At this writing, news about the death of Prince Rogers Nelson is still being digested by stunned, shattered fans across the globe — including this one.
But while I cherish the memory of the one time I caught His Purpleness live (in 1997, at Fiddler's Green), the memory that sticks with me most involves a personal encounter with the man himself — one that gave me a glimpse into the crazy world he built for himself that thankfully didn't end with me in the hospital.
Because that definitely could have happened.
First, some backstory.
Like an earlier generation of music aficionados, who would line up behind either the Beatles or the Stones (as if it were impossible to love both bands equally), plenty of folks who came of musical age in the late '70s and early '80s identified themselves with either Michael Jackson or Prince — and I was a Prince guy. His virtuosity, innovation and compositional genius was both something to be admired and a goal that no mere mortal could ever hope to achieve.
I was nineteen when he was 22, and I remember thinking: He's already released three increasingly amazing albums (1978's For You, 1979's Prince and 1980's astonishing Dirty Mind) — and I haven't done jack shit.
Not that I held his accomplishments against him. Far from it. I followed his every move as he went from being a cult-level artist to a global superstar — the status he held in early 1985, when our paths ever-so-briefly crossed.
By then, I was living in Los Angeles, where I was attending UCLA and working part-time at the legendary (and now sadly defunct) Tower Records branch on the Sunset Strip.
Seeing celebrities at Tower was a daily occurrence. In fact, my wife soon stopped inquiring about how my day was after I got home from the job in favor of asking, "Who did you see?" My first day, I waited on B.B. King and Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin, and over time, I was able to serve and/or gawk at an incredible number of musicians (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Van Halen's David Lee Roth, Billy Idol, Morrissey) and TV or film personalities ranging from Miss America host Bert Parks to Clint Eastwood.
But Prince was of another magnitude of famous altogether (to me, anyhow), and as the date neared for the American Music Awards, which had nominated him for oodles of prizes in association with his Purple Rain long-player, Tower staffers began to hear rumblings that he had arrived in town early.
And then came proof.
One day, a purple limousine appeared in the Tower parking lot, and it would return several more times prior to the AMAs — and each time, it would disgorge another person from Prince's retinue. Once, it was Jerome Benton from The Time, who was prominently featured in the Purple Rain movie. But more memorable to me was when singer/percussionist Sheila E. came in wearing nothing but a slip. And I mean nothing. — and the slip was way too short. Or perhaps just short enough.
It took a lot to make the jaded Tower crew stop and stare, but while Ms. E. was in the store, the whole bunch of us stood in place, slack-jawed.
Finally, on what may have been the day of the awards ceremony, Prince himself stepped out of the ride and came into the store. He wore purple silk pajamas and an elaborate, stage-ready coiffure and was accompanied by two giant bodyguards who made his diminutive frame seem even slighter by comparison.
The bodyguards were so ominous that none of the Tower employees dared approach — except me. I scurried back to the Prince section, grabbed a copy of Purple Rain and a Sharpie, and nervously held it out to the man whose face was on the cover. I asked for an autograph.
His handlers glowered at me as I did so, causing me to instantly realize how foolhardy I was being. They looked ready to treat me like a would-be attacker, not a starstruck goof. But rather than pointing at me and saying, "Sic 'im," Prince took mercy on me. He didn't say a word, but he took the pen and scrawled three words on the album: "Love. God. Prince."
The trio left moments later. I don't remember whether they bought anything or not, probably because I was a combination of thrilled and freaked out.
And I got more freaked out over the next day or so, when both bodyguards were arrested for assault and more against two paparazzi who'd dared approach their boss.
Here's the text of a Jet magazine article about the incident, which took place on January 29, 1985, after Prince had dominated the AMAs:
Nab Prince Bodyguards in Assault on Two Photogs
Two bodyguards for rock idol Prince were arrested outside a West Hollywood, Calif. nightspot following an altercation with two photographers that occurred several hours after the telecast of the American Music Awards.
Deputy Mason Kenny of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Dept. told Jet that the photographers, Mike Guastella and Vincent Zuffante, were in the parking lot outside Carlos 'n Charlies at 2:20 a.m. January 29, apparently waiting to get a shot of Prince when the musician and the two bodyguards walked outside.
According to Kenny, bodyguard Lawrence Gibson, who is 6-foot-9 and weights 300 lbs., asked Guastella for his camera. He then took the film out. At about the same time, Kenny said, bodyguard Wallace Safford struck Zuffante in the eye in front of several witnesses. The bodyguards then went back inside but returned outside when the Sheriff's department responded to a complaint.
Gibson was arrested on charges of robbery with bail set at $6,000 while Safford was arrested for assault with bail of $500. Both were released on bail and are due in Beverly Hills court March 5.
Prince fans will remember the burly Gibson as the bouncer at the First Avenue night club in Prince's hit film Purple Rain, and he accompanied the rock star to the podium at the American Music Awards recently.
Yep, Prince and Gibson were quite the pair at the AMAs, as seen in the accompanying screen captures from the vintage video on view below.
What happened to the album for which I'd unwittingly risked life and limb? I gave it to my sister as a Christmas present, and to this day, it's framed and in a spot of honor on her office wall. Here's a photo of it.
Photo by Trudy Roberts
No doubt Prince has left us way too soon.
But at least he left me, and us, with three words of wisdom.
Look below to see highlights from the 1985 American Music Awards.
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