Music News

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.