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Prince’s Sign O’ The Times

When The Artist Again Known As Prince first exploded into superstardom three decades ago, I had just moved to San Francisco and his music — “Purple Rain,” “Little Red Corvette,” “1999” and so forth, was everywhere, including in the cavernous illegal dance clubs popping up in the city's industrial zone “South of Market.” (The term SOMA still meant a drug from Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World.) It felt adventurous rumbling around those abandoned warehouses and funky streets late at night, and I recall naked dancers in cages suspended from the ceiling of at least one venue. Which was kinda nice, for a newly-arrived suburban beach boy.

Prince seems to have dug the neighborhood too, as he would show up at at least one nightclub, the DNA Lounge, to play after his local stadium shows; those “after” shows were unannounced, but if you heard through the pre-internet grapevine, you could show up at the club with $20 in hand at 2am closing time, and if they let you in, Prince was coming to jam. And when he did, he would play some of his own favorite tunes, from James Brown, Motown, Tower of Power and the like. Just incredible fun, sometimes almost until dawn. And at one such late show, in 1993 — exactly 20 years ago — Prince held court in a unique way backstage/upstairs, sitting alone in a corner with a velvet rope and bodyguard in front of him, separating him from the Felliniesque 4am debauchery taking place around him, on display like a zoo animal. It was then I reflected, Why even bother to do that? This man truly is a strange creature — it's not an act.

Flash forward to last week, and Prince might have been the oldest guy at his latest club gig in San Francisco, which sold out in about five seconds online even at the nutty price of $250/ticket (although it must be said, other superstars like the Rolling Stones are now charging that much and more for a distant view of them in a stadium). But if his actual performance was evidence, he's some sort of positive freak of nature for which age is just a number. Seeing him up close, full of energy and fire, hardly breaking a sweat in a sweltering room while leading his band of hard-rocking women through hours of raging rock and funk, felt almost historic. “If we was at home we'd be doing the same thing,” he said at one point, underscoring the intimate, loose nature of such a show in such a small venue. And true to that remark, after both shows had ended, as dawn approached and a few fanatic stragglers hung out waiting for a glimpse of their idol, he came out and served Prince-made pancakes.

The next day, when asked to use “ten words” to describe the experience, I came up with: Sweaty. Intense. Joyful. Loud. Funky. Smoky. Historic. Shredding. Hendrix. Freaky. “I love you but not as much as my guitar,” he sang. And he indeed focused on his guitar, and how he can play virtually anything he wants with an intensity few have ever matched. I went looking for the Rolling Stone list of all-time greatest guitarists and there he is at #33 — an entirely subjective ranking, of course, but after this show I'd have to move him up quite a few notches; in fact, into the top ten. His “girl” band was superb and he could do a dozen shows and not run out of great songs; “I have too many hits” he boasted/lamented at one point., although most, maybe all, of those were from the 1980s.

But of course these are different times and the city/neighborhood is different as well. This week's show felt like a stadium-type presentation, with a massive light show and smoke machines going wild even in the small room. Sometimes the fake fog was so thick and illuminated only by purple (of course) light that it felt like being enveloped in a psychedelic cloud. But then things turned a bit more serious, at least for me. When Prince sat at the keyboards and launched into “Sign of the Times,” maybe my favorite of all his songs, the lyrics evoked a crisis time of AIDS and crack and the 1980s:

In France a skinny man

/ Died of a big disease with a little name

/ By chance his girlfriend came across a needle

/ And soon she did the same / At home there are seventeen-year-old boys

/ And their idea of fun

/ Is being in a gang called The Disciples

/ High on crack, totin' a machine gun…

And so on. Hardly the carnal/car themes of some of his biggest hits — not that those were bad — but a haunting warning about twin epidemics on the rise. We hardly knew what horrors were coming then, but come they did. Prince himself carried on, making some of his heaviest funk records and still a living musical legend, although with a lower profile and sales compared to his peak era. For a time his name was just a strange “love symbol” (which still flashed behind him as he played some older tunes at the DNA) and the intermittent reports of his sometimes baffling quotes, behavior, religious and romantic linkages only magnified his mystery. But he's also been voted the “world's sexiest vegetarian” and all the clean living seems to have served him well. He's been one of the world's biggest and most baffling stars for well over three decades now; seemingly un-aged, unwrinkled, undaunted in doing whatever he wants to do, he's a wonder on many levels. I've met enough famous and/or wealthy people to not be impressed by celebrity status — actually it tends to render people repellant — but even I have a few exceptions, and Prince is certainly one. “It's like there's some sort of magical force-field around him,” marveled a woman after the show. He still has a huge cult — after the show, up popped an online market for used ticket stubs, a collectors' phenomenon only The Beatles could otherwise inspire.

Anyway, now he's just “Prince” again, but San Francisco's “SOMA” (South of Market) neighborhood is much different as well. On that block as the DNA, fancy foodie eateries and such dominate. Way back in the 1980s, when DNA (along with say, Club DV8 downtown) was like a San Francisco version of Manhattan's Studio 54 in the 1970s, it could be a bit dicey even coming and going, dodging crackheads and muggers and the like to get to the darkened dance floors of not only DNA, but The Oasis' clear plastic pool-cover dancefloor, or the original Stud or Holy Cow and a few others. Then Slim's opened next door, featuring great live music, and some restaurants came and went as gradual gentrification took over. Condos and high rents are forcing out whatever's left of the so-called Bohemian denizens of the city. This is called “progress,” at least until the next tech/real estate bust pops the bubble.

“Sign O' The Times” ends like this:

It's silly, no?

When a rocket ship explodes

And everybody still wants to fly

Some say a man ain't truly happy,

Until a man truly dies…

Maybe so. But in that sweaty small club last week while he held forth so loudly, brilliantly, strangely, it sure seemed that everybody was, at least for a time, very, very happy. ¥¥

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