Armstrong: The last time I saw Prince

BET AWARDS PERFORMANCES
Prince performs at the sixth annual BET Awards in 2006 in Los Angeles.

"DEARLY beloved; We are gathered here today; To get through this thing called life...." - Prince

Sadly, moving forward it will have to be without the artist who penned those words. Prince was a musical genius whose artistry spanned decades, and included classics such as " Little Red Corvette," "1999," and the afore-referenced hit "Let's Go Crazy."

Prince died unexpectedly on Thursday at the age of 57, causing the Internet to explode with shock and grief. Twitter recorded upward of six million tweets as of Thursday night.

"He was one of those great talents that only come along every now and then, once a generation, like Michael Jackson," said Kenny Gamble, the legendary songwriter and producer. "In addition to his music, he was very socially conscious."

Celebrities and fans mourned Prince's untimely loss as well as that of rocker David Bowie earlier this year. Music producer Quincy Jones tweeted, "RIP to @prince. . .a true artist in every sense of the word. Gone way too soon." Actress Rose McGowan tweeted, "Today the doves will be crying purple tears."

I felt like crying when I got word. At first, I hoped it was a cruel hoax. There was no way he could be dead. We heard he'd been sick, but that was just the flu, right? Then came confirmation. It was true. As I sat reeling in my cubicle in the newsroom, I thought, First Michael Jackson. Now Prince.

I started thinking about last summer and the last time I'd actually seen Prince. It was in August. I was in Minneapolis and determined not to leave the Twin Cities area without seeing Prince.

Luckily, I didn't have to take extreme measures. And I would have. After lunch at one of his favorite watering holes, Rudolphs Bar-B-Que, where a waitress pointed out his favorite table, the details began to emerge on how our "meeting" was going to unfold. I was in town to attend a gathering of the National Association of Black Journalists and Prince had agreed to let attendees attend a dance party at Paisley Park.

We dropped everything and lined up like giggly schoolchildren to wait for buses to pick us up. It was quite the sight. All of these hard-core journalists all pumped up and ready to party like it was 1999.

The ground rules were strict: We had to leave our cellphones, recording devices, and cameras behind. I thought about trying to smuggle in my iPhone, but didn't want one of Prince's bodyguards tossing me out before I could lay eyes on Prince in the flesh.

After about 25 minutes of driving, our buses pulled outside Paisley Park, which was bathed in purple lights. Inside, we found a cavernous space filled with Prince memorabilia, including the motorcycle from the 1984 bio-epic Purple Rain. It was dark and noisy, and oddly a rerun of the 1976 flick Car Wash was playing on TV monitors.

People danced to mostly non-Prince music and waited for Prince to come out from wherever he was. (Little did most of us know that he'd met with a group of about 10 privately. But they weren't allowed to take notes or record their encounter.)

People dozed off from exhaustion but still wouldn't leave. Finally, word spread through the crowd like a tidal wave. Prince was there. He had come out to meet us. I edged as close as I could to get a look at the Purple One. It had been years since I'd seen him in concert. Prince looked so small. I'd forgotten how tiny he was. He stood just 5-foot-2. I couldn't see his feet to tell if he was wearing stilettos, as he'd been known to do.

His hair was picked out in the Afro style he'd been wearing in recent years and he had on a fancy top. I don't recall any details about it. But I do remember the overall effect, which was, well, Princely. He must have stood on that stage for all of two minutes telling us how he would not be performing that night and that he had a new album coming out that he hoped we would like. And just as quickly as he came, the great Prince was gone.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. Nah, it was worse. I was mad. I stomped out of there thinking, what harm would it have done for him to have at least hummed a few bars? Many of us had partied along to his music for decades and supported him throughout his career, through all of his well-documented feuds with the music industry.

On our ride back to the hotel, I debated whether I would even buy his new music. Yeah, I had an attitude. But it was late. I was tired. Little did we know, though, that that brief, albeit precious, sighting of him at Paisley Park would be our last.

In "Let's Go Crazy," Prince sings about what happens after death: " . . . Electric word life; it means forever and that's a mighty long time; but I'm here to tell you; there's something else; the afterworld; a world of neverending happiness; you can always see the sun, day or night . . . "

Let's hope heaven also has a soundstage.

@JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen armstrj@phillynews.com