dazed with our ears ringing, washing off our gig sweat in the dirty New York City Summer drizzle.
Say what you like about Prince: short house; fey fool; poseur. Non of that matters when he is onstage, where he truly belongs, because he is such an incredible performer, the consummate performer. That night, he delivered the best concert performance I have ever witnessed.
* Under The Cherry Moon doesn't look so bad thirty years later. It features Kristin Scott Thomas in her debut role as the love interest of two brothers-in-hustle: Christopher, played by Prince; with Jerome Benton as his sidekick, Tricky. Steven Berkoff honed his sinister act as Her Dad. As a film, it is poor, despite the critical reappraisal of Carol Cooper who sees it as, 'black surrealism!' As a series of thematically linked pop videos, however, it works better. And, of course, Sometimes It Snows In April was the tune everyone turned to when Prince tragically deceased, in April.
** In fact, the MSG dates were officially the last in a short, 'Hit And Run Tour' of the USA while the Wembley gigs marked the start of the European leg of the 'Parade Tour.' I was writing this a week after the event in Portugal, where I had gone on a package holiday with my mother at the age of going on 25. Hey, she had to pay for a twin bedded room and I had to leave the City without pity to renew my American visa so it would have been churlish to decline.
*** This is in code. Immigration are not above reading one's journal, believe me, and my best friend in New York was involved in an illegal business. 'Jordan' is not his real name, but the alias Rob Sedgwick gave him in his post-therapy memoir, Bob Goes To Jail. Not that Bob really did go to jail: 'Jordan' was the only one who ultimately served time. But that's another story, which isn't mine.
August 2, 1986: Prince Setlist at Madison Square Garden, New York, NY, USA
01 Around the World in a Day
02 Christopher Tracy's Parade
03 New Position
04 I Wonder U (Wendy Melvoin lead vox)
05 Raspberry Beret
08 Mutiny (The Family cover) (incl. Ice Cream Castles & The Roof Is on Fire chants)
09 Do Me, Baby
10 (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window? (Patti Page cover)
11 Lady Cab Driver
14 When Doves Cry
15 Under the Cherry Moon
17 Soft and Wet
18 I Wanna Be Your Lover
19 Head (incl. Electric Man interpolation)
20 Pop Life
21 Girls & Boys
22 Life Can Be So Nice
23 America (incl. Cold Sweat horn stabs &… more )
24 Sometimes It Snows in April
25 Purple Rain
26 Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On (Big Maybelle cover)