Art by Scott Penner
Chris Daly’s body will never be the same.
I first saw Prince live in concert for my tenth birthday. My mother mistakenly thought my two-year-younger brother and I were huge fans, and as both my parents were proponents in exposing us to anything artistic. When additional tickets opened up literally the day of the show, Ma jumped at the opportunity to let her boys go explore an artist she knew absolutely nothing about or how very, very age inappropriate the show would be.
The truth of the matter, my knowledge of Prince at the time boiled down to three things:
1. In Kindergarten, when everyone was supposed to bring in a copy of their favorite record, and almost everyone brought Sesame Street Sing-a-Long or some Disney soundtrack, this kid Dennis brought in Controversy. I don’t recall if the teacher even let him play a track, but the sight of a grown man in a trench coat and thong obviously was not too well received by the school. Dennis was always a cool motherfucker like that.
2. Like every other white suburban pre-teen, I had just discovered MTV, and Prince was one of only two black artists that saw any rotation at the time.
3. Our babysitter, Candy, played the Purple Rain soundtrack non-stop whenever she watched us, but never let us listen to the infamous “Darlin’ Nikki,” which naturally meant we’d steal the tape when she wasn’t paying attention and listen to that track constantly, even though we had no idea whatsoever what any of it meant.
When my brother and I got home from school the day of the show, Moms, clearly so pleased with herself, told us she had purchased us the greatest birthday gift of all times, and to guess what it was. Half an hour later, when we had exhausted virtually any and all gifts we had ever wanted (none of which were Prince tickets), she finally said, “I got you Prince tickets. Isn’t he your favorite?” While we were far more into ninjas at the time (the first 50 guesses ranged from ninja masks to throwing stars), who were we to say no?
Pop took the two of us and a friend of mine, Ryan. We must have been about 10th row, but it was so flush left, we literally could see behind the stage. I had been to concerts before, but the next few hours, complete with a blistering opening by Sheila E., would change the very course of my life. Music went from some background, childish distraction to this powerful, cosmic force that seemed to have the ability to alter time and space.
The fact that Prince’s bodyguard personally handed my brother and me two purple tambourines (he grabbed one back from some asshole who tried to take it from my younger brother, and yes, we still have them) only made it that much more personal.
Since Purple Rain, I’ve seen His Royal Badness dozens of times. Conservatively, I think I’ve seen between 75 and 85 percent of his national US tours since then. Every album tour (except, to my ultimate chagrin, Sign O’ the Times), smaller club runs (Love 4 One Another), various greatest hits shows and that Támar run where he just played lead guitarist for his then latest protégé (though he did sing three tracks in the middle). Then there’s all the side project related stuff—Morris Day, Sheila E., etc.
While Prince has long since been accepted rightfully as the musical genius that he is, being a Prince fan in a small-minded suburb whose main bar may or may not have one time been Klan operated was a perilous proposition. Prince’s exploration of androgyny and gender roles clearly made him a “faggot” as far as the local rednecks were concerned, and so was anyone who listened to him. (I never could figure out that argument based solely on the gorgeous women with whom he constantly surrounded himself, but that’s another debate entirely).
And yet, even if it meant shit talk from friends or more severe bullying from the local rednecks who were never going to like me—the kid from Chicago. Even before I “got” the music—there was something about that performance and those songs that impacted me immediately and irrevocably.
A couple of years passed, puberty hit, girls became more important than about anything else, and THAT was when I had the epiphany that led me to be a Prince fan for the rest of my life. Sure, he could blend, meld, merge and evolve musical styles effortlessly. His guitar work is some of the most underrated in the world, as is his keyboard playing, drumming, dancing and damn near every aspect of performance (though he interestingly never learned to play horns). Hell, his fashion sense is inspiring if absolutely nothing else.
But what made Prince the mad genius he was for me was that the man wrote the nastiest, funkiest fuck music of all times. The man with the dirty mind made music that forced your hips to grind, juices to flow and illicit thoughts to flash across your brain. Every generation has their go-to artist when it’s time to seduce that special (or convenient, I don’t judge) someone. As far as I’m concerned, there will never be anyone who compares to Rogers Nelson. “Darlin’ Nikki.” “Rock Hard in a Funky Place.” “Erotic City.” “Mad Sex.” “Come On.” You get the point.
Had sex music been Prince’s only trick—even though it was a masterful goddamn trick—odds are he never would have reached the heights he did. Most people (Purple Posers, IMO) will point to Purple Rain as Prince’s best album, but anyone worth their musical salt realizes it’s Sign O’ The Times where Prince touched on everything from the burgeoning AIDS crisis (the titular track is the first ever to even address the disease) to seduction, to partying, to true love, to the importance of God. Heady stuff, but it was the depth and range that makes it one of the top 20 rock albums of all times. Pop, R&B, funk, gospel, rock—it was all there, it was all new, and it was somehow unlike anything that had ever come before it.
As with all good things, Prince, too, would fall from grace. The whole Warner Brothers/Slave debacle, a series of increasingly less satisfying albums and eventually sounding like he simply was trying to play catch-up with the up and comers (many of whom owed their career to him, ironically enough) led to a less than stellar stretch. Your thoughts on religion aside, going Jehovah’s Witness and refusing to play arguably the best half of his catalog would have been devastating to most other artists. Prince, however, had a catalog so deep that cutting out a few dozen songs didn’t even dent the entire output. Plus, he was a consummate showman and performer (you jump off of ten foot speakers in six inch heels for decades). As long as he kept the groove going, he pulled off singing about pancakes.
Prince was able to reintroduce himself in a way that a lot of legacy acts can’t. Every Prince concert was fresh and vital. The bands changed regularly, allowing a certain amount of new fluidity (though Prince was rumored to be a notorious taskmaster, I have to imagine that he gave some room to the masters while touring with the likes of Larry Graham, Chaka Khan and Maceo Parker). His concerts became less about whatever album he was or wasn’t pushing, than a celebration of music itself.
Eventually, I became “the Prince fanatic” in my group. My best friend Kathy and I watched “Under the Cherry Moon” 3-5 times per week for the better part of two years. My dad still tells people with pride, “I took my son to see him 30 years ago, and now he’s taking me.” Prince went beyond a favored musician and became a truly integral part of my life.
My last three Prince shows were a three night run at the Mohegan Sun in 2013. While all three shows were incredible, at the last minute, only on the casino’s FB page, they listed an after hour show with a 200-person capacity. For all the shows I’d attended, I’d never made it to a legitimate post-concert, after-hour show, which are considered some of his most legendary performances. I was able to secure a ticket on something called Ticket Bastard.
After an opening set by one of the back-up singers and two and a half hours of Doug E. Fresh spinning, Prince finally showed up in a corner while they played an unreleased track of his, then disappeared just as quickly. An hour later, the band came out, played two tracks and informed the audience that Prince wasn’t going to play after all.
Suffice to say, that kind of pissed me off. Sure, the money was refunded, but I had to drive eight hours back home the next day and had been kept up until 4 a.m. NOT to see Prince blow my mind. At that point, I came as close as I ever did to giving up on Prince. Naturally, I still bought tickets to his Baltimore show following the Freddie Gray aftermath, but I decided not to go at the last moment, convincing myself he was going to show up, but not sing (the tickets were worded very non-committedly, something like, “with an appearance by Prince.”) Once burned, twice shy, that was the last time I would have had the chance to see him, and by all accounts, he put on his usual, spectacular show.
I figured I’d make it up to myself when his latest solo piano tour eventually made its way to the D.C. area or somewhere within the three hour drive I’d undoubtedly be willing to make. And then, with very little warning (what the fuck, flu?), he was gone. My phone started blowing up on my way to the airport back from a work trip today. I blasted Prince in my headphones the entire way home, trying not to lose it. These words just kept playing over and over again in my head.
Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war,
Just after I’d wiped away his last tear
I guess he’s better off than he was before,
A whole lot better off than the fools he left here
I used to cry for Tracy because he was my only friend
Those kind of cars don’t pass you every day
I used to cry for Tracy because I wanted to see him again,
But sometimes sometimes life ain’t always the way
Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last