He danced across the stage of a former bowling alley in West Hollywood clad only in a long trench coat over black bikini briefs. He twirled. The trench coat flew up, his underwear grabbed center stage, and all of us in a curious venue called Flipper’s Roller Disco in the March of 1981 knew we were seeing something wild and weird and glorious.
That remains my most vivid memory of Prince, who died at the age of 57 on Thursday. I saw him plenty of other times after that, in small clubs and big arenas, including concerts that were more lavish and multifaceted than the blast of randy aggression he’d unveiled on the “Dirty Mind” tour that brought him to the corner of Santa Monica and LaCienega Boulevards. But they say you never forget your first time — and with Prince, that was absolutely true.
He’d already made some noise with his first two albums — but those were tame compared to the collection of eight songs he unveiled in the fall of 1980. Suddenly, there it was: “Dirty Mind.” Grooves so spare and sharp they could cut your ears, and what was this he was singing about? Sure, rock ‘n’ roll was about sex, and Marvin Gaye had crooned “Let’s Get It On,” but one of Prince’s songs celebrated a ménage a trois, another was called “Head,” another was a randy ode to his, gulp, sister.
The tough, slinky grooves would have made them great songs regardless of what they were about, but the subject matter made them great and weird and transgressive in a way we hadn’t quite seen. Johnny Rotten’s transgressiveness, three years past, was all about anger and disgust; Prince’s was about glee and freedom.
Who was this guy? He was little and reclusive and withdrawn when he wasn’t off stage; I once ran into him in a burger joint on Highland, and when my wife and a friend told him how much they liked his music, he practically blushed and muttered “thank you” in a voice that was barely more than a whisper.
But then there was Prince the performer, bold and wild and capable of being a soul man or a funk demon or a fierce rocker. (I once saw him come out after midnight, unannounced, at the House of Blues, and conjure up the ghost of Jimi Hendrix for a mind-boggling hour of guitar shredding.)
It’s no surprise that his career kept changing, along with his name; the man was restless and combative and unpredictable. People didn’t love the messy later stuff the way they loved the more focused early stuff — but you could never, ever write him off. You turned your back on Prince’s music at your own peril, always.
That’s why his end feels so premature. I have no idea what he would have done over the next decade or two, but I’m pretty sure it would have been worth our time.
If I’m being honest, though, I’ll have to admit that there’s nothing he could have done over the rest of his career that would have topped that first impression from 35 years ago. The little guy in black bikini briefs spinning across the stage of Flipper’s Roller Disco — that’s the Prince I’ll always remember, and always treasure.