TOUR DE FORCE
THIS WEEK WILL MARK SIX MONTHS SINCE PRINCE’S DEATH. HERE, MUSIC INDUSTRY INSIDERS RECALL HIS FINAL VISIT TO LOCAL SHORES
A behind-the-scenes look at Prince’s last ever Australian tour, as insiders reveal his heartbreak at the loss of his former girlfriend.
Prince’s Australian promoter Paul Dainty was particularly blindsided by the superstar’s shock death on April 21. When the news broke, Dainty was already in negotiations for a return tour – the singer should have been back in Australia next month.
Prince had previously chosen Dainty to launch his Piano & A Microphone tour in Australia in February. “We had no clue anything was wrong,” says Dainty. “As soon as he left there were emails racing back and forth from his office about coming back in November. We had dates on hold and budgets drawn up… There was no sign of any trouble.”
Dainty, who has toured the likes of ABBA, David Bowie and Michael Jackson, had brought Prince here three times before – in 1992, 2003 and 2012. He was used to operating on “Princetime” and
the last-minute call to action: Dainty was given just three weeks notice to organise the tour that started in Melbourne on February 16. He quickly booked two nights at Melbourne’s State Theatre and “lucked out” securing the Sydney Opera House. He also locked in two shows in Auckland – the singer’s first trip to New Zealand.
“Prince said, ‘I want to do two shows a night,’” says Dainty. “We worked out 6.30pm and 10pm. But on the last arena tour, he’d do three-hour shows then go back to the hotel, shower, get changed, go out to a club and play for another two hours there. So it wasn’t that unusual.”
What was unusual was the downsizing of the tour – Prince arrived in Australia with just three other people: a bodyguard, a sound man and a business manager. Then, just hours before his first gig, Prince learnt his ex-girlfriend Vanity (real name Denise Matthews) had died in the US, aged 57, due to renal failure.
The pair met in 1980, with Prince naming her “Vanity” as he felt looking at her was like looking at the female version of himself. He also created a band around her, Vanity 6, and gave her the female lead in his 1984 film Purple Rain, although the role was re-cast when the pair later broke up. Vanity went on to date Adam Ant and Billy Idol.
The news of her passing shattered Prince. “He found out a few hours before he was due onstage,” says Dainty. “One of the guys around him said, ‘Oh, we’ve got a problem.’ You wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d got the call saying he needs to postpone the show for 24 hours, he’s too much in grief. But he went on. He was very emotional onstage.”
During that evening’s show, Prince stated: “I’m trying to stay focused, it’s a little heavy for me tonight,” and later, “She loved me for the artist I was, I loved her for the artist she was trying to be.”
Vanity’s death also curtailed Prince’s usual afterparties. “He was grieving,” explains Dainty. “He turned up, he did the shows, he went back to the hotel. The second night in Melbourne he went to a club, but he didn’t perform. He danced a bit until 3am, then left. Otherwise he was at the venue 30 minutes before showtime. We had the dressing room set up beautifully for him. I think he maybe sat in it for 10 minutes.”
Photographer Justine Walpole met Prince in Brisbane on his 2012 tour, to take the snaps Prince’s security stopped both media and fans from taking. Where other rockstars were deep in debauchery backstage after a concert, Prince would be approving photos of himself taken that night. “That is unusual,” admits Walpole. “You don’t normally shoot a concert and give the photos to the artist or their PR people.”
Prince flew to Sydney for shows on February 20 and 21 at the Opera House, where Walpole would again photograph him. Meanwhile, after getting goosebumps at his previous shows, Dainty had organised to record Prince in Sydney. “I set it all up and the day before I was told, ‘Prince doesn’t want to do it anymore,’” he says. “I’ve said it a thousand times since: if only we could have filmed that show, how valuable would a recording of that be?”
After returning to Melbourne, Walpole was summoned for what would be the Purple One’s final photo shoot. Prince did his own hair and make-up; he was fussy about his image and how it was used. “He was incredibly controlling of images of himself. If he didn’t like it he’d say, ‘No. Delete it,’” says Walpole.
Prince then flew to New Zealand to play two shows in Auckland on February 24. Things got interesting behind the scenes. A show was announced for Perth, but it wasn’t Dainty’s doing, rather rival promoter Live Nation.
It’s almost unheard of for one artist to play shows for different promoters on the same tour. Vice president of Live Nation, Luke Hede, had been talking to Prince about doing a show in Western Australia. “He wanted to go to Perth as he’d never been there,” says Hede. “We announced it on February 11 for a show on February 25. It was on sale for literally less than two weeks. That’s the fastest turnaround I’ve ever worked on.”
There was just one problem: the to-prince’s-exact-specifications piano, that had been found in Melbourne and flown to Sydney and Auckland, couldn’t make it to Perth within the 24-hour turnaround. “Prince could make the show on a private jet, he flew straight to Perth after the show in Auckland, but they couldn’t fit the piano on the jet,” says Hede. “So they got his purple piano from his studio at Paisley Park [in the US] and sent it to Perth for that one show.”
Some fans believed the reason Prince was sitting at a piano on this tour was due to long-rumoured hip issues. “We knew he was having some hip pains,” says Dainty. “But that didn’t stop him doing two shows a night.”
Hede saw no visible hip ailment in Perth. “Prince was jumping around onstage and literally dancing on the piano,” he says. “After the concert, we got a call to take his piano to Crown Perth… He’s renowned for doing these late-night shows/afterparties. At around 1am he got up onstage, got the venue to turn all the lights off and did remixes of his songs on the keyboard. It was incredible. That was technically his last Australian performance.”
Prince returned to the US for a string of solo shows – unbeknown to those who were at his concert in Atlanta on April 14, it would be his last. Just one week later he was tragically found dead at Paisley Park, following an accidental overdose of the opioid fentanyl. He was 57.
Walpole hadn’t noticed any difference in Prince’s behaviour during their time together in Australia two months prior. “He was the same Prince I’d always known. I was in total shock,” she says. “He still had so much energy.”
In July, Dainty won a Helpmann Award for Best International Contemporary Concert for the Prince tour. “The word ‘genius’ is used too loosely,” says Dainty. “But there is no other word for Prince.”
THE NEWS OF HER PASSING SHATTERED PRINCE: “HE FOUND OUT A FEW HOURS BEFORE HE WAS DUE ONSTAGE. BUT HE WENT ON. HE WAS VERY EMOTIONAL”