As movie showings go, they rarely come more emotionally poignant than last night’s tribute screening of Purple Rain at the Brooklyn Bowl inside London’s O2 Arena. When news broke on Thursday evening that pop legend Prince had passed away at the age of 57, seismic shock reverberated through anyone with a passing interest in music. As an American artist with a huge UK fanbase, British fans were left bereft with nowhere to go to express their grief. Slowly though, venues across the country started to come to the rescue.
I count myself amongst the UK fandom. The only thing that tops my love of film is my love of music. Though my tastes are wide, there are two performers who are, by some considerable distance, my all-time favourite artists; Prince and Madonna. I’m what modern parlance calls a hardcore fan. They have soundtracked my life, the music I turn to during the bad times and the songs I turn up loud when life is good.
I was twelve when I was introduced to Prince. It was early 1993 and a friend was playing the Diamonds & Pearls album during lunchbreak. I instantly gravitated towards its funky grooves, smooth pop and guitar hooks. Taking a lend of the CD I played it nonstop for a week, before borrowing Hits 1 & 2 which covered the best cuts from the Purple One’s first decade. A twenty three year relationship was born. I could tell you a hundred different stories about Prince moments in my life, concerts attended, aftershows experienced, purple worn on my wedding day, boat party tribute nights, guitar and piano inspired to be learnt. Following his career so closely I was aware of his clean lifestyle and, apart from a recent touch of flu, his good health.
Returning home from a run Thursday evening my wife had to give me the news that Prince had died. I was in total disbelief. Unlike other pop superstars that passed in recent times there were no dubious lifestyle choices or ongoing illnesses to make his passing somewhat expected. Like many fans I felt the need to pay tribute somehow. When fellow mythic music star David Bowie passed earlier in the year fans gathered at his former London home. However there wasn’t an immediate answer for where Prince fans could go. The American fans had Paisley Park, Prince’s Graceland–like home or First Avenue the setting for Purple Rain; the UK fans were in limbo.
When it comes to London though there is one place that is the unofficial home of Prince; the O2 Arena. During the late nineties and early noughties the critics turned away from Prince. As he has always done, Prince continued to do his own thing musically and the fans followed. Experimental releases such as The Rainbow Children wowed fans but the hits remained untouched and the media took little notice. Cautiously, Prince turned back towards the mainstream, taking back his original popstar moniker ‘Prince’. He was welcomed back in to the fold by being offered the Super Bowl halftime show. What he delivered was the best halftime show seen to date, a fifteen minute blast of greatest hits and cover versions culminating in an unforgettable rendition of Purple Rain fittingly in the middle of a Miami monsoon.
After this world stage success, Prince eyed up the 20,000 capacity O2 Arena for an audacious 21 night residency. Critics questioned whether he could sell the nearly half a million tickets needed for that many nights; in the end he could have sold even more than that. Fans flocked in their thousands. Coupled with some dazzling late night aftershows at the arenas smaller 1,000 capacity Indigo2 venue, the 21 night run has has become legend amongst fans. As Prince proclaimed on many of the nights “This is my house now”; and Prince’s house the O2 Arena has remained. Despite the legends that followed in his footsteps at the venue, none have even come close to matching what he achieved there.
It was fitting then that the O2’s Brooklyn Bowl offered a free tribute night this Saturday; full credit and much thanks to the Bowl and their staff for doing so. Via Prince fandom central (www.prince.org) fellow fans who had met many times before exchanged invites and made their way to the capital for the 7pm start time. Once the football supporters and ELO fans left, the venue was ours. Automatic from the 1999 album started the night as fans took up barstools around tall tables, stood around the bar and mingled on the dancefloor sidelines. As attendance increased and the DJ played more Prince tracks, fans took to sitting on the dancefloor right in front of the large screen. Then just after 8pm the 1984 classic Purple Rain began.
Prince’s cinematic debut is not a perfect movie. Some of the acting is questionable and there are some troubling misogynistic undertones at times. But compared to all other rockstar forays on to the big screen it’s a masterpiece. As an advertisement for Prince’s onstage talent, whether singing across a nigh-on inhuman range, pulling off dance moves in high-heeled boots that not even former contemporary Michael Jackson would attempt, or playing guitar solos Hendrix would be proud of, it’s a work of genius.
The soundtrack often reaches the top twenty of ‘Greatest Albums of all Time’ lists, but unlike other great albums that feature a filler song or two (Any Colour You Like on Dark Side Of The Moon, The Girl Is Mine on Thriller) all of the nine tracks on Purple Rain are masterworks by virtue of being essential to the flow of the film’s plot. The cheesy comedy of Prince’s on and off stage rivals Morris and Jerome aside, the story is also surprisingly moving throughout. Prince as ‘The Kid’ has to contend with domestic violence via his father’s heavy hand, brought on by his own failed music career. His father eventually attempts suicide, shooting himself in the Kid’s basement bedroom.
The Kid contemplates his own fate and whether he will follow the same path, almost succumbing to his own suicidal thoughts, envisioning hanging himself from the rafters. Trashing the basement instead he discovers his father has in fact written down all of his own music, after earlier proclaiming not to have any record of it. It spurs the Kid on to the finale and his triumphant return to the First Avenue club where he has been having onstage pitch battles with rival funk band The Time; he dedicates new song ‘Purple Rain’ to his father.
There were more than a few tears in the Brooklyn Bowl during the climatic performance. Purple Rain received an ovation once everyone had dried their eyes, before I Would Die 4U and Baby I’m A Star got everyone on their feet. The dancefloor filled and the Bowl turned in to First Avenue in a marvellous interactive movie experience that saw the onscreen nightclub and the nightclub we were in merge in to one. After the film finished at 9.30pm a DJ took to the decks to play Prince hits until 12.30pm. We marvelled once again at just how many hits Prince has in his back catalogue, with three hours nowhere near enough time to fit them all in, let alone any of the hidden masterpiece album tracks, b-sides, cover version and remixes. The night was capped off with a showing of Prince’s Super Bowl halftime triumph.
Fans in attendance spanned all age ranges from teenagers to those in their sixties and upwards. Men and women, black and white, like Prince’s different backing bands across his career there were no boundaries and everyone was free to dance and sing however they wanted to. Fans swapped stories and shared ‘Purple Reign’ cocktails. Most commented on how sad the night was but at the same time how enjoyable and fantastic. For some it was a much needed experience, kick starting the healing process of losing an artist who had been part of their lives for so long. As one fan said to me ‘It’s not like I met the man, it’s not like I’ve lost a family member. But the grief feels that strong. His music has always been there and he’s always been on tour, available for us to go and see. I always thought I’d see him again on stage and he’d continue bringing us great music as I got older. That won’t happen now.’
As we left the venue we walked back past the Indigo2 where Prince enthralled so many fans in 2007. On the final night of the 21 night stand, 21st September, he played the main arena to 20,000 from 8.30pm to 11.10pm, including two encores. He then returned to the smaller stage in the Indigo2 at 1.10am. He played on to 4.00am. After two encores I turned to the fellow Prince aficionado stood beside me and proclaimed that was probably it. The fan thought otherwise and advised staying put; ‘In Prince’s world expect the unexpected’ he smiled. And so it was at 4.05am Prince returned to the stage for a third encore, playing on to 4.35am. Like us, he didn’t want that summer to end, he didn’t want to leave the stage and go home. Neither did we; the sun was coming up by the time we left the arena. I sometimes wish I’d have captured the moment on camera, but as Prince said to his audiences during those shows ‘No mobile phones please. These shows are for your memories.’ And what memories they are; it’s just a sad thought right now that he won’t be here to make anymore for us.