For me, September 18, 1988, was a night that was 10 years in the making and one that I will never forget. I discovered Prince in the summer of 1978 when on a whim, I traded my 45 of The Jackson 5’s “Dancing Machine” to a friend for his eight-track copy of Prince’s debut album For You.
I knew absolutely nothing about Prince, whose album had only been out a few months. But I was simply mesmerized by the album cover. “Who was this dude?” I asked myself, “and how can he look so mysterious, yet so cool?” Moreover, my parents had just bought a new eight-track stereo and I figured this was my chance to break it in.
I played the album from beginning to end. After hearing its exquisite a capella harmonies on the brief, yet awe-inspiring title track to the dynamic drums and blistering guitar work of the finale “I’m Yours” (and everything in between), I was entranced. I hadn’t heard a lot of music during my young life, but I’d certainly never heard anything like this. From that moment on, Prince was my guy.
By the time I was 12 — and in my mind old enough to attend my first concert — the 1999 Tour was making its way across the Midwest. In my hometown of South Bend, Indiana, some of the bigger touring acts would occasionally play the Notre Dame ACC, but you generally had to drive to Chicago or Indianapolis to catch a concert of any note.
However, the 1999 Tour would swing even closer with scheduled stops at both the Genesis Center in nearby Gary as well as Kalamazoo’s Wings Stadium.
Unfortunately, my parents did not agree that I was old enough to see a concert, much less a Prince concert, as they’d heard from others about the salacious material on 1999. Of course, unbeknownst to them, I often borrowed Prince’s vinyl discs Dirty Mind and Controversy from a teenager down the block and simply hid them in the sleeves of other albums I owned at the time such as Earth, Wind and Fire’s Raise and Kool and The Gang’s Something Special.
The music and imagery from Dirty Mind alone would have undoubtedly shocked them and placed my entire Prince collection at risk. So, not wanting to cause any additional waves, I abandoned my protest at not getting to witness Prince live in 1982 or 1983.
When Purple Rain arrived in theatres in July of 1984, it showcased Prince’s fabled talent as a live performer that so many of us youngsters had yet to truly experience. Still, as Greg Tate of The Village Voice would later note in rather colorful prose, those going “gaga” over Purple Rain who hadn’t witnessed Prince live hadn’t seen “sh*t.”
The Purple Rain Tour eventually came and went, and again, I had to settle for watching Prince videos on MTV and ultimately, the home video release “Prince and The Revolution: Live,” which featured one of the final Purple Rain concerts. And although it was brilliant, it was still not like being there in person.
Then, there I was in September of 1988 — 17 years old and three weeks into my senior year of high school — waiting to board a fan bus sponsored by a local record store for the ride to Chicago’s Rosemont Horizon and Prince’s second stop on the North American leg of the Lovesexy Tour.
Aside from the “Hit n Run” shows of 1986 and a handful of local gigs in ’86 and ’87, Prince had not properly toured the U.S. since the Purple Rain Tour; he spent three consecutive summers in Europe instead. Now, after two hometown gigs at Bloomington’s Met Center, Lovesexy was in Chicago for a three-night stand; the second of which was the show I saw.
Nearly thirty years later, it remains one of the most thrilling experiences of my entire life. Prince took us to church that night, as he did with everyone on that 44-city tour across three continents.
Over the next two decades, I saw Prince perform live on dozens of occasions in at least a dozen different cities. I saw many shows from several eras, the only constant being is that I never left disappointed. Prince delivered every single night, whether he was in an arena, theatre, small club, somewhere outside, or at one of his impromptu gigs at Paisley Park.
Scores of his fellow artists have called Prince the greatest live performer of his generation if not of all time, including Bruce Springsteen to whom some have gifted the same label. That said, I believe that Paul Westerberg (a local legend himself) said it better than anyone else possibly could have when describing the first time he saw Prince live in the early 1980s: “[Another musician] turned to me and said ‘I’m f*#%ing embarrassed to be alive.’ And that’s how I felt. He was so good. It was like, ‘What are we doing? This guy is on a different planet than we are.’
“It was showmanship, it was rock & roll, it was fun, it was great… He’d play Jimi Hendrix-style, between his legs and behind his back. And then he’d do the splits. He could put the guitar down, and Jimi would become James Brown. He could hold the crowd like Mick Jagger, but could Mick Jagger play the piano like that?”
Mind you, again, this was in the early days. Prince’s live shows only got better in time.
Tony Kiene’s experience in the Twin Cities nonprofit and entertainment industries includes work with Minneapolis Urban League, Penumbra Theatre, Hallie Q. Brown, and Pepé Music.
He welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.