October of 1981 – a city of people, 100,000 they say, crowded into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Rolling Stones and their Tattoo You tour. The opening acts were the kind you’d expect – George Thorogood…J. Geils Band…but the very first artist to come up was an exception; a funky dude named Prince who had only really one radio hit at that point, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” – a strong, danceable tune with some disco overtones which would only hint at what was to come. And what was to come was more than hinted at when The Artist that took the stage that day in L.A. with a very different, more confident strut. This guy was ready to show a sea of people something they had never experienced before.
My memory is telling me that the Stones hand-picked him as the opening act for this show, which doesn’t surprise me. Mick, Keith and the boys were always open to new sounds from new artists and it makes sense that Prince’s unique vision, expert musicianship and flamboyant stage presence would appeal to their renegade sensibilities. The crowd, though, was less receptive. They were there to rock…and this strangely androgynous, funk-meets-Hendrix enigma that came on stage was…well…too weird. The music wasn’t the straight-ahead blues-rock of Lonesome George, J. Geils or the Stones. The lyrics were provocative and explicit. The antics onstage – well, let’s just say they had never seen anyone be quite that intimate with a guitar neck before. Prince only made it through 5 songs before he left in a bit of a huff. Yes…this was that Prince set; the notorious one where objects were thrown – I want to say at least one can or bottle, a shoe or two – and the boos were loud and vehement. Prince had NOT won over this crowd.
Well, that is except for my college roommate Pete and I. We had raced through our classes at USC, just a couple of blocks over (I earned a very substandard C+ on my Oceanography quiz due to the excitement and distraction of getting to the venue early). About 3 songs in to Prince’s set we leaned in to each other and compared notes; Pete: “I actually thought that was pretty damn good!” Me: “I know, me too!” Pete: “Why are all these people so mad? ”Me: “I don’t know…!”
I can honestly say the rest of the show was just okay. After a while all of Thorogood’s tunes sounded the same. The attempt at riling up the crowd with their extended jams earned J. Geils some cheers. And the Stones were the Stones. But the most memorable moment of the day was the intriguing, mysterious and truly mind-blowing force of nature that blew through 5 crazy, funkified tunes the likes of which I had never heard. I went and bought the “Controversy” album the next day and, of course, by the time “1999” came out I was totally in.
I’d be willing to bet some of the same goofballs who booed and threw stuff are now, today, saying “I was there! I saw him open for the Stones!” with giddy pride. And that’s okay. Because that’s Prince – he challenged, he surprised, he broke the mold and he changed what people believed music should be. Even when it was hard and he was misunderstood and told in no uncertain terms that he didn’t fit, whether it was a record exec or a crowd of 99,998 Stones fans. Prince proved that being small, weird, quiet and honest didn’t mean you still couldn’t be big, cool, loud and crazy. And brilliant.
RIP Prince Rogers Nelson. Long Live Prince.