It’s Sunday in Detroit, home of baseball’s world champion Tigers, and the weather’s grayer than grandma’s hair. It’s 50 degrees outside, but the city is dressed in unrepentant gloom — steady rain, clouds, fog obscuring the tops of buildings.
Prince, music’s world-champion at the moment, opens his Purple Rain tour here tonight with the first of seven sold-out shows, but somehow Motor City hasn’t quite caught on.
The waitress at a restaurant near the concert hall shrugs; she’s only seen the regulars today — no fuss and nobody special. Down at Bert’s Bar, home of live jazz and doughy pizza, Janice the bartender frowns. Her manner suggest that mere pop stars and their fans are not important. A couple of customers are abuzz about blues singer Sippie Wallace, who turns 87 today. Prince who?
I try the newspapers. The entertainment section of the Detroit Free Press leads with a juicy local story: TV ratings. Donahue gets twice the audience of a local chatter program; perennial faves MAS*H and Three’s Company are slipping in the Detroit ratings. There’s no reference anywhere to anything purple. Prince who?
Time to kill time at the motel. Nice place, the Shorecrest Motor Inn. Turn on the hanging lamp and it starts blinking on and off like a strobe. Turn on the TV and the button sticks, so you can’t turn it off. On screen is the 1984 Metro Santa Claus Day Parade, happening just across the Detroit River in Windsor, Canada. Kiddies wave, floats roll by and a black woman in a fur coat is singing in the downpour, standing in the middle of the street belting out a version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Prince WHO?
Meanwhile, back in your hometown and mine, the Reverends Steve and Dan Peters are not so nonchalant. Following a 10 a.m. service at the Zion Christian Center in North St. Paul, some 300 teenage Christians burn Prince LPs and others. The Peters Brothers have organized the bonfire because, in the words of Reverend Steve, “We believe Prince is the filthiest and most sexually immoral rock and roller to ever dance or prance on the stage.” Steve who?
It’s 3 p.m. in Detroit. Writers and photographers enter the 22,000 seat Joe Louis Arena via a door that serves both press and the otherwise handicapped. They await information, passes and attention from the Howard Bloom public relations people. You see British, German, and Japanese press. You see the owlish Jane Scott; in her late 40s, she’s “the world’s oldest rock reviewer” for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
You also see a couple of Prince fans posing desperately as reporters and flashing counterfeit backstage passes. Daniella’s blonde and Lisa’s brunette. Both are wearing black camisoles and mesh stockings and not much else under their trenchcoats. Now this is evidence of rock 'n’ roll enthusiasm, Detroit style. A penetrating question comes immediately to mind.
Q: What is it about Prince you like — his sexiness?
Daniela: “It’s not just sex. He’s a beautiful person. He’s shy, but he writes songs about the things he’s afraid to talk about.”
Lisa: “He writes about what’s really happening, and that’s what we want, and we want it now.”
Q: What would you do with it if you got it?
Lisa: “We’d take it to bed.”
The Howard Bloom people are not fooled, so Daniela and Lisa do not join us for a 6 p.m. reception. Frankly, that party’s a letdown. No musicians attend; there’s no chance to chat with opening act Sheila E.; no opportunity to pry secrets out of tight-lipped members of Prince’s band. Prince, himself, of course, is inaccessible. So we stand at the open bar, media grumbling to ourselves. A hungry German reporter and I reach at least one international consensus: The meatballs are tasty.
At 7:55, press cattle are herded to their seats. Two chair to my right sits Jellybean Johnson, former drummer in the Time, a disbanded Prince project. Immortalized in Purple Rain, he’s spotted early by star hunters. "Could you please sign my ticket stub for me, sir?” a timid voice behind him asks. I turn around and discover a chorus of four teen angels: Lesli, Christine, Ruth and Bethany. Maybe 15 years old. From Rochester, Mich.
Q. What is it about Prince that gets to you?
"He’s the best thing on earth!”
“Take a look at that body! Who wouldn't FUCK Prince?”
Thunderous chords interrupt our chat. Sheila E. materializes from onstage smog, 500 miles of legs in a studded black velour coat. Bits of aqua lingerie peek out like scared mice from beneath her coat. A couple of costume changes later, Sheila has shed both outer and underwear, and most everything else. She wears black nylons, a spangly bikini and stiletto heels. “She’s the best thing on earth!” I think to myself. “Take a look at that body!”
She’s not bad musically either, particularly on her single, “The Glamorous Life,” and the Prince B-side “Erotic City.” Although her bronchitis-afflicted voice leaves something to be desired, she and her six-piece band from the Oakland area offer a tight-sync mix of funk and choreography.
Saxist Eddie Minifield is a bawdy, blaring soloist, and Sheila’s vigorous tom-tomming spice the stew with salsa inflections. A percussionist from a family of same, Sheila’s done time with George Duke, Lionel Richie, and Marvin Gaye. She can percuss up a storm. She can also tease a crowd. “Would you like to come play my timbales?” she asks, referring to something other than tom-toms. She shakes her mane of hair at the crowd. “Naw. I don’t think your stick is big enough.”
After the set I ask Jellybean, still in the Prince organization, questions he politely declines to answer. Big things are in the works, he implies, but he can’t say what they are. He will, at least, comment on Sheila. “I think Sheila’s a vastly underrated percussionist,” he says. “I know from being a drummer that it’s a very physical instrument, and for a woman to be able to do that is fantastic.”
Meanwhile, the arrival of Purple Rain co-star Appolonia — wearing purple gloves and a purple dress — prompts a new round of shrieks. A row of police forms in front of our box to ward off autograph seekers. One girl who’s being pushed away holds her pencil up, sobs, and pleads for Appolonia’s signature, to no avail.
It’s been 20 minutes between sets. The lights go down, the curtain comes up, but the curtain falls again. A false start. Already the teens behind me are shrieking like police whistles. “What if Prince is terrible?”: I ask them in a moment of mean boredom. “He won’t be,” is the answer. “He can’t be.”
He isn't. The very first show of a tour that’ll last till next June is visually and musically spectacular. When the first synth note reverberates ominously from the stage, the Rochester Four become hysterical. “Can you BELIEVE we’re HERE?” one asks incredulously. “I’ll NEVER forget this as long as I LIVE!”
It might be the most meticulously calculated show in pop history, Prince, a knight in white satin, materializes in a cloud of smoke from beneath the stage, as though ascending from some video underworld. Throwing his cloak aside, he stalks the stage in trademark impatience, twirls abruptly, grabs the mike and falls to the floor screaming bloody rock ‘n’ roll.
The show is a series of building, endless, erupting crescendos — every song staged as if it were the final encore, each one a production number rehearsed down to the smallest step or gesture. Prince sticks primarily to radio material, his opening salvo consisting of “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Delirious,” “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.”:
There’s a quiet interlude — Prince plays alone on “Father’s Song” and “God,” taking his first and only serious risks of the evening. He talks softly. “Detroit. We’d like to thank you all for joining us. I’m not much for words, but I wanna thank you for the love you’ve always given us. That’s why we chose to have the first party here.”
Prince turns “God” into a Sunday school singalong, then slumps over the piano, his body limp for 30 seconds. For a minute. Just as the crowd begins to consider the awful possibility the Prince maybe DIED onstage, a leg jerks in spasm. Prince jumps up.
“What’s the difference between life and death?” he asks the crowd, a philosophy professor demanding a response. “God. Now, do you wanna spend the night? You do? You will?” Sudden purple lights reveal an elegant bathtub at the top of a staircase. Prince walks seductively up the stairs, takes off his shirt, slides into the tub. Prince and porcelain sink slowly into the stage, disappearing just as the arena goes dark.
In the course of the show, Prince incorporates dozens of sexual moves and virtually every imaginable special effect — waterfalls of smoke, a laser TV, strobes, a multi-colored computer light display. We see him in costumes ranging from black leather to what looks like purple saran wrap.
With delays, his three-song encore lasts an incredible 45 minutes. “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and “Purple Rain” are the final production numbers, infused with more theater. Prince collapses on stage, feigning exhaustion, then leaps up to play it all again.
He jams on piano, jams on guitar, dances, writhes in mock sexual ecstasy and finally, at the end of “Baby, I’m a Star,” picks up a guitar, strokes it and points it at the crowd. A thick stream of water gushes from the end of the instrument. Then he’s back for “Purple Rain,” spinning out Hendrix-influenced musical webs until the whole evening simply washes into sweat, smoke and the numb delirium of absolute illusion.
“Thank you. Thank you,” is his benign farewell. “May you live to see the dawn.”
Read "Remembering Prince" here.