Thursday, April 24, 2008

Prince, Pt. 1: Jones Beach

For some reason I never thought I'd get to see Prince live. Most of the acts I followed throughout the '80's and '90's weren't popular enough to be a difficult ticket to purchase. But Prince? I imagined having to mortgage my parents house and hold a few hostages in order to get a seat.

It's hard to be a Prince fan. Seriously. He rubs people the wrong way, namely my hot girlfriend. I can understand that. If I were a girl he'd creep me out too. What could be stranger than having an effeminate midget bump and grind the top of his head into your midsection while telling you he wants to watch you touch yourself in the bleachers while he shoots hoops?

His sexual come-ons are juvenile and obvious, he seems to think he's the only dude who ever talked dirty or wished his girl would get freaky. Oooh, you blowin' my mind Prince Rogers Nelson! How taboo! You like titties!

But I just can't help it. I love the little guy. First of all, he's a mixed race midget from Minnesota which accords him instant underdog status in just about every category you could possibly imagine. Second, he plays every instrument known to man. Third, he is the Bruce Springsteen of R&B, putting on legendary concerts that last all night long and often continue late night at a smaller club near the arena.

My love affair with Prince started, like most of America, with 'Little Red Corvette' and blossomed into total obsession when 'Purple Rain' came out. Unless you were living off the grid and mailing letter bombs to city council members in 1984 Prince was ubiquitous.

Has there ever been a stranger chart topping artist? '1999' and 'Purple Rain' are wack-fests of the highest order. You get the feeling that you've been sucked into one of Prince's dreams and not just listening to his songs. My friend Justin once complained of Prince that his music just doesn't sound alive and it is a criticism that can be flipped into compliment. The songs are soundscapes that don't correspond to any blueprint, no matter how consciously he's echoing James Brown, George Clinton, Hendrix, The Beatles, whoever. They don't sound human, they sound Prince.

After 'Purple Rain' everyone wondered what he would do next. He made two more fictional movies that rank up there with 'Ishtar' and 'Waterworld'. 'Under the Cherry Moon' is my favorite album of his but it could possibly be the worst film ever made. My main problem with it is that there is no live performance of music in the film. Which leaves us with Prince's acting/physical comedy skills which rival Chuck Norris. Imagine Chuck Norris trying to sing 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag' and you'll have some idea of how bad Prince is in this movie. 'Graffiti Bridge' was even worse, so bad in fact that I never even saw it.

He fell pretty far from the height of 'Purple Rain'. Then he released 'Sign O' The Times' and all was right again with the world. If you've never heard this album get it immediately. He also released a concert film along with the album which is as good as 'Cherry Moon' is bad. Why? Because he leaves out all the parts where he's not performing music live. He runs through every number on the double album as well as a medley of his previous hits. It is a masterful film and a gorgeous live show.

I thought that was as close to seeing Prince live as I'd ever get.

Cut to New York City 1997. My wife (now ex) and I were expecting a child come October. We'd moved to Park Slope in anticipation of the big event. Actually, judging by the stroller congestion, moving from Manhattan to Park Slope after a pregnancy is a law of some kind.

My buddy Andy, who would come to be known as Quasi Uncle Andy after my son was born, called me up to remind me that his birthday was coming up. July 25. Who was playing Jones Beach that night? The little purple dude.

I was now enough of an adult to realize that tickets to popular events could actually be obtained if you paid attention! The ex is a big fan of Prince as well but couldn't be expected to boogie on down when she was looking as if someone had shoved a Volkswagen under her shirt.

Jones Beach is a dramatic place to see music outdoors. I am not a big fan of the outdoor concert. I think that a roof to rock and roll is like a lid on a teakettle. It won't whistle without the pressure.

But Jones Beach has a grandeur to it because it sits on a harbor. You see the ocean stretched out behind the stage and feel as if you are on some sort of cruise ship. Oddly the open sea creates a sense of intimacy. Our seats were floor level about 25 rows back.

Yes he played every song you might think he'd play. Yes the band was tighter than a drum. Yes he switched instruments left and right, drums, bass, keyboards, piano, etc. Yes he changed outrageous outfits just often enough to give the show a theatrical flair.

All of these things were memorable. But what I'll never forget, what I marvel at to this day, is his dancing. The mixture of execution and spontaneity were staggering. He'd be on one side of the stage soloing on his guitar which he would then throw offstage to a roadie while pivoting and twirling into a full on high step sprint which he detoured into a two-knee slide popping up at the last second to land on his knees on the giant purple piano's bench pumping his fist into the air at the exact moment the band cut away and finishing by playing some impossibly intricate piano piece.

He was a special effect. He did not seem human, much like the criticism levelled at his music by Justin. After seeing him live, I understood why his music sounded so alien, so non-flesh-and-blood.

Because he just ain't like the rest of us.

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