Coachella at 20: How the festival unexpectedly nabbed Prince
“You are in the coolest place on Earth right now,” declared the artist forever known as Prince, dressed in white, an electric guitar in his hands, as he looked over the landscape of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival one night in April 2008.
His 24-song performance in Indio would be remembered as an emotional high point in the festival’s two-decade history, with guests Morris Day and Jerome Benton from the Time and Sheila E., plus Prince himself unfurling explosive riffs and leads like the guitar hero he always was. There were Prince classics and an aching eight-minute version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” leading to one more boast before his exit from the Coachella stage: “From now on this is Prince’s house!”
For the many thousands who witnessed the performance, and for those who heard the legend for years after, most surprising may be how close Prince’s moment at Coachella came to never happening at all. Getting there required the festival’s co-founder, Paul Tollett, president of promoter Goldenvoice Productions, to journey through the confounding whims of Prince.
“I thought he was confirmed early on and he wasn’t,” Tollett recalls. “It was the weirdest confirmation.”
In late 2007, plans were made for Prince to headline. At the time, the purple maestro had no manager or agent, so Tollett drove to his Bel-Air home to finalize details. Along for the ride was Goldenvoice graphic artist Paul Cutler, also a renowned guitarist for the bands 45 Grave and the Dream Syndicate.
During their meeting, Prince and Cutler hit it off, “geeking out” on their shared love for guitars, says Tollett. Then they went over the plans for Prince’s Saturday-night set at the desert festival, talking over sound, staging, every detail.
Prince turned to Tollett and said: “Go through your personal life.”
“That’s kind of weird, but it’s Prince, so sure,” Tollett says of the moment. “I go through it, tell him some of the ups, some of the downs. Having a real conversation with him. It’s not all great. There’s human stuff in there. I made some wrong decisions here and there, as we all do.
“I tell him everything about my life, and Prince says, ‘OK, let me tell you where you went wrong.’ And he went back through it, and showed me where I zigged when I should have zagged. I was like, ‘Oh man.’ And he was relatively right. That was fun.”
The date for announcing the next Coachella was only weeks away, and Cutler already had a poster made up with Prince’s name on top. The musician approved. “He’s basically signed off on everything,” explains Tollett, “and I say, ‘OK, are we done?’ And he says, ‘No, I’m not playing Coachella. Not now and not ever.’”
Tollett was stunned, but calmly accepted the verdict. Goldenvoice had promoted many shows with Prince over the years and likely would again. They agreed to stay in touch.
On the drive back from Prince’s mansion, Tollett confided to Cutler, “I’m baffled, Paul. I don’t know what I did wrong there.”
The three-day festival was announced, with U.K. trip-hop trio Portishead headlining on the Saturday, and tickets went on sale.
“Three weeks before the show,” says Tollett, “I get a call from a private number, and the guy says, ‘My guy wants to talk to you.’” He then heard Prince’s voice on the phone: “Do I have to split the T-shirt proceeds if I put the [Prince] symbol and ‘Coachella’ on a shirt?”
“I go, ‘What are you talking about? Are you playing?’ He says, ‘I’m playing the Saturday night.’”
Two weeks before the show, Prince was announced as an inspired but very late addition to the lineup. Prince was viewed as adding major star power to a lineup that some fans had criticized as a lower-wattage affair than in years past. Other artists headlining the ninth edition of the festival included Roger Waters, Jack Johnson, the Raconteurs, Death Cab for Cutie, Love and Rockets and Kraftwerk.
“I’ve never added a band at the last minute, but I really, really wanted him. I had paid him the most money to play Coachella to that date. It didn’t really work out financially,” Tollett says. It was reported that Prince commanded close to $5 million. His addition turned Saturday into a sell-out.
“I didn’t care. It was so good. It was so worth it. You remember those moments, how great it was.”
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