We all fall down on opportunity and responsibility. It’s only human nature — and we’re lucky if we can change or fix the outcome. When it comes to Prince, I was able to get a second chance on one of those moments.
On this incredibly sad Thursday, allow me two personal (and amazing, at least for me) memories of the artist.
It always felt lucky, and many times magical, to see Prince. He was a wholly original and special talent and, of course, losing him will have people flooded with memories and more than a few regrets for not seeing him when they could have — it’s that sense of taking someone or something for granted until death strips away the last opportunity.
I didn’t even try to get tickets when Prince came through Oakland last month with two intimate Piano and Microphone tour dates at the lovely Paramount Theatre (so, so close), nor did I attend the surprise concert he added at Oracle Arena two days after those. This even though I had heard about great “after-show party” concerts in San Francisco and feeling — for reasons that really hit home now — a sense of nostalgia and missing out.
The realization that it’s all over, that opportunity is forever lost, of course hits hardest in the wake of a death. As a former music critic, I had countless opportunities to see Prince. So it’s weird and sad to think that the last time I did was way back in 1993.
But it was — and this is maybe the perfect word for his very best performances — transcendent.
In April of 1993, he played two nights at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Despite bearing the name of one of rock’s greatest promoters and an icon for the Bay Area music scene, that wasn’t one of my favorite places to see a show. Not the best acoustics. Not super large but definitely not intimate. And yet Prince came in and killed it. You can read reviews all day from anywhere he ever played and get a fairly accurate and similar account of what went down those nights.
But that wasn’t the show in question. Nope. As he’s now famous for doing (hell, he was even back then), Prince would show up for an “after party” at a tiny (and I would argue legendary) little club in San Francisco called the DNA Lounge one night later.
(That’s why hearing about February’s intimate set in San Francisco sparked memories — but of course you think he’s going to live forever and keep doing these sets, and one day, if you dredge up the motivation and shake off the age, you just might show up).
Back in 1993 he was beyond huge, even if the album he was pushing at the time turned his name into a glyph/symbol (The Love Symbol album) and wouldn’t live up to the best of his best. It didn’t matter — whatever didn’t work for me from the studio usually ended up being something mind-blowing live. He had done just that the previous two nights in a less than favorable setting, tearing into “My Name Is Prince” (a perfect example of something that’s better live than on the album; in my memory the whole place just about came down), “Sexy M.F.,” being more talkative than expected, shooting hoops on stage and building the flow of the night until the inevitable cascade of hits like “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Kiss” and “Purple Rain.” And yeah, everybody was out of their mind as those songs kicked in, one after the other.
But the DNA Lounge is tiny. It’s intimate. Another word you could use is cramped and hot. It’s a place I’d seen any number of much smaller bands and tons of local acts play, and even then it felt like being in someone’s decently sized multilevel house with a stage in the middle of it and bars you’d never get to without plowing through people (if you’re even thirsty enough for the effort).
But sometime after 1 a.m., probably much later, it was for me the ultimate place to be, because the funkiest man on the planet (to my knowledge) was going to hustle in there and tear it frenetically to bits.
What I remember beyond the holy-hell-can-you-believe-this element of it all was the best version of “When You Were Mine” ever (and I’m positive this sentiment is shared by anyone who ever saw him anywhere else — ain’t that the beauty of the music and the man?). Also, his “I’ll Take You There” and “What Is Hip” covers, the latter a nod to Oakland across the bay. After that, mostly nothing except standing out in the street, sweaty and pretty damned sure it was the be-all-end-all of my Prince moments.
Sadly, that turned out to be true.
And as anyone who ever got to see him in an environment like that — credit the man for an insatiable need to perform and a willingness to send a kiss to the club scene with these “after party” performances (he would end up playing a number of small spaces in San Francisco and across the country) — can attest, it was like having him in your living room.
Death always sends us spinning down the rabbit hole, collecting memories and holding onto what once was, what can still be remembered, everything taking on a new, magnified sheen of specialness because of the loss.
I think this is especially true with music and memories of artists who pass, because whatever you experienced through the music when they were alive was personal and special to you then. These are one-of-a-kind memories reignited.
I’ve said many times that music is the most personal art form — and having been both a music critic and a television critic, that has proven true based on people’s reactions to what I write. I always say that I could hate your favorite TV show and you’d maybe listen to the reasons why and differ but we’d end up essentially agreeing to disagree and letting it go. But if I hate your favorite musical artists (album, concert, etc.) then you’d want to lash out and hurt me in some way, there being no room for reason or compromise in that specific kind of passion.
Loving music makes us all a little crazy because it’s so personal, it means so much to us (for so many reasons we might not even understand) and on a day — like Thursday — when we lost Prince, it all comes flooding out in these wonderful memories.
My last one is pretty simple and goes back to the notion of “responsibility” — I say it now with both a laugh and a tear because it was one of those forehead-slapping moments as a parent. I never let my kids — now 15 and 13 — get the Disney radio treatment (because of course my music critic past led me to say, “Hell no” to that), instead substituting Jonathan Richman songs and basically just having them enjoy/endure Dad’s insanely eclectic playlist that may or may not have been appropriate at all times. (I’ll say this: My daughter could sing the entirety of The Jam’s “Down In the Tube Station at Midnight” at age 10, so my work as a parent was pretty much over by then).
But somehow (forehead slap), I hadn’t turned them on to Prince. This was roughly two years ago (my kids were 11 and 13). In their world of streaming music they hadn’t even accidentally come across it. I swear I was — and let me borrow the only appropriate word for it — gobsmacked when I figured this out.
I had failed them.
After a series of, “Wait, what?” and “Really, are you sure?” moments, it was clear that they indeed had never heard him. I sat them down out in the living room. I did a little (okay, probably a lot) of backstory explanation of Prince and his place in history and that I’d seen him in a virtual living room once — trying to cover or make up for the fact that I had embarrassingly left him out of their musical upbringing.
Then I pondered what song to start with.
Hey, it’s not obvious! At least it wasn’t to me — hell, I hadn’t even burned a bunch of his music yet (foreign concept to them) and the CDs were in boxes. But the point is that this was a seminal moment: This was going to be their first time hearing Prince. Let’s not debate how that was even possible and just agree that it was my fault and I’m so sorry and let’s move on.
I played them “Let’s Go Crazy.”
Why? Because I wanted to see their faces after “Dearly beloved …” kicked in and that synth and the “can-I-get-a-witness” intro cascading into the trademark funk and circling back to the guitar solo (everything that said “Prince” to me). I followed it with “When Doves Cry” (totally and completely had them at that point) and then closed out the Dad-explains-Prince session with “Purple Rain.”
Yeah, it slayed them.
Look, like I said in the beginning, we can’t get it all perfect. They’re still woefully unfamiliar with his body of work. That’s on me. But I’m pretty sure, through the tears and through the speakers, I’m going to fix that tonight.