The news that Prince had died this morning hit me with the same gut-wrenching impact as losing a family member. When the news first broke, the only source being cited was TMZ, so my gut reaction was that they took someone’s internet hoax and ran with it. But then the rest of the media started to back up the story, and finally, Prince’s publicist confirmed the news. I would never again be seeing my musical hero in concert. There would be no more new Prince music. But to call this another “Day The Music Died” would be inaccurate because Prince’s music will live forever.
When 2016 started off horribly with the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey, two of my other musical heroes, it was tough to take. I had grown up listening to their music for decades and it had become a part of my life. But with Prince, it hit me even harder. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m not only a music junkie, but that I have two all-time favorite artists: Prince and Bruce Springsteen. They are both #1 at the top of my list of musical heroes. If you haven’t been fortunate to see either of them in concert, you might say, “Come on, they can’t both be #1, who do you like better?” My reply is always the same: “It’s a tie. They’re both the best.” Both write their own material and are masters of their instruments and the craft of songwriting. In Prince’s case, he was a master of many instruments. My love of both artists is equal. It’s always been a tie. It always will be.
Hall & Oates, another of my favorite artists, were my first love as far as buying records. The Voices album is the first LP that I remember owning as a kid. They’re still one of my favorite recording artists to this day. But Prince? Prince was my first concert. You never forget your first concert. I’m not just talking about any old concert. My very first concert was Prince & The Revolution in Philadelphia on the Purple Rain tour.
In the summer of 1984, I was a typical 13-year-old kid still learning how to adjust to a different lifestyle after my parents had divorced a few years earlier, as many of my generation’s parents had. I had heard “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” on the radio as often as anyone else who listened to Top 40 radio in the early eighties. But then, one day in 1984, “When Doves Cry” hit the airwaves and I was changed forever. Here was a funky, soulful, addictive groove with a drum machine that didn’t even have a bass line to accompany it, and every word Prince sang sounded like he had put my emotions on paper and read them back to me in song. A great song. A song that sounded like no song that came before it, and none that would follow it in the future.
When the Purple Rain album came out in June of 1984, my life was changed forever. I played the album that summer more than any other album I owned. And I owned quite a few by that time. My dad took me to see the Purple Rain movie at least three times that summer, with the most memorable viewing being an afternoon matinee in a center city Philadelphia movie theater. The other two viewings were at a Deptford, New Jersey multiplex, but the Philly screening is the one I remember most vividly because we were two of only a handful of white people in the theater. Being a white kid from the suburbs, that was a new experience for me. At first, I felt the way I’m sure most African Americans felt when they were outnumbered in a white part of town. I had stepped into their shoes, and it felt weird. Not good or bad, just awkward… until the movie started. The Purple Rain logo hit the screen and Prince recited the now legendary line, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” Everyone in the audience was captivated. The musical sequences were electric. The music was pure genius. What left me in awe throughout was that the audience was a ball of energy that fed off of the electricity on the screen. The crowd went nuts for the songs and was practically dancing in the aisles. I could sense movement all around me. The energy was amazing. Then, near the end of the movie, when Prince waved his hands back and forth in the air during Purple Rain, the whole audience started doing it too. Even my dad got in on the act. I’d like to say I did too, but I was probably too enraptured to even move. I was spellbound. What I remember most vividly was that nobody in that theater seemed to care about black or white that day. All we cared about was Prince. He had brought us all together that day, and little did I know it, but this was happening all across the country, and even around the world.
Fast forward to November 24, 1984. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was spending it with my dad, as I often did since the divorce. I don’t recall much about the beginning of the day, but at some point I told my dad that Prince was playing The Spectrum in Philly that night. I had been playing the album all summer and into the fall, and my dad knew how much I loved Prince’s music. It was a rare day that he didn’t have to work one of his at least three jobs, so we drove to The Spectrum, ticketless, to a sold out concert. I remember us jockeying our way through the hordes of scalpers until my dad found someone selling a pair that wasn’t ridiculously expensive. Some cash changed hands and the scalper was gone. We had scored a pair of tickets on the upper level behind the stage just barely before showtime.
The rest is history. As a 13-year-old boy, I witnessed Prince & The Revolution live in concert on the Purple Rain tour. I knew the names of every band member the same way that teenagers in the sixties knew the names of John, Paul, George and Ringo. I pointed out Wendy, Lisa, Brownmark, Bobby Z and Dr. Fink to my dad as the spotlight hit each band member. The Revolution members were my Beatles.
The show remains to this day the most exhilarating concert experience I have ever witnessed. I still vividly remember what it physically felt like when the sound of the drums and bass hit my chest for the very first time and I realized the entire building was vibrating. The audience at the concert was much different than the audience that I was a part of in the Philly movie theater. By November, Prince was a worldwide phenomenon. The proverbial cat was out of the bag. The audience was – as Prince sang in his song “D.M.S.R.” – “whites, blacks, Puerto Ricans everybody just a freakin’.” It was a true melting pot of an audience. Race did not matter. Prince united us all with the magic of his music. A generation had just found its own musical hero.
After that show, I immediately went out and bought Prince’s entire back catalog and his music has been a major part of my life ever since. I’ve seen him in concert many times over the years, but the icing on the cake was spending my 2000 and 2001 summer vacations at Paisley Park. Prince had offered fans the opportunity to tour his legendary recording studio and attend various concerts during the trips. Not much of a social butterfly, I often hung back from the crowd like a wallflower, just taking everything in and enjoying what was going on around me. One night during my 2000 trip, being a wallflower paid off for me big. At one of the Paisley Park dance parties, I noticed Prince standing in the back of the room, just feet away from me, in a dimly lit area checking out the crowd. I had always heard horror stories about him not being approachable, but that night I was in a great mood and feeling ballsy, so I slowly worked my way over to Prince. It was his birthday, June 7, and I don’t think he had stopped celebrating birthdays yet at that point. Even if he had, I slowly approached him and said “Happy Birthday, Prince. Thank you so much for this experience. Your music means a lot to me,” and I extended my hand to him, even though I had heard that he didn’t like people touching him, but what the hell. How many times during your life do you get to be in the same room with Prince, much less stand right next to him? Wayne Gretzky always said that you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take, and there was no way I was missing this shot.
What happened next I will remember forever. “You’re welcome,” Prince said. “Thanks for coming,” and he shook my hand. They always say “Don’t meet your heroes,” but Prince was genuinely gracious and kind. Soon another fan (who I believe was from Germany) approached him and also had a brief one-on-one conversation with Prince. Then, faster than you could blink, Prince was gone. I had taken a chance and it paid off. I got to shake hands with and thank my musical hero for the gift of his music. That moment will stay with me for the rest of my life, as will his music.
Above: My first trip to Paisley Park, June 2000
To Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Matt Fink, Brownmark and Bobby Z, if you happen to read this, I want to thank you all for giving me the greatest first concert of my life, and thanks of course for the music. You and Prince created music together that will never be equaled. I hope The Revolution can find the time to make some new music together soon. As 2016 has so cruelly shown us, life is all too short, and sadly sometimes it really does snow in April.