2 Prince: Eye Remember U

I’m not a woman, I’m not a man

I am something that you’ll never understand

– Prince

It still seems surreal. Like the passing of Michael Jackson before him, it’s the unexpectedness of Prince’s death that still feels so gutting. With his magical and mysterious aura, Prince actually seemed immortal. He was 57 years old at the time of his death, yet looked like he’d barely aged a day from the cover of his debut album For You (especially having come full circle with the same full, soulful Afro). Tons has already been written, said, and speculated about this regal genius and with a life shrouded in privacy much more will follow, but I just wanted to share some of my own favorite memories of Prince and what he’s meant to me throughout my life. I’ll leave the canonization and gossip to others.

Prince is definitely one of those rare entertainers you grew with. He wasn’t just an artifact of your teenage fandom. His was a talent of such depth that he easily stood up to more sophisticated scrutiny as you got older. There was a lot behind the curtain. There still is. But none of that mattered in 1983 when I was first exposed to Prince via this new cable channel called MTV. This was the beginning of the golden age of music videos and MTV, a 24-hour music channel, was a godsend to teenage music fans like me. While waiting for my fix of Police videos, I was exposed to this funky alien from another dimension in the form of the video for “1999” (the title track from his 1982 album). The song was undeniably catchy, using then-modern synth and drum machine sounds in a kind of minimalist-funk approach, but the video itself challenged my limited 14-year-old perspective. Contradiction ran rampant in Prince World. He had both a hyper-macho African-American swagger as well as a feminine sensuality in his face and stage movements. He had a showman’s aim-to-please extroversion as well as a dark, slightly menacing energy. As a performer, you could not take your eyes off of him.

Basically, the “1999” video exposed me to modern soul music. As a teen, I loved rock and pop, but this had an unmistakably urban edge. Even the Jackson 5, who I loved as a kid and were grounded in many of the same influences as Prince, were more of a pop phenomenon. Prince’s back-up band (a stage necessity, though he was known to play all instruments on his records) was mixed both racially and gender-wise. The two females stationed at the keyboards swayed together VERY closely and suggestively, feeding right into newly discovered teenage fantasies. And the lyrics, while seemingly a straight-up party anthem, also had a doomsday aspect that did not fly over my head. All of my sensibilities and biases were shaken for life and I don’t think I ever turned the dial whenever “1999” was re-played, which was countless times back in ’83.

This was soon followed by the equally popular “Little Red Corvette,” another performance-based video that showcased Prince the kick-ass dancer who could do the splits even better than James Brown. In an age of colorful New Wave performers on the air like A Flock of Seagulls and The Eurythmics, Prince still stood out from the pack. He already had great critical buzz and was on the cusp of something big. That came in the summer of 1984 with the release of the Purple Rain film and soundtrack. The lead single “When Doves Cry” was all over the radio and was so different from anything else at the time. The opening guitar line was sexy and serpentine, and revealed more of the Hendrix influence, while the rest of the song was stripped bare: again, minimal synth and drum patterns, with multi-layered vocals carrying the rest. No bass anywhere to be found, which was said to be the mark of death on an urban record. Prince knew better. It was everywhere that year and the movie was a genuine pop culture touchstone for a generation. I didn’t get to see it in theaters, but I did on home video soon after and all of my initial impressions of Prince were only amplified.

In my opinion, Purple Rain is still one of only three movies built around a musical act that completely works (the other two being A Hard Day’s Night and 8 Mile).  And the soundtrack! This was the first Prince record I owned on vinyl. From start-to-finish, Purple Rain was pop perfection. Not one weak track to be found anywhere. Just look at a partial list: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me with U,” “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Purple Rain” etc. Even the deeper album cuts are legendary, such as the haunting “The Beautiful Ones” (one of Prince’s greatest vocal performances on record) and “Darling Nikki” which caught the attention of Tipper Gore and eventually led to the use of “Parental Advisory” stickers on album covers, a marketing gift to all hip-hop artists to follow. There were five official singles, though every song is well-known thanks to the quality of the music as well as the accompanying visuals in the movie.  The project as a whole remains his defining moment – it’s the Prince we all remember.

Considering what a successful and long run Purple Rain had on the charts, the next album came out quickly after in the spring of 1985. As with anyone trying to follow-up a world-beating smash (the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper or Nirvana with Nevermind), reaction was mixed. I remember being a bit nonplussed with the “Raspberry Beret” single and video (everything was a musical and visual event in the ‘80s). Though a big and enduring hit song, it seemed slight to me then and it looked like he was paying homage to the psychedelia of Pepper with the visuals and his slightly mop-toppish new hairdo. Around the World in a Day did have some quality songs like “Pop Life” and “America,” but none with the same potency as anything on Purple Rain for me. I skipped it.

I did buy 1986’s Parade, the soundtrack to his next film Under the Cherry Moon. The first single “Kiss” again had the spark of simplicity and the lush second single “Mountains” hooked me in. But it was 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times that became his artistic high-water mark. His first double-album since “1999,” it was Prince as all-out musical mad scientist, using every trick up his sleeve and somehow digging even deeper. Sprawling, ambitious, avant-garde and strange, it remains the Prince album of choice for the hipper fan. Conventional wisdom would’ve said to wait a while before following up this masterpiece, but Prince’s musical output has been a constant torrent throughout his life and he would pretty much release an album a year for the rest of his career.

The cover for 1988’s LoveSexy was asking a lot of a young, straight male fan to accept much less buy, featuring a strategically nude Prince posing as Michelangelo subject or something. The first single “Alphabet St.” was also an odd first listen, though I now think it’s one of his better ones with another minimal, but super-funky arrangement. The video was also minimalist pop-art and stood out from the increasingly high-budget and high-concept videos circulating at the time.

In 1989, he got the nod from parent company Warner Bros. to do the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman. Both the soundtrack and movie were very odd and experimental for being such mainstream releases. Prince got to channel more alter-egos, and there were still cool new songs like “Electric Chair” and one of his best ballads in “Scandalous!”.  This would end his ‘80s run of music, an incredible output by any standard. It would also spell the end of the great vinyl era, with CD’s becoming the more dominant (but much less fun) format for music releases. Music-listening would never again be the immersive, all-consuming experience it had once been for me, though I would remain a Prince fan for life.

I bought the Diamonds and Pearls album in 1991 (one of the cooler covers of the CD age), as I enjoyed Prince’s return to accessible pop songcraft. The title track, “Cream,” “Thunder,” “Gett Off,” “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” and “Live 4 Love” all worked for me. He made some great TV appearances, including a memorable turn on the Arsenio Hall Show. But it was with 1992’s concept-heavy Love Symbol Album and accompanying ’93 tour, 10 years after I first caught him on MTV, where I finally got to see Prince live.  Thankfully it was during a brief window of his career in between playing large arenas where he was performing in more intimate venues. So it was at the Chicago Theatre where I experienced Prince live and it was ridiculous how good he was. There’s just something about our best musicians and artists – they are actually even better than you think and you don’t fully realize this until you see them play live. Without fail, all the best are even more impressive in a concert setting. Prince was even more so. It was everything he did best, rolled up into one overwhelming (and humbling if you are an aspiring musician) experience: the vocal acrobatics of Little Richard, the moves and band leadership of James Brown, the psychedelic guitar-playing of Jimi Hendrix, all filtered through his own unique genius. I sat up front and center on the first balcony with a clear view of all the proceedings and it was unparalleled. I happened to bring my younger brother along who was around the same age that year as I was when I first discovered Prince in 1983 and he loved it just as much as I did.

The rest of the ‘90s and early 2000’s spelled a slight decline from the artistic and commercial apex of the ‘80s, but that’s a natural trajectory for any commercial artist. If you’re lucky, you hit a genius peak, but it’s never sustainable no matter who you are. Talent is, but not optimum genius. Part of his weakened output seemed due to his increasingly bitter battle with Warner Bros., apparently over royalties and publishing. It split his focus. Another part could have been the tragic death of his only child Boy Gregory, lost to Pfeiffer Syndrome a mere week after birth. There seemed to be a dark cloud hovering over his work and it wasn’t until 2004 when the magic finally returned. First was his killer Grammy Award appearance with Beyoncé which is still part of his highlight reel. This was followed by his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where he participated in a tribute to deceased fellow inductee George Harrison. Led by Tom Petty on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Prince took center stage three-and-a-half minutes in and owned the entire night. Once a gifted young prodigy, he now had the aura of a master as he took the lead on a guitar solo originally made famous by Eric Clapton, making both the solo and song his very own. With his profile the highest it had been since his Purple Rain heyday, he returned to playing large-scale arenas once again. Unfortunately I missed him on this tour, something I still deeply regret, but I do have a video bootleg of his Staples Center appearance in Los Angeles and he was as dynamic and versatile as he’d ever been. The musicianship was still off the charts, as the world-at-large would see in 2007 when he headlined the Super Bowl halftime show.

Prince’s Super Bowl appearance has now become one of his defining moments as a live performer. If you’ve ever watched any footage of Prince live, you know this was someone who never faltered or hit a bum note, something that used to amaze even the super-demanding jazz legend Miles Davis. He always delivered in a live setting and this would be no exception. Benefiting greatly from the NFL’s production budget (the show was beautifully shot and staged), Prince came up with a set that delivered signature hits, but also unexpected musical surprises. He threw in Dylan via Hendrix with a short cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” Creedence via Ike and Tina with “Proud Mary,” and a reciprocal cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You” (they had covered his own “Darling Nikki,” apparently to significant approval), all while showcasing his greatly underrated guitar-playing. The theatricality of the performance was only heightened by the heavy downpour of rain throughout his set. By the time he got to “Purple Rain,” all of the elements came together to create one of those magical TV moments like Michael Jackson on Motown 25 or the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I watched the show in amazement, proud to still be a Prince fan.

For the rest of his career, Prince would remain as hardworking and prolific as ever. He’d drop out of the spotlight for a bit, but always knew how to make his presence known whenever he had something new to promote. While newer albums continued to be patchy, there were always cool little surprises like “Black Sweat,” a great throwback to his early-‘80s work (the video was stylish and hot too) or “Guitar” from 2007. He made many great live appearances on TV, notably on SNL and his concerts remained the best way to experience his inexhaustible talent right up to his final Piano & a Microphone tour this year. While reportedly struggling with some yet-unknown demons, the final live footage we have of Prince floating around the internet shows him alone at the piano playing an intimate and poignant version of “Purple Rain,” the fortunate audience in attendance blissfully singing along, totally unaware that this would be his final performance ever. It serves as a heartbreaking memorial.

Later this evening, my dearly beloved and I will gather here today to celebrate this still-enigmatic superstar and legend by doing something I didn’t get the chance to as a teen: catching a theatrical screening of Purple Rain. It will be a very bittersweet, full-circle moment for me. While Prince the human being was not immortal after all, his creative output certainly is. He has left us a treasure trove of material to sift through, cherish, and pass along to successive generations. There is also a more private legacy of great philanthropic work that will improve the quality of life for many underprivileged children. He cared greatly throughout his life about equality, spirituality, and love. Music just happened to be the most natural vehicle to express his ideas with. Regardless of what emerges as the cause of his sudden departure from this earth, his personal and creative journey here showed us endless new possibilities and elevated all of humanity a notch in our slow upward climb towards nirvana. He only wanted to see us laughing in the purple rain.

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Gilmour Shines On at United Center

So I am sitting down to write this a few days after David Gilmour’s final show in Chicago, following a weeklong stint that included one show at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre sandwiched by two larger-scale shows at the United Center. The U.S. tour, his first in 10 years, is a fairly exclusive affair encompassing only three cities (L.A., Chicago, and New York) before heading back to Europe. And at 70 years old, there’s no telling when or even if he’ll be back. Other than the early Floyd years, Gilmour has never been much of a road warrior. Since taking the helm of Pink Floyd in 1986 following the legal departure of founding member Roger Waters, he’s manned exactly two (albeit massive) world tours under the Floyd banner, the first from 1987-1990 and the second in 1994. He’s done very limited U.S. touring on his own, the last time in support of 2006’s On An Island – a show I was foolish enough to miss, despite being a full-on Floyd freak (if you know the band as Sigma 6, the Architectural Abdabs and the Meggadeaths, you are far beyond the realm of casual fan). So to say that I was grateful to get one more opportunity to see one of my favorite musicians of all time (and favorite guitarist bar none) is an understatement.

In a way, the delayed gratification worked in my favor. Gilmour is currently touring in support of 2015’s Rattle That Lock, a much stronger solo album than his last in my opinion, which makes the introduction of new material in a show heavy on classic rock standards much more palatable. Newer songs like the Leonard Cohen-influenced “Faces of Stone” and “In Any Tongue” held their own much better than the On An Island material last time around. The overall setlist was stronger than 2006 as well, with a brisker pacing of the solo and Floyd material. While no longer doing the epic “Echoes” (most likely due to the loss of close musical partner Richard Wright in 2008, whose sonic signature is all over that song), we got the reappearance of “Us and Them,” the stinging blues of “What Do You Want from Me,” the thundering “Sorrow,” and Wall classic “Run Like Hell”.  He also brought back Mr. Screen, the Vari-Lite-rigged circular projection surface made famous on all of the classic Floyd tours of the ‘70s and ‘80s (but missing in 2006’s solo outing). The venues are bigger this time around as well, with more arenas than theaters playing host and this is music custom-made for large, panoramic spaces.

The pre-show itself was the first sonic treat of the evening for Floyd obsessives, as familiar sound effects pulsed through the P.A. (a plane flying overhead, helicopter sounds, the backwards-guitar seagull wails from “Echoes” and spoken-word snippets from Dark Side of the Moon to name a few).  This provided the first clue as to the first-rate sound engineering that would take place all evening, the best concert sound I’ve heard since, ironically enough, Roger Waters’s solo version of The Wall a few years back. Pink Floyd’s concert sound is just as legendary in the industry as their visual effects, and Friday’s show at United was all-enveloping. You felt the music deep in your bones; it was that loud, dynamic, and three-dimensional.

The show itself opened proper with the instrumental “5 AM” off the new album, Gilmour’s signature elegiac guitar tone instantly recognizable as it cut through the gentle, cinematic backing. One note in and the audience instantly erupted in rapture and would pretty much remain that way throughout the entire performance (to the point where Gilmour himself would make reference to the crowd’s enthusiasm several times during the evening). This understated opening soon gave way to the bouncy “Rattle That Lock,” inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost. Along with “Today,” the song’s production harkened back to a late-‘80s funk-lite feel. The sound was punchy and huge, with Gilmour’s strong vocals cutting through the mix. He sounded confident and in command from the start. The rest of the first set breezed by in a near-perfect blend of new and old: “Faces of Stone” led to a surprisingly early appearance of “Wish You Were Here,” a ballsy gambit that actually worked. The lush harmonies of the Wright tribute “A Boat Lies Waiting” (especially fitting with Wright’s daughter, son, and grandson in attendance) sounded enormous and rich, shimmering like the surface of a lake. This was followed by the ultra-serene “The Blue,” which obviously didn’t have the intended effect on the two “gentlemen” sitting near me who nearly broke out in a fight. Grown men. At a David Gilmour concert. Perhaps someone wasn’t sharing the herbal “enhancements” that substituted for oxygen at this show? Who knows, but the foolhardy twosome nearly got themselves bounced by a whole phalanx of United Center security. Ah, good times…

After a one-two punch of “Money” and “Us and Them,” the first set closed with the foreboding “High Hopes” off 1994’s The Division Bell. Accompanied by iconic Storm Thorgerson video, Gilmour played both nylon guitar and pedal steel with exquisite taste and ease. The band then took a fifteen minute intermission before resuming the show with the Syd Barrett-era “Astronomy Domine,” the psychedelic lighting and projections harkening back to 1967’s London underground. The nod to Floyd-founder Barrett continued with classic requiem “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the introductory guitar figure generating some of the biggest cheers of the night. This classic Floyd staple and Gilmour showcase was played alongside more vintage Thorgerson footage. After watching it on the Pulse video and DVD for so many years, it was a real treat to see this footage projected live. It has aged beautifully. Other highlights of the second set included the pastoral “Fat Old Sun,” the aforementioned “Sorrow” and the visual/sonic attack of “Run Like Hell”. Whether comforting or menacing, Gilmour’s guitar tone was impeccable throughout. All of the signature hallmarks were there in abundance: the refined bends, sustained and delayed notes, all gleaming like liquid glass.

The show closed with an encore of “Time,” “Breathe (Reprise),” and of course “Comfortably Numb”.  After playing this song and all-time classic guitar solo so many times, one could forgive Gilmour for struggling to find the requisite power and feeling anymore, yet he delivered. Perhaps it was the energy of the crowd at United Center spurring him on, but it felt as sublime and transcendent as you would hope for, the vivid lasershow a mere backdrop for the real magic happening onstage. Credit must be given to his backing band and singers, many of whom are veterans of previous Floyd and solo tours. They injected fresh life into these classic warhorses, custodians of some of the most beloved staples in rock history. It also helps that Gilmour now tours at his own pace and terms. Financially, he’s never had to tour again past the ’87-’90 trek, but like McCartney he does so because pure musicianship courses through his veins. He can now cherry pick his live appearances and it shows. This is not a working musician slogging it out on a 100 + date tour. This is a relaxed veteran at peace with himself and his legacy. His current state-of-grace is a blessing to his audience and if this turns out to be a final victory lap, it will be a more than worthy one.

 

SET LIST:

First half: 5am, Rattle That Lock, Faces Of Stone, Wish You Were Here, What Do You Want From Me, A Boat Lies Waiting, The Blue, Money, Us And Them, In Any Tongue, High Hopes.

Second half: Astronomy Domine, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Fat Old Sun, Coming Back To Life, On An Island, The Girl In The Yellow Dress, Today, Sorrow, Run Like Hell.

Encore: Time/Breathe(rep), Comfortably Numb