[3 June 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Punks loved Prince.
We really did. Sure, we were a minor blip on the Tallahassee cultural scene, barely a brazen clove cigarette among the Molly Hatchet chew and chaw of Northern Florida life, but we prided ourselves on being more open to all musical experiences, much more than our Confederate Flag-waving brethren. If the Clash taught us anything besides the what it was like to be a “White Man in the Hammersmith Palaise”, it was that reggae was as important to pure rock revivalism as the Ramones’ three chord thrash. Ska took it one step further, the pork pie hats and razor ties doing little to hide the obvious connection between soul and the syncopation of hardcore. Sure, our Mohawks and weird waxed hairdos stuck out as much as the torn T-shirts with “Cash from Chaos” spray painted on the front, but college is often the time where one finds themselves, and in this case, the ever-expanding horizon of alternative music was the rebellious path we choose.
Many of us worked for WFSU radio, the public station that allowed for free format shows five days a week (it was all classical during the weekends). Some of us were lucky to man the “main drive: shifts. Others pulled the all night insanity of midnight to six in the morning. Together we formed a band of like minded maniacs who thought—rightfully or wrongfully—that we could take a bunch of backwater listeners and instill in them an appreciation of all things Jam, Damned, and Sex Pistols. Our station manager, a graduate student with a wispy beard and a penchant for old school Pink Floyd, used to scold us for sneaking in songs with naughty words, and warned us against straying too far from the always pliable programming playlists. Still, we had a great deal of choice in what we championed, and as callers clamored for AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd, we blasted the latest from Television, Talking Heads, and the occasional cut from an up and coming unknown (like this one Irish band called U2 ...).
And Prince. As I said before, we loved Prince. He was racy and provocative, enigmatic and ever-so spiritual. His androgynous look reminded us of the growing New Romantic movement sweeping the UK, while the combo platter personality of his albums (funk one moment, followed by a ballad, accented by a balls-out rocker) reflected our melting pot musical mentality. Besides, he was a genius, and at the time, an unappreciated one at that. We would drag out Controversy during a typical day’s selections and the audience would usually revolt in a “what is this shit” sort of response. There were the occasional calls of encouragement, and the manager loved that we could balance our shows with selections from artists “of color” (Black Uhuru and Bad Brains were also turntable constants). Still, it was odd to see a bunch of guys in bad hair and torn clothes coming together to enjoy a man whose music was clearly aimed at a decidedly different “urban” demographic.
That was especially true when Prince played Tallahassee in February of 1983 as part of his 1999 tour. When said record came out, a bunch of us got together in the studio and listened to it, track by track. We built up our favorites instantly, spinning “Little Red Corvette” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” before regular radio followed suit. We probed his back catalog, resurrected classics like “When U Were Mine” and “Head” from Dirty Mind. We marveled at the man’s range and sat silently as he worked his way through a heavy groove. As the later part of punk was teaching us, music didn’t have to sound like rage and fury exclusively. It could be strange and synthesized, danceable and deranged, and still rebel against the strictures of a staid social structure. So naturally Prince was one of our pied pipers, and the minute tickets went on sale, several of us took the leap.
That night, we got dressed in our best punk attire. Two members of the local band The Slut Boys suited in up their dirty shirts and torn jeans. A couple others put the plaster to their pate and came up with hairdos of stunning shock value. Yours truly? I did a bit of the spike thing, dragged out an old Residents’ “Santa Dog” T, and put on a faded Goodwill sports coat. After all, this was a big occasion. As we entered the Leon County Civic Center, it was clear who the minority would be this evening. Local couples, dressed up in attire both flashy and fine, starred gobsmacked at the group of weird white boys who had just invaded. Even better, our seats had us surrounded by men who meant to show their ladies a good time, not a bunch of crass college kids without a clue as to the proper way of going out for the evening.
As we joked and jousted, daring each other to dance to the ever-present soul streaming out of the PA, we realized our position as outsiders. But at the same time, there was no reason for concern from the “other” side, since we all had a similar frame of sonic reference. As things started to heat up and the lights finally went down, the three part epic that was the concert finally got underway. First, Vanity 6 did their scandalous sex thing. The Time soon followed with Morris Day winning over converts from all parts of the crowd (even us—What Time is It quickly became another mandatory record among the others in-studio). But when Prince appeared, decked out in the same blazing purple attire that would make the “1999” video so iconic (the stage was also the spitting image of said set-up), the music morphed, and the magic began.
From then on, there were no racial barriers. For the next two hours, there was no black or white. When he played “Controversy” we all sang in unison, feet stomping to the same beat, hearts feeling the same sense of electrified perfection. As a performer, Prince was magnificent, putting forth the kind of tour de force effort that would define him as a certified genius for decades to come. There were even spontaneous signs of togetherness, as when I and a member of the Slut Boys did The Bump with two striking African American girls during “D.M.S.R.”. When he finally left the stage after the last encore, audience and artist dripping with sweat, the lights came up. You could actually see the heat signature streaming across the crowd. We exchanged glances and handshakes (and a couple of hugs), and then headed out into the brisk night air.
A makeshift party soon started over at one of the gang’s house. We put on 1999 and spun around silly remembering the moments from the show. We sang along as Prince pouted over a certain “Lady Cab Driver” and began the equally important ritual of smoking pot. Beer flowed and everyone told stories of situations we all had experience, repeating them as if to make sure that we’d all confirm they actually happened. As the early morning hours crept toward sunrise, we finally split, each of us hoping to catch a few winks before school/work/life came calling again. Hours later, we were back at the station, heads filled with anecdotes that we just had to share with the rest of the staff. As a pointed postscript, someone put on “Ronnie Talk to Russia”. Later that night, the Slut Boys took their usual place on the Bullwinkle’s stage and, during their set, played an impromptu version of another Controversy special, “Jack U Off”.
Sure, today it all sounds so wistful and naïve. When you look back, the whole concept of skinheads against bigotry, suburban spoiled sports claiming their love of diversity by owning a couple of Rick James records hardly qualifies as equality. Even worse, the rift that developed when rap went “gansta” drove many a punk fan away from the wholly complementary genre. Apparently, they could tolerate boasting, “breaks,” and bleak looks at urban life, just as long as there were no gats or anti-women violence involved. At some point, Prince himself faded out of the conversation, his superstardom with Purple Rain acting like a spoiler to what was, for most Caucasians, a rather private party. Still, there was no denying that, at the precipice of his popularity, punks loved the fey Purple god. To us, he was a true trendsetter.