I was lucky enough to see Prince play in August 1998, at Wembley Arena. It wasn’t the best concert of his I would see but it afforded me the chance to actually see Prince working. The original ticket I had purchased was for one of the gods at the back of the arena and I wondered whether the box-office had anything better left on offer. Remember, 1998 was the year of NewPowerSoul and GCS and Chaka…I knew it said the place was sold out, but… There was a front row ticket to the stage right. I took it. As it turned out, it was a seat just to the rear of the stage, as you looked at it from the side, and it gave a view of backstage and, I quickly realised, the soundboard station – which was also to the back-stage-right. I don’t know if any of you were at that show. If you were, you’ll remember that Chaka Khan and Graham Central Station were the opening acts that night. Prince guested on stage with Chaka, I think, for a little of I Feel For You and with GCS on Free. For the remainder of the time, pretty much, he was working the soundboard about twenty feet in front of me…give or take.
I lost sight of the stage. All I had eyes for was the sound-desk. Prince and another engineer worked together through both support performances. They spoke, they bobbed heads, they tweaked. Their arms kept moving to faders and knobs. All I could see was Prince from behind and his body language exuded control. It was obviously a place where he felt comfortable. But, there was no sense of the prima donna or hierarchy. There was a relaxed sense of trust between the two of them at the board; the other engineer didn’t back off or kowtow throughout. They worked together. It was incredible to watch.
The shows I’d previously seen had been from front and centre, pretty much. On those occasions Prince arrived on stage via hydraulics or escalator. On this occasion he walked on stage up over a set of steps at the centre back. Again, from where I was sitting, I could see this backstage walk towards these steps and up and over, on to perform. There is currently a short clip on youtube of Prince getting ready to go on stage in Japan in 1990. He struts along a corridor, all stretches and high kicks, hilariously missing his turn for the elevator. That purpose, though, that tunnel-vision was there at Wembley just as it was in Japan…the only difference was the Prince wasn’t playing for a camera when I saw him walk toward stage. There was a steely resolve in his gait. Very upright and assured. Ready to give good show.
This was Prince at work.
It’s been interesting, heartbreaking and reaffirming, listening to some of the stories that have surfaced about Prince and his work. Perhaps what will have taken so many people by surprise is the fact that there were two sides to Prince working: the musician & performer and the altruist & innovator. The innumerable tales of Prince’s work rate, as far as music is concerned, encapsulate just how drenched in music and creativity Prince was. The generosity he showed through and in music is also quite startling; seeing the letter he wrote to Suzanne Vega is just beautiful. Listening to the Van Jones stories, though, simply blows my mind with regards how active he was in the community, endeavouring to make the world a better place.
There have been some public charity concerts and donations he’s made in the past – the famous Marva Collins performance, the food drives at the concerts, the Love4OneAnother website, etc – but to hear Van Jones speak about Prince’s involvement in such a variety of organisations and programmes was astonishing and yet quite believable, and not unexpected. I may never have completely agreed with Prince’s politics (I mean, Free?) but there was never any doubting the heart of the man. The comment that’s been made about him not being red or blue but being purple is perhaps the most honest appreciation of his outlook on life. What appeared naive on Ronnie Talk To Russia, the aforementioned Free, America or Dear Mr Man masked a willing and thoughtful approach to the times in which he lived, it would seem. It is no wonder that this current president was moved so much as to make a formal comment on his death and the impact, the tangible impact, Prince had on so many lives.
That was also Prince at work.
In the Kevin Smith eulogy to Prince on his Fatman on Batman youtube series, there is a heartbreaking moment as he talks about the time Prince danced with his young daughter. In the middle of D’Angelo’s performance on Fallon he is overwhelmed by the enormity of the emotions he is feeling as he sings. The viral video of the teacher breaking down upon playing Purple Rain for his students on hearing the news of Prince’s death is so sad to see. The moment at the end of the Van Jones interview where he is asked what he’s feeling and he says he feels guilty – that is harrowing. Reading reactions on The Org, hearing the impact of this man on people I know and don’t know, is devastating. A friend of mine just called and asked if I was over grieving yet – he laughed. I’m not. I never met Prince. I never spoke with Prince. I exchanged a couple of tweets with him and that was that. I helped out in a minor and modest way during the release of Emancipation. Those are my sole dealings with this man. But oh my did he affect my life. Prince made days brighter. The words, the humour, the imagination, the assurance, the vitality, the confidence, the fear, the love, the notes, the chords, the rhythm, the melody, the magic. His songs inform my days. His attitude informs my ways.
That is Prince at work.