Tuesday, 18 February 2014

He Could Probably Take The Place Of My Man

Unless you live under a rock or are one of these tedious types who eschew television, you will have realised that Prince is in town. This is big news for me. I love Prince with a passion that knows no bounds. Well, maybe it knows some bounds - the period of 1994-2004 in his back catalogue scares me a bit and I suspect might be a touch self-indulgent, although I'm ashamed to say I've never tried to find out - but the whacked out, unpredictable, genuine pop-star bonkers-ness of the man more than makes up for any failings in terms of self editing. Besides, look at the length of some of these blog entries... I can hardly get on my high horse about limiting yourself artistically, can I?

When I heard that Prince would be playing a series of gigs in small venues all across London, I swore to myself that I would get to as many of them as I could manage. At that point, I was imagining a frantic four or five minutes with 16 tabs for Ticketmaster and Stargreen open on my computer, stabbing in the details of my long-suffering credit card with my eyes closed and worrying about what I had to cancel to make way for His Royal Purpleness later.

When it became clear a week or so ago that it was going to be a case of turning up and queueing for tickets rather than a crazed episode of advanced ticket booking, I was struck by the typically oddball nature of it all, but also, being old and tired and set in my ways, a bit put out. I'm often busy with, you know, yoga. Or watching re-runs of Modern Family. Or needing to go to bed by 9.30 because it was a hard day. I can't just drop everything and run out in the rain on the off-chance I might get to see Prince, can I? In retrospect, I'm deeply ashamed of this attitude. It's hardly I Would Die 4 U, is it now?

Due to work and other plans and not-hearing-about-gigs-till-too-late, I missed both Electric Ballroom shows, the Shepherd's Bush and King's Centre ones, and then all three (well, two and a half) Koko gigs. One part of me was starting to think that I would just have to accept that the Hit and Run tour was not going to happen for me. But my heart was also breaking slightly at this thought.

When I got into university on Monday morning, I was not planning on going to Ronnie Scott's. I had a lot of important PhD work to do, I couldn't be sure I would get in - it was just all round a bad idea. I sat at my desk and looked at an interview transcript and tried to settle down to work.

And tried a bit harder.

And then a bit less hard.

I couldn't stop looking at Twitter, which showed pictures of the squiggly one's mic stand being unloaded into Ronnie Scott's... a venue which is, as it happens, only 10 minutes' walk from my office. I tried and tried to turn my mind away from Prince and think about my work but, as it turns out, pop music DOES matter more to me than academia and my soul would not be broken. After all, I thought to myself, what am I going to remember in five years time - sitting at my desk writing linguistic, descriptive and conceptual notes about a participant's experience of haemodialysis, like I do every day? Or seeing Prince in a 250 capacity venue?

For an allegedly smart girl, it does take me a while to figure things out properly at times.

As soon as I'd made the decision, I started panicking that I'd left it too late. I printed out some work, fondly imagining I'd do it in the queue (ha! Some chance!), said my goodbyes to my university mates, none of whom asked me, 'take me with u,' very disappointing... and pretty much sprinted (well, walked briskly, some things will never change) round to Firth Street, stopping only at Pret to stock up on supplies.

Arriving at about 11.15 with visions of mobs of thousands swarming around Ronnie Scott's, I was in fact pleasantly surprised by how short the queue was. I joined the back of it in time to hear someone say the words 'worth getting fired for,' to which I said 'I agree!' and immediately, I had friends. These friends told me to go up to the venue door and get a number written on my hand. It was official - I was number 104 - this surely meant I would get to see Prince in just a few short hours.

As with so many things in life, the queue was really not the cold, boring monster I was scared it would be. It really wasn't especially cold for a long, long time. And there was definitely no time for working, as I was far too busy swapping stories - both Prince and life related - with the other fans around me. Although I should note that I was put to shame by one woman who was doing her sustainable fashion Masters homework while sitting on the curb. I was far too busy doing runs to the off licence for red wine and having crisps pressed on me by my new friends to give psychology a second thought.

The rumours were coming thick and fast as everyone looked on their phones and swapped gossip. We decided he would probably take pity on us and do an afternoon show, a hope that was sadly only in our heads. The show would start at 7. It would start at midnight. That was just a rumour to try to scare people away. If you got a stamp on your hand that said Prince and 3rd Eye Girl, you were definitely getting in. Actually, those stamps were fake and nothing was a guarantee. It was going to be £70. It would be £10. It was actually £35. Who knew what was real? Certainly not us! Controversy was all around!

The whole atmosphere was a cross between a carnival and the best hooky you ever played. Newsnight filmed us singing a few lines of Purple Rain. We ran out of booze and went to buy more. The nearby Cafe Nero had never had such a long toilet queue in all of its existence before. We were given free popcorn, and then free pizza. And underneath it all ran the insistent, excited thrum that we were going to see Prince and we were going to see him soon. And close, close up. Life can be so nice.

At some point - I'm not sure what the time was, but I think it was around dusk - we were told that we couldn't keep using the camping chairs my more organised new friends had bought with them as they were blocking the pavement. So we grudgingly stood up, and immediately the queue doubled in width, meaning the pavement was blocked anyway.

Shortly after this, it started raining and the hooch ran out for a second time. These portents were clearly a sign o the times ahead.

Looking back, it's hard to work out when the queue stopped being a hilarious, spacious conga line of Paisley Park anticipation and instead became a sardine can of rainy frayed tempers and nerves, but by 10pm, it had definitely crossed over to the dark side. I tried to interest my new friends in playing I Spy and 20 Questions to pass the time, but turns out not everyone is quite as geeky as me when it comes to things like that. My friends and I were still doing ok, taking photos and trying to cheer each other along, but cross words were being exchanged amongst other queue mates over pushing in slights - some real, some imaginary - and we all kept moving forwards into each other even though the doors still weren't open.

It was probably around 11.30 that I realised I was ridiculously thirsty and starting to feel quite light headed and sick. Turns out a lot of wine, a lot of rain, a slice of pizza and a handful of popcorn do not a substantial dinner make. I did not imagine that throwing up in these close knit circumstances would win me any additional new friends, so I fought my way to the outer edges of the queue and tried to put my head between my knees without actually sitting down, since the pavement was sodden, which is about as hard as it sounds. Truly, this is what it sounds like when doves cry.

Fortunately, a friendly queue man came to my rescue with some Ribena, which seemed to do the job, so I rallied myself and got back in the queue. By this point, though, my back was hurting, everything was wet, I was bone tired and thinking with dread about the night bus home... and for a moment, I came very, very close to giving up and going home.

But then, just as I was thinking this, 13 long hours after I had arrived, the door opened! Stephen Fry came right past us all, somehow not being blinded by the epilepsy inducing shower of flashes going off in his face, which cheered me greatly as I adore our kid Steve so... and with an impressive lack of fuss or fighting, we were in.

Myself and two of my queue buddies managed to get right to the front of the right hand side of the stage... which was uncannily lucky as this turned out to be directly in front of where the wee man spent 90% of the gig, playing his piano with his beautiful artistic fingers, which I watched delicately tease out Purple Rain on the old ivories. Not through a screen, not through binoculars... but through leaning forward slightly and angling my head right. I was almost close enough to give him my extra time and my kiss.

Was the gig worth the 13 hours out in the cold and the rain? Well, readers, I have to be totally honest and say that the first 10 or 15 minutes did disappoint me a bit. Prince has such a vast discography that one always runs the risk of being underwhelmed by rarities that you don't know. I didn't know the first few instrumental tunes, and while they were no doubt beautifully executed they were, as befits Ronnie Scott's I suppose, undeniably jazzy, and not in the way your mum means when she talks about her new jumper. I'm all for accomplished musicianship (well, kinda), but I'm a bigger fan of pop music, and I hadn't really queued for all that time to listen to instrumentals.

However, things quickly turned around when the sexy MF (and god, close up, he really is just as sexy as you had always hoped but didn't dare to dream) first played a beautifully slowed down version of I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man before offering to take us back to the 80s and playing a medley of Take Me With U (a contender for my favourite Prince tune ever) and Raspberry Beret. The band were hot and cool all at once... Prince himself seemed quite shy, letting them take centre stage and only really talking to us to tell us to be safe on the way home.

It was surreal, being that close to not only such a hero of mine but also such a hugely photographed icon. He really does look like Prince. That might sound daft, but I think it's easy to imagine that these impossibly big stars aren't really real, or that if you got close enough it would turn out it was all some tricksy combination of Photoshop, smoke and mirrors, and that actually, these giants of pop life look a bit more like your slightly scuzzy next door neighbour than like the press has always shown you. But no - he really does look like Prince. Occasionally it felt like the pathway of his eyes crossed the pathway of mine, and I would feel faint all over the again. The idea that Prince, even for a millisecond, could be aware of my existence was something I don't think I could ever quite wrap my head round.

He played two encores and sang both The Beautiful Ones and How Come You Don't Call Me Any More, two more of my favourites, covered Who is He and What is He to You and the Whole of the Moon, got us all singing along to Purple Rain, played the bass, the guitar and the keyboards all with the same dazzling virtuosity and sang like nothing I can find any words to describe. He finished around 90 minutes after he went on. Approximately an eighth of the time I had been waiting for him.

Was it worth it?

Well, I'm already thinking about next time. You can draw your own conclusion from that.


  1. What a write-up..it feels like reliving it only in a more tired and achy way! A pleasure queuing with you!!

  2. Thanks Fiona! It was lovely queueing with you too, I really lucked out being with you guys. :-)

  3. Brilliant writing PL! Proper evocative of a time I didn't even experience 1st hand! One of my many hats is taken off to you - I think the grump in me wouldhave emerged much earlier than 10pm - and staying up till 11pm for the START of the show? Pffft!

    Also: is there a prize for spotting all of the Prince song references??

  4. OH MY GOD!! A comment got published, rather than swallowed! It's a Prince ordained miracle!

  5. Thanks Poots! Hurrah for comments that work! And yes, you do indeed get a prize for spotting all the Prince references. Point em out to me on Saturday night and I'll buy you a booze. ;-)

  6. I was the Ribena man - glad it helped. Great blog

  7. Oh wow, thank you! I only just saw this comment. You were a total knight in shining armour!