Prince's Revolution Celebrates His Greatest Era
Members of the Revolution are still reeling from the death of Prince and tell us about what working with him was like.
Friday marks the one-year anniversary of Prince’s death, and the band with whom he worked most closely in his ‘80s heyday, the Revolution, is still reeling from it.
The musicians — guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardist Lisa Coleman, drummer Bobby Z, keyboardist Matt Finks and bassist Brown Mark — have reunited for a tour to celebrate their friend’s music, but it’s also part of their grieving process.
“It’s our shiva,” Melvoin says. When the quintet did three tribute shows last September at First Avenue in Minneapolis, the same location where they recorded most of the soundtrack for “Purple Rain” with Prince in 1984, “the first night was devastatingly depressing. By night three there were smiles, you could feel a weight being lifted from the room. Then we walked off stage, collapsed into each other’s arms and wept.”
Even for many of Prince’s closest associates and friends, his death was a shock, though there had been a few clues that his health was declining. At 57, Prince was known for clean living, but suffered from chronic hip pain. He began using a potent painkiller, fentanyl, and six days before his death a chartered jet in which the artist was flying made an emergency landing so Prince could be treated for an overdose. On April 21, 2016, he was found dead in his Paisley Park recording studio.
Though the members of the Revolution had not worked with Prince in decades, they remain the band that he called his personal “Mount Rushmore,” Z says, because of the critical role they played as musicians and even songwriters during his creative peak, 1980 to ‘87. In separate interviews, Melvoin, who has been successfully collaborating with Coleman as Wendy and Lisa on TV and movie scores for decades, and Z, who began working with Prince in the ‘70s and remained one of his most trusted confidants ever since, discussed his death and how they processed it. Here are some edited highlights of those conversations:
Melvoin: No one saw it coming. I was in my backyard on the phone with NBC and I was getting ready to fly to New York (to do some soundtrack work). And then the phone goes “ding ding,” and it’s Bobby and he says, “Prince is gone.” I went from this mood of happiness to, “I have to go.” I conferenced in Mark, Lisa and Matt, and we conferred with and consoled each other. We all went to Minneapolis two days later. At least 100,000 people were outside First Avenue and on the street. What do we do? Me and Lisa decided to have a few people up at one of the hotels. We all spoke and talked about him and our grief.
Z: The main perspective was the extent that his problem got outside of the medical world and into street drugs. It seemed completely out of the norm for him. I don’t think he intended to die. But he was in pain, and when people are in pain and are perfectionists like he was, you look for any kind of resolution.
Melvoin: The survivors after a profound death have to come to terms with not being chosen to be part of that process. Why didn’t he come to me? We are feeling that in this global way. That’s not the way he wanted to go.
The privacy, that was him. Right to the end, he couldn’t allow anyone to help, or anyone to see the vulnerability because it didn’t make him feel in control. So it was me, me, me for him, and that was true in business as in life.
Z: We knew then that playing was going to be part of our recovery, grief and mourning. I personally needed time. It was such a huge shift because I’d known him since I was 19 (in 1979). We wanted to start at First Avenue because that was ground zero, it was the mecca that we needed to return to.
Melvoin: (After the First Avenue shows) we got calls from booking agents to do more. Lisa and I have careers in film and TV music, and we each have a kid. We decided after our season with TV this spring, we will do these dates and see what comes of it.
ON THE EARLY DAYS OF PRINCE AND THE REVOLUTION:
Z: There was a grand plan. He wanted this (multiracial, co-ed) band that was his Sly and the Family Stone. He was also paying a lot of attention to Fleetwood Mac. He was very intrigued by Stevie Nicks, the mix of voices. He wanted a band like that. We were a rock band with (early collaborators Dez Dickerson and Andre Cymone, who went on to solo careers), then a multicultural, utopian, uptown, black-white-Puerto Rican thing, and his lyrics came alive. “Purple Rain,” his ultimate song, is the six of us, it works because of that. No disrespect to musicians after us, but I know the Revolution was the last band he was in. He got tired of us because we drove him nuts and he basically became a solo artist after that with a backing band. But when he was in it (the Revolution), he loved it. It challenged him and pushed him.
Melvoin: When Lisa first met him (in 1980), she saw a Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson “A Star is Born” poster on his wall. He had this cheesy, naive, dreamy quality. She was a teenager and already a session musician from LA — we were well-seasoned. Lisa sees this poster and thinks, “What have I got myself into?” And he’s looking at this hippie chick from LA and thinks the same thing. Then he hears her play. She had and still has a musical vocabulary that is instinctual to her and unique to her that he could never do. He wanted that badly. What Lisa and I were able to do, we gave him permission not to feel insecure about what he wanted in his life. He had “A Star is Born” on his wall? OK, let’s be it. He could be exactly what he wanted to be with a group of people who wanted him to be himself. That’s when he started to own everything he was.
Z: The six of us, after going through “Purple Rain,” Prince called us “Mount Rushmore.” There is no way to go through something like that and not feel close forever. It’s like winning a Super Bowl, a major life event so crazy that only six of us knew what really happened. He obviously didn’t like looking back, period. It was always, “Look at what I’m doing now.” Always moving. But for us mere mortals, looking back at these masterpieces that we get to do now in a different way, this music we created with him — it’s something we need to do to heal together.