The Revolution…Without Prince

Hoping to reconnect to their love for the iconic musician, Kevin Sampsell and an old girlfriend go to hear his best known band play without him.

Kevin Sampsell| Longreads | April 2019 | 11 minutes (2,777of words)

Prince’s “Erotic City” was one of the most played songs at dance clubs in the mid-`80s. If I were with my friend, Angie, and the DJ played this infamously dirty B-side, we’d be on the floor immediately after that first sexy note — a lone string plucked and whammied, dreamlike. Prince was the bond in our friendship, one that started when we were horny teenagers and has lasted in some small way or another throughout the years. Even though we live in the same state, we don’t see each other much. I guess you’d say we’re more like Internet friends these days. We chat about parenting, old friends, or jobs. But back in the day it was pretty hot and heavy, and it seemed like the good chemistry between us was heavily influenced by our love for the one and only Prince Rogers Nelson. Which is why it felt oddly appropriate when Angie messaged me on Instagram last year to see if I wanted to go see Prince’s most popular backing band, The Revolution, at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. “It would be a cool flashback if you wanted to go,” she wrote.

***

I have to admit, I stopped paying attention to Prince around the time he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol (in 1993), but Angie had stayed a superfan. She interacts with people on Prince message boards, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and newsletters. She has a wardrobe of Prince t-shirts, tank tops, leggings, necklaces, and earrings. She saw him in concert eight times, most recently in Oakland in 2016 on his Piano and a Microphone tour, and before that, in Portland in 2013, when his backing band was the all-female group, 3rdeyegirl. He died less than two months after the Oakland show. Mournfully, she flew to Minneapolis shortly after his death to see The Revolution reunite and perform his songs at the legendary First Avenue nightclub, where scenes from “Purple Rain” take place.

I saw Prince perform only once, at (in my opinion) his creative peak, in 1988 on the Lovesexy tour. Just a year after Sign O’ The Times received rave reviews but before his oddball choice to record a whole album for a Michael Keaton Batman movie. The concert I saw was an elaborate stage show in Seattle, with a horn section, Sheila E. on drums, a seductive dancer named Cat I was obsessed with, and gratuitous stage props like a basketball hoop, a bed, a fountain, and a Ford Thunderbird. Even though The Revolution was not his band at the time, they were his band on his two best studio creations (Around the World In a Day and Parade). I guess I should say “arguably his two best” because when it comes to Prince, every other detail, achievement, and rumor concerning him and his work is argued about.

It took me just a few seconds to reply to Angie and tell her I wanted to go. I didn’t know exactly who would be singing the songs, but just the idea of seeing Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Brown Mark (Mark Brown), Matt “Doctor” Fink, and Bobby Z. (Robert B. Rivkin) on stage together, locking into one funky groove after another — circa 1979-86 — seemed amazing enough.

***

On the night of the show, Angie and I meet for dinner and it feels totally natural and chill, even though it’s been almost 30 years since we’ve slept together. Some thoughts cross my mind as we eat pasta: Is this a date? Is she thinking about the time we had sex in her hatchback in the graveyard? Or the time we did it in a sleeping bag on the football field and called it “the human burrito?”

I stopped paying attention to Prince around the time he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol (in 1993), but Angie had stayed a superfan.

She looks good to me. Do I still look good to her? Could I still pull off the look I had when I was 19 — the paisley jacket, stretch pants, and dangly earrings? Am I thinking too much about the past instead of paying full attention to our conversation?

But as we eat and check the time on our phones every 10 minutes, I realize it is what it is: Two aging Gen-X folks reliving some sexy glory days and mourning an old hero, gone too soon.

I ask Angie if she remembers the day Prince died. She says she remembers hearing the first rumblings of the news on a Prince fan page saying that there were ambulances at Paisley Park, where he lived and made music. Then the news that there was a dead body. Then the news that it was Prince’s body. And then the shocked feeling that numbed her as texts and messages from friends started blowing up her phone. She said it didn’t fully hit her until her ex-husband called to check on her. That’s when she felt it crush her.

I consider the legacy of Prince as heroic. He was like a hero, or even a superhero, complete with cape and special powers. His musical prowess, his nonstop songwriting and boosting of others, his bravery of expression, the gender-bending, and his inspiring integrity (he wasn’t part of the whole 1985 superhit, “We Are the World,” because he thought it was a bad song). The way people tossed the word “genius” at him felt legit and rare for that time. Not like the way everyone calls themselves a genius now (Hi, Kanye). There are Prince albums where he played every damn instrument. He had so many songs coming out of him he had to make up other names for himself and give out hits to people like Stevie Nicks, The Bangles, and Chaka Khan. When he started his record label, Paisley Park, most of the bands on it were essentially Prince soundalikes. I know because I bought a lot of those records. They may be obscure now but I loved albums by The Family, Jill Jones, and Taja Sevelle.


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A big part of the appeal of Prince for me was also the blunt sexuality and freedom of his music. I saw his video for “Controversy” in 8th grade and knew right away that he was giving us something truly bold. His album, 1999, pushed the lascivious boundaries even more with its flawless, cool funk. Even listening to it now is shocking. His uncensored depiction of sexuality — and the questioning of it — was my first glimpse into queerness and X-rated (many parents would call them “inappropriate”) fantasies. Prince was, to many people, the musical equivalent to your first look at a porn magazine. I remember finding a bad cassette dub of the infamous Black Album after he decided not to release it because he deemed it “evil” and it became like contraband. The eight songs on the album were ultra-funky and perhaps too reactionary against critics who felt as if he had sold out to the pop-rock world. The lust in the music was overcooked and some songs swerved into negativity and dark violence (the narrator of the song “Bob George” wields a gun and threatens to “slap your ass into the middle of next week.”). As a catholic boy, I found this conflict between his dark side and his spiritual side to be a comfort.

***

Angie and I get to the show almost an hour early because she wants to get a spot in front. She knows a bunch of the other early arrivers from other Prince-related happenings, and introduces me to them. She points out one woman who was a fellow student in a one-off belly dancing class taught by Prince’s ex-wife, Mayte Garcia. I imagine a dance studio full of belly dancing women who are probably more curious about being close to the woman who gave birth to Prince’s son than they are about this kind of dance. I remember the headlines on gossip magazines about Prince and Mayte’s son, who died six days after he was born from Pfeiffer syndrome. Days after that (and before the death was known to the public), the couple gave an interview on Oprah, during which they pretended their son was still alive. It’s a jarring part of his history, and a reminder that his life was not as idyllic as many would think.

As Angie and I talk and point out the various styles of Prince gear worn by other fans, she spots her friend, Jonathan, who tells us that he has two extra wristbands for the VIP area, a less-crowded space close to stage left with its own bar. We take him up on his offer, wondering if it means we might meet the band as well. Angie is especially excited about this possibility because she has a raging crush on their legendary guitarist, Wendy Melvoin.

It’s kind of a sad VIP area. At first it’s us and just two other people. One of them is a guy in a long cape and steampunk gear, and what looks to be a fake “all access” Prince and the Revolution sticker on his coat. He starts talking to us like we know him. He asks me if we’ve seen Terry or Jerry yet. I can’t quite understand who he’s talking about, but he’s dressed up like he’s in the band, or a band anyway. I play along and pretend like I know who he’s referring to and say, “No, I haven’t seen them.” I overhear someone close to us say they spotted drummer Bobby Z. in the bathroom. The steampunk guy says his name is “Funk Love.” He’s with a quiet woman named Kate who has a tattoo on her shoulder that says, “I’m Kate.” I try to talk to Funk, but he’s wearing sunglasses that look like goggles, and it’s disconcerting. I step over to Jonathan to get the story on the guy, but he doesn’t know him either. We speculate on the validity of his “all access” sticker and whether it’s ever really worked at a concert. Funk and Kate are talking conspiratorially behind us and I step back to see if I can hear them. In an effort to make conversation, I ask Funk if he’s a musician too and he pulls back, as if it’s an offensive question. Then he walks backwards in slow motion, sulking at me, like I’ve made a grave mistake and should know who he is.

A few minutes later, the VIP area gets a few more bodies, and the main space and balcony are mostly full, though the show isn’t sold out. Most of the people look to be the same age as me, hovering just below or above 50. Lots of graying hair, or hair colored various vivid shades in an attempt to look younger, including, of course, purple. Some of the fans in their 30s have that excited glow of adults who’ve hired a cheap babysitter for the night. Then the lights go down and the distinct intro of “Computer Blue” starts, sending everyone’s endorphins skyward.

“Wendy?”

“Yes, Lisa?”

“Is the water warm enough?”

“Yes, Lisa.”

“Shall we begin?”

“Yes, Lisa.”

And just like that: Holy shit! It’s The Revolution on stage in front of us!

The set list itself is fairly average. Since they focus on the Prince albums they played on (1999, Purple Rain, Around the World In a Day, Parade), there’s not a huge scope, or many deep cuts. Iconic albums like Sign O’ the Times and Lovesexy are not even mentioned. Apparently The New Power Generation are playing some of those songs at their recent reunion shows.

Bassist Brown Mark and Wendy take lead vocals on most of the songs, like “Raspberry Beret” and “Take Me With U.” I notice that the band seems to give center stage a wide berth, as if the empty space is reserved for Prince. I imagine a hologram of him beaming down from above, like at the 2018 Super Bowl half-time show. But that space is filled a few times during the set by guest vocalist Stokley Williams, the high energy singer for Minneapolis band, Mint Condition. I’m not sure how I feel about Williams’s presence. He’s a good dancer and confidently engages the crowd like a seasoned frontman (and at 50, he’s the youngest), but he also tilts the show toward cover band territory. Toward the end though, Dr. Fink, Bobby Z., Lisa, Wendy, and Brown Mark take turns in the solo spotlight and the focus turns back to them. It’s clear that this was Prince’s hand-chosen band for a reason.

As much of a control freak Prince was, you can’t help but wonder what he would think of all this. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who didn’t want his music available on iTunes and had any of his videos taken off YouTube as quickly as they popped up. He once sued 22 fans for $22 million for sharing recordings of his concerts. Some of the bands he put out on his label had to change their names because of contract disputes with him (The Time became The Original 7ven and The Family are now called fDeluxe). This all makes me wonder about the financial aspects of the tour and its players. A cynical music fan would assume they’re capitalizing on Prince’s death and doing it for money, but publicity for the shows hasn’t been great and the venues are mostly mid-size halls and clubs. In more recent interviews with the band on YouTube, it’s obvious that some members were fired and some quit after the Parade tour in 1986. During those final days, Prince’s behavior toward the band was strained and dismissive. During rehearsals for that tour, Prince added new players to his band and started ignoring his oldest bandmates.

I notice that the band seems to give center stage a wide berth, as if the empty space is reserved for Prince. I imagine a hologram of him beaming down from above, like at the 2018 Super Bowl half-time show.

The Revolution have been playing these songs again now for over two years. If the band sometimes had bad blood with their leader, it’s also very clear that they understand the vital role they performed in the history of one of our most important musical artists. It’s fully evident that they love playing the music and being with each other again.

***

I had hoped to hear some between-song anecdotes or stories about Prince during the show. I had envisioned something more like a memorial in a way — something more cathartic and raw — but each concert the band plays probably makes it easier to not dwell on the sadness of his absence and to just deliver a badass funk party. While writing this essay, I watched hours of interviews with the band, as well as other performances. One video of them performing in Minneapolis just months after Prince’s death shows just how intensely emotional their first reunion shows must have been. In it, Wendy struggles to sing the beautiful ballad, “Sometimes It Snows In April.” It’s hard to watch and not cry when Wendy sings the last lines: “Sometimes I wish that life was never ending/ But all good things, they say, never last/ And love, it isn’t love until it’s past.”

At the end of the set in Portland, over two years after his death, there is still plenty of melancholy and feelings of loss from Prince’s departure. The Revolution start playing those familiar opening chords of “Purple Rain.” It’s one of his songs that I’ve heard thousands of times and, frankly, I don’t care if I don’t hear it again for a long time. But the band plays it with the perfect blend of strength and vulnerability, and the sentiment of the words hits hard. It could almost be an apology letter to the band he disbanded at the height of their power. Wendy sings, “I never meant to cause you any sorrow/ I never meant to cause you any pain.” I see a couple near the stage, holding each other, almost slow dancing. They seem so deeply connected, and they’re crying, like the song is part of their life story. They look like normal, ordinary people that I see every day out in the world — at a grocery store or on the bus. But in this setting, with the music in the air and the room riveted to every note, they glow, and look enchanted. I remember dancing with Angie to this song way back when, but it probably wasn’t as important to us as it is for this couple. We were just kids, after all.

I keep watching this adult couple, their weeping to an ‘80s power ballad, and feel a little envious of their love. But mostly I’m grateful I get to witness it. At the end of the song, the couple slowly release each other, wipe their tears away, and smile as the band waves goodbye to everyone.

* * *

Kevin Sampsell is a writer, editor, collage artist, small press book publisher and bookseller living in Portland, Oregon. His books include the novel, This Is Between Us, and the memoir, A Common Pornography