You would expect a larger-than-life figure like Prince to eclipse everyone around him. Yet during the years when he was billed as “Prince & the Revolution,” the uniquely talented five members of his band, all styled to match him, were almost as identifiable as their leader. His female counterparts Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, commonly known as Wendy & Lisa, became particularly famous, thanks in part to the lyrics to the Purple Rain track “Computer Blue”: “Wendy?/Yes, Lisa?/Is the water warm enough?/Yes, Lisa/Shall we begin?/Yes, Lisa.”
The Revolution’s drummer/percussionist, Bobby Z., says that with the addition of Coleman and later Melvoin, Prince finally had the musical concoction he was after: a mixture of Fleetwood Mac and Sly and the Family Stone. Even so, in 1986, after purposely smashing his signature Purple Rain guitar, and then smashing its backup at The Revolution’s last show together at Yokohama Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, Prince marked the group’s disbandment.
“It was the human, normal side of Prince that reached out to create The Revolution,” says Coleman, sitting in one of the adjoining studios she shares with Melvoin in the pair’s hometown, Los Angeles. “Each one of us is an interesting breed of person. There’s a naïve quality about us that lent itself to our loyalty to Prince. We were totally dedicated to working as hard as he did. That innocence pulled us together as we were losing our father figure, which he was, and we were like his kids. We could do right and we could do wrong. We could make him proud or we could make him mad. It was set up for us like that psychologically.”
“We were always the emotion behind his entertainment, and I always wondered how he let go of it so easily,” says Melvoin in a separate interview, over dinner at her local, family-run Italian eatery (where she is always seated immediately, no matter how jammed the room). “Before he died, we’d all been talking about getting together again, us and him. And he’d say, ‘Why would I want to do that? I don’t even like looking at my yearbook.’ Prince is like a comet with his fans constantly hanging onto the tail. That’s the way he wanted it. He didn’t want anyone hanging on if he had landed. That didn’t work for him. It was too vulnerable.”
With or without Prince’s blessing from the beyond, The Revolution reunited following his death last year, 30 years to the month after Prince broke them up. All five members featured on Purple Rain reconvened: Melvoin, Coleman, Bobby Z., keyboardist Dr. Fink and bassist BrownMark came together to celebrate Prince’s life in September 2016 at First Avenue, the Minneapolis venue he immortalized in Purple Rain. Selling out one, then two, then three nights in quick succession, the group played its way through fan favorites such as “Let’s Go Crazy,” “1999,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “Controversy” over a two-hour span. Finally allowing themselves to give into their grief, after the show on the third night the five sobbed in each other’s arms for an hour.
They went their separate ways, only to realize they needed each other more than they thought. To this end, they have been playing shows across North America since April 21 of this year, the anniversary of Prince’s passing. The tour is a labor of love; the veteran musicians are traveling rough, pulling luggage through train stations and driving their own vans. “We really need each other right now," Coleman says. "We’re the only other people who can understand the loss we feel. We walked on the moon with this guy. I’ve never felt anything like how we’ve been feeling at these shows. People are openly weeping and the next minute they’re smiling. It’s profound.”
“People ask us: Why are you doing this?" says Melvoin, who has taken on the majority of the lead vocals. "Number one answer is: We don’t know. Number two answer is: We figure the amount of pain that we’re experiencing can only be matched by what the fans are feeling in terms of loss. There’s no one that will ever replace Prince. None of us are trying to be him. But we’re out there because no one’s reconciled that he’s gone. That’s still hitting everybody. And we’re trying to help the audience land his comet.”
Children of members of The Wrecking Crew, the legendary L.A. session players who recorded with everyone from The Beach Boys to The Jackson 5, Melvoin and Coleman's lives have been intertwined almost since birth. They became romantically involved as teenagers and were a couple for 22 years. Both lost brothers to addiction and are closely aware of its power. The animated and emphatic Melvoin was a fan of Prince’s before being asked to join The Revolution, but the laid-back and reflective Coleman was the exact opposite, antagonizing Prince by instantly lighting up a cigarette in his Fiat when he came to pick her up in at the Minneapolis airport for the first time.
To this day, the smell of Caress soap reminds Coleman of Prince. She was roommates with his then-girlfriend who used that particular brand — and therefore, so did Prince. She also remembers the smell of his shaving powder, which he would blend and spread on his face with a butter knife.
“Somebody like Prince who is so impressive as a human being in all areas, it is difficult to not completely canonize him,” says Coleman. “He’s amazing, a gift to humanity. But at the same time, he was a guy we worked with every day and it could get really stressful and annoying. One day he’d come in and be all excited and energetic and happy and want to goof around. The next day he’d walk in really somber with a cloud over his head, mumble in the microphone, and be a dick. Every show we played, he videotaped and made us watch on the bus afterward. He was charming and funny but also boring, repetitive and self-absorbed.
“Prince died because of keeping up his façade,” she continues. “Nobody can live that way all the time. We can’t hold people to these extreme standards. Age happens and that doesn’t only mean the deterioration of your body, it also means the enhancement of your mind and your experience. You have so much more to give. Prince’s youth was spectacular, but imagine him as an old man and what he’d be able to impart. We lost that. Everybody who is ‘superhuman’ needs let people know, ‘Hey, I’m a person, I’m getting older, I get tired.' Say whatever they need to, because not doing so killed my friend.”
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“There’s no way someone like Prince could ever say to the world: ‘I have a terrible hip problem,'" says Melvoin. "'I’m in such fucking pain, you have no idea. I’m addicted to this stuff, and I need help.' Someone like him would never do that, ever.”
“He could do everything himself,” says Coleman. “He created The Revolution when he didn’t have to. But we were playing the music. And he loved it. He was on the high wire and we were down here, pushing the air up, keeping him up there. It was good for him because he was such a singular, perfect Prince.”