Good Prince, Bad Prince

Reports of Prince's creative death have been greatly exaggerated.

Journalists like yours truly are fond of claiming that there's no such thing as bad publicity, but that's not always the case--and Prince Roger Nelson can prove it. He almost single-handedly made pop music in the Eighties tolerable, but as the decade wore on and his eccentricities mounted, critics and boosters began to see him more as an example of egomania run amuck than as a musician whose talents were incredible to behold.

And who can blame them? Prince has sworn off live appearances on a number of occasions, allegedly in order to concentrate on creating studio masterworks in the increasingly isolated environs of his Minneapolis stronghold. In April 1993, however, he declared that he would stop recording, too--and he followed up this decree less than two months later with the announcement that he had changed his appellation to an icon that merged the male and female symbols into a ludicrous smudge. (By September of that year, he was answering to the moniker "Victor." In 1994 he switched to "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince" and more recently requested that folks refer to him simply as "The Artist.") While all of this was going on, he was waging a public battle with his label, Warner Bros., over his contention that the firm was trying to limit the number of albums he was issuing--a good idea, since so many of his contemporary discs have been stuffed to the gills with ditties that should have been used as B-sides or shelved entirely. Moreover, his paranoia and obsession with secrecy fueled the souring of his reputation. He and his wife, Mayte, whom he married in 1996, suffered the loss of their first child due to severe birth defects--but because he refused to publicly address the tragedy, he was greeted not with understanding and compassion, but with the wildest rumors imaginable. The baby had been a monster, some claimed. He'd had it killed in a satanic ceremony, others whispered.

Following the arrival of Emancipation, a three-CD set that marked his declaration of independence from Warner Bros. (it was put out on his own NPG imprint and distributed by Capitol/ EMI), Prince made a few concessions to the media: He appeared on Today, chatted in a pre-taped segment with Oprah Winfrey and granted a major print interview or two. But the damage had already been done. Like Michael Jackson, an entertainer with whom he is twinned in the consciousness of the average Joe, he has been the recipient of scads of lousy press of late, and as a result, most observers have dismissed him as a kook of epic proportions--a figure from another era whose antics may be good for an ugly laugh or two, but whose music is yesterday's news.

Or so you may have thought. At his October 5 date at Fiddler's Green, Prince (that's still his name, and I'm going to use it) demonstrated that he's not ready for the scrap heap yet. His turn was spectacular, energetic, theatrical, passionate--a supremely confident tour de force. At the same time, though, he exhibited many of the characteristics that have contributed to the decline in his fortunes. On this night, Good Prince kicked Bad Prince's perky little behind, but despite the outcome, it was obvious that plenty of life remains in the dark side of the force.

From the beginning, the vibe at Fiddler's was appropriately strange. Ticket-buyers were predominantly in their twenties and thirties, but there were also a great many folks in other demographic brackets--and a large percentage of them were musicians. (I saw members of Sick and Lord of Word & the Disciples of Bass, and Tom Lord told me that he had purchased passes for everyone in Turnsol, the band he manages.) This confluence of young and old, gay and straight, black and white, and affluent and financially challenged bred two major clashes in my section of the amphitheater. Two rows behind my wife and me, a concert-goer upchucked all over a new T-shirt and an expensive program just purchased by one woman, leading to a profanity-laden verbal assault on the soon-to-be-expelled drunk and snippy negotiations with venue staffers who took their own sweet time about cleaning up the mess. Later, a laminate-wearing boor with three companions in tow tried to shove his way into our row, and when he encountered objections, he responded by shoving a woman and spitting in her hair. The fistfight that followed ended only when the instigator finally stormed away.

Given this highly charged atmosphere, Chaka Khan seemed a disappointingly staid choice to open the evening--a sop to nostalgia rather than an indication that Prince was moving assuredly toward the next millennium. Khan, who hasn't exactly been burning up the charts, clearly knew how lucky she was to land such a prominent gig. She wore a purple dress with a bustle (at least I think it was a bustle) so large that it resembled a two-man horse costume, dedicated a lugubrious, smooth-jazz version of "My Funny Valentine" to the star of the show and subsequently offered up her cover of the Prince cut "I Feel for You." But like Patti LaBelle, another artist with a powerful, almost frightening voice who's been burdened throughout her career by second-rate material, Khan quickly became a bit wearying. It took her rendition of "I'm Every Woman" to finally goad the attendees into standing and a spirited vamp by her backing band to earn her a barely deserved encore.

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