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Remembering Prince: an unusual guy with a lot of energy

"He was a very unusual man": Prince, whose landmark Purple Rain album has just been reissued.

"Dearly beloved. We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life."

So begins Prince's landmark 1984 album Purple Rain, the singer playing the role of miniature pop preacher, solemnly intoning the intro over a wobbly church organ.

He has good news for the congregation: death is not the end.

Prince and his backing band, The Revolution, during the 1980s.

"I'm here to tell you there's something else - the after world. A world of never ending happiness where you can always see the sun, day or night."

* In style and substance, Prince is at Paisley Park
* Purple reign: Prince at Auckland's ASB Theatre
* With tears, tattoos, Prince fans remember him a year later
* Prince sold more albums than anyone last year, even Adele

Prince died on April 21, 2016, of an accidental painkiller overdose. He was 57.


Prince on stage.

Is he up there right now, bathing in that eternal light, sauntering around the clouds in a snug purple jumpsuit?

Of course not. Prince is gone forever, but his music lives on, his songs some of the most eccentric and glorious of the 80s and beyond.

"He was quite something, alright," says Lisa Coleman, who played keyboards in Prince's band, The Revolution, for six years and lived in his house for a while.

"Louder! I can't hear you!": Prince delivering an encore.

They were friends, housemates and comrades-in-arms during his most fertile creative period, playing together on a run of genius albums: Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999, Around the World in a Day, Parade.

And of course, Purple Rain, which has just been re-issued with a host of extra tracks.

Prince, plus rose.

"It's a great record, and it has lost none of its power over time," reckons Coleman. "It really is a classic, full of amazing songs. I gotta say, it's not a great film, though. It's kinda cheesy, right?"

Right. The Purple Rain feature film is a weird mix of concert footage, dance routines and clunky little narrative vignettes. The storyline's all over the shop, with musicians taking the acting roles, with varying degrees of success.

Let's just say that nobody in there looked like they had a bright future as an actor if music ever failed them.

But even the bits that are cheesy as a fondue are highly entertaining, with the fashion, the music, the emotionally overwrought storyline and clunky directorial style screaming "1980s!" in the best possible way.

"Yeah, exactly. We weren't actors, which is part of the reason the film isn't that great. Fortunately the songs are incredible, so that carries it through when the story isn't really working. That movie's got a charm about it, so you forgive some of its failings."

Coleman remembers the period when Purple Rain was made as a time of intense, unrelenting work.

"Prince was talking about making a film and writing ideas in his notebook all the time. At first we thought we were gonna make a sort of alternative, off-centre cult film, but the more we worked on it, the music got better and better and it became clear we should try to make a hit film instead."

Suddenly, the songs had to fit the narrative arc of a a more mainstream movie, so Prince rewrote much of the material, and was still tinkering right up until filming began.

"It was hectic! We were working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It was an incredible journey."

Purple Rain won an Oscar and two Grammys, and was later hailed by Vanity Fair as "the best soundtrack of all time". Not to be outdone on hyperbole, Time magazine declared the Purple Rain soundtrack the "15th greatest album ever made".

The new re-mastered version comes in assorted expanded deluxe editions, appended with live DVD footage, rare B-sides and previously unreleased tracks from the vaults.

Even in death, the singer keeps it pervy: one new song is called Electric Intercourse; another, We Can F…

What strikes Coleman now, listening back to this mighty record they made together, is how diverse the songs are. It's unusually inventive pop music, and difficult to pigeonhole, the sound woven together from thick strands of funk, rock, gospel, soul and folk.

"I love that. That's how we all listened to music. You'd put on a Stevie Wonder record, and then you might want to listen to the Rolling Stones or a beautiful Chopin piece. We were all fans of a huge range of different music, and when we played together, we could all play rock'n'roll with a really funky, soulful edge, without feeling like we had to compartmentalise different styles and worry too much, like 'where does this go'?"

Live in concert, The Revolution blew most bands of the era off the stage. Prince was boundlessly charismatic, fascinating to look at as well as to listen to: a tiny, agile funk-addled sprite who endlessly eulogised his own sexual attraction in song; a playful wee narcissist who messed with gender stereotypes while out-dancing Michael Jackson and shredding like Hendrix on electric guitar.

"Prince was an unusual guy. He was so inspired to make the most of life that it could be really intimidating sometimes. It could kind of p… you off. Sometimes you wished he'd calm down, like- take a break, man! But he didn't miss a beat. Prince read every article, listened to every record, saw every movie… he was just so hungry for creative input. I lived with him in his house for a while, and there was just constant creative activity. He just had so much energy, like … all the time! It could be exhausting."

When Prince believed in you, there was nothing that felt so good, Coleman says.

"He would give you that look of approval when you played something cool and it just made you feel on top of the world. He was one of those guys."

Coleman and several other original members of The Revolution have been out on the road recently, playing songs from Purple Rain and other key Prince/Revolution albums of the era.

The first three shows took place at at the fabled First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis where much of the Purple Rain movie was set, then the band headed out on for other shows around the country.

No matter how great the music was, such shows must surely be defined by a tragic sense of absence, right there in the middle of the stage.

"It's difficult, for sure. We're on stage and he's not there, and our eyes keep searching for him as we play. The only thing that's been able to take his place is the audience. The way they sing along with every word, the way they laugh and they cry- it's really a cathartic thing for all of us. The fans are really thankful to us for doing it, and that's what keeps us going."

Coleman sees these gigs as a mix of celebration and public mourning; a travelling communal wake of sorts.

But there have also been a few cynics suggesting that this is a cash-in. Here, after all, is a dead star's old 80s backing band, playing his songs without him a scant year after his death.

"Yeah, some people think we're just being money-grabbers, but that's not true. Playing these shows is costing us money. When we first got the news that Prince passed, all we could do was think of each other.

"I needed [bandmates] Bobby and Wendy and Matt, you know? We were the only people who could understand each other's sense of loss. It's difficult to express what it feels like, to have been involved with this incredible man and to have him die so suddenly."

It was so upsetting that early rehearsals fell apart, the band members so overwhelmed with grief that they couldn't even make it through the songs.

"We just needed to be there and cry together until we could cope. And then when we were on stage, we had to really focus, like 'don't lose it right now!' But if anyone thinks we're tryin' to cash in, that's on them. We're up there having an experience that's profound and personal, and the audience is sharing that, too.

"I see these older men out in the audience, crying and singing along when we play anthems like Purple Rain. It blows my mind and makes me incredibly proud. You realise they're going through all these intense feelings while they listen to a song we made together all those years ago. That's a magical thing."




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