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Behind the Purple Ropes:
Prince and the Revolution

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Having gained heavyweight status as James Brown’s tour manager, Alan Leeds was brought on midway through Prince’s 1999 tour as a freelance replacement. But after finding his niche within the sometimes peculiar Prince entourage, Alan and his now wife Gwen moved to Minneapolis to work for the artist full time. Little did they know, they were about to witness some of the greatest years in the history of popular music as Prince and the Revolution busted out with the groundbreaking album and film Purple Rain.

In early 1983, Prince hired tour manager Alan Leeds sight unseen. Leeds was told his selling point was having worked for James Brown. Hurried to fill the mid-tour vacancy, Prince told manager Steve Fargnoli, “Just get that James Brown guy.”

A freelancer, Leeds viewed the remaining weeks of Prince’s 1999 tour as just another credential on his résumé. He was looking forward to winding up many months on the road and returning home to girlfriend Gwen Gwyn in New York where she was public relations manager for the prestigious but assuredly non-rock-and-roll Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Leeds couldn’t have imagined that the gig would evolve into a move to Minneapolis and ten years by Prince’s side, not to mention a paradigm lifestyle shift for Ms. Gwyn—from the sober world of science to the bawdy world of rock and roll. With the hindsight of a couple decades, the now married couple share two very inside views of their purple years, but often through different sets of eyes.

 

Alan: Fargnoli sternly warned me to tread lightly until Prince signaled his comfort with having me around. “He takes a minute to warm up to strangers,” was Steven’s memorable understatement.

I met them in San Diego, direct from a tour with the rock group Kiss. Fargnoli introduced me around. I made a point to befriend the band and bodyguard Chick Huntsberry, who seconded Steve’s warning not to bum-rush Prince.

The relationship between an artist and a tour manager is often more personal than one might expect. It’s a cliché and a stereotype, but most performers are remarkably insecure. Gaining their confidence means not only demonstrating your skill set but making them like having you around. I didn’t worry about the skill set, but becoming “liked” was less tangible. For starters, I needed to learn Prince’s backstage rituals and travel preferences. But Chick insisted I not confront him. He said, “If you ask him that stuff, he’ll just think you don’t know what you’re doing.”

The Prince dressing room door that Chick protected remained closed until show time. On his way to the stage, Prince paused, shook my hand, and softly mumbled something I couldn’t understand. I didn’t see him again until we flew to the next town.

KISS had been a coat-and-tie gig; they expected their management in Madison Avenue garb. So the next morning, I showed up at the airport in a conservative pin-striped suit. As I walked the aisle to my seat, I felt like I was on display. Prince never looked up, but Chick nodded. Working my way back, I locked eyes with a giggling Vanity and Susan Moonsie of Vanity 6, noted a determined disinterest from the Time’s Terry Lewis, and then what I took to be a snide glare from Morris Day. Tour promoter Jeff Sharp’s expression seemed to say, “I wonder how long this guy is going to last.” Everyone was casually dressed, mostly in sweats. It was bad enough being the new guy, but my Madison Avenue shit came off as really pretentious. It was definitely a “what the fuck?” moment for the entire entourage.

Prince and the Revolution Purple Rain

Gwen: When Alan called to tell me he had picked up another tour, all it meant was that he wouldn’t be home for another month or two. I remembered Alan saying that Prince was going to be the next big thing, but I didn’t really know anything about him. Don’t misunderstand me, I love music. But when Alan’s and my tastes intersected, it took us to concerts by Pat Metheny and Weather Report, not rock stars.

A few months later, Alan was offered a full-time position in Minneapolis. I didn’t know how to respond. I guess I just assumed it would break us up. Leaving my job and moving there never occurred to me. All I knew about Minneapolis was that they had a skyway system because it was too cold to walk outside. Guess what? Two months later, I quit my job and moved to Minneapolis!

Alan: Once I bought some casual clothes, it didn’t take long to get my bearings. It was obviously a tour split into cliques. My responsibilities were Prince and his band. The support acts—the Time and Vanity 6—had their own staffs and agendas. Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis had famously clashed with Prince over missing a gig, and the Time’s morale was forever ruined. Meanwhile, Prince was juggling his relationships with the various girls on the tour. I had assumed he and Vanity were a couple but quickly discovered that their best days were behind them. In fact, Vanity was flirtatious and defiantly self-sufficient. I also learned that Susan Moonsie had once been a Prince steady and retained a close but apparently platonic friendship with him. Background singer Jill Jones was also around him a lot and I wasn’t really sure what that meant.

I didn’t try to clock Prince’s comings and goings. Even though the group usually flew between cities, whenever it was logistically plausible Prince preferred rolling on his comfy tour bus. His post-show habit was to return to our hotel, shower, and retire to the bus—often spending the nights parked in hotel lots. Chick explained that Prince hated hotel beds, found them all “too hard.”

Wherever Prince was and whatever he was doing, if he was happy, then I was happy. But his clandestine ways inevitably aroused suspicion. Where I came from, anyone who worked so hard at privacy usually had something to hide. One night in Oakland, Chick woke me up about 3:00 AM asking for $500 in cash because Prince wanted to take a cruise in his bus. He and whoever was with him had designs of seeing the sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge. Sounded like an admirably sexy idea to me but $500? I suspected there was a toll to cross the bridge, but I knew it wasn’t anywhere near $500! Mind you, in my years as a freelancer, other artists had come for money late at night. And I suspected that those insomniac dollars usually weren’t going for anything legal. So it took a couple days before the band could convince me that this weird, secretive guy wasn’t a full-blown junkie. Of course, he was anything but—back then he seldom even drank. By rock-and-roll tour standards, the 1999 gang was pretty “clean.” There were no heavy cokeheads or stoners, just the occasional spliff wafting down hotel hallways.

A few months after the tour, I was offered a full-time position in Minneapolis, Prince’s hometown, as a management liaison or, as the West Coast–based Fargnoli put it, “an off-road road manager.” I didn’t really want to leave Gwen or New York, but it was an alluring opportunity. Prince was fine-tuning the script to Purple Rain. It was bound to be an interesting ride.

By the time filming began, Gwen had joined me. Prince seemed to accept her rather quickly. We’d even double-date to a movie with him and Susan Moonsie, ending up at his now infamous purple house in suburban Chanhassen watching videos or checking out his newest songs. Sometimes, he would quietly sit at his piano and just start to play. Even in such a casual setting those moments could be spellbinding.

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“When Doves Cry” advertisement via Fun with Vinyl.

 

Gwen: When I got to Minneapolis, they were rehearsing the Purple Rain concert scenes. When Alan introduced me to Prince, he shook my hand, very formally. I really didn’t know what to make of him. He didn’t act like anybody I’d ever met before. He seldom talked, so you never knew where he stood or where you stood with him. I always caught myself looking at him, trying to read him. Later, on tour, that backfired when one of my responsibilities was to manage the media photographers allowed to shoot five minutes of the show from the pit in front of the stage. I had to accompany them to make certain they didn’t wander off and shoot something else behind our backs. Of course, it was an awesome perspective of the action, literally right below Prince’s feet. One day, he sent word that I needed to conceal myself down there. He told Alan, “How does Gwen expect me to stay in my zone onstage if I look down and see her familiar face starin’ up at me?”

I wasn’t used to having to tiptoe around someone. I was shocked by how many people were willing to do that—band members, crew, security, even Prince’s own family. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. My first friend in Minneapolis was Susan Moonsie. She had a solid family background and strong values. Susan’s head was screwed on right; she knew who she was. Amidst all the craziness, she didn’t define herself through Vanity 6 or her relationship with Prince. I respected her.

Before there was a Paisley Park, Prince didn’t really have an office or a staff other than Chick and Sandy, his personal assistant. The living room in our apartment became the company office by default. People were coming and going, signing contracts, picking up checks or per diems. As Alan’s load got heavier, Prince started asking me to do things, and I ended up on payroll. Like any new employee, I wanted to make a good impression, please the boss. But I quickly learned that no matter how far you went above and beyond the call of duty, Prince wasn’t one to applaud your efforts. Everything had to be a slam dunk. It wasn’t real to me. Because in real life, everything isn’t a slam dunk. Sometimes, though, he would do stuff that just had you scratching your head. Early one morning, our phone rang and it was Prince. When he called, he never made small talk, not even a hello. Usually it was just, “Alan there?” But this time, he said, “Gwen, do you know what time it is?”

I stumbled for a second, looked at a clock, and told him the time. To which he responded, “Okay, you passed.” Click.

I passed? I chuckled. Whenever I got glimpses of Prince’s humanity, it was reassuring. Then I could tell myself he has a heart. I needed to be reminded of that, because he tried so hard to hide it. But I instantly respected his talent and his tireless work ethic. I’d never seen anything like it.

Alan: The huge impact of Purple Rain was somewhat unexpected, except by Prince. He didn’t seem surprised by reports of audiences reacting to the movie like it was a live concert. The first time most of us saw the film in a real theater was the glitzy premiere in Hollywood. But that audience was mostly blasé industry folks. The next day, Prince woke up and said he wanted to see a screening at a neighborhood theater in Westwood. He knew the only way to witness a real audience was to disguise himself. One of our security guys went to the theater to reserve the back row, explaining that we would sneak in after the film had begun. Meanwhile, Prince’s stylists, the late Earl Jones and Robyn Lynch, hooked him up. His hair was stuffed under a hat, and Jones added a theatrical moustache. Prince wore eyeglasses and an uncharacteristically ordinary wardrobe that had been hastily purchased on Melrose Avenue. To test the disguise, he called Gwen and asked her to meet us in the lobby without revealing what we were up to. She did, and soon Prince walked out of the elevator and sat down across from her. She didn’t recognize him until he said something. She should have said, “You passed.”

So off we went. Other than the theater manager and the kids working the refreshment stand, nobody knew we were there. I thought he had been spotted a few minutes into the film until I realized the kids were shrieking at the screen. It was insane. You could barely hear the dialogue. A couple folks recognized him when we got up to leave, but we were gone before the word could spread.

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Purple Rain film advertisement via Fun with Vinyl.

 

Gwen: Earl Jones and I planned to bust them—meet them at the theater as they were leaving and holler, “Look, there’s Prince!” But on our way there, they passed us. We were too late.

Things got crazy for Prince at home too. Fans had discovered his house. It wasn’t anything over the top, just a nice home on a generous lot, except the house was painted purple! Thankfully, it sat about fifty yards back from the street. The lot was fenced and there was an electronic gate across the driveway. Prince was in and out of town a lot, so the house often sat vacant. After an attempted break-in, it was decided someone should house-sit when he was away. Since Alan usually traveled with him, I became one of the occasional house sitters. One day I was there, killing time doing laundry, when I glimpsed at the closed-circuit video/intercom and spotted six or seven fans congregated at the front gate. I was curious, so I hit the button to hear what they were saying. But I must have hit the wrong button, because suddenly I could see the gate opening on the monitor. I frantically tried every button on the wall but nothing stopped the gate. The fans whose faces I could make out on the screen were awestruck. Then sure enough, as if they had been directed by a higher power, they cautiously proceeded past the gate and up the driveway towards the house. They were like the walking dead! I freaked out for a second, but I knew I had to do something, so I decided that the best defense is a good offense. I ran out to head them off before they could either scatter or get to the front door. Then I acted like I had let them in on purpose. They were overwhelmed with gratitude! I explained that Prince was out of town and then gave them a quick, impromptu tour around the grounds, told them about the lake in the back, and finally said they had to go. I just prayed that Prince would never find out.

Alan: After Purple Rain, we all had to adjust to the hysteria that greeted Prince everywhere he went. He pretty much welcomed the adoration, but there were times when it threw him. Before he blew up, Prince would comfortably frequent First Avenue [club in Minneapolis], particularly on Fridays when girl watching was at its best. Then one night, Prince, Chick, Jerome Benton, and I met at the club and were just kind of loafing in the dark near the back of the dance floor when we were suddenly surrounded by gawking fans. Struggling to maintain his cool, Prince leaned towards my ear and said, “Why do people just stare like they’ve got nothing else to do?” I didn’t dare tell him that if I encountered a pint-sized rock star in high heels, silk pajamas, and a trench coat, I’d probably stare too.

Gwen: One of the good things about working for Prince was that he only liked having people around him that he was comfortable with. He was completely okay with me going on the Purple Rain tour as Alan’s assistant. Since the alternative was being home alone for six months, I was grateful for the opportunity. Alan had been out there all his life with major stars like James Brown or KISS, but touring with a rock star was unlike anything I had ever been part of. I quickly realized that a lot of people “in the business” were also glorified groupies. But I was never smitten with celebrities. I had known people like Hugh Masekela, D.T. of Kool and the Gang, and Claude Cave from Mandrill, but they were social friends. I had nothing to do with their professional lives. This was a radically different world, a cultish insular existence in which it was easy to lose track of what day it was or what city you were in. And the excess and lack of accountability was mind-blowing. I had come from a museum, a not-for-profit institution where every postage stamp was accounted for. But here, everything was sent by FedEx or even more expensively, airlines counter-to-counter. Prince couldn’t seem to wait for anything.

Over the years, I grew eternally grateful for the experiences I had because of Prince—the friends I made and the places I’d seen. It became intoxicating; you couldn’t help but change or you’d get left behind. But I never understood the degree of influence a rock star could accumulate and never got used to seeing adults act stupidly. Prince, his employees, his fans, managers, promoters, agents, producers—it was all a fascinating study in psychology.

Alan: It was great having Gwen on the road, but it took a little adjustment. The road rat in me wasn’t used to rolling in tandem, and at first, she was a duck out of water. The fact that the Prince posse was so inbred helped. We all already knew each other. The Revolution’s Bobby Z, Wendy Melvoin, and Lisa Coleman each had siblings who were part of the extended family. Even my own saxophonist brother Eric eventually came aboard, augmenting Prince’s band.

Prince’s father, pianist John Nelson, was another familiar face. He already enjoyed casual friendships with many of us including Gwen. Father and son couldn’t boast of a warm, fuzzy history, but Prince seemed bent on making up for lost time. John attended all of his son’s major events and sure didn’t mind his entrée to rock-star creature comforts, including the companionship of a cutie who had been a popular Playboy model. One of his visits was to our New Orleans show at the Superdome.

I was in the production office, which happened to be located completely across the stadium from the star dressing room, when my radio (walkie-talkie) buzzed. It was Bobby Z, and he sounded ominous: “Alan, you better get over here.”

I was confused. It was showtime—I should have been meeting the band at the stage. “No, put it on hold and get over here. Prince and Gwen are about to go at it.”

I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but I sure didn’t like the sound of it. The price of having Gwen on the road was anxiety over what might happen if Prince’s star shit ever pushed her buttons just a little too far.

Prince Let's Go Crazy Single

Gwen: It was just before showtime when I ran into John Nelson standing outside Prince’s dressing room. Naturally, we greeted each other and struck up a conversation. Suddenly, Prince emerged. As usual, no hello, just, “My dad is like me; he doesn’t like to talk.”

In other words, leave him the hell alone! I was crushed. Maybe Prince didn’t realize how friendly John and I had become back home, but here were two adults having a very normal conversation and being scolded like kids. I was humiliated, and I didn’t know how to take it. John clammed up, so I lashed back the only smart-ass way I knew how and muttered something like, “He didn’t seem to mind talking until you came out.”

Just then, the band showed up for their preshow prayer ritual with the boss.

Alan: Bobby Z assumed he had stumbled upon the start of something rather than the finish, which explains his radio heads-up. But it was over—an insignificant incident in the scheme of things. Gwen had run into what every rock star employee does at some point: the always-lurking sense of entitlement that our culture indulges on celebrities. There is inevitably a moment, an unexpected issue, an odd scenario that serves to emphasize that every show has a star, and we’re not it. With Prince, those moments usually surfaced when he was nervous or bothered about something totally unrelated. In this case, he was simply trying to preserve his backstory, a mystique about his father to equal his own.

Despite these little bumps in the road, the Purple Rain tour developed a rhythm. All the shows sold out as quickly as tickets could be printed—record-breaking multi-show runs in L.A., San Francisco, Detroit, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. When we landed in a major city, we moved in with purpose. It was some sort of quasi-decadent invasion—sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And fast cars. An L.A. newspaper even published a story about a shortage of luxury rentals in Beverly Hills, because almost everyone in our group opted to spend the week rolling in our own spiffy, high-end sports cars.

On the creative tip, Purple Rain was Prince’s most ambitious road production yet. Cleverly recreating many of the performance scenes in the film was a blessing and a curse. The heavily scripted show meant strictly regimented lighting and production cues and left little room for musical spontaneity. Other than Prince’s mid-show piano medley and the encore jam, the show was pretty much identical from night to night. I could set my watch by what song they were playing. But every fresh audience was pandemonium from the first note to the last.

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.)

Purple Rain led my way to four more world tours, countless award shows and special events, and then three years of running Prince’s Paisley Park Records. I had the privilege of watching the evolution of one of the most talented and influential pop stars ever. In such a heady atmosphere, it was inevitable that Prince would grow, the company would grow, things would become more complicated, and relationships would change. All of that happened, usually for the better. But I’ve always wondered if there’s any tiny part of Prince that ever yearns for those exciting simpler years. The fact is, we all passed!

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  1. I could read these stories for days…
    Alan, Gwen, and Eric, need to write a book.

    – JR.

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