Prince in the Páirc

The summer of 1990 is fondly recalled in Ireland by those of a certain age, and especially so in Cork. We’ve already referenced these magical few months, on the playing fields and in the pubs and clubs, in several other posts and those are available here.

That three month period was dominated, to a large extent, by Ireland’s exploits at the World Cup Finals in Italy and, at home, by Cork’s quest for an unlikely All-Ireland hurling and football double at senior level. But there were plenty of other diversions that summer too, far from the madness in Genoa, Palermo and Rome, but no less unprecedented. Easily the biggest crowd to gather in Páirc Uí Chaoimh during 1990 came not to hail Cork’s hurling and football heroes but, rather, a diminutive American performer with the physical cutting of Joe Deane but who presented more with the attitude of a Kieran Donaghy, as a self-styled bling-dripper.

On Saturday, July 7th, 1990, a crowd cited by the organisers at 60,000 filed down The Marina in brilliant sunshine to see Prince, by then one of the most cavalier figures in contemporary pop music. The explosion in the scale of music video production had helped to propel him and his randy, funk-fuelled pop songs into the mainstream’s bullseye and, beyond the potty mouth and beneath the burlesque live shows, was a gritty and smart writer and producer. Several of those Prince singles from 1980 onwards are still essential to any self-respecting collection, even if many of his albums are far too opaque for the day-trippers and the four-gigs-a-year set.

But basking in the global after-glow of ‘Sign O’ The Times’ and ‘LoveSexy’, he was, by the summer of 1990, one of the most interesting writers and performers of the period even if, with an over-reliance on cheap metaphors and innuendo, he routinely sailed close to parody. But he’d earned the right to be bored too and, plugging a lavish but difficult ‘Batman’ soundtrack, and ahead of the release of ‘Graffiti Bridge’, there was a sense that the ‘Nude’ tour was some sort of fin-de-siecle statement, musically scaled-back and, in terms of content, far more lateral than what had been the recent norm.

Michael Jackson – then unquestionably The King of Pop – had performed back- to-back shows at the same venue a couple of years previously and killed it, more or less. And yet, on one level, the more subtle and nuanced aspects of his sublime set – and there were many – were lost in the wind whipping up over The Atlantic Pond. The vast, unforgiving spread of Páirc Uí Chaoimh had splintered many a big reputation over the years and, heading down to The Old Bowl to review the Prince show for The Cork Examiner, I summoned up my inner Carrie Bradshaw and wondered if, perhaps, Prince was maybe a bit too flaky and intermediate to deliver on such a stage ?

Parts of the run-up to the Oliver Barry promoted event were especially bizarre. Much had been made of Prince’s lasciviousness and it was suggested in some of the more mischievous sections of the media that he was likely to defile the holy ground with his filthy-talk and horny carry-on. A large bed – big enough for eight or ten, apparently – was, it seemed, the centre-piece of the stage design. There was talk of a simulated sex-show, lesbian backing singers and strippers and many speculated about what exactly Prince might get up to in front of The City End.

Cork has always done indignation and outrage far better than almost anywhere else. Two years previously, The Cork Film Festival’s scheduling of Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ had been pre-empted by similar kinds of talk and the screening was disrupted by protesters outside The Opera House after Bishop Murphy determined the film to be blasphemous. A counter demonstration on the night by an all-female group, clad in white robes and calling themselves The Handmaidens Of Ballinspittle, met fire with fire and matched rosary with rosary while, in the foyer of the theatre, security checks and body-searches were carried out on those attending.

With this still fresh in the memory, one of the local newspapers put the issue of Prince’s live performances to the then chairman of the Cork County Board, Denis Conroy. A long-serving grandee from the Carrigtwohill club, Conroy wouldn’t have been known for his taste in contemporary funk but even so, and with his usual grace under pressure, acknowledged the concerns of the GAA on the matter of Prince’s sexual pecadilleos. ‘We’re going to have to sit down with Prince and discuss this’, he told The Evening Echo. There is no evidence that such a meeting ever took place but quite what Prince made of Cork, a city then on it’s knees, also remains undocumented. What we know for certain is that, thirty minutes after he finished a lack-lustre sixteen-song show in Ballintemple, he was out of town on a private jet to London, never to return.

I’d turned 22 years-old the month before Prince and his entourage pulled into Cork and I couldn’t get over the wonder of myself. I’d been writing regular pieces for The Examiner for a while and proposed, as one does, that I review the show for the paper’s edition of Monday, July 9th. That article appeared on a full-page devoted to Prince’s brief encounter in Cork, surrounded by colour pieces by Ralph Riegel and Vincent Power and featuring the pretty ace photography of Maurice O’Mahony and Paddy Barker. And we’ve re-produced the text below.

From Vincent’s piece, we learned that Prince spent a total of six hours in a suite in Jury’s Hotel on The Western Road on the day of the show during which he ‘relaxed throughout Saturday afternoon by listening to CDs of Stevie Wonder and Anita Baker’ in rooms that were decorated ‘on Prince’s instructions, with five magnificent floral arrangements, prepared by local florists to his exact requirements’. We were informed too that ‘the entire block of rooms where Prince, his band and tour handlers relaxed was protected by his troupe of kung fu bodyguards’.

Down town, meanwhile, things were far less tranquil. The pubs were rammed from early and, at one point, Prince himself, ‘in the back of a ‘bullet-proof Jaguar Sovereign’ with blacked-out windows snaked through the crowds that thronged the city-centre’. Some of his entourage even ventured out as far as Blarney Castle. Ralph Reigel’s piece, possibly over-dramatically, claimed that ‘walking through Cork on Saturday afternoon must have been like trying to struggle through Mecca during the holy season’.

Elsewhere, ‘a harassed inspector at Bus Éireann’s Parnell Place depot’ admitted that he’d never experienced anything like the scale of the crowd previously. ‘We’re absolutely swamped by buses coming in’, he said. ‘By 1 p.m. we’d already had seven buses arrive with God knows how many more on the way. Each bus is full to capacity and, as I understand it, people are actually having to be left in Dublin’. But the atmosphere was all very good-natured and the sun brought the best out in the visitors. Gardaí reported little trouble all day and, as Ralph informed us on Monday, ‘the only major city centre crime on Saturday was a robbery at O’Mahony’s Jewellers on Patrick Street’, after which a man was later arrested on Oliver Plunkett Street.

Like Michael Jackson before him, Prince couldn’t find it in himself to speak with the locals and this came as a surprise to The Cork Examiner, who seemed as insulted as they were bemused. An uncredited front page piece on the Monday after the show mentions that, although he ‘gave the thumbs up to his Irish debut on Saturday evening … responses come in mono-syllables and one whole sentence seems a major effort’.

By comparison, the promoter of the show, Banteer-born Oliver Barry, was rarely stuck for a word or a quip. He had a long association with Páirc Uí Chaoimh and, as far back as 1976, had been staging live music at the stadium, originally to help ease the debt incurred by the Cork County Board during the build. Siámsa Cois Laoí – a day-long folk and trad event – ran for several years, headlined variously by Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson and John Denver, supported by hardy local annuals like The Furey Brothers, The Wolfe Tones and Bagatelle. And, memorably, by the Breton composer, Alan Stivell, whose delicate harp sounds were at odds with the Harp-fuelled carry-on from many of the youths assembled around the ground.

Barry was one of the primary investors in Century Radio, the country’s first national independent radio station which opened in 1989 and, at the apex of a long and eventful career as a concert promoter and band manager, persuaded Michael Jackson to bring his ‘Bad’ tour to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in the summer of 1988 In a 25th anniversary feature piece on that show in The Irish Examiner in July 2013, Barry agreed with Kieran O’Mahony that securing Jackson – ‘the greatest show on Earth’ – was but ‘one of the crowning glories of his career’. He’d served his time and cut his teeth on Ireland’s showband circuit during the late 1960s and conveyed an impression that, irrespective of the demands and the excesses of the star turns he was dealing with in Cork, he’d actually seen and heard it all previously. Having hawked The Freshmen, Seán Dunphy And The Hoedowners and The Furey Brothers all over the island and beyond, handling Prince must have seemed like a breeze, by comparison.

On the night itself, Prince took the stage just after 8.30 and, although the skies had, by now, turned from blue to grey, there was plenty of light left over-head. Opening with ‘The Future’ – from the ‘Batman’ soundtrack – and quickly segueing into ‘1999’, he struggled to connect with the crowd and, pretty quickly, they were off entertaining themselves. Half-an-hour in and the first flushes of ‘Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé’ broke out from the cheap seats. ‘This town needs an enema’, Prince told the audience at one point ;- someone had clearly informed him of the potency of the booze served in Sidetracks.

Comparisons with Michael Jackson’s set at the same venue two years previously were inevitable, understandable and ultimately just wrong. Jackson had played every beat for his audience while Prince just confronted his. And lost. Fifteen songs on and one single encore later and he was gone, leaving plenty of gold behind him, untouched.

Ralph Riegel was vox-popping the crowd on it’s way out of the show and found the usual diversity of opinion and drunk-talk. ‘One dedicated Prince fan from Tralee hailed the show as ‘the best rock performance that the country has ever seen’ while Philip Linehan, ‘a distinctly unimpressed school-teacher from Newmarket suggested, to really enjoy Saturday’s concert you’d have to be a dedicated Prince fan’. According to Ralph, ‘the neutrals were left somewhat in limbo’, which was a charitable take on events.

From my seat in the Uncovered Stand in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, I thought the whole thing was just plain dull and I said as much in my review. With Prince already long gone, I surveyed my surroundings and, in the best traditions of many a Cork half-back, lowered the blade and had a right cut off of him.

This review was published in The Cork Examiner on Monday, July 9th, 1990

And so, the enigma continues. Or rather, it escalates and expands into a fog of absolute confusion. Prince’s ‘Nude’ date, his self-styled return to root live show, hardly convinced. The show left many important questions unanswered and, more importantly, did little to suggest that Prince can manipulate this decade as he did the last.

As a live theatric, ‘Nude’ was a disappointment, an almost ritualistic canter through the most impersonal of motions. ‘Nude’, to be fair, was bland. The most shocking aspect of the show is how unshocking it actually is, with Prince becoming a parody of his own performing self. He inter-plays with backing singer Rosie – ‘U call me some kind of pimp, a little purple pimp’, but it all seems so familiar, so hollow. The stage theatrics become lost in a glade of predictability and, as Prince stalks his stage with pomp, no one really cares.

The erotic stage play-pen never materialises. It’s just something old, borrowed and blue. Nothing new. Nothing new of substance or consequence. ‘Sign O’ The Times’, ‘Raspberry Beret’, ‘Paisley Park’, ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, ‘When 2 R In Love’, “I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and ‘I Wish U Heaven’ go unplayed. Instead, Prince Drags ‘Purple Rain’, ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘1999’ and ‘Take Me With U’ through the rusted ringer of pop history. And it’s all routine.

There are moments, though. ‘Nothing Compares To U’, written originally for The Family, is here in a sparse, tender and untouched glory, while ‘Housequake’ and ‘The Future’ are potential party-pieces that generate some sense of occasion.

But ultimately it all falls horrible wrong.

Given his own sense of standard, ‘Nude’ failed to either excite or captivate. Half-hearted and token, the reaction was strangely muted as the crowd struggled to grip ‘When Doves Cry’ or the extensive ‘Purple Rain’. What should have been a night of sweet soul-play rarely touched either the erotic or the exotic.

And even so, Prince is still very much untouched as a showman. But then stadium pop is hardly his bag and his songs do beg intimacy and embrace. And of course Prince is still important, still precious but, given the standards that he has himself set and provoked, ‘Nude’ is a pale imitation Prince can still be both a poet and a fool. He gives no clue, no consistent line in either direction but, all through his career, he has ridden a rail of buckled track.

He moves neither this way nor that, but in seemingly twelve different directions. Simultaneously. But even given that, ‘Nude’ was a disappointment. The show never once looked like touching either heart or soul, of ever bellowing fire. I left Páirc Uí Chaoimh feeling strangely incoherent wondering if 60,000 people could possibly be wrong. And I think so.

 

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