The first time I saw Prince perform live, it was Christmas Eve, 1984 at the St. Paul Civic Center in St. Paul, Minn. It was his Purple Rain tour and I was already a rabid fan at age 9—albeit mildly scandalized watching my icon dry hump one of the many massive amps on stage (before leaping off of it and landing in a flawless split). Even at that age, I understood that I was seeing one of the greatest performers in history remind his hometown audience (Prince and I both hail from St. Paul’s twin city, Minneapolis) that he was perhaps its greatest export.
Almost 35 years later, I found myself with a similar sense of wonder and hometown pride at New York City’s historic Town Hall on Monday night, as fans, friends, and protégés of Prince converged to celebrate the release of his recently released memoir, The Beautiful Ones.
To call Prince: The Beautiful Ones – A Celebration of his Memoir, Life and Art a tribute concert would be like calling the New Power Generation a cover band—or the audience at the Town Hall on Monday night simply “fans” (because trust, these were superfans). The musician was both an innovator with a deep reverence for the past and possessing an almost preternatural lens on the future.
Never was this more evident than in the performance’s opening, which began not with a Prince song but a cluster of African drummers providing several minutes of searing syncopated rhythms that eventually segued into “When Doves Cry.” Later, New Orleans-style brass band the Brasskickers would strut down the aisles of the theater, crafting an unexpected intro for rapper/singer Mumu Fresh as she took the stage to perform one of the Purple One’s lesser-known hits, “DMSR,” which appropriately ended with a dirge.
The message? Prince’s music, unlike anything we’d heard before his emergence onto the music scene in the late ’70s, was always rooted in the black American musical tradition, building upon it for future generations.
Building for future generations was one of the main focuses of Prince’s life, as well. Though one of the most famous and prolific musicians in the world, his philanthropy often went unknown, performed anonymously and only to be revealed by friends and beneficiaries after his death. For instance, few know that Prince was one of the people that made Spike Lee’s X possible—the famed filmmaker shared that the musician joined fellow backers like Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Michael Jordan in writing checks to ensure that Lee could finish what many consider to be his magnum opus, as well as the most accurate portrayal to date of famed human rights leader Malcolm X.
Another recipient of Prince’s largely unsung generosity? Harlem Children’s Zone, which received a $1 million donation from the Purple One after impressing him from afar with their programming, which serves over 14,000 underserved youths in central Harlem, and was the beneficiary of the proceeds from Monday night’s event.
But it was the release of Prince’s memoir—a project many assumed would die with him—that brought his “dearly beloved” to the Town Hall on a rainy night (it was too dark to tell if it was “Purple Rain”), as well as a longing for both closure on his untimely death and tangible evidence of the continuation of his legacy. A reflective Greg Tate chronicled the megastar’s incredible career in an extensive and poetic eulogy, while a surprisingly hilarious memoir co-author Dan Piepenbring shared stories from Prince’s final months, as the two prepared to write the book the musician believed would be the first of many, but was ultimately likely also his last (because who knows what other legal pads full of notes are waiting to be discovered).
Through it all, what was evident was that though Prince has left this earthly plane, his spirit was definitely in the building on Monday night, and with us whenever and wherever we hear his music. The man we thought might outlive us all may have left us to tell his incredible tale, but when the elevator tries to take us down, we’re still encouraged to “go crazy—punch a higher floor.”