From Spain to Japan, the concerts began the same way: with blinding lights spelling out the name of the star attraction in 10-foot-high letters. Then came the music-usually ''1999'' or ''The Future'' first, followed by ''Let's Go Crazy'' and ''Kiss,'' through the more recent ''Alphabet St.'' and ''Batdance,'' and ending with ''Partyman.'' And mixed in along the way were the occasional snippets of ''Bambi'' (in what one reviewer described as a ''pulverizing'' rendition) and Otis Redding's ''Respect.'' Dubbed the Nude tour for its back- to-musical-basics approach, Prince's summer-long series of concerts in Europe and Japan set to pump audiences up for his double-whammy of a new album and movie, both called Graffiti Bridge was one roller coaster of a pop show.
But this is one thrill ride that may never careen into the U.S.A. spokeswoman at Paisley Park, Prince's combination recording studio and headquarters near Minneapolis, said last week that the Enigmatic One has not yet decided whether he will bring the tour to the States this fall, as was originally assumed. And a source close to his camp was more emphatic, saying the American concerts have definitely been shelved. ''The tour plans were always a tease,'' says the source. ''He's not mad about anything. He just doesn't plan that far in advance.''
As it has turned out, he didn't need to: Without any tour help, the Graffiti Bridge album and its first single, ''Thieves in the Temple,'' are both in the top 10. The movie of the same name is a different matter. Prince plans to continue toying with last-minute editing of the Graffiti Bridge film, which has already been totally overhauled twice and is now due out in November, if it is ever released at all. Otherwise, having wrapped up his summer tour last week, Prince will record in his studio (not necessarily for a new album he constantly puts things on tape) and hang out at Glam Slam, a new Minneapolis night spot that his friend Gilbert Davison is opening this month. The 20,000- square-foot club (named after a Prince song on his Lovesexy album and also the name of a fictional club in his new movie) will feature unreleased Paisley Park recordings, including Prince rarities. ''Gilbert is a friend of his, and Prince just wants to be around when the club opens,'' says the source.
That's too bad, since the Nude concerts, which Prince previewed in April with a show at Rupert's, another Minneapolis nightclub, and in May at the St. Paul Civic Center, were quite the party. The Tour which kicked off in Rotterdam on June 1, took in 12 nights at London's Wembley Arena, and wound up in Japan on Sept. 10 was quintessential Prince: frisky, indulgent, narcissistic, and fascinating. The roughly two-hour concerts were low on costume changes and choreography and high on musical adrenaline. Prince and his five-piece band, abetted by three dancers, strung songs together in mile- a-minute medleys. The shows were also anything but predictable. Sometimes, as he did in Spain, he teased an audience by only playing one verse and the guitar solo from ''Purple Rain''; one night in London, the band jammed on Purple Rain's ''Baby I'm a Star'' for a full half hour. At other times, Prince would indulge in long, winding piano solos that would eventually lead to stark renditions of ''Nothing Compares 2 U,'' an old Prince song that Sinéad O'Connor took to No. 1 this year; that rendition would finally end with Prince spread- eagled across a huge heart, the only major prop of the tour. And thanks to the use of electronic ''samples,'' bits of James Brown, rapper Rob Base, and Jack Nicholson (from Batman) cropped up in the middle of songs.
''Dearly beloved,'' he told a crowd in Birmingham, England, ''we are gathered here to party.''
''The Lovesexy tour in '88 was so experimental,'' says one observer. ''Here, he was going for a party feel. The lights would go up, and as soon as 'Purple Rain' started, everyone in the audience would pull out their lighters. It was a real golden-oldies thing.''
There is also a sense of familiarity to the upcoming movie, but in this case Graffiti looks to be a lot more introspective. The early draft of the Prince-penned script with then-flame Kim Basinger as costar won guffaws from the few who saw it. ''It was about a guy who goes on a search for God,'' says one such witness. ''God turned out to be a blond who seemed a lot like Kim Basinger.'' That screenplay bit the dust when Prince and Basinger ended their affair as production was about to begin. In the rewritten version, which began filming in February, Prince and his Purple Rain costar Morris Day play the co- owners of the Glam Slam nightclub. Set in the mid-'50s in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Seven Corners, the movie details the struggle between the two men for the ''soul'' of the club. One musician who actually played those spots 35 years ago was John Nelson, pianist with the Prince Rogers jazz trio; his son, born in 1958, was named Prince after the group. The connection has led many to see Graffiti Bridge as a time tunnel in which Prince explores his family's musical and cultural roots and in which he might reveal a little of himself along the way.
But given Prince's continual cat-and-mouse games with his audience and the media, don't count on it. One thing can be determined, though: As a sequel of sorts to Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge is clearly meant as a way for Prince to return to his 1984-85 heyday, when both the Rain movie and album conquered the masses and made him the erotic flavor of the year. The Nude tour's emphasis on mid-period hits and album favorites serves much the same function reminding the fickle pop audience, the folks who bought fewer copies of his post-Rain releases, that Prince was far from fallow during the late '80s.
Prince has reason to be concerned. Lately, such rock bands as Living Colour and Fishbone not to mention the most complex rap records from bands such as Public Enemy have taken his funk-rock merger to new heights. Compared with the new Living Colour single, ''Type,'' parts of Graffiti Bridge sound a little quaint. But judging from his perplexing career decisions of 1990 what other superstar decides not to tour to promote a hit album? none can approach Prince when it comes to mystique. Twelve years after he released his debut album, the questions of who Prince is and where he's headed are still unanswered.