The first time I saw Prince live, I didn’t really want to go.
It was 2004, and the Musicology tour was hitting Los Angeles. The show had received plenty of press — the in-the-round stage setup, the fact that Prince was giving out CDs of the album along with tickets — but it wasn't something I was really keeping tabs on. I knew Prince's hits, of course, and his virtuosity was legend, but I didn't consider myself a fan. But somehow, one of my good friends ended up with 10th row tickets the day of the show, and after my boss heard I had the chance to go, she basically told me I could rush down to Staples Center, or get fired.
Describing what it was like to see Prince live is near-impossible; an inherently reductive exercise that at its very best can only give a vague impression of the full experience, but a number of thoughts ran through my head that first show. The impeccable tightness and interplay between the man and his band; the showmanship, as Prince peacocked across the stage in all his purple glory; and then the guitar work itself.
I’d grown up on the blues-infused rock of guys like Jimmy Page and Slash, a type of playing with a specific swagger and woozy, boozy expressiveness. Prince was a different type of guitarist entirely, moving effortlessly from the searing leads of "Let’s Go Crazy" to the funk licks of "Kiss." But it wasn’t just watching somebody that had mastered the instrument they were playing (or in Prince’s case, the instrument he happened to be playing at the time). It was watching somebody that was able to reach through that instrument and connect with the audience directly; an electric combination of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown that moved the audience’s hearts and hips through sheer will.
His inexplicable range seemingly expanded as he moved to a run of solo acoustic songs in the middle of the set, transforming hits like "Raspberry Beret" and "Little Red Corvette," before finally moving to frequent closer "Purple Rain." That song’s earnest pleading and yearning guitar nearly moved me to tears that night, and I left the show amazed and transformed, telling everybody I knew that Prince was the most incredible guitar player I’d ever seen.
Anybody that had seem him live already knew.
In one performance, Prince had transformed me from someone who knew him more for his name changes and odd outbursts into one that recognized him as one of our most vital living artists at the time. While his numerous albums after that point were largely hit or miss, his towering presence as a performer only grew. In 2007, he braved a rainy stage to unleash what, in my mind, is the best Super Bowl halftime show we’ve ever seen, turning what is largely a drudgery of desperate commercialism and overdone stage design into something unforgettable. If you haven’t seen it before, give it a watch to see how he lends gravitas to the Foo Fighters’ "Best of You," before swapping out his Stratocaster for his symbol-shaped guitar and leveling the field with "Purple Rain" (sneaking some of the most phallic imagery imaginable onto prime-time television in the process). Prince didn’t play during the Super Bowl XLI halftime show; Super Bowl XLI played around him.
And that’s the way it was with Prince, so consistently transcendent that he somehow became easy to take for granted. When he played a 21-show run at the Inglewood Forum in 2011, everyone I knew in Los Angeles took the opportunity to check out at least one show. I saw four, and every night was a completely unique experience with different songs, guests, costume changes — and even more importantly, encores than ran later into the night. One night, those of us that stayed long after the house lights came on were treated to Prince in a yellow jumpsuit performing another song for the crowd. On the night of Stevie Wonder’s birthday, the older performer showed up for a rendition of "Superstition," with Prince playing bass in the background, grinning from ear to ear.
Even at 52 his energy was boundless; his features seemingly frozen in time, Dorian Grey-style. I may have missed his early career, back when he toured clubs and was fond of breaking out the splits, but I did have the chance to see him many times — and I think it’s safe to say that age was never a factor for Prince. He was always in his prime when he took the stage, no matter the year.
And that’s why I’m sitting here, typing these words while listening to "Purple Rain," and rubbing my eyes every couple minutes because my vision is getting a little swimmy. There’s a voice and an ability to move people that’s gone today. Genre, controversy, names changes, and label fights: none of that ultimately matters in the big-picture legacy of Prince. What matters is that he was an artist, flawed as any human being, who was able to walk into a recording studio or step onto a stage with his guitar, and connect with people. Not just for a dance-party good time, though he did that — but to connect with them emotionally. The confetti cannon conclusion of his "Purple Rain" performances only worked because the song became pure catharsis, a shared expression of emotional yearning and regret, and in retrospect the end to a story Prince was often telling in his live shows. Sex, fun, good times; they’re great. But we all want to connect with other people, and we feel nothing but sadness when the chance to do that has passed us by.