It was Christmas break 1981. I was home from my first semester of college. I got a call from the box office of the Houston Summit where I worked part-time as a ticket seller, but usually only in the summer. The manager, whose name escapes me now, explained that it was a little half-house show and given how close it was to Christmas it was a little tough to get anyone to come in. I was on the list to work the Willie Nelson New Year’s Eve show, so she knew I was in town and figured I’d like to get another night in. And she was right.
I loved working the Summit Box Office. I’d gotten on there because a lot of the folks from the Astrodome Ticket Office also worked up there and they always needed sellers for the Ringling Brothers Circus every year. It was a fun bunch. It’s where I learned that the plexiglass on the front of a ticket booth isn’t to protect the seller from the public, it’s to protect the public from the seller. I will never forget as long as I live the night one of my co-workers — a very experienced guy — completely lost it with a customer and went up on the counter. We had to pull him off the top and drag him back. He was reaching up under the plexiglass screaming he was going to kill the guy. The hardest part? Not cracking up laughing as we were doing it. He was to the left of me. The guy two windows down never stopped selling. It was spectacular. It was also a couple of years after my current story.
So I get down there and buzzed into the office to get my drawer checked out. I passed a bunch of kids coming in and it was quite the fashion show. It wasn’t punk, really, but there was a lot of hair gel propping up structures that physics wouldn’t normally allow. It was a very androgynous. Somewhere along the line I picked up that the act was a “he.”
“Who is this guy?” I ask Rob, the assistant manager as I was checking out my drawer.
“I don’t know. Some guy named Prince.”
“Yeah, I never heard of him. Seems to be popular, though.”
Since it was only a half-house show we only opened one side of the box office. It wasn’t super busy. The kids came up, pushed their money over the counter and went on their way. There was a lot of time to make cracks about some of the outfits we saw. I was just out of high school myself, but what struck me was how young these kids coming to the show were.
There was a monitor in the main part of the office that showed what was being projected on the scoreboard in the arena. Right around the time the show was supposed to start the manager came out to put out the promoter return tickets. I doubt it’s still this way, but in those days it wasn’t a bad strategy to walk into a show right at showtime and get a ticket. If you got the right window there was a good chance that you’d get a ticket that the promoter didn’t give away for whatever reason. That’s one of the things that went away when Ticketmaster took over. Anyway, the show was just kicking off and she made a comment about how elaborate the stage was for a half-house show. As the first set went on we heard the sound on the monitor being turned up. Windows were being closed one at a time, but I could hear through the door that no one was leaving.
When I finally closed up about a half hour in I saw what all the commotion was about. The stage was packed with gear and people. The music was intense and full of energy. The backdrop behind the stage was backlit and there was a multilevel catwalk silhouetted against it. In the middle of it all there was this tiny guy with hair a lot like what we’d been seeing in the crowd all night. He was everywhere. He’d moved like a jungle cat. The guitar seemed to be nothing more than another appendage. He’d play it, then sling it around and walk to some keyboards that someone else was playing. They’d vacate and he’d take over without missing a beat. Then he’d go running up onto the catwalk. He’d disappear behind the backdrop and the backlights would come up. There would be silhouettes of women and men with him and there would be these sexually-charged dances that were utterly mesmerizing. He must have worn layers of costumes because there were times it appeared he’d discarded all his clothing, but when he popped out from behind the backdrop he was fully dressed. Well, mostly anyway. More than you thought he’d be. If I could use only one word it would be ‘kinetic.’ If I could use another I woudn’t and I’d just say ‘kinetic’ again.
A bunch of us wound up going up and watching a lot more of the show. I didn’t stay to the end because I hadn’t really wanted to work too late. I don’t really regret it because by the time I left my brain was pretty much overloaded. I knew at the time I’d seen something special. I have never seen a show anything like it since.
And apparently I never will again
Rest in peace, oh Purple One.