Heavyweight tour manager Alan Leeds and his wife Gwen take readers behind-the-scenes with an exclusive account of their time on the road with Prince and The Revolution for Wax Poetics. Traveling back to the year 1983, Leeds begins with the James Brown credential that landed him a gig on the road with Prince. Digging deeper, the couple discuss the eventual full-time job offer and subsequent move to Minneapolis that would ultimately place them at the epicenter of a movement that made rock and roll history. Detailing everything from their growing pains and Prince’s personality quirks to mid-show disasters and the genesis of Purple Rain, The Leeds’ account of their time with Prince is musical industry gold. Their retelling of a particularly disastrous gig in Alabama is a great place to start.
Alan: …Our crack technical crew was as professional and efficient as the performers. Still, every tour has that one Murphy’s Law day where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Ours was a one-off in Birmingham, Alabama. Ironically, it was the one gig without our production manager Tom Marzullo who was away advancing venues for future shows. His absence hadn’t worried me; our stage manager was top drawer, and by then, the production was almost on automatic pilot. But so much went wrong that I later teased Marzullo that he had paid someone to sabotage the show so he’d be missed.
Gwen: Before that Birmingham show, all we were worried about was the weather. An ice storm was cooking, threatening the highways and airports between us and our next stop in Memphis. We had chartered a Delta 727 for the band and crew, but, as usual, Prince planned to ride his bus. When you put the whole entourage together after a show, almost a hundred people, we could be a pretty boisterous bunch. Prince hated those flights.
Alan: Prince’s driver was pacing about, suggesting that he really should be leaving early with an empty bus to avoid getting stranded by the storm. We debated that wisdom, knowing that Prince would disapprove. The one thing we all agreed on was not to tell him anything until we made a final decision. As Chick had taught me, Prince would just think we weren’t sure of what we were doing. (Of course, if he didn’t like our decision later, he’d think that anyhow.)
Showtime. And suddenly the weather was the least of our problems. The set typically began with what’s called a “reveal,” the band in silhouette, behind a curtain that dramatically disappeared at the downbeat of “Let’s Go Crazy.” The downbeat came but the curtain didn’t. The curtain mechanism stalled about knee high off the stage. The song was nearly over before the crew finished manually (and clumsily) gathering the bulk over the truss above.
Little did we know, our night from hell was just beginning. Later in the show, Prince had a quick change after which he reemerged via a hydraulic lift for “Darling Nikki.” First, Prince bumped his head under the stage climbing onto the lift. Then, the song started and once again mechanics failed…this time with just the top of his sore cranium protruding into the audience sight lines. It looked like a cantaloupe laying on the stage. Finally, a couple crew guys pushed him the rest of the way up. He was not happy.
The mishaps understandably escalated the tension backstage. But by the encore, our attention was back to the weather. Reports were that sections of U.S. 78 between Birmingham and Memphis were icing up and threatening to close. We would have to hightail it to the airport with hopes our plane could get off before the storm reached the ’Ham. And while the idea of Prince flying with us after this raggedy show was downright ugly, we had no choice. Worse yet, the band and crew had checked out of our hotel before the show, but Prince had not. We’d have to wait for him to shower and pack up.
As it turned out, there was a storm of another kind about to strike. The (literal) climax of the show was Prince climbing atop huge P.A. stacks where he’d grab a prop guitar rigged to mimic an orgasm by forcefully shooting harmless soapsuds well into the front rows. Sure enough, in the spirit of the entire night, when it came time to shoot his load, Prince’s Viagra-starved guitar failed and limply dripped jism to the stage.
Prince stalked towards his waiting limo. With Tom Marzullo nowhere around to catch the blame, I seriously wondered if I still had a job. But I had to act as if I did—we had a show in Memphis to worry about.
Gwen: Prince typically fled the venue before house lights were on. Now, if this was the real world, one would grab Prince and explain the situation. But this was the purple world where nothing was real anymore. And this night of all nights, Chick wasn’t about to allow anyone to intercept them. We could only assume he would tell Prince about the storm on the way to the hotel. But before their car was out of the arena, Chick was on the radio. “Tell Alan, Prince says he needs to be at his hotel room before anybody goes anywhere.”
It must have been the fastest load-out of the entire tour. In less than an hour, we were on a chartered bus headed to the hotel. We had spoken to the airport and were warned not to dawdle. Once the ice storm began, they would close the runways, and we’d be stuck. But we had no choice but to wait in the clammy bus while Alan faced Prince. A lot of us felt badly that Alan was the only one catching hell, but the bigger picture was we had to get out of there with some quickness. Everyone was tired and on edge, particularly the fragile flyers like Wendy and Lisa.
Alan: The bus felt like a funeral home, everyone knew what I was in for, and I’d like to think some of the techs felt a bit guilty, since I was really taking one for the team. I went to Prince’s suite and knocked on the door. He opened it, turned his back and stalked towards a large dining room table pointing for me to sit down. For a few minutes—which seemed like hours—he just glared and said nothing. Finally, he snapped, “What can you tell me so that I know none of this is going to happen again?”
I went through each fuck-up, one by one, offering rather technical explanations of what had gone wrong and what we intended to do to prevent any repeats. He wasn’t convinced. Neither was I, really. Life isn’t perfect. Shit happens. And the opening curtain bit had been shaky long before Birmingham. The quiet in the room was stagnant. Then I realized that Prince was still in his stage clothes. He hadn’t even showered. So I gulped and changed the subject. Chick hadn’t said a word about the storm, the bus, or the flight. (Thanks a bunch, Chick.) On top of everything, now I had to explain that Prince’s fancy of a leisurely night on his bus was a wrap or he risked blowing the next show. Somehow, we landed in icy Memphis about four in the morning. Prince was silent the whole way.
All it meant to me was what I’d known for years. Life on the road was always an adventure. And since I still had a job, I guess I could finally assume that I had succeeded in making him like having me around. After all, he had fired others for much less.
Several years later, he once asked me why I thought he was under-appreciated as a guitarist. I foolishly suggested that he should consider a brief tour of elite concert venues concentrating solely on his musicianship, performing without his usual bells and whistles, even to the point of dressing down, perhaps in blue jeans and a turtleneck. Dripping with sarcasm, his patronizing response was, “What? And look like you?” Maybe he didn’t like having me around after all. (In 2002, he did just such a tour, all except for the jeans and turtle neck.)
Read the full account from Alan and Gwen Leeds via waxpoetics.com.