Illustration by Chris Williams
Growing up in Fuquay-Varina, Prince seemed like another universe away, an alien dressed in purple. Maybe it was because my family couldn’t afford cable TV (and cable lines didn’t exist on my tobacco farm, anyway), so I never really got to see him on MTV. Purple Rain
wasn’t shown in the Howard house, either, because it wouldn’t have passed the religious test—way too sexy and probably something to do with some backward-masking paranoia in whatever church we went to at the time.
But I was aware of him, from kids talking at school or from seeing him on posters at Camelot Music in Cary Towne Center. For some reason, Depeche Mode, INXS, and Tom Petty seemed more reachable, so I searched their records out and got to know them better. I guess they played them on the radio more than Prince in North Carolina; “You got an ass like I ain’t ever seen”
probably didn’t get much traction at the Duncan Junction.
Still, Prince found his way into my psyche. I remember the exact time I took notice.
After a football game during my freshman year in high school, all the band kids were packing up their gear and hanging out under the faded fluorescent lights. I wasn’t a band kid, but my dad was the high school football coach, so I was always there late. Two of my band friends, David Strickland and Neil (I can’t remember his last name, sorry Neil!), were sitting down on the sidewalk beside a boom box. All of a sudden, in the loudest distorted volume I’d ever heard, came, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here…”
I turned to look in that direction, and I remember that both guys had the biggest shit-eating grins. They were so pumped to be the ones blaring what I found out later was Prince. It hit me all of a sudden. That intro was all I needed. I was a fan, and I wanted to live in the world that music inhabited. I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.
Fifteen years later, and all of a sudden, Prince was there in front of me, shredding, just ripping up leads on an unplugged purple electric guitar, the one we’ve seen a million times by now, just smiling while looking over at all of us, frozen in shock that Prince
was on stage with us
The night I'm talking about in Minneapolis was one of the coolest things to ever happen to me, but nothing really happened. Prince is just that
cool. All he had to do was just show up at a place, and it was magic. I’m sure every one of the twenty-three members of Gayngs, the band in which I was singing at the time, has told their own version of this story. Here's mine.
It all started early in the night in one of the green rooms beside the stage of Minneapolis's First Avenue. Our manager, Nate, came in, waiting nervously for the first of the two sold-out shows, labeled “The Last Prom on Earth." He told us he just got word that Prince might show up. The Current radio station in Minneapolis had been playing the Gayngs record a lot, and evidently Prince heard it and really liked it. He wanted to come see us at First Avenue, maybe even play with us.
I was the only one in the whole group not from the Midwest or Minneapolis. As I was thinking to myself how awesome this would be, I was interrupted by a bunch of groans about how every band that plays at First Avenue hears the same thing, but that Prince never ever shows up. Then a few of the guys were like, “Well if he does show up, we’re not gonna let him play, anyways"—typical joking around when you think something is never really gonna happen, so you just rail on it for laughs.
We were all really nervous about the shows about to happen in a few hours, anyway. It was the first time we ever played these songs live, and both of the sets were sold out. We were playing to backing tracks and were scheduled to have twenty-three different people come on and off the stage that night. And somehow, I had been appointed the frontman of a giant group were I didn’t really know everyone well. Everything was already hanging by a thread, and the thought of Prince actually showing up was more than most of us could handle.
The first show we played was all-ages, kind of a rehearsal for the second show, just in front of 1,600 more people than usually listened to us in Justin Vernon’s recording studio. It went off pretty well. The drinks and whatever else were starting to flow, and we all were just having a blast. We seemed to have completely forgotten that The Purple One may show.
We got into the next show, and everything was feeling so good. The place felt so alive and fun. We get into playing "Faded High,"
the fastest song in the set. My autotune microphone for the little vocal hook in the song was at the rear of the stage beside Ryan Olson's set up. Gayngs, by the way, is Ryan’s brainchild, so it was cool to stand beside him and basically breeze through this song and take a break.
Then, everything changed.
The stage at First Avenue is surrounded by two huge speaker stacks. While the guys were killing it on "Faded High" (shout out to the bass line Brad Cook was playing), I looked over to stage left and saw a woman who looked like a model in a very tight, cheetah-print mini skirt, walking slowly up the stairs to the stage, wearing what looked like a top hat. I figured maybe she was someone's friend or even another singer. Then I saw a skinny arm in a golden sleeve reach up, take the top hat off her head, and put it on his head. She walked back down the stairs and disappeared. There, before all of us, was Prince. She was there just to wear his hat to the stage. It was the most fascinating entrance I had ever seen, and no one else in the entire building besides the few of us on stage saw it.
Prince put both of his arms up, and a huge man standing behind him gently lowered a purple Stratocaster over Prince’s head and into his waiting arms. I’m thinking, "Jeez, who is this guy?" Then it hit me again: "It’s Prince. And right now he is playing his unplugged electric guitar along to 'Faded High.'" He would bring it up to his ear every now and again to make sure he was playing in the correct key, ripping a solo that I wish I could have heard, too. I elbowed Ryan and said, “Hey man, Prince is here.” He looked up quietly, took a really big breath, and gave me the biggest smile.
Photo by Claire Molepske
Prince, playing for himself
One by one, everyone on stage, all fourteen of us, started to notice Prince, playing guitar. At one point, Prince looked over to all of us and started smiling, still playing a lead no one could hear. “Guys, I’m here," he seemed to be saying. "Let's tear this place apart. What are we waiting for?”
Then, he walked back down the stairs, around the back of the stage, and up the stairs on the opposite side, now behind the other set of speakers. Still hidden from the crowd, he continued to rip a lead, quietly waiting to be Prince. There was an unused guitar amp on stage, too. It was a mixture of the most excited you can be with the most nervous you can be at one time. Before I knew it, the song was over. There was no Prince guitar lead on "Faded High" that night.
I heard that one of the guys on the side of the stage told him to go plug-in to the amp during the song, but who knows. I also heard that, if Prince shows up at your show, you are supposed to stop and introduce him or something like that. We didn't do that.
Anyway, after "Faded High" was finished, Ryan ran down the steps and talked to the man himself. He then told me he had worked it out that Prince was going to come out and play a guitar solo when the balloons dropped during the second part of our song, "Last Prom on Earth."
It was still a couple of songs away. So we played the last two songs with Prince standing beside the stage, smiling and bobbing his head to the music, his guitar hanging from his neck. It felt so surreal to all of us to look over there and see him liking the songs that we all helped make.
And then it was finally time to play "Last Prom on Earth."
The night was coming to a close. We had somehow made it through those two shows, and the greatest performer of all time was going to come out and play the most epic guitar solo of all time as the balloons dropped on a song my friends and I had written together. Who wrote that movie script?
I announced to the audience, still unaware that Prince was even in the building, that we had a special guest. We got through half the song, to the moment right before the balloons were going to drop. I told myself to make sure everything on the stage was ready for Prince, to not stand in his way. I looked back over my right shoulder, where I expected to see him walking. A sliver of fluorescent light caught my eye. It was the back exit of First Avenue being pulled open, and walking out was that same top hat.
Photo by Claire Molepske
"These guys got this covered."
The balloons dropped, and there was no grand guitar solo. We all played the song like nothing ever happened. Maybe I imagined that Prince was going to come out on "Last Prom," but I doubt it. There was some talk that he would come out and play the encore song with us: Howard Jones’ "No One is to Blame."
But I knew that was unlikely. He wrote an abundant amount of infinitely better songs, and I had just seen him leave the building. I always thought it was funny how we managed to get twenty-three people on stage to play, including a guy most of the band only knew as “Dan from work," but somehow not Prince.
I heard that Prince turned to everyone in earshot of him and said something to the effect of “These guys got this covered," meaning we didn't need him. But we did. Selfishly, I wanted to be singing while he played guitar beside me. I wanted for the crowd to go crazy when he came out, but honestly, I’m just happy he was there. I’m just happy I got to be a part of that night.
No matter how it’s told or the way anyone actually remembers it, Prince did come to our Gayngs show. We all got to hang out near him and play music beside him for a little while. Thank you for the story, Prince.