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Good Prince, Bad Prince

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.

Once Khan departed, Bad Prince surfaced for the first time. To wit: The public-address system boomed nonstop advertisements for The Truth, a yet-to-be-released CD that Prince is peddling over the phone (dial 1-800-NEWFUNK; operators are standing by) and the Internet, along with a series of Prince chatchkes that included (I'm not making any of this up) "NPG hockey jerseys," "the Artist necklace, available in silver and gold," and "'Mr. Happy' underwear." ("Mr. Happy" is a song from Emancipation.) No doubt Prince believes that such marketing is in keeping with his anti-corporate stance, but the robotic tone of the pitchwoman and the annoying repetitions of her spiel suggested an unintentionally comic tribute to 1984--except that the man in control was not Big Brother, but Big Artist.

These advertisements would have given the audience the perfect excuse to look upon Prince as a joke, and so did the primary stage decoration--a giant rendering of his personal emblem. When Prince finally emerged onto a platform, backlit a la the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his look was equally absurd. He wore his lightened hair in an ingenue's cut, hid his eyes behind a pair of Marilyn Monroe shades, and wore the first of three ridiculous outfits--a shiny, flowing ensemble that left him looking like a cross between Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in a one-man remake of Cabaret. But guffawing wasn't an option once he started to move. He may be in his late thirties, but he does not appear to have lost even one step. As his latest lineup of supporting musicians cranked out "Jam of the Year," Emancipation's first track, Good Prince leapt, spun, pirouetted, hopped, bounded, vogued and did heaven knows what else. He was a flurry of movement, a pint-sized, pelvis-driven Jackie Chan, and if some of his choreography seemed to have been borrowed from James Brown and other precursors, he unquestionably executed it with a litheness and grace that is presently unmatched. Just as astonishingly, he maintained complete control of the music, conducting the players in the manner of Mothers of Invention-era Frank Zappa even as he was flinging himself across the stage.

The set list featured a healthy sampling of Prince favorites, but rather than cloning his recordings, he cut to their essence, either by fragmenting them ("Purple Rain" was reduced to a verse, a chorus and an extravagant guitar solo, while "Raspberry Beret" developed into the briefest of sing-alongs) or by taking them to thrillingly absurd extremes. In Prince's hands, "If I Was Your Girlfriend" became fodder for an NC-17-rated piano bar, "Do Me, Baby" evolved into an erotic opus, and "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," one of his weaker smashes, was delivered with such aplomb that half the women in the mob had shrieked themselves hoarse by its conclusion. In the midst of these presentations, Prince exhibited his skills on keyboards, bass, percussion and a wide variety of guitars, two of which shared the shape of that damn logo of his. It was showboating, sure, but his undeniable virtuosity justified it: If you were that versatile, you'd showboat, too. Besides, Prince didn't bring the proceedings to a halt in order to display his abilities. Because the music never stopped--not even for a second--the concert built up a momentum that rolled over practically everything in its path.

This intensity came in handy when Prince dug into his newer efforts. Songs like "Jam of the Year" and "Get Yo Groove On" aren't much more than pastiches of previous pieces of Prince, but they were much more enjoyable live than they are on plastic. More problematic was "Face Down," which was preceded by one of Bad Prince's two screeds about his war with Warner Bros. Fortunately, his blathering about mistreatment at the hands of "slave-masters" and rhymes such as "Somebody once told him that he wouldn't take Prince through the wringer/Let him go down as a washed-up singer/Ain't that a bitch" wound up being swallowed by funky grooves and slamming riffs that made his whining seem utterly superfluous.

Other missteps were more difficult to overlook. His decision to play the Joan Osborne hit "One of Us" was a poor one, in large part because he seemed to think the lines "God is good/God is great" were about him. In addition, there was precious little interaction with his bandmates--and when he invited four women from the audience onto the stage, he ignored them as well. For all his talk about reaching out to each other, he remains singularly self-possessed--a person who has difficulty climbing out of his own navel. When he looks outside himself to the world beyond, his work becomes warmer, more accessible and, quite frankly, better. He thinks of himself as a slave only because he doesn't have a clue about what real slavery is. If he talked to people other than purple-clad yes-men a little more often, he would.

The acclaim that has greeted Prince's current tour may inspire him to do so, but probably not. His Internet scheme sounds good on paper, but it has the danger of marginalizing him--of reducing his audience to the previously committed, thereby minimizing his opportunity to affect the culture on a mass level, as he is fully capable of doing. At Fiddler's, Good Prince gave such a riveting performance that you couldn't help but walk away from it cursing the little runt for pissing away so much of the Nineties on petty disputes, oddball tangents and creative dead-ends. The only person capable of preventing Prince from returning to the peaks he once routinely scaled is himself. And so far, he's doing a pretty good job.