Jeff Ryan doesn't have much reason to get starstruck these days. Besides his gigs as drummer for the Baptist Generals and Pleasant Grove, he's played with St. Vincent, the War on Drugs, Daniel Johnston and Sarah Jaffe. But one show in particular still gives Ryan goosebumps, more than 30 years after it happened: Prince's legendary show at Reunion Arena during the Purple Rain Tour.
"It was mind blowing for a 13 year old," says Ryan, who had never attended a concert before that night. "I'd never heard a crowd like that. I'd never been to a big sporting event or anything. Hearing thousands and thousands of people freaking out for all the songs they knew, it was mind blowing."
Prince, who died last week at the age of 57 and left his millions of fans around the world in shock, was at the height of his powers when he visited Dallas for a three-night stand that ended on New Years Day, 1985. He was on the cusp of winning two Grammys and an Oscar for the album and film versions of Purple Rain, and arguably the biggest performer in the world at the time. His shows at Reunion would become the stuff of local lore.
"My aunts, who were pretty rock 'n' roll, bought tickets," Ryan recalls, laughing. Exactly which night he attended has been lost to the ravages of time, but he, his aunts and his brother had driven to the show directly from a family camping trip in East Texas. "It was really, really cold," he says.
Even before Prince took the stage, Ryan, who had already begun to play the drums, was captivated by what he saw. Opening that night was the Time, followed by Sheila E. "When [Sheila E.] came out, I was so blown away. I was just getting into drums and really starting to understand about technique and getting inspired to play, and she was just a badass," he says. "I came away thinking, 'I want to get better at drums. I want to learn more about what she's doing."
But nothing could've prepared him for what he saw from Prince — and he'd even seen Purple Rain by that point. There were dance routines, bright lights, smoke machines, outrageous, often suggestive solos and over-the-top theatrics, not to mention a whole lot of purple. It was, he says, like "living a dream — a really vivid dream."
"You're not just seeing this great player. It's almost like you're seeing this movie star on stage, too," Ryan says. Prince didn't spare any of the on-screen drama, either. "In the movie he gets all provocative, but in the show, in front of all these people, he didn't care at all. He was going to do this the way he wanted to do it — on his own terms. Totally on his own terms."
But it wasn't just that Prince was provocative; he was, as Ryan puts it, "a superstar showman."
"He was in complete control of his environment: his songs, his instrumentation, his dance moves and all that stuff," he says. "Michael Jackson did that as well — I never saw Michael Jackson perform — but Michael wasn't playing any instruments. Prince did all that, man. He did a lot of the dance moves and could kill [on guitar]; he could shred, man." That, too, was inspirational to Ryan, even though he didn't play the same instrument. "I saw him performing on such a virtuoso level at guitar that it was like, man, I'd love to be able to do that on drums."
From the roughly hour-and-a-half-long set, one song in particular stands out today in Ryan's memory: "I Would Die 4 U." "I still remember the lights, there were these really bright lights. [It created] almost kind of a hopeful feeling. But you know, you're saying you're going die for someone, and that's actually pretty dark," he says. Ryan had never experienced anything as emotional as that in such a public space. "The dancing and production of that song in particular was pretty emotional, really."
When the show was finished, Ryan, at once disoriented and invigorated by what he'd just witnessed, was in for another shock: A massive snow storm had hit during the concert, and the roads were completely locked down. "We had to get out and push the car. It was a nightmare. It was just coming down in sheets of ice and snow," he says. "Back then, 1985, we couldn't get on our phones and say, 'Oh man, a storm's coming.'"
It would be a long trip back to his parents' house in McKinney, yet it only added to the mystique of the night for the young middle schooler. "For me, it kind of ties into the whole night being a totally surreal and amazing experience," he says.
Ryan, who "was a big fan" of Prince at that time, gradually turned his attention to other bands like the Cure, Depeche Mode and Talking Heads. He wouldn't see another concert until U2's Joshua Tree Tour in 1987 — a very different animal from Purple Rain — and while he's remained a fan of his music, he'd never see another of the Purple One's concerts. That one's effect, however, never went away.
"That show, being my first-ever rock show to go to, was jaw dropping and totally inspiring," he says. "It just stayed with me forever, because I was seeing, for the very first time, this explosion of energy on stage."
Now Ryan, like so many others, is left in shock by the fact that that explosive force has suddenly been extinguished, and popular music has lost one of its most towering and influential figures. "What I liked about him was that he wasn't ever really in the news. He kept a low profile. That's what was so shocking about [his death]," Ryan says. "It's like, man, this guy was just playing a show last week. I don't understand why he's gone now."