Prince performing at the 2007 Super Bowl. Image via NFL
Untapped Cities writer Laurie Gwen Shapiro, whose book “The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica,” will be released on January 16, 2018, shares with us a Prince memory on the release of the new remastered album of Prince’s Purple Rain.
Dearly Beloved Untapped Cities readers, Warner Bros has finally dropped its remastered album of Purple Rain sweetened with unreleased songs found in Paisley Park’s vaults. Extra excitement is for the rarely seen bonus full-length concert film on DVD, a multi-course extravaganza recorded my freshman year of college at Syracuse University in the Carrier Dome. Filmed on March 30, 1985, it was the first American performance to be broadcast live on European television via the Eurovision network. In celebration of this digital release I probed my deepest 1980’s memories and bugged my now middle-aged college pals to help recall this spellbinding concert we were lucky enough to experience.
In the past decade it has very difficult to find this legendary concert film in the United States that was later released in the 1991 as “Prince and the Revolution Live!” on VHS only. If you watch the film — and I swear this is true — I am the person the cameras flashes on first in a venue that holds 40,000 plus, and I am making a rather ridiculous orgiastic face for the ages. To understand how I was the beneficiary of such dumb luck, and the greatness of Prince’s performance, let’s go back to 1985 when the internet was yet to come.
The remastered album of Prince’s Purple Rain. Image via Amazon
I’m not quite sure what week the tickets went on sale for the concert, but it’s safe to say in Syracuse, New York, it was a cold one. Rodney Yancey, who often sat with me in Kimmel Dining Hall, was funny and wiry and fit like Prince, and wore heavy cologne that greatly bothered some of the other boys on our floor. Rodney never hid his sexuality, which was a bold thing to do in 1985, a year well after sexual liberation, but smack in the height of overblown fears about catching AIDS just by being on a toilet used by a gay man.
Rodney appreciated his allies on the floor, who were mostly girls. I let Rodney borrow my purple and black unisex Culture Club frock he was fond of, which I had at bought my junior year of high school at Canal Jeans back when Culture Club ruled the airwaves. Rodney wore it to a big architecture department ball modeled after the 1927 silent film Metropolis. My floormate Cath Willmott expertly did Rodney’s eye makeup.
Blue-eyed Cath, away from her turtle-necked Marblehead, Massachusetts preppy high school crowd was herself experimenting with a punk look modeled after Siouxsie Sioux. But she was not nearly obsessed with Siouxsie as Rodney was with Prince, and it did not go unnoticed by both of us that after a makeover he looked eerily like his idol too, and he approved the compliment. Beyond resemblance, Rodney had deep reasons for loving him. He, like Prince, was biracial, and the musician was a true role model for him. Prince, he knew, was above all this dividing people by sex, religion, race, or sexuality.
I liked Prince well enough from the radio, but I had never seen him live, and back then I wasn’t that big of a Prince fan to sleep out in ghastly Syracuse weather for tickets. But with cockeyed optimism Rodney decided he would camp out for days before the tickets went on sale — he wanted the best seat in the house — any bad grades be damned.
Rodney’s return to my dorm floor was a triumph. Frozen and unshaven, he called a select few of us into his room, and shut the door. He looked a touch coy delivering the news, just like Prince flashing his famous devilish grin. Our resident Prince fanatic had secured the very first eight tickets (!). He was only giving four first row and four second row tickets at cost to people who had been nice to him the first semester of school, greatly pissing off the not-so-lucky on our floor.
In gathering my dusty thoughts on this concert over 30 years ago, I decided to see what other friends remembered too, so of course I pinged my closest college friend Lynn Hempel, now a sociology professor at Colorado State. How did she get great seats? We barely knew each other my first year, although she lived in my dorm on another floor. After picking up her teen boys from high school, Lynn pinged me back. “Unlike you, I waited in line for $17.50 tickets. It was so very cold and a campus security officer I had worked with as a Resident Advisor earlier that year (there was an attempted rape on my floor) saw me in line and came back a little later with a big cup of hot chocolate for me.”
Another former Syracuse student who lucked out with good tickets was one-day media exec Tyrone Fripp.
After a day to think Tyrone emailed me his best memories, “The funny thing about sleeping out for Prince concert tickets was that I wasn’t even that big of a Prince fan at the time. I had loved his song Controversy from an earlier album and had even hung the poster that came with the album on my closet wall. It was of him in a thong and a raincoat in the shower. Provocative and unusual for a teenage boy to have in his closet, but there it was. Anyway, I was so swept up in all the Prince-mania, that I decided I wanted to be part of something. I was only 16 when I went to college, and spent a great deal of my time feeling out of step with everything. I was too young to drink even though in 1985 the legal drinking age was 18, and I wasn’t in a Greek organization, and I never felt like I fit in anywhere. So, when my roommate invited me to sleep out on “M Street” to get tickets, I jumped at the chance to be part of something big. To share in the excitement and the enthusiasm that had swept the campus. Seeing Prince in concert was beside the point. Feeling like I finally fit in somewhere WAS the point.”
And then after all the waiting it was suddenly March 30, Prince in Person Day.
Rodney led our group of eight into the Dome, more than one of us wearing lace gloves, and we proudly headed closer and closer through the crush of concertgoers watching jaws drop until we were in the fucking front row. I sat two seats away from Rodney. A guy producer from the Eurovision crew came up to me and whispered, “I like your smile.” He gave me a sign someone on his team had created to hold – WE LOVE YOU, PRINCE. (All the front row signs in the film were given to concertgoers to hold up). “Will you smile when we film, and look amazed? I assure you that will get you in the recording.” I did as asked. But truthfully, I would have screamed anyway. I thought I was doing the producer a favor, but I had no idea what amazingness I was in for.
Prince performing at the Carrier Dome in 1985.
Music executive Jonathan Palmer was then a journalism major who was often the de facto music critic for our campus paper The Daily Orange, so it is not surprising that he is the most precise in his recall: “The show arrived and we were all in the house well before the lights went down. Sheila E opened, and slayed with her high energy, aggressive sexuality, and unparalleled prowess on the timbales. She brought a volunteer onstage for a lap dance at one point, setting our teenaged brains (and other things) on fire. For that, I repaid her by buying a sleeveless souvenir t-shirt at the merch booth at intermission. Sleeveless!”
Then – just a voice that sent a frisson through the Dome.
‘Hello, Syracuse. My name is Prince and I’ve come to play with you.’
I can remember how he radiated from the stage in those first few minutes and how my heart pounded with a never-before felt excitement that was not unlike a first sexual experience. But truthfully I was so overwhelmed by what I was experiencing in that moment that I get a little fuzzy with the actual songs, and again here my old friends helped me out with more specificity:
Jonathan Palmer: “Prince took the stage after what seemed like an hour-long wait. And it was like a bomb going off onstage. At the close of their opening salvo “Let’s Go Crazy,” a seemingly endless supply of purple tambourines was launched into the audience. To this day, I’m still puzzled as to how not one of us in our group of ten or so friends didn’t end up with one (and equally puzzled how none of these musical projectiles didn’t lacerate any of those in the front rows).”
Musician and actor John Carlin: “Pandemonium. Beam of light on the stage, all eyes upon it. ‘Dearly beloved…we are gathered here today to get this thing called life.’ He rises. The girls we were just talking to have become rabid animals, guttural screams and squawks, bodies in full-limbed frenzy. ‘Oh my god!! I wanna fuck youuuuu!!'”
Jonathan Palmer: The show leaned heavily on the by-then juggernaut album, and Prince brought Sheila E. back onstage, along with Apollonia 6. Insane dance moves that we had to that point only seen from the likes of James Brown. Incredible, palpable camaraderie between him and the members of the Revolution, particularly with his guitar hero counterpart and foil Wendy Melvoin.”
Cath Willmott: “I remember being in awe with the fact that you and me and Rodney were so close to the stage that you could see how really tiny Prince was and that he had either a bad case of back acne or freckles.”
John Carlin: “And when he sang Darling Nikki in the suspended bathtub, hoo boy.” (John also recalled the 20-minute finale of Purple Rain, which featured a ten-minute scintillating guitar solo.) “He ended by ejaculating over the crowd from his guitar atop these huge speakers, actually spraying some whitish liquid 30-40 yards in these long arcs onto a grateful audience.”
A review of the Carrier Dome performance.
Jonathan Palmer: “By the time they finished a towering 20 minute rendition of “Purple Rain,” featuring what is probably the best single guitar solo I’ve ever witnessed in the flesh, most of the crowd would have let Prince do anything with them that he wished. What Prince did to us, and for us, was the best gift of all. I got to see him a couple of times, years later. The band was always astounding, and Sheila opened one of those shows, a flashback to that amazing night. But the coolest thing about that show was to get to see Prince with his truest BAND, the Revolution. I don’t think enough fans truly recognize how special that moment was. That was the band that built “Purple Rain,” after all. They also delivered the excellent “Around the World In a Day,” which OF COURSE paled in comparison to its predecessor. Maybe that was why he moved on to other collaborators after that. I waited for years for him to reunite with that original killer band. He never got the chance. At least we got to see it that one time, and now, we can revisit it again and again.”
Lynn Hempel: “The youthful joy of it all! I remember finding Prince to be soooo incredibly sexy. The whole concert being in a wash of purple light. One song after another being over the top great. That Prince had back acne. That Prince was soooooo very, very sexy in that fuck you, confident, I’m-a-god-here-to-spread-joy-and-delight-among-you-mortals way. Purple Rain at the very, very end, and the feeling of connectedness with everyone.”
My own final memory of the days that followed the concert was the strong joy of savoring the performance. Maybe the tangle of uncertainty lay ahead, but a wonderful thing had happened — never were my classmates more united. Our campus matured (if just a little) through communal experience of witnessing the most talented man in the universe on stage. Prince knew a better world, and he had shown us the way.
*Update: Just before publication, I virtually reunited with Rodney Yancey after 32 years. He messaged me after reading the piece:
“Tell Jonathan Palmer I did get a purple tambourine and I still have it, along with a drumstick that Sheila E. threw out. Love the group picture. I remember everyone like it was yesterday.”
Next, check out 10 Tributes to Prince in NYC.