Out & About

First time I saw The Artist Then Known as Prince, he was ushering in 1983 with a set culled from 1999, then his latest and greatest. He funked and spunked (his guitar did, anyway) like a man leading a proper Revolution (ah, Wendy and Lisa...), and even a 15-year-old then enamored of KISS, King Crimson, and the Kinks (the three Ks, only one of which turned out to be krap) could tell he was a genius, if not The Genius, of a generation. Every song was a single, every single was a hit, every hit was a blow against the crushing mediocrity known as the New Wave Eighties; imagine a battle that pitted Boy George against Jimi Hendrix, Adam Ant against George Clinton, Nick Heyward against Sly Stone, and it ain't too hard to pick a winner in, oh, one round. (Retrospect is a wonderful thing.) Prince wasn't a dead-end, but a crossroads: Now that I think about it, he was probably responsible for introducing me to a dozen or a hundred black artists I hadn't heard of at that point; he filled in the blanks by making funk pop and soul sing for a whole bunch of kids who knew absolutely nothing about the past. The last time I saw Prince was in Los Angeles, at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. It was the fall of 1997, and he was then The Artist Formerly Known: His albums had stopped selling, his old deal with Warner Bros. was a thing of recent memory, his new deal with Arista was on-again-off-again, and it seemed that yet another vital pioneer had become nothing more than a vestige. The show was a quick add-on to a crowded tour schedule--it had been announced only on the Internet--but that, coupled with declining sales and waning interest, didn't stop the L.A. celeb contingency from coming out (Heavy D is still famous, right?), nor did it keep the fans away. The place was packed, sweaty, itching as show time dragged from 8 to 8:30 to 9 to...whenever the hell Prince felt like coming out. By the time he emerged, backed by the New Power Generation, you got the sense the audience would have cheered Morris Day or Vanity 6; they wanted something, anything.

But what they got that night was so astonishing that it's tempting to never again see Prince in concert; God forbid he tarnish two wonderful memories (how can a man compete with such generous ghosts?). He played the then-new stuff ("The Most Beautiful Girl in the World") and beat all hell out of the old stuff ("Let's Go Crazy"), stretching every song into an extended jam that after a while started to sound like your own beating heart. People in the crowd couldn't decide whether to dance or sit still, they were so awed and captivated; instead, they did both--they vibrated. No one cared how many albums he had sold in the '90s; no one thought of commercial viability or artistic declines. They only basked in the presence of a man who was once huge--and should have been bigger. So don't miss him this time around just because his last record, 1999's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, wasn't so fantastic; it's doubtful he'll touch much of it anyway, as ballads don't translate too well to the stage. And don't hold the 1990s against him, for that matter: He released records in bulk, hiding the gems among so much coal. The man seldom tours--Dallas is but one of a handful of dates on this current swing--and never disappoints. At least, I hope not this time around.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky