Prince and the Sweet Smell of Success

Maybe you can bottle genius and sell it in a store

5:00 p.m. Saturday, July 7, Macy's Auditorium, Minneapolis

If we all look alike to outsiders, we parka-wearers of the plains, if we seem white-bread and seatbelt-safe and exasperatingly insular and predictable, inside we are alive with quirks and kinks and liquid deviance. Garrison Keillor reps us to the world as cautious creatures with all the creativity and sex appeal of a band of hobbits. And maybe that's not as unfair as we might feel.

There are wild and fantastic places that actually deserve to claim Prince as their own—New Orleans, or Machu Picchu, or Oz, for instance. But nobody needs his particular reflected glory more than Minnesotans. There is not another state in the union where foppish androgyny, orgasmic howls, and molten creative genius can do as much good.

Prince: Nothing Compares 2 Eau
Nick Vlcek
Prince: Nothing Compares 2 Eau

To wit, as a sensible person (or someone who at least owns a sensible pair of shoes), I can't imagine Prince is too personally involved in this whole 3121 fragrance thing—the nominal purpose for his one-night stand. That said, I'm not arrogant enough to think I understand the inner workings of genius. In about a week, the link between Prince's three-concert blowout and his promotional obligations for his new perfume will be totally forgotten.

What will remain? The prospect of seeing Prince at First Avenue for the first time in 20 years has people in hysterics. They are sleeping on the sidewalks, roasting in the sun, anything to get that ticket. But aside from his special connection with the venue, will anything about the show separate it from the two-a-night gigs he's been playing in Las Vegas and Los Angeles?

The perfume launch at Macy's in downtown Minneapolis is short but glamorous and otherworldly, not unlike Victoria Beckham. Of course it sells out, of course it starts late—that's to be expected. But who would have guessed that Alejandro Escovedo's niece would be here, with her pink-rose-printed timbales?

Sheila E. and Prince are both 49 years old—Lady Bathory should have aged so well—and the grown and sexy take the stage together and let loose with "3121," "Girls and Boys," and "Glamorous Life."

They kill it on "Take Me With U," but "Let's Go Crazy," the finale, is the thriller, as the Kid pours all the spark and clamor of his eight-piece band into an explosion.

At the end, Prince turns around, stretches out his arms, and throws his weight backward—a stage dive crossed with a trust fall. Earlier, he'd pitched his guitar into the two feet of space in front of the audience (a stagehand had been lurking right there to catch it) and the abrupt recklessness of that move made me gasp in fear. But there was nothing alarming in watching Prince descend into the crowd.

I couldn't imagine any ill effects from having Prince land on me. First, he's a flyweight. Second, he's a creature of magic and radiance. It's likely that if you broke his fall, some of his energy would transfer into you and you'd walk away with special kissing powers that could heal broken souls and make Dick Cheney spill secrets.

After the show I chat up the hulk who caught him, Justino Lapuz. "He totally smelled like the perfume, it was like a cloud of it was everywhere," he confirms. Lapuz and his girlfriend are Prince superfans who've seen 100 shows; they flew in from Alameda, California, to catch this one. There's nothing abnormally cool about them, but their normalcy reminds you to take pity on the thousands of couples who have truly and tragically unsexy hobbies, like assembling valuable cellars with obscure Napa garage wines.

10:00 p.m. Target Center

When Prince opens with "Purple Rain," it's as if he's popped the question on the first date. Even if the answer is Yes! Yes! Yes!, it's impossible to maintain that initial euphoria during subsequent trysts. And since I just heard follow-ups "Take Me With U" and "Guitar" a few hours ago, I take this time to contemplate how weird it is that, 20 years after "Darling Nikki," Prince is the one with the moral hang-ups, and Tipper is the one with the pothead son.

The Target Center appears to be at capacity, with 15,000 hearts beating faster at the sight of the strutting, preening man in the lipstick-pink suit. Prince invites a bunch of audience members onstage to dance. It's a feel-good moment, but I don't turn to Prince to feel good—I turn to him to feel weird, to feel simultaneously unhinged and aroused.

The mud-clear mix at the Target Center isn't helping any—red-hot brass, cool blue guitar, and golden-throated passion are all bleeding into each other. Besides his three-piece brass section, two keyboardists, bass player, drummer Cora Coleman-Dunham, and backup singer Shelby J, he has a set of twins performing athletic stripper moves. At least I can hear him loud and clear when he asks, "Have you ever seen a black man with a church hat on?" I'd noticed an extra-fancy gleaming white bonnet onstage at the Macy's show and sort of assumed it was some sort of good-luck totem. But one of his keyboardists puts on the crazy chapeau as Prince tears into "Satisfied."

He's full of lewd promises and filthy panting, his voice twisted into a compressed falsetto. Prince has chronic bedroom eyes, a condition that I imagine causes many embarrassing moments at the morning breakfast table. I bet he looks at his ladyfriend with those coy peepers and asks her to pass the non-dairy creamer, and she misunderstands and starts disrobing, so that he has to be all, "Um, I'm sorry, I really did just mean...um, it's just that the Splenda is on the other side of you, if you could...?"

Then Wendy, of Wendy-and-Lisa fame, comes out to play a few songs. The rest of the band takes a break while the two of them touch briefly on a string of Prince and the Revolution-era hits. All of a sudden, everything is so much crisper, and you realize the muting effect all the extra instrumentation has on the emotional directness of the songs. He sings the first verse of "Little Red Corvette," and it's far more wistful and yearning than I remembered. They bounce into "Raspberry Beret," and then stop short a few bars into the next number.

"Ya'll don't know this—it ain't out yet. You'll be bootlegging," he accuses playfully. "Okay, we'll do a different version."

What a control freak. As if this teasing isn't enough, he keens his way through 30 seconds' worth of the heartbreakingly melancholy "Sometimes It Snows in April" and abandons that, as well. Doesn't he want to make me cry? I want him to.

2:45 a.m. Sunday, First Avenue

For accuracy's sake, I'd like to see the Freakonomics guys do an assessment of the true cost of First Avenue afterparty tickets. How much value do you assign to every scorching hour spent sitting on a sidewalk? How much is it worth when you have to stand in line again at midnight and then slowly wilt inside the club for another few hours?

But for the true believers, this kind of calculus misses the point: The orbital convergence of the Kid and First Avenue is a rare celestial phenomenon that might not be repeated and therefore cannot be missed.

I can't imagine backup singer Shelby J relishes singing an Amy Winehouse cover to a crowd panting for "Purple Rain." But given the possibility that 1,500 innocent souls might have been electrocuted if exposed to the weeping-angels guitar solo, it's probably for the best that Prince doesn't play it. But "Controversy" brings a moment of total transcendent rightness, as does the homestretch medley with Sly & the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham.

While getting some fresh air during an extended instrumental jam, I hear a host of rumors: Steve Jobs is on the guest list. Sandra Bullock and Elvis Costello are hanging out in the VIP lounge. The police are about to shut down the show.

Multiple sources confirm that last, and the night ends without the wished-for revue of beloved Prince hits. But before he leaves, he looks out at the brimming house and declares, "I'll be back. I promise U."

I say we trust the man.

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