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The Beatdown

Last Friday, hours before the driving rain turned purple, Mootown was already abuzz over the return of rock's royalty. Mid-afternoon, a clerk at the Diamond Shamrock across the street from my office offered up a story that confirmed how widespread the anticipation had become.

"My homeboy's taking his mom," my friendly neighborhood gas peddler said. "She's crazy. She's, like, sixty years old. She told me, 'Hey, Freddy, you know what I'm going to do when I see Prince?' I said, 'What's that?' She said, 'I'm going to show him the money.'"

As I stood on the patio of Brooklyn's that evening, I realized that lustful yearning had carried over to the throngs pouring into the Pepsi Center. Sex. Sex. Sex. That's all that was on everybody's dirty little minds. A group of ladies in purple (what else?) crushed-velvet pimp hats paused briefly for a picture, posing with their crudely hand-scrawled signs. "Fuck so pretty you and me," read one. "23 positions in a one night stand," read another.

"Yeah, our signs are a bit pornographic," admitted one of the women, whose name -- at least according to her sign -- was "Darling Becky."

But apparently not everyone in town realized that the Prince show was the hottest ticket of the year. On a bench outside of will-call, a guy sat feverishly working his cell phone like a fat man trying to score a pizza minutes before closing time. He was looking for someone, anyone, to take an extra ticket off his hands.

"How many people have you called so far?" I asked.

"Six," he replied with a look of exasperation. "Two of my friends are working. One has a DUI, lost his license and can't drive. And the others said it was too short notice."

Those friends must be kicking themselves today.

As the lights dimmed at the Pepsi Center, a video montage played on monitors high above a stage that other writers have described as being in the shape of a cross. To me, it was more of an X -- as in, exactly how a show of this magnitude should be presented: in the round. On the screens, Alicia Keys and Andre 3000 bookended Prince, with Keys delivering the speech she made at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you hadn't already heard that dialogue on TV, though, you wouldn't have known what she was saying, because the deafening roar of the crowd rendered the audio nearly incomprehensible.

The room was at a fever pitch, and Prince had yet to make a single sound.

Needless to say, when the Almighty finally appeared, draped in a royal-purple coat that looked like it had been custom-tailored by Two-Face -- tails on one side, standard taper on the other -- the place went berserk. At the conclusion of "Musicology," the title track of his latest effort, Prince acknowledged the audience's exuberance.

"Denver, you've been waiting on this one, haven't you?" he asked with an impish grin. "Well, so have I."

And then the Artist exploded like a prizefighter at the opening bell with an expert rendition of "Let's Go Crazy," followed by a version of "I Would Die 4 U" that included a brief but intriguing jazzy intro I'd never heard before. When he kicked into "When Doves Cry," adding flourishes of the guitar line from "Kiss" between verses, I turned to my friends and said, "He's a badass!" They nodded their heads in agreement. At that point, I knew I was witnessing the most dazzling performance I'd ever seen.

And no one was more surprised by that than I. Pundits by the dozen had already proclaimed this tour as Prince's comeback. But from what I'd seen of him in the past few years, I didn't think he had anything to come back from; I hadn't been that impressed with where he'd gone. Seeing him live, though, I realized that he had never stopped being brilliant -- we just stopped paying attention. He never left us. We left him.

Before Friday night, Prince had made his biggest impression on me in the summer of 1984, when he introduced me to my own sexuality: That infamous Lake Minnetonka scene with Apollonia in Purple Rain made an awkward kid, er, stand up and take notice (and see the film at least ten consecutive times). More important (if that's possible), back then Prince offered me a glimpse of how truly good music could be. The songs from that album instantly seared themselves into my consciousness. "Let's Go Crazy," indeed.

After Purple Rain, Prince continued to astound fans, with albums like 1987's Sign of the Times further cementing his iconic status. Meanwhile, introspective yet deeply resonant ballads like "Sometimes It Snows in April," from 1986's Parade: Music From "Under the Cherry Moon, showcased his depth as a songwriter. Prince could free your mind so your ass would follow, making you hotter than a sweatband in a fireman's helmet; he could also move you to tears with just the sound of his voice, a simple, plaintive chord progression and the creaking of a piano bench rocking beneath him.

But his eccentricity began eclipsing his artistry, and that's when he started to lose me. By the time he'd had his falling out with Warner Bros. and written the word "Slave" on his cheek, I didn't get where he was coming from -- and neither did a lot of other people. When he changed his name to the unpronounceable androgynous symbol, I stood as befuddled and disillusioned as Jimmy Swaggart's flock the day they learned of his philandering ways. Prince later reasoned that "changing my name and using it to my advantage has helped me to conquer time," but he didn't seem to be putting that time to good use.

Once he'd extricated himself from Warner Bros., he started churning out albums at a rate that no reasonable fan could keep up with. Few of the songs from 1996's Emancipation, an overwhelming three-disc set, struck a chord with me; I thought that the Bros. were probably right when they told him they wanted to limit the number of releases. Now I realize that was as impossible for Prince as it would have been for Michelangelo to start painting as instructed rather than as inspired.

A few years later, things really unraveled. I remember the exact day Prince ceased being relevant to me: December 31, 1999. You might remember that as the night before Y2K, the apocalypse that never was. An extremely rare Prince performance, dubbed Rave Un2 the Year 2000, was available on pay-per-view that evening; although my interest in Prince had waned, I thought that watching the show with a dozen of my closest friends would be a better way to embrace the impending chaos than to party like it was, um, 1999. By the third cut, though, the music had disappeared into the background, drowned out by conversations we've long since forgotten. I couldn't help thinking that just a decade before, everyone in the room would have been speechless.

"This album combines everything that you would want from the artist," Clive Davis had promised in the infomercial prior to the Rave Un2 New Year's Eve performance. "You want it to be cutting-edge. You want it to avant-garde. You want it to be ahead of the other musicians of today. And yet, speaking from my point of view, you also want it to be melodic and accessible."

But accessibility was becoming a problem. Before, Prince had been an elusive, enigmatic figure, like the shadow from a passing motorist moving across your wall. In the new millennium, however, he was ubiquitous, granting interviews to anyone who asked, even playing on daytime talk shows, fer chrissakes. The untouchable was now well within reach. And the newfound prominence chipped away at his mystique; it was like seeing Mike Tyson get knocked-the-fuck-out by a parade of no-name bums. When folks saw the once-feared and revered Iron Mike kiss the canvas, armchair tough guys in gin joints across the country began to brag, "I think I can take Tyson" -- even though Tyson could still put a dude in a coma. Likewise, even if Prince quit writing songs, as a guitarist he could still take out each member of the G3 collective: Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. As a bassist, he'd level Les Claypool and anyone else stupid enough to set foot in the ring. Yet to this day, Prince's musicianship is often overlooked because of his amazing ability as a songsmith.

Invariably, the immortal somehow became mortal. In the minds of many, myself included, the player was played out. And the formerly faithful were even further alienated when Prince found God; his dogma quickly became a stigma. "C'mon, Prince, deities don't need religion," we all thought. "They are religion."

But now, after seeing Prince up-close and personal, I'm convinced that he didn't find Jesus: Jesus found him. And this past weekend, backed by the stellar NPG ensemble -- a horn section comprising Maceo Parker, Candy Dulfer and P-Funk's Greg Boyer, bassist Rhonda Smith, keyboardists Renato Neto and Chance Howard and drummer John Blackwell, all extraordinary players in their own right -- he gave us a religious experience. "I'll never forget it," said Mocha Solomon, one of the many ladies hand-picked to dance with his Purple Majesty on stage Friday night. "I'll remember it forever."

So will we, Mocha, so will we. The show was epic. "This is real music," Prince declared. "This ain't MTV." From the acoustic musings of "Little Red Corvette" to the regal encore of "Purple Rain" and "The Beautiful Ones," it was clear that his songs are timeless and have aged much as he has -- in short, not at all. And his masterful version of "Nothing Compares 2 U," the syrupy ballad he penned for Sinéad O'Connor, showed us what that song is supposed to sound like. Some complained that the concert's strength was also a weakness; those expecting to hear each song in its entirety were disappointed by the medley treatment given to the hits. It was a little Vegas-y, sure, but the non-stop music really showcased the players' showmanship and stamina. And even though some of the more lurid tracks were conspicuously missing from the set list, somehow we all managed to get off.

Now I know how Apollonia must have felt when she realized that really wasn't Lake Minnetonka. On Rave's "Undisputed," Prince testified: "Once again, I don't follow trends/they follow me, just like the Israelites thru the Red Sea/It might take U some time b4 U'll want 2 C the Undisputed truth and get free." Regrettably, few of us were listening then.

Well, we're all ears now. It's irrefutable: This is his kingdom. And even though we're all unworthy, at least we got to spend a few hours basking in the purple reign.