*I used to get my mail at The Forum. Not literally. But as a young writer in Los Angeles covering the pop/R&B scene during the musically magical ’70s, I made the pilgrimage to the 18,000 seat arena so often that I should have had my own parking space.
Built in 1967 for the Los Angeles Lakers (who relocated to the Staples Center in 1999), the “Fabulous” Forum routinely hosted exhibitions of greatness by such Masters of the Universe as Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isleys 3+3, the Commodores and Rufus featuring Chaka Khan.
For me, the Forum was a classroom. There I learned how to watch an arena show–how to discern the distinction between good and great and the utterly horrible.
The Forum is where I witnessed George Clinton and Parliament land the Mothership. It was in this building that Michael Jackson gave two of the most important performances of his storied career and life–the first in 1970 during the Jackson 5’s debut Los Angeles concert, which broke Forum attendance records, and in 2009 during the filmed “This Is It” rehearsals that took place at the Forum (and Staples Center) shortly before his untimely death.
At the Forum, I learned that the Ohio Players, no matter how many top ten hits they scored, had an apparent aversion to sound checks. I discovered the difference between the average hit black act and the big time white boys (quality sound and lights).
Making my way back to the Forum to hear music after more than 20 years was like returning to my alma mater. Returning there to see Prince–his “Welcome 2 America” tour has booked 21 nights there–was like having the act playing your school reunion be an honor student named, well, Prince.
I was on hand when the class bell rang for Prince. The year was 1979, during his very first Los Angeles performance, a short, chaotic and embarrassingly amateur set at the Roxy Theater. Prince strut the small stage in thigh-high boots and disturbingly brief bikini briefs, tossing his permed, shoulder-length hair so much that it resembled a tic. Animal print may have been involved. It wasn’t good. Just two years later, a transformed Prince played the Santa Monica Civic, nearly burning the place down with an extended version of “Let’s Work.” He got me.
I spent the next years keeping an eye and ear on a brash and ferociously ambitious young artist who unrepentantly fused pop, soul, rock and later even jazz forms. He challenged the perennially inequitable conventions of the music industry by leaving Warner Brothers, the label that helped make him a star, and became the first major artist to sell his recordings on the Internet.
I’ve seen my share of Prince shows. I’ve endured the man’s capriciousness both musically and personally, having been flown to Minneapolis in 1991 for the honor of being the only person on the soundstage of his Paisley Park compound not in his band or employ allowed to watch him rehearse. Disarmingly charming that afternoon, later in the evening at Glam Slam, his nightclub, Prince was purposefully petulant, accusing me of, among other things, “always writing some weird shit about me.” This from a man who once changed his name to a symbol.
But on Friday night at the Forum, when the meticulously elegant and beautiful Prince mechanically rose up from the center of that very symbol–the show is in the round, with a giant version of the insignia serving as the stage–any memories of schoolyard pettishness gave way to giddy anticipation. Basking in the white hot roar of idol worship, Prince sauntered the expanse of his personal Yin Yang logo, coyly ratcheting up the tension. “Y’all ready for me?” he teased rhetorically into the mic. Let me answer that: I’ve been ready for this evening ever since the Beatles broke up; since Sly Stone lost his mojo, ever since James Brown’s once brilliant performances became sadly irrelevant.
I’ve been ready ever since Mike passed. Barbara Mason can’t be more ready than I am. I’ve been ready–and mourning–ever since the bar for what currently passes for genuine, inspired talent fell so depressingly and shamelessly low that roaches bump their heads going under it. Yes, I do believe I’m ready. Please bring it.
And Prince did, managing to represent more than 30 years of his music, from the B-side classic, “She’s Always In My Hair,” to mainstream crowd favorites “Take Me With U,” “Raspberry Beret,” “U Got The Look” and “Cream.”
Because Prince invites musical guests and friends onstage during the tour, the show had the feel of an old school revue. Alicia Keys joined him in a duet of a Prince song she recorded, “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” (the following night featured Chaka Khan and thumping bass legend Larry Graham), and before he hit the stage, Prince gave time to Minneapolis stalwarts Mint Condition, featuring the band’s ridiculously talented lead singer Stokley. Later Prince left the stage to New Power Generation band vocalist Shelby J., who sang the Dorothy Moore soul classic, “Misty Blue.”
However, Prince and his band, including a trio of female back up singers and a sexy dance duo called The Twinz, didn’t spend much time with ballads. When His Royal Badness (I know. I’m dusting it off and using it) wasn’t shredding some monstrous lead guitar, he was laying down the irresistibly funky rhythm that turned the Forum into a massive house party.
Imagine nearly 18,000 people (including Sheila E. and the ever dancing Cuba Gooding, Jr., both of whom Prince pulled up from the audience), middle-aged, young and older and of all colors, on their feet, shaking a collective tail feather to “Controversy,” “DMSR,” “Let’s Work” and Prince’s versions of the Kool and the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” and a whiff of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” which morphed into the Prince-penned Morris Day and The Time anthem, “Cool.”
At 53, Prince has become the consummate showman. Sure, the splits and spins are mostly gone. However, there is something infinitely more exciting to watch: the charismatic and funky style, verve and ingenuity, subtle and dramatic, with which Prince plays, sings and dances. All at once, all the time.
There very well could be an undiscovered someone in the backwoods of Mississippi working part-time for UPS who is better. Not saying there isn’t an unknown talent somewhere who can’t give him a run for his money. But as established popular performers go, from the youngest to the oldest, in all genres, I dare say the stunning amalgamation of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Sammy DavisJr., Prince is the baddest cat on the planet.
There were maybe three encores, but we could all see those coming, so they didn’t really count. No, what much of this crowd waited for was the moment when Prince seemed to REALLY be gone. According to the tweets and texts of fans from previous tour stops, Prince “definitively” leaves the stage, only to return and jam two or three more songs. No matter how final things look, they implored, DON’T LEAVE.
And so, remarkably, long after the last notes of “Purple Rain” had been played and Prince and band had disappeared through the hole in the stage; after the house lights came on and stayed on, after maintenance people nonchalantly began to sweep up the purple confetti “rain,” half the Forum’s sold-out audience stayed put.
We chanted, “We want Prince.” We sang the woo-whoo-whoo-whoo that is “Purple Rain”‘s refrain. We did the wave. We made phone calls. Tweeted and texted (well, they did). We went to pee and came back. We socialized with strangers. We resuscitated another round of whoos. We booed technicians who had the audacity to unplug a keyboard or a microphone. We sat for what seemed nearly an hour, watching, waiting, hoping, yearning for yet another encore.
Suddenly, a segment of the crowd burst into cheers and yells. The house lights weren’t going down; no one was taking the stage. But down on the floor of the Forum, resplendent and every hair in place was Prince–impishly pedaling a cream colored bicycle through the aisles, trailed by a phalanx of beefy, nervous Forum security people. Fans were running, screaming and taking cell phone pictures. Prince hastily made his way back to the roped off area near the stage before departing through a tunnel. We waited a few more minutes and finally headed for the exits.
I climbed the steps toward an exit and in my head wistfully bid what truly felt like my final farewell to the Fabulous Forum. That is, unless I can score another ticket.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].