Prince’s Death Finally Made Me Understand Celebrity Mourning
When Robin Williams took his own life on August 11th, 2014, you would have thought that it was Mother Teresa who had died. Thanks in part to social media, the grief over Williams’ death seemed to take on a life of its own, quickly growing to levels that one could, without exaggeration, describe as mass hysteria.
But I just didn’t get it.
Oh, I thought Williams was perfectly funny, and his stage presence was always enjoyably erratic, but my computer screen was nearly weeping with all of the people losing their shit in the days following his suicide.
Such celebrity mourning was also evident with the recent deaths of British stage and screen legend Alan Rickman and androgynous rock lord David Bowie. Iconic talents to be sure, but the grief seemed a little much. After all, these celebrities were just that: celebrities. They weren’t your friends. They weren’t your family. They weren’t your neighbors.
Well, Prince’s death this week has finally made me understand what all the blubbering over celebrities is all about. I’m a wreck. The man may be gone, but he’s left behind an incredible catalog of music, and he’s also left me with plenty of memories. I had the pleasure of seeing Prince in concert several times, and I don’t think he played a single song the same way twice.
There was a ridiculously late wee-hours-of-the-morning concert (it didn’t start until almost 3 a.m.) with Chaka Khan and Larry Graham in New York, back during the peculiar period when Prince really wanted people to call him The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.
There was the time that he dirtied up the hallowed Academy of Music with his profane funk. I’m surprised that the chandelier didn’t come crashing to the ground in an act of Final Judgment.
And I made it to two of the three sold-out nights at was then called the Wachovia Center for Prince’s grandiose “Musicology” tour, named after his latest CD, which was given out for free at the show. It’s good that the disc was free, because it was really lousy. Even in our grief, we must be honest with ourselves: For every Prince hit, there were easily three Prince misses. In any event, the “Purple Rain” encore was as cathartic as one could imagine, especially from the front row, where Prince handed out a few Jehovah’s Witness tracts as he left the stage.
But my favorite Prince concert was a very last-minute surprise show at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby in 1997. The show was on a Tuesday night. I believe it was announced the previous Friday and went on sale on Monday. I managed to get tickets for $55 each from Sherry’s ticket agency on 15th Street.
My tickets were general admission — I think most, if not all, of the Tower was GA that night — and I arrived a little later than I had intended. So I wound up pretty deep in the line of fans waiting for the doors to open. But then a super-stretch limousine pulled slowly down 69th Street, and a purple-gloved hand slipped out of the slightly open rear window. Hundreds of folks from the line made a mad dash for the stretch, only to find that the gloved one inside was not Prince. Just a costumed superfan. Since I didn’t follow the flock of gullible fans, I moved way up in the line and got great seats as a result.
This was a big moment in Prince’s life, because he had recently gotten out of his contract with Warner Bros., a relationship that he once termed “professional slavery.” He repeatedly made note of his recent emancipation throughout the Tower show, at one point declaring, “Freedom is a beautiful thing.”
He played a blistering set that spanned much of his career, from “Raspberry Beret” to “Sexy M.F.,” but he avoided certain tunes because, he explained, they were still owned by Warner Bros. “If you don’t own your own masters,” he told the crowd, “then your masters, they own you.”
Like Prince’s career and life, the Tower show ranged from emotional and sincere (it was impossible not to get choked up during the warm rendition of “Purple Rain” he played that night) to that sorta silly brand of sexy that only Prince could pull off.
Who else could mount and hump a baby grand piano while singing “18 and over, I wanna bone ya” over and over again? He also asked the audience with his devilish grin, “Is your man fine? Has your man got an ass like mine?” Only Prince.
Also in attendance that night was Eric Bazilian. The founding member of The Hooters wasn’t there to play, though. He was just there to witness the spectacle known as Prince.
“We did a Hooters show with him in Switzerland that was bizarre,” remembers Bazilian. “All the reputation of his backstage rules was very true. Thou shall not look at the artist. You are not to speak to the artist. But he put on a ridiculous show, two-and-a-half or three hours. Then we were told to meet in the lobby that night at 11:30, and we went to a club in Zurich, where he walked in and played two more sets. He did not repeat a single song that night.”
Just months before the Tower show, Prince released a cover of “One of Us.” That Joan Osborne song was written by Bazilian, and in the weeks prior to the Tower show, Bazilian was told that Prince wanted to meet him. The face-to-face never materialized, and Bazilian went to the Tower performance like the rest of us. And what song did Prince play that night? Yep. “One of Us.”
“I had made my way to the proscenium at the Tower,” Bazilian recalls. “Prince started playing ‘One of Us’ and walked right up in front of me and played the guitar solo in the intro literally to me. It was otherworldly. He had no way of knowing who I was, but there he was playing and smiling at me. That’s the universe working in mysterious ways.”
Of the Tower show, Bazilian says that it was one of Prince’s best live performances.
“He was in a very good place musically,” observes Bazilian. “But then again, he always was. He was Prince, for Chrissake.”
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