Archive for April 2016
My closest brush with fame — actually with the two most personally impactful musical icons I’ve ever been in the presence of, Prince and Miles Davis — happened on New Year’s Eve of 1987. I was 15 years old, almost 16. As a combined Christmas and birthday present, my dad and stepmom brought me along to a gala fundraising dinner and concert for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, hosted by Prince at Paisley Park, his studio complex in suburban Minneapolis, where he was found dead on Thursday.
As we were shown to our table in the sound stage where the dinner was held, I looked around the room and began to recognize a few faces. At the next table to our right were Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, and Quincy Jones. And at the table to our left, slightly hunched over and wearing his trademark wraparound shades, sat Miles Davis.
As a precocious budding jazz musician, I couldn’t waste the opportunity to say hello to a master. I walked up to Miles and said, awkwardly: “Excuse me, Miles. I just wanted to say thank you for everything you’ve done. My name’s Leif, I play jazz flute, and I’m a huge fan.”
He sipped his drink, cocked his head and quickly shot back in his gravelly voice, “You play the piano?”
“Uh…yeah. I’m taking jazz piano lessons, too,” I stammered.
“Always learn to play the piano first! Hmph.” He said it with a bark and jerked his head away with a that’s-all-the-time-you’re-gonna-get-kid finality.
I said a meek “Thanks” and walked away thinking “What an asshole.” Looking back, though, I know how right he was. And I can respect the efficiency with which he dealt out that advice, which he probably gave to many adoring fans who accosted him wherever he went.
As we ate dinner Prince was nowhere to be found. But after dessert, as the staff rolled away the tables and chairs in preparation for the concert, I went down the hall to the bathroom. As I reached out to open the door, it flung open, nearly hitting me. I stepped back as this little waif of a man in 4-inch platform boots and a tight purple body suit shuffled out, looked up at me from under his tall plume of black hair and said, in a high-pitched voice, “Oh, excuse me.” I froze, transfixed, as he scurried down the hall toward the room where he would take the stage a few minutes later.
Prince’s show that night was mind-blowing. One set that must’ve gone on for well over two hours. Miles joined him onstage for several songs, jamming along on his muted trumpet, staring at his feet, mostly with his back to the crowd, throwing in a few sparse fills and stabs here and there, as was his style.
The most memorable part was actually Sheila E’s drum solo. Her drum kit was like Alex Van Halen’s — two huge bass drums, a sea of tom-toms, and at least 6 huge cymbals. Near the end of the show, Prince introduced her, then he and the rest of the band exited the stage to let her have the spotlight.
Sheila looked like a goddess in her white spandex unitard, as she slowly built her solo, showing off every instrument in her massive set. It came in waves, each one building with a crescendo louder than the one before, till she was playing so loud and hard she started breaking her drum sticks. She would break one, grab another from her quiver and keep going, break another, and continue on again. By the end she was on her feet, banging on the toms and cymbals till she had no sticks left. But she was in an altered state. Throwing her entire body into it, hair flailing and sweat flying, she finished by pounding the cymbals with her fists over and over until she couldn’t go any longer. Her knuckles must have been bruised and bloody.
I don’t know how long her solo lasted. It might’ve been 5 minutes, 10 minutes, a half hour. I could’ve stood there all night, leaning against the edge of the stage barely 10 feet away. It was like watching the goddess Kali in a musical rage, the closest thing to sex that I had had.
To this day, that drum solo, and the entire night, stands as one of the most transcendent musical experiences of my life.
Thank you, dear Prince. Rest in peace.
(And big thanks to my dear friend, the wonderful violist Christen Lien, for posting the above photo on Facebook, along with her own musings about what both Miles Davis and Prince have meant to her as a musician. That’s what jogged this beautiful memory out of the dusty back shelves of my brain.)