In January 1981, after the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom sent an exuberant memo to his manager, Steve Fargnoli: “The verdict from the press is clear,” Bloom wrote. “Prince is a rock and roll artist! In fact, the press is saying clearly that Prince is the first black artist with the potential to become a major white audience superstar since Jimi Hendrix” (Hill 82). Nine months later, with his fourth album, Controversy, days away from release, Prince faced the biggest test of his crossover potential to date: two shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the massive, 94,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The booking was a major coup for Prince, who had made it his mission to break rock music’s de facto color line and even, according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, described his early vision for his band as a kind of “multiracial Rolling Stones” (Dickerson 95). “The one thing he talked to me about a number of times in the early going was he wanted he and I to be the Black version of the Glimmer Twins,” Dez elaborated to cultural critic Touré. “To have that Keith and Mick thing and have a rock ‘n’ roll vibe fronting this new kind of band. That’s what he wanted” (Touré 15). As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to biographer Matt Thorne, “We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our little booties off, our funky black asses. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time” (Thorne 2016). But like so many of Prince’s earlier potential big breaks, things did not go according to plan.
The day of the first Coliseum show on Friday, October 9, was “unseasonably warm” in L.A., according to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert (Hahn 2017 179). Gates opened at one in the afternoon, but many of the concertgoers in the front rows had arrived hours early: “it’s a festival scene,” drummer Bobby Z told Mpls St Paul magazine. “So if you survive the front you were there from [six] a.m. You’re probably drunk for the third time and high on God knows what” (Olson 2016). The crowd was also thick with rougher elements of the Stones’ fanbase–including members of the Hell’s Angels, the motorcycle gang that had infamously incited violence during the band’s performance at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival 12 years earlier (Hahn 2017 179). By the time Prince’s set was due to begin, much of the audience had been waiting for upwards of five hours, and many were only expecting two opening acts: blue-collar rockers George Thorogood and the Destroyers and the J. Geils Band. So when legendary West Coast concert promoter Bill Graham came out to introduce Prince, the audience responded with boos. “Everybody wants the Stones,” Bobby recalled. “We’re set up to die” (Olson 2016).
Fortunately, the band wasn’t completely unprepared. Dez, the group’s most veteran rocker, had “encouraged Prince beforehand that we needed to alter our usual approach, and hit them like a true rock band. I knew any attempts to be cute wouldn’t play well” (Dickerson 164). Taking his guitarist’s advice, Prince opened the show with “Bambi,” the hardest-rocking song from his most commercially successful album. So far, so good: “after we finished that song,” Dez told biographer Dave Hill, “I’d never heard so huge an ovation in my life.” But the next tune they played, the Dirty Mind album track “When You Were Mine,” was “a bit too black for that part of the audience that harb[o]red ill-feelings toward black people” (Hill 108). “[T]hey hear us singing falsetto,” Bobby concurred. “They’re not interested, they’re not willing, they’re certainly not tolerant. You’ve got three brothers up there. You’ve got weird-looking white people in the back. It’s New Age weird punky funk rock—all the stuff they don’t want to know about or be interested in. They just want the blues or rock and roll. They don’t want to listen to anything new—let alone from the guy who looks like a chick but he’s not a chick and the chicks like him. So it doesn’t take much to get people going” (Olson 2016).
Along for this wild ride was Mark Brown, who had joined the band over the summer to replace André Cymone on bass. It was only his second show with Prince; the first had been a warm-up date at Sam’s in Minneapolis four days earlier. Brown, the youngest member of the group at only 19 years old, had been recruited on André’s recommendation from a Northside group called Fantasy. “I noticed [Prince] would always come watch us,” Brown told the Washington Post. He finally got the call in the middle of a Fantasy rehearsal at the Way community center: “I don’t even know how he knew we were there,” Brown recalled. “So it’s obvious that he had been doing his research.” Prince, ever the taskmaster, instructed Brown to learn all three of his albums in a single night; the next day, after learning “every lick,” Brown came over and jammed on a couple of songs with Prince and Bobby Z (Greenberg 2017). “He was young and green,” Bobby told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “I drove him out to the house for his audition. He was nervous. ‘What’s it gonna be like?’ I liked him right away. Prince did too. He was completely thrilled beyond anything that ever happened to him. Just a young kid who got a lucky break” (Nilsen 1999 89).
It probably felt less like a “lucky break” at the Coliseum, where Dickerson recalled Brown looking “like a deer in the headlights” as the audience grew increasingly restless (Star Tribune 2004). The song that finally pushed them over the edge was “Jack U Off,” a tongue-in-cheek rockabilly homage that had been recorded that June at Hollywood Sound Recorders and debuted a few weeks earlier at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. In theory, this track made sense for the Stones crowd: it was raunchy, back-to-basics rock inspired by the Stray Cats, who Prince had seen in London and been “visibly impacted by,” according to Dez (Dickerson 149). It was also the only song on Controversy that featured a live-band performance, with Bobby, Lisa, and keyboardist Dr. Fink flying out to L.A. to lay down the track: “He wanted to have a band feel on a song with one of the most risqué lyrics he ever wrote,” Bobby recently told Uncut magazine (Thomson 2018 61).
But whatever “Jack U Off” had to offer for the Stones crowd in theory, its reception in practice was an unmitigated disaster. The song’s approach to both rock and raunch is inescapably camp: Hill described it as “a bit of teenage wanking rudery, virtually Vegas-style compared to the trash and thump of Dirty Mind” (Hill 100). Even in its more muscular live arrangement, there are still the lyrics to contend with, which as Brown notes employ a creative definition of the masturbatory title phrase: “When you talk about street lingo, where I come from, guys don’t jack girls off,” he told Hahn. “But I don’t think Prince knew that, he was just in his own little world” (Hahn 2017 167). It didn’t help that, at least on the first date, Prince was still reportedly performing in his Dirty Mind-era ensemble of a trenchcoat, thigh-highs, and little else, forcing the macho crowd to contend with a scantily-clad, sexually ambiguous figure singing lyrics like “If your man ain’t no good / Come on over to my neighborhood / We can jump in the sack and I’ll jack you off.”
As others have observed, this shouldn’t have been an issue for the Stones’ fanbase: Mick Jagger, after all, was hardly a paragon of traditional masculinity. But the Stones of 1981 were a butcher proposition than the Stones of the previous decade; it had been a few years since Mick had overtly played queer with songs like “Cocksucker Blues” and “When the Whip Comes Down.” There was also the matter of Prince’s race, which, as Dez and Bobby alluded, made his sexual line-blurring even more threatening to less enlightened concertgoers. In any case, the crowd met Prince’s perky offer of mutual masturbation with hurled slurs and objects alike. As Fink recalled, “they started booing, flipping us the bird, I’d say out of the first sixty rows of people, 80 percent of them were flipping us the bird” (Touré 15). At first, the projectiles were just crumpled-up Coke cans and cups; but after Graham came back to scold the unruly audience and Prince started his next song, “Uptown,” “Something else came up that wasn’t a paper cup, and that was the last straw,” Dez told Hill. “He left. At the Coliseum there’s this long red carpet that goes up these rows and rows of stairs out to the exit. I looked back and I saw this solitary little figure going up this red carpet. I thought, ‘He’s hung us out to dry! We’re out here playing, and he’s gone!’” (Hill 109).
Prince, the band soon discovered, had done more than just leave the venue: “he had left the state,” Dez later quipped, going straight from the Coliseum to the Los Angeles International Airport and flying back home to Minneapolis (Dickerson 170). With the second L.A. date still scheduled for that Sunday, Fargnoli scrambled to get his artist back to the West Coast, even enlisting Mick Jagger to give him a pep talk. “He said he didn’t want to do any more shows,” Jagger later told rock journalist Kurt Loder. “God, I got thousands of bottles and cans thrown at me! Every kind of debris. I told him, if you get to be a really big headliner, you have to be prepared for people to throw bottles at you in the night… Prepared to die!” (Loder 1983). The younger artist remained unmoved.
In the end, it took counsel from Dickerson–the Keith to his proverbial Mick–to coax Prince back. “I talked to him for forty-five minutes, and finally I convinced him to come back,” he told Hill. “I said, ‘Let’s not let some dirtballs throwing things at us run us out of town. Let’s finish it in spite of what they do’” (Hill 109). Dez later wrote that he “had appealed to something [Prince] and I had in common–a ‘never, EVER give up’ mentality” (Dickerson 171). He had also appealed to Prince’s ambition, reminding him of the magnitude of an opening slot with the “Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World” for their shared crossover plans: “I said, ‘Look, this could be the beginning of crossing over into an audience that we both want to have access to, the start of being all things to all people–a rock ‘n’ roll band as well as an R&B band’” (Hill 109). “It was good money—we needed it for the staging and it was the most prestigious gig at the time,” Bobby Z later reflected. Coming back to play the second date was “one of the only times I saw Prince visibly, physically have to do something against his will” (Olson 2016).
Meanwhile, widespread reports that Prince had been booed off the stage emboldened the first show’s reactionary minority to come back in force for the second. These reports weren’t strictly true. As Dez explained to Hill, “To the moment that we stopped playing, there were only scattered boos”; Prince had simply had enough and exited the stage after his contractually-obligated 20 minutes were up (Hill 109). But the media narrative “was just the ammunition the dirtball element of Sunday’s crowd would need to prepare” (Dickerson 172). In his “Real Life Rock Top 10” column from December 1981, rock critic Greil Marcus quoted an anonymous letter allegedly received by Ken Tucker of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: “I just wanted you to know that us W.A.S.P. rock n rollers pay to see white performers and not niggers, faggots or tawdry critics like yourself[.] President Reagan has proven once and for all that liberals, niggers, fags and minorities are out. Thank god for that. I can sure bet your ass on one thing, prince [sic] wont open up for the stones [sic] next time around” (Marcus 1981).
There is an audience recording circulating of the October 11 show, which as Dickerson notes made the October 9 date look like “a cakewalk” (Hill 109). Just like on the previous show, Prince opens with “Bambi,” wisely butching up the performance by singing in his lower register; the closing guitar solo even draws a few appreciative whoops out of the crowd. But things start to go awry soon enough. During “When You Were Mine,” an audience member can clearly be heard muttering, “One more song and that’ll be enough from this guy.” By the time they play “Jack U Off,” the boos are a constant din. A voice–maybe the person taping the show–says, “Look at all the trash,” as the band is pelted with debris.
“The second day they’d actually planned it–‘Let’s boo these people,’” Lisa said to Thorne (Thorne 2016). No longer limited to the odd bottle and can, this time the angry mob brought all manner of projectiles for the specific purpose of hurling them onstage. “I saw a fifth of Jack Daniels whiz by Prince’s face,” Fink told Touré, “must’ve missed his face by less than a quarter of an inch” (Touré 16). Brown’s bass was “knocked out of tune by a large grapefruit that hit the tuning keys” (Wawzanek 2016). More than once, Dickerson has recounted a vivid memory of “a large sandwich bag” filled with “obviously bad, grey-colored raw chicken parts” (Dickerson 172). “Someone had taken the time to take the chicken put of the refrigerator on Friday and let it sit out in the sun for two days,” he told Hill, unnecessarily adding, “it was pretty disgusting” (Hill 109).
Even more disgusting was the verbal invective, which reflected the homophobic and white-supremacist views expressed in the aforementioned letter to Ken Tucker: “‘Fuck you, faggot,’ the n-word, everything horrible,” according to Coleman (Thorne 2016). Prince himself recounted the story the following year: “there was one dude right in front, and you could see hatred all over his face,” he told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. “The reason I left was because I didn’t want to stay anymore. I just wanted to fight–to fight him. I was really angry” (Hilburn 1982). While the slurs aren’t audible on the circulating recording of the show, Prince’s anger is. The band takes “Jack U Off” at a punk-rock velocity, screaming the line “I’ll jack you off!” with the force of a threat. When Prince spits, “As a matter of fact / You can jack me off,” it’s clear that he’s flipping the bird right back at the audience; based on the disapproving roar that greets the end of the song, they got the message loud and clear.
Prince is absent from the next song on the recording: a version of “Uptown” which the band somewhat awkwardly renders as an instrumental, albeit with some admittedly face-melting guitar solos by Dez. But the singer comes back for one final number in “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”–a pointed choice if there ever was one. Because the recording abruptly cuts off at this point, it’s often assumed that the set was abandoned. Ken Tucker, however, reports that this was not the case: “He played the full 20 minutes, exactly what his contract permitted him to do,” he said on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2016, “and he played magnificently, his small body leaning into the abuse and turning it into a triumph” (Tucker 2016).
At the time, of course, the performance didn’t feel much like a triumph. “There were a few times when I thought it was over forever, and that was one of them,” Bobby Z told Mpls St Paul. “I never felt we’d cross over after that. I just thought that this was it.” He compared the way Prince was treated by the audience to “an exotic animal… in a cage” (Olson 2016). Years earlier, he summed it up even more succinctly: “The Stones shows told us that the large, white rock audience simply wasn’t there for us yet,” he said to Nilsen. “From Dirty Mind onwards, our audiences were getting whiter. But this caused trouble because it made us think we were making it faster than we actually were” (Nilsen 1999 97).
Indeed, the Rolling Stones debacle was a key chapter in the early Prince narrative: the end-of-Act-Two lowest-point beat in a Hollywood biopic yet to be made. So central is this story to Prince’s legend that for years it was rumored that the angry crowd noises in his 1985 song “Pop Life” were sampled directly from the audience at the Coliseum; in fact, the source is a professional sound effects collection from Sunset Sound (the L.A. recording isn’t anywhere near as clear). Legends aside, the experience had real ripple effects for Prince’s career in the years to come. It was, of course, the last time he would ever open for another band: from here on out, his crossover would be entirely on his own terms. Yet the ordeal also almost certainly steeled his resolve to overcome the jeers and become a superstar in his own right. A little over three years later, Prince and the Revolution–the fruition of his “multiracial Rolling Stones” ambitions, albeit in a way Dickerson could scarcely have imagined–would sell out six consecutive nights at the Forum in Inglewood, just a few miles away from the L.A. Coliseum. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that at least a few of these shows’ attendees had also been there to witness his earlier disgrace.
As for “Jack U Off,” its legacy is a little less auspicious. Prince continued to play it in 1981 and 1982 on the Controversy tour, where its playful sexuality found a more receptive audience; he later resurrected it for the Lovesexy tour in 1988 and 1989, before retiring it from the setlist permanently. By then, there arguably wasn’t any need for the song, Prince having written enough jauntily risqué rockabilly pastiches to fill a short album. One thing is for sure: he would never again sing it with as much vitriol as he did on October 11, 1981. Luckily, he wouldn’t need to.
(Note: I had previously edited this post to remove a reference to Prince’s Dirty Mind-era bikini and trenchcoat look, due to a photo from Allen Beaulieu’s Before the Rain book that shows Prince in his more conservative Controversy-era garb. But a few posts from the Rolling Stones fan forum It’s Only Rock’n Roll corroborated the bikini story for the first date, which leads me to believe that Prince opted to put on a shirt and pants for his return performance–sometimes, real life really does make the best narrative. I also corrected a typo where I misspelled the critic Robert Hilburn’s name as “Robert Hillburn.” The L.A. Coliseum recording is not currently available for streaming–it’s hard out here on these streets–but I’m sure you can find it if you look hard enough.)