GOODNIGHT SWEET PRINCE
Liz Jones’s love for the leopard-print legend is reignited by a memorable though incomplete exhibition at the O2
My Name Is Prince The O2, London Until January 7
Ever since the day Prince died, on April 21, 2016, I have been unable to listen to his music. It’s just too hard. But how on earth will I cope without him? When I broke up with my first proper boyfriend, I sat by my tape machine, listening to Adore by Prince, over and over again. ‘ You don’t know what you mean to me!’ he sang, in that tremulous falsetto. Even the memory makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Prince was my consoler. When he died, there was no one left to do that job.
And so it was with trepidation I went along last week to the world premiere of the new exhibition celebrating his life. As I did, all those old feelings of unrequited love bubbled – I will definitely never marry him now!
I remember my dad driving me to Chelmsford, just so I could buy the album Parade on the day of its release in 1986. I was disappointed, not at the music but because the album was just far too short. For all my adult life, I simply couldn’t get enough of Prince: I saw him, front row, on 17 consecutive nights at Wembley; by night ten, he would fold his tiny arms, shrug, roll those enormous eyes and look at me as if to say: ‘Oh no. Not you again.’
So. It’s me again, Prince. Gasping anew at the album cover of Dirty Mind, Prince in a pair of bikini briefs against an upturned bedspring. He had a one-track mind, and for a virgin like me he was my only introduction to sex, and boy did he set a high bar.
While this exhibition is tiny compared to the 2013 Bowie retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Prince beat him hands down in the love stakes. Bowie’s most romantic line was ‘I absolutely love you’. Prince, on 1988’s Lovesexy (that album was a first, in that P made it seamless, so you had to listen in the order he dictated), writes: ‘ Race cars burn rubber in my pants.’ Crikey!
But even better than seeing all the album covers again in what is a (thankfully) chronological tour through his voracious work ethic – and watching the videos on big screens (my heart still leaps at my all-time favourite, Alphabet Street, where you can see those mascara’d lashes close over green eyes) – is the wonderful array of costumes. The slightly shabby purple trench from and Purple Rain. The baby-blue cloud play suit from Raspberry Beret. The peach all-in-one from the 1987 Sign O’ The Times tour, which reminds me my ticket stub for the Paris leg dictated the audience all wear peach or black; gosh, he was bossy! His rather sad box of Chanel and Mac make-up and
Dove soap. The case con- taining his shoes (he had them custom-made by a cobbler in Old Street, London, of all places) with the four-inch heels, the concealed platform. It all feels so vulnerable, these relics of a man I thought so out of reach, so magical. He was human, after all.
My only gripes are that the exhibition feels far from exhaus t ive. I’d have loved videos from the people he worked with: the president of the UK fan club (hello, Eileen!); Cathy Glover, his elusive dancer; and Susannah Melvoin, the love of his life (bitch!). And there could have been a snatch of his film Under The Cherry Moon, just so you could see his bare feet running across the floor (the only time he is unshod, on record) and notes from fans, too: P was always so gracious, giving us front-row seats, and special releases.
There are lots of leopard-print guitars here, but I’d have loved to have seen the white-buttoned crop top and sombrero from Kiss; his 1985 Oscar for Purple Rain; and the cage where he kept two doves, Diamond and Pearl, on the atrium at Paisley Park, his lavender-scented HQ in Minneapolis. Sent to interview him back in 1996, the first words I uttered were: ‘Prince. Those doves really shouldn’t be confined.’ He was both shocked and amused.
What’s clear from this exhibition, though, is that Prince bent gender rules so far they snapped. I don’t even think Prince was a man: that’s far too pedestrian; he wore a Carmen Miranda turban, for God’s sake! He used lesbian mirrored imagery in the video for When Doves Cry. He wrote probably the best song, ever: If I Was Your Girlfriend. And he made up new rules for what it is to be sexy.
I wish his costumes – all with that toreador high waist to lengthen his legs – had been displayed at floor height, not on plinths, so visitors could stand next to all 4ft 10in of him (I saw his passport when I was researching his biography; it stated his distinguishing feature was ‘dwarfism’; they really should have said ‘genius’) and marvel at the power from such a little man.
Much has been made of the fact those heels meant his joints suffered, meaning he died from an addiction to painkillers. But if he had been of normal height, he wouldn’t have had to nurture such a dirty mind, or such a great sense of humour. My favourite item on show is his handwritten (in purple pen!) script for Purple Rain. For one scene, he writes: ‘Lisa and Wendy coming out of house. Obviously not day people.’
At the exit to the exhibition, as well as the inevitable shop, is a wire fence and a shrine where fans can leave scribbled notes. At first I thought this was a bit mawkish. But I left mine. It was just one word. ‘Thanks.’
As P would say, life is just a party. And parties aren’t meant to last.
Clockwise from left: chainmail policeman’s hat from 1993; ‘Symbol’ mic stand; Prince on stage in 1984; Raspberry Beret cloud suit; Purple Rain coat