“My name is Prince, and I’ve come to play with you,” the intense young man said as he rose on a platform from beneath the stage of Nassau Coliseum Sunday night. Fortunately, Prince works hard at purveying the pleasure principle, which made most of his two hours on stage exhilarating.
Prince made his reputation as an exponent of sex as salvation. Previous shows featured obvious representations of his spiritual satyrism, from oversized crucifixes to undersized bikini underwear.
There were still remembrances of a dirty mouth and dirty mind in the new show, which was nevertheless less salacious than those in years past. In command of a mass audience rather than a cult, Prince knows better than to go over the line between titillation and tastelessness. “I know I said I’d be good, but they dig it when I’m bad,” he said at one point, turning over responsibility for the show’s content to the audience.
The show’s most extreme moment came near the end, at which time Prince climbed some stairs on the stage with the deliberation, fear and awe of Moses approaching the burning bush. His destination: A giant purple tub. “Do you wanna spend the night? Do you wanna take a bath with me?” he chortled as he raised his hips heavenward.
I guess you could call such an exhibition good clean fun. Prince’s show was based on a sturdy foundation of show business tradition, especially those developed by previous sexy but mainstream black stars such as Jackie Wilson and James Brown. Wilson was a notoriously abandoned and impassioned hip grinder in the late 1950s. Brown, of course, set the standard for suggestive theatrical gyration, and is as big an influence in 1985 on Prince as he was in 1965 on Mick Jagger.
The quasi-spiritual business is Prince’s own wrinkle. His opening song, “Let’s Go Crazy,” began with an intonation that is perhaps the clearest explanation of his philosophy. “Dearly beloved,” he recited, as a church organ moaned, “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life . . . this life thing’s much harder than in the afterworld . . . and if the elevator tries to bring you down, go crazy.”
He did, too, with James Brown splits and Jackie Wilson knee-dives, with Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitar sweeps: Traditional show business at a high level of execution. The first run of songs was manic, peak-experience stuff, seemingly impossible to sustain. The message was in the titles: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Delirious,” “1999” (with its organ introduction borrowed cleverly from The Band’s 1968 “Chest Fever”), “Little Red Corvette” and “Take Me With U.” Quoth Prince: “You ain’t seen nuthin yet.”
He was almost right. The set didn’t falter until almost the end. The three-keyboard treatment of “The Beautiful Ones” seemed marginal, and the guitar introduction to the finale, “Purple Rain,” lasted longer than the song. But “Baby, I’m a Star,” with Jerome Benton leading a conga line of dancers across the stage, gave zip to the final phase, while Wendy Melvoin’s guitar solo on “When Doves Cry” was the embodiment of the set — muscular, passionate and soaring.