It still hasn’t sunk in. Prince Rodgers Nelson has died. Last night, thousands of people gathered at an impromptu block party in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis to sing Purple Rain and tonight Bournemouth Pier will be purple in his honour.
I’ll be thinking of the time I saw him perform at 3am at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho after waiting in the rain for 13 hours. It was the best gig of my life. I don’t think anything could ever come close. I don’t know if it was the anticipation, exhaustion from standing up for over 18 hours, or if it’s because Prince jamming his best hits is as magical as you’d expect.
I asked Nick Lewis, operations manager at Ronnie Scott's, if that night was really as good as I remember:
“It's a long story involving a show that didn't happen, 24 hour queues to get in, purple dressing rooms, Moroccan carpets and lanterns, A-list celebs getting booed on their way in, £1,300 bottles of cognac and much more. Needless to say, musically it was fantastic. We have never quite fully recovered from that night.”
In 2014, from Lianne LaHavas' living-room in Leyton, Prince announced he would be playing a series of gigs at "iconic venues in and around London". The tour would be like no other. Nothing would be announced before hand. No one knew the prices of tickets, where they would take place or what time they would start.
In an interview for Adam Buxton’s podcast Lianne said she first struck up a friendship with Prince after he called her in a noisy bar. The number came up as withheld, and as she asked who was calling, Prince quipped “I think you know who this is”.
They continued to stay in touch, sending the odd message back and forth. After they exchanged greetings at New Years, he mentioned he was coming to London and Lianne invited him to come and jam at her house. The gig turned into a semi-press conference and the first stop on Prince’s new infamous Hit and Run tour.
I’ve always liked Prince but towards my late teens I became obsessed. I spent hours in clubs pestering DJs to play his stuff. I swapped Spotify for Tidal when he ditched the streaming service in favor of one that gave him more control. So when I heard he was playing a series of secret gigs in London, I made it my mission to see him.
On the Monday night, rumours started circulating on Twitter that Prince was planning an appearance in Soho the next day. So a group of friends and I decided to head down in the morning.
We began waiting in line at around 10am. By 11am, it already looked like some of us wouldn’t get in. The line was about 40 people deep and Ronnie Scott's is an intimate venue. We managed to track down the number of a friend of a friend that worked at the venue but by the time we called them at midday, their phone was switched off, no doubt already inundated with similar requests for inside information. So we decided to wait instead.
By 8 pm, we were soaked. It rained. And then it rained some more. It rained when we were huddled underneath the awning of a restaurant. It rained when we weren’t. Some of us couldn’t hack it. One friend left after seven hours because he had to get up early for work the next day, only to return half an hour later because his mum had shouted at him for choosing a good night’s sleep over the opportunity to see Prince live.
I asked my friend Barney who queued with me what stuck out for him during those 13 hours.
“Remember that Scottish head teacher who was about 50 years old? Remember how she was going on about being licked from her head to her toes? Prince made normal upstanding members of society lose their shit.”
Everyone I’ve met who saw Prince on that tour has a story to tell. When the editor of Little Atoms was waiting for Prince to come on stage during a Valentine’s day gig, a fan began screaming “I love you Prince”, only for the Purple One to walk up to the microphone and remark “What do you know about love?” before launching in Raspberry Beret.
As we got closer to the entrance, celebrities began pouring into the venue. Kate Moss was booed as she cut in front of hundreds of eager fans. Stephen Fry was blinded by paparazzi. The doors opened and the line hardly went down before security said Ronnie’s was full, but Prince would be doing a second gig later that night. No one knew when or if it would even happen, but we had come this far already. Finally, at 2am, we were let in. Three rows from the front we were treated to his best, including Sign O’ The Times, When Doves Cry, A Love Bizarre, Pop Life, 17 Days I Would Die 4 U, a cover of Steve Wonder’s Superstition, Purple Rain and Let’s Go Crazy.
Wearing what looked like velour trousers and a beanie, Prince gave us the night of our lives. No one could have guessed he’d already over-performed for the first lot. But you could tell he was addicted to it. He showed a level of professionalism I’ve never seen in anyone. Nothing was below perfect.
It was that attitude that obviously made him what he was. His sense of ease on stage made the whole thing feel that bit more intimate.
When asked during a rare interview in 2011 if he felt most at peace when playing music he replied “I can feel pretty peaceful doing other things as well,” with a saucy glare.
That’s Prince for you. Even in later life, when he turned his back on his flirty lyrics and banned all cursing from his gigs, he still hinted at that that sense of fun, sex and glamour that made his work so infectious. In terms of live music nothing ever will compare to him.