In the wake of Prince’s death, most everyone has shared an emotional tribute to the late great Purple One. This heartfelt reflection came to us by way of Jürgen Fauth, a novelist who most recently caught our attention by setting his latest murder mystery novel, Head Cases Vol I: The Ashakiran Tape, at a Phish concert. Fauth tells us what it means to be a Prince appreciator from the perspective of a Grateful Dead/Phish fan, sharing his personal story from the lens of an experienced writer. Enjoy Fauth’s tale below:
One sweaty August night in 1997, Prince was strutting across the stage of the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, segueing from “Purple Rain” into “Little Red Corvette,” and I felt like I was finally done with him.
The massive ego commandeering the crowd’s attention, the constant exhortations demanding we get funky, the pandering medleys of number one hits that jumped breathlessly from chorus to chorus — this wasn’t what I wanted from live music anymore, it wasn’t my idea of a great show or a respectful performer. When Prince (or rather, at this point, The Artist) informed us from the lip of the stage that “this ain’t a sit-down party,” I wanted to shout back: “That’s for us to decide — you just play the music!”
Once upon a time, Prince had meant the world to me. I was 15 when his Purple Reign began, and he had everything my sleepy German spa town home was missing: swagger, courage, wit, weirdness, psychedelia, pop, rock, funk, sex, and style. Prince was the essential liberating force of my adolescence and my first extended dive into obsessive fandom: collecting every 12″ version and MTV Europe video clip I could get my hands on, watching VHS tapes of Under the Cherry Moon and Sign o’ the Times on repeat while the unfolded LP cover of Parade leered from my wall like a sex-drenched joker. No party was complete without an extended workout of “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” and precious teenage memories still cling to every line of every song. Long before I knew about the Grateful Dead’s taping scene or conceived of writing a detective novel about the hunt for a legendary Phish recording called The Ashakiran Tape, there was the glorious moment in 1988 when I held in my hands a bootleg tape of The Black Album — discovered in the bins of a sketchy record store in the Italian city state of San Marino.
When I finally got to see him for the first time, in Mannheim in 1990, I was primed for a religious experience — and Prince delivered. I distinctly remember a moment during the second encore when the house lights came on and the room turned into a boundless dance party that just happened to have the most talented artist of his generation up on stage. It was the moment when I first felt the borders between audience and musician collapse, the potential of the live experience stretching out before me in all directions, expansive and joyful as the music, leaving the confines of song behind and funking on out towards infinity: This isn’t music, this is a trip.
A few years later, I decamped to the US and, in my search for ever more adventurous live experiences, happened on a little band previously unknown to me called The Grateful Dead. In demeanor and attitude, the Dead were the diametrical opposite of Prince’s persona: instead of grand James-Brown-style entrances, they shambled on stage with their backs to the audience, tuned up for a bit, and then eased into a song without so much as looking up from their instruments. On most nights, leader Jerry Garcia was wearing a black t-shirt and sweatpants, and the sexiest thing on stage were Bob Weir’s knees below his cut-off jeans shorts. Nobody ever spoke into a microphone except to mumble something about setbreak. The Dead were all about getting the ego out of the way and letting the music soar on its own.
From the first time I saw the Dead, in October 1994, it was apparent that Garcia was in ill health, and I latched on with the ferocity of someone who instinctively knew it was going to end soon. I caught the tail end of that trip, managing to squeeze in 13 shows before that last night in Chicago and Garcia’s death in 1995, at 53. I took it hard, flew to San Francisco and slept in Golden Gate Park for the memorial, certain I’d never again hear as sweet and loving a sound as Jerry’s explorative, lyrical guitar.
A year later, I started seeing another band that had absorbed many of the Dead’s principles: not just the extended shows that drew from a huge repertoire and relied on streched-out improvisation, but also an essential humility before the mystery of the music. Even though Phish’s cocky, red-headed guitarist was as good as anyone I’d ever seen, he wasn’t the band’s focus, exactly. The songs mattered more than any one personality, and like a Dead show, the concerts were all about creating versions of that moment I had first tasted in Mannheim: the band and the audience, celebrating the music together with the house lights on. I’d come to understand musicians as vessels, shamans channeling the music from someplace beyond themselves.
That’s the headspace I was in when Prince ran through his greatest hits on that stage in Jackson, Mississippi, and I couldn’t help but feel let down. What I saw was a gigantic ego interfering with the free flow of music, his outsized need for adoration and the constant cheer of the audience leading him to abandon song after song before it could do anything. Here was an incredible musician with one of the greatest repertoires in pop history — why couldn’t he trust the music to speak for itself?
In the middle of the set he played a piano medley: “When Doves Cry” > “Girls & Boys” > “Diamonds & Pearls” > “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” > “Take Me With U” > “Raspberry Beret.” Amazing, right? Dream setlist! Alas, as I remember it, every song consisted of just a little tinkling around until the audience recognized the tune, a half-line of lyrics to get everyone singing along, and then on to the next fragment. We were celebrating his celebrity, cheering at our own familiarity with the songs — and then nothing.
In my emergent headiness, I thought I had the perfect prescription for Prince. I wanted to take him aside and tell him what to do: stop teasing every song for every audience in every town! Why not instead play lower-profile shows with a different, jammed out setlist every night — and please, please stop doing that “Jackson are you getting down tonight?” stuff. Your music is incredible; the hard sell is beneath you.
I’m pretty sure everyone else in that arena had an amazing night, but I had reached the low point of my career as a Prince fan. Luckily, I regained my faith a few hours later — at the aftershow.
It wasn’t exactly secret. Word was going around the coliseum: he would play the Dock, a club on the Jackson reservoir. My friends and I scooted over after the show and waited, locked into a tight space in front of the stage for hours, with a view of the reservoir through large windows on one side. That’s where Prince and his entourage eventually arrived, by boat, swaggering past us a few meters away like an alternate happy ending to Under the Cherry Moon, separated only by a sheet of glass. When he took the tiny club stage, I remember it being filled with fog, Prince small among his band, shrouded in backlight. They played a nine-song set, but it seemed to go on forever, with Prince playing as just one among the other members of the band. No exhortations here, no medleys, no grandstanding — just an unbelievable funk band throwing down in the middle of the night.
Now that he’s gone, that’s how I’ll remember Prince: only half-visible, backlit in the stage fog a few meters away, stretching out “Erotic City” as if it would never have to end: We can fuck until the dawn…
When Garcia died, my first feeling after the shock subsided was gratitude: thankfulness for all the joy, guidance, succor the music had brought me. Only later, it sank in that there wouldn’t be any more. Prince was four years older than Jerry when he died, and no one saw it coming. One of the best tributes I have read so far, by Peter Coviello in LARB, concludes that “Prince is hard to grieve because he is, in an only barely not literal sense, divine.”
It’s that divinity, I think, that I am getting at when I talk about performers channeling music from elsewhere, time standing still or stretching out, audience and performer melding into one seamless experience. Prince’s music, like the music of Phish and the Dead, is fundamentally spiritual and utopian. At the Jackson Coliseum, in my disappointment and arrogance, I had momentarily presumed to know better than he did how to best share it — only to be proven a few hours later that he knew precisely how to best present his music for each specific audience. Like most categories, “megalomaniac” vs. “egoless” didn’t stick to Prince, and he transcended those adjectives just as he toyed with straight/gay, white/black, sacred/profane. He was bigger than that, and he confounded the dualities we threw at him.
A year after the Jackson show, I witnessed Phish open their New Year’s Eve concert at Madison Square Garden with “1999” — and jam it into their own expansive, spacious cow funk. I saw Prince again in 2011, also at the Garden, where he played a show that contained both crowd-pleasing hits and jammed-out rarities like “Anotherloverholinyohead,” a “Love Bizarre” duet with Sharon Jones, and four endless, raucous encores. It was all my Prince fantasies rolled into one triumphant night.
Sometime last year, I showed Under the Cherry Moon to the new woman in my life. She didn’t know it was an important test. The movie is widely maligned as a ridiculous folly, and whether she got it or not mattered. She laughed and ooed at all the right moments, and when it was over, she turned to me and said she understood me better now, knowing how much I’d learned from Prince, how much I moved and danced like him, how many of my gestures, jokes, facial expressions I owed to him. She said I kissed like him.
I suspect she was half kidding and half flattering me, but it doesn’t matter. The night after Jerry died, Bob Weir sang a Dead tune called “Throwin’ Stones,” which culminates in the line: “the future’s here, we are it, we are on our own.” In the years since, we’ve lost and regained Phish (twice) and we’ve learned that the music of the Grateful Dead will outlast us all. Now that Prince is gone, his Princeness lives on in everyone who’s ever been touched by him. It’s up to us to carry as much of his utopian vision, his spirituality, his sensuality, wit, grace, and creativity into the world, with as much fearlessness as we can muster.
Bio: Jürgen Fauth’s most recent book is the Phish murder mystery Head Cases Vol I: The Ashakiran Tape. He divides his time between Berlin and Dakar.