The massive double doors in the white wall parted, and then, amid a cloud of stage fog, Prince emerged onstage. This wasn’t his usual stage at Paisley Park but rather a small platform, off to the side, dominated by a purple baby grand piano.
The music began with some ethereal synthesized strings, and Prince played a single chord on the piano. Then stopped. And walked away.
“My only mission is to make you cry,” he offered. “Happy tears of joy. Electrify. Who, whatever, whenever. Wherever they dare to go.”
For the next 90 minutes, Prince proceeded to explain himself as he’d never done before. Not in any interview. Not in any song. Maybe not even to his wife. Or closest friend, if he ever had one.
This was billed as the opening night of his Piano and a Microphone Tour. Just Prince, his purple baby grand and a vocal mike.
It was an extraordinary moment — his greatest Twin Cities performance since the Purple Rain Tour in December 1984 — in what would be an extraordinary year for Prince, a year in which he dominated Minnesota’s cultural landscape in life and in death.
His passing fueled an insatiable curiosity about his life, music, religion, business, lifestyle, health, doctors, drug use, death, estate, associates, relatives, ex-wives, ex-musicians and ex-girlfriends. There was endless speculation and unsubstantiated information. Hardly a week has passed without a headline about him.
But what’s indelible is that 22-degree night Jan. 21 at Paisley Park.
In his most personal and revealing performance ever, Prince explained his relationship with music, with the piano and with his dad, a part-time jazz pianist who wouldn’t allow the youngster to play the precious instrument. Of course, when Dad wasn’t around, the kid who couldn’t reach the piano pedals taught himself how to play.
Prince demonstrated how he wrote his first song, recalling chords he tried but thought were wrong. He covered tunes that he loved by Joni Mitchell, Smokey Robinson and others. He gave shoutouts to people who were important in his early career, such as Twin Cities R&B DJs Pharoah Black and Jack Harris. He talked about auditioning keyboardist Lisa Coleman for his band and her writing “Raspberry Beret” with him.
And Prince being Prince, he philosophized about life: “We hear a lot of talk about freedom because when you have the right to make up your own mind, then you can choose to say no sometimes. It’s a powerful word when it’s used properly.”
And he philosophized about music: “The space in between the notes … mmmm … that’s the good part. However long the space is, that’s how funky it is — or how funky it ain’t.”
Solo. Confessional. Unguardedly open. The night was a thrilling glimpse into his genius — Prince unplugged, minus all the razzle and dazzle, with his original instrument, the piano. The fact that he was going to take his solo act around the world was an exciting prospect. Music lovers would be able to appreciate him simply for his superlative musical talents without being overwhelmed by his breathtaking showmanship or colorful staging.
Did he make this decision for artistic reasons? Economic reasons? Health reasons? Did he see this as one more — or perhaps last — chance to commune with his fans?
Whatever his motivation, Prince was setting himself up for a special year. He played solo shows in Australia and New Zealand, Montreal and Toronto, Oakland and Atlanta. St. Louis was next. But his sudden death April 21 was like a sucker punch from Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven, which had already claimed David Bowie, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and country giant Merle Haggard earlier in the year. But it was no secret that those three were ill.
Who knew about Prince and his health? All we know for certain is how much the world loved him and his music. The day he died, the world was lit purple — the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, San Francisco City Hall, New Orleans’ Superdome, the High Roller ride in Las Vegas, the Chicago skyline, on and on.
In death, Prince became bigger than he had been in life, except maybe when he exploded with the movie “Purple Rain” in 1984. Maybe people in the Twin Cities took him for granted, that eccentric, flamboyantly dressed little guy who showed up at Timberwolves and Lynx games, whom you could see perform at Paisley Park late at night on many a weekend. Did you ever bother to go? Or did you take it for granted that you could catch him another time?
His death was like his life. Dramatic, mysterious, unexpected. He gave us a fabulous solo show, gave us a scare with an emergency plane landing and then told us: “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.”
It’s been 255 days since he made that statement, and we’re still praying.