DETAILS * NOVEMBER 1991
The Man Who Would Be Prince
Prince. He never writes, he never phones.
After six days of waiting, of standing in the same room as him, of being passed in corridors, of being blanked at nightclubs, I am getting touchy and I am getting paranoid.
I sit in the Paisley Park boardroom. As usual, I am waiting. In a few minutes, I am told, I can hear Prince's new LP, Diamonds and Pearls. But I've been told that before and there's always been some problem: busy studios, incorrectly sequenced CDs, missing CD players. So I wait, not expecting anything to happen, and spend some of Prince's royalties phoning up friends in London. As I chat, one of the other phone lines flashes, but I ignore it. A few seconds later, in strides Gilbert. Gilbert used to be Prince's bodyguard; he is now president of Paisley Park Enterprises and Prince's closest confidant. I look guilty. I think he is going to tell me off for using the phone.
He gestures toward the flashing light. He looks surprised by what he is about to say.
"That's Prince. For you."
Six days. Forever breathing the same air but ignoring each other, I out of etiquette and he out of...well, those are the sort of things I'm here to find out. I've come halfway around the world and we're going to talk...on the phone.
"Hello, Chris. This is Prince."
He says he just wants "to say hello." Still, I am talking-to him. It's the first time we've spoken since Prince seemed to finger me as a disciple three years ago, after I had given Lovesexy one of its few positive reviews. (Apparently, he had appreciated my interpreting his nude cover pose as a spiritual statement.) In Paris, on the opening night of the Lovesexy tour, Prince and I were introduced. He stood and grasped my hand for an unusually long period of time and said, quietly, with a smile, "You understand." There was no irony; this was some form of induction. By way of a reply, I simply mumbled, "I hope so."
Drifting in and out of Prince's world over the next few years, visiting Paisley Park and talking to those around him, I began to see that understanding is only the first obstacle. The destination that Prince has in mind for his disciples is belief-unconditional, devotional, and just slightly kooky. As a journalist, I was never going to qualify. Besides, living so deep inside Prince's head didn't seem a good prescription for anyone's mental health.
Like his records, like his stage shows, Prince's Paisley Park headquarters is a monument to this system of beliefs. It's a strange place, even to visit. Something in the water, as Prince once so memorably put it, does not compute. It's not anything physical, not the two doves in their cage or the purple galaxy painted on the boardroom ceiling or the obsessive cleanliness. It's something more intangible, and you see it in the faces of the people who work there. They're like students taking a long, perplexing exam, trying to work out what the question means before they can start writing. And the question is this: What does Prince want? "Ask him!" you want to shout. But there are few, if any, people here who can ask him a straight question or demand a straight answer. There was a tabloid story once that claimed Prince fired employees because they weren't telepathically responsive. It wasn't true, but they were onto something. There's a lot of second guessing going on-a lot of people who believe but are still muddling through the messy, day to-day business of understanding.
The last time I was here was the summer of 1990, just before the release of the Graffiti Bridge movie and album. Things then had seemed a little fractured, and those around Prince didn't always contribute the most flattering portraits. He was a genius, yes, but one who had exiled himself from all but his own brand of reality-and, by extension, from all but his most devout followers. There was, of course, no testimony from Prince.
Before this year he has answered questions publicly only four times since 1984's Purple Rain. Now, it appears, some effort is being made. Those around Prince, if not Prince himself, clearly feel that there is some work to be done on his image, some transformation from what Boy George once called "a midget dipped in oil and rolled in pubic hair." Though "Gett Off" is Prince at his most lewd, his staff play down what they see as his sexual threat. They gloss over his more spiritual leanings, the core of his finest music, and treat the mixed-up, muddled-up Graffiti Bridge as an unfortunate incident best forgotten. Not a failure, mind you. Prince doesn't have failures. Ingrid Chavez, his co-star in the film, told me that Prince would never admit Graffiti Bridge was a failure-he would simply blame the world for not "getting it." Nevertheless, it's clear that Diamonds and Pearls is a crucial LP for Prince. Lovesexy, a religious record with a naked man on the cover, did little to consolidate his superstar status. Batman, a success, was associated more with a hit film and a comic-book hero than Prince. Graffiti Bridge was a multi-artist soundtrack saddled with a flop film. Diamonds and Pearls, however, is a Prince LP. Pure and simple. If it sells poorly there are no excuses. If it sells poorly it will be because people don't want to buy a Prince LP. So I wait to hear Diamonds and Pearls. The proffered deal was that I'd spend a week at Paisley Park, listen to the record, talk to his band, go into rehearsals, and, perhaps, if things go well, if the stars are right, Prince will talk to me. A little. Perhaps. Without it being recorded, of course.
It doesn't start well. I arrive on Tuesday night, and when I call in on Wednesday I'm told I wasn't expected until Thursday. Oh. And when Prince was told I was coming, he apparently moaned that I had "dogged him in Rio," where I hadn't enjoyed his show, and that I obviously wasn't a fan. Oh. So I wait. Can I go into rehearsals? No, not just now. Er, Prince isn't in a very good mood this week. Oh. I pass the days mooching around and talking to his employees. Though they must have his consent to speak to me, when they do talk they're sweet and loyal, but also quite open. Prince is a workaholic. He expects you to work Saturdays. Prince always tells you that he works you so hard because he knows you've got it inside of you. The people who have trouble with him are the people who can't accept that he's the boss. They tell you all this, patiently and with good humor, but it's embarrassing. They know why you're talking to them, and in Prince's absence the conversations take on a disconcertingly religious tone. Because it is obvious who you are both talking about, it isn't necessary to mention Prince by name. It is just Him and He. The one whom you can't see but who's the reason for everything you're both doing. Rosie Gaines is the keyboard player and singer Prince drafted for 1990's Nude tour. This afternoon Prince has been asking her questions on camera for a documentary he's making. I ask her whether she asked him any questions.
"Nooo," she says, grinning. "I wish I could have."
"I want to ask him just to come out to my house and meet my husband and have a barbecue, just not be Prince for a day."
He has been around her place once, actually. In the driveway, anyhow. Prince called up one night after midnight. He'd just done some new music, and it was so funky he had to play it to someone. She was the closest. So she gave him directions. When he was outside he phoned from the car and she came down and sat for half an hour in his blue BMW, listening to new tunes: "The Flow," "Walk Don't Walk." While the music played they didn't say anything. It was so funky Rosie didn't want to get out of the car. Rosie listens to Prince's music and knows he has love in his heart. Also, he made her feel good about her looks; he told her she was sexy inside. Prince calls Rosie "cousin." She calls him "Prince" but says she'd like to call him "baby."
Tony M. (for Mosley) is another initiate in the New Power Generation. Tony has written some of the raps on the new LP. Prince coaches him. Tony tends to write "straight from the 'hood." Prince steers him toward a more "worldly aspect." But one day Prince asked him to write a "Gil Scott-Heron thing on black- on-black crime, cops, and the community." I ask him why he thinks Prince wanted something like that. "I think black awareness is really taking an upturn today," Tony replies, "and he really wants to be a part of that." Tony knows a lot of people in his neighborhood who don't like Prince, who think he's just a pop thing. "They didn't get Van Gogh, did they?" he asks rhetorically.
THAT NIGHT I GO TO GLAM SLAM, THE CLUB opened last year by Prince and Gilbert. Downstairs, where the normal people mingle, Prince's Purple Rain bike sits behind a chain fence, and there's a shop selling Prince-style designer clothes from cheap T-shirts to customized leather jackets with fractured Minnesota license plates on the back (a snip at $1,500). If you go up the back stairs-and you can only if you're a member or a special guest-then you can see lots of graffiti on the stairwell: "Music will guide us and love is inside us," "It's almost 1999" (in mirror writing), "New Power Soul," and "For a good time phone 777-9911" (don't bother-it's been disconnected). Upstairs is the members' balcony, from which you can lean down and watch the action below.
Prince likes to watch. He's famous for it. One night in Minneapolis, eating dinner, I'm served by a waitress who's wearing a Glam Slam badge. "I like the club," she tells me, "but not the owner." She should. Everyone in Minneapolis should. Prince deserves to be a hometown hero. He has stayed here, built a studio and film complex that has attracted performers as diverse as R.E.M. and Barry Manilow. He regularly plays local club concerts and supports local charities. He loves this town. But he's not a hero here. At best, he's ignored. Minneapolis radio is white FM rock at its most pure. You hear "Gett Off" only on KMOJ-FM, an urban radio station supported by donations, and even they are far more likely to be playing D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. At worst-and one fears Prince doesn't even realize this-a lot of people here despise him. They think he's a snooty weirdo, cruising around in his limousine with his bodyguards. Sitting in clubs and summoning girls to do his bidding. Creepy. The waitress thinks so: "I introduced him to my friend and told him she was a big fan. He didn't say anything." So the waitress gave Prince a piece of her mind. "I said, 'You're always in clubs and you don't drink, you don't dance, you don't do anything, you just sit in the corner...' "
What did he say?
"Nothing. His bodyguard said, 'He likes to people watch.' I said, 'Why doesn't he go people watch on a park bench?' "
IS THIS THE REAL PRINCE? IT S HARD TO KNOW for sure, not least because many of those in a position to know-the people from his past-now work for him. As soon as he became successful enough, Prince began reeling in his competitors and childhood heroes, giving them jobs, setting them up in bands. He talks now of Paisley Park being "much more than a studio." It is; it has become Prince's extended family, over which he presides as benevolent patriarch. When a new member is to be brought in, Prince insists on issuing the invitation personally. (Seduction, in all its forms, is one of his favorite acts.) Once in the family, everyone is looked after. All that's expected in return is a limitless belief in Prince.
Creating a model family seems like a natural impulse for someone who never had one.
Though he has always denied that Purple Rain is autobiographical, the troubled father-son relationship the movie depicted has a strong grounding in fact. Prince's father had been an unrecognized jazz musician whose relations with his son deteriorated disastrously as Prince came of age. On at least one occasion, he was thrown out of the house. Pleading to be allowed back, Prince spent two hours in a phone booth crying. He later claimed that this was the last time he ever cried.
He has said that he was able to forgive once he had a record contract and money in his pocket. A less charitable view would be that he found peace when he acquired the power to control. Prince's immediate world-Paisley Park, his various bands, and side projects-is driven by the controlling power of his talent and originality. It is the uncontrollable world that causes problems. Even as he puts himself beyond the media's reach, he obsessively monitors everything that's written about him. And though he regards his failures as the world's failure to "get it," it apparently doesn't ease his pain. To Prince, every career setback assumes the dimensions of a personal betrayal. Most pop stars want the world, and they want it now. Prince also wants the world, but he has the hardest time tuning in to it.
ON SUNDAY, I'M SUPPOSED TO HEAR THE LP, but it doesn't happen. The next day, when I'm once again installed in Paisley Park's boardroom, Prince calls.
I pick up the telephone and we exchange pleasantries. His voice is huskier, more manly than you might imagine. He says he just phoned to say hello and to tell me about his LP. He says he's sorry that he can't be there to play it to me but that he has to go into town. Right about now he starts moving into good-bye mode. Quietly I begin to panic at what I'll be taking home: "Prince speaks! He says 'Hello! How are you?' " So I try to engage him, desperately following any line of conversation from his last answer so he has no chance to sign off. Surprisingly, it works.
We talk about his new LP. "All my last records...have been connected to films. This is just my music... I just wanted to tell you how long we took making this."
It seems silly, but the point seems to be that Prince views Diamonds and Pearls as a collection of songs that showcases the breadth of his talents as a songwriter, producer, and performer, a record that would express many perspectives, not a single theme. He contrasts this with Lovesexy. After recording The Black Album, with its hard beats and rough language, he shelved it and resolved to make a very different sort of record, one that would celebrate a particular idea. It flew out of him. "I did Lovesexy in seven weeks from start to finish, and most of it was recorded in the order it was on the record," he tells me. "There were a couple of funky things I did at the end and put earlier on, but it's pretty much how you hear it." The Lovesexy tour was part pop spectacle, part evangelical fervor. Prince would beseech the crowds to love God, over and over. I mention that people thought in his more recent work he'd backed off from his evangelical position. It's something he jumps on.
"People got that wrong," he insists. "Batman was all about that same feeling. Graffiti Bridge was probably more about that feeling than Lovesexy was. Lovesexy was a state of mind I've come to, and I know it is still there." He gets increasingly impassioned. "If I didn't have it, I wouldn't make records anymore. When you have that...you know who you are, and you know what your name is. I didn't know that before. I thought there were places I had to get to. I thought there were things I had to do. I was a lot more competitive because of it. Now I realize that's not what's important."
I ask him whether he minds having records that aren't very successful. "No," he says. "They all serve a purpose. I've already made money, all the money I need. I was never that interested in money anyway." He launches into his thoughts on critics. Though his tone is more playful than resent- ful, he has a genuine, almost beautifully naive anger toward them. "I would never criticize someone else who gave me something for my head," he says. "I remember what happened to Stevie Wonder when he did the Secret Life of Plants record. Stevie was our friend and we'd gone through so many things, and then we turned our back on him. The critics said it was no good. But we can't say that if he's our friend, and if we do say that, he won't be our friend anymore, and he doesn't want to play music for us...
"It was the same with Joni Mitchell," he continues. "They said she was off her rocker and that she'd gone away. And the more they said that, the more she went away."
It seems appropriate to mention Graffiti Bridge. He is not the slightest bit defensive.
"Some people got it," he counters. "Martika saw it six times."
His own mention of Martika leads him into a rapturous appreciation of the young Cuban pop singer. She is clearly the type of person he wishes all his audience, all the world, might be. "She is," he says, "like a flower unfolding."
"That's nice," says Martika when I speak to her a few days later. "I feel the same way about him. Though he's sort of unfolded already, I guess." Martika had been thinking about calling Prince for months. When she saw Graffiti Bridge (she says it's true, she has seen it six times) she noticed that a lot of the words were about the same things she had been jotting in her notebooks. So last December she flew out to Minneapolis to be with Prince. They sat down and she showed him her notebooks. He was impressed. She visited several times, taking four tracks they worked on together away to New York to finish on her own. She flew back to play him the whole LP and the video for their hit collaboration, "Love. . .Thy Will Be Done." When he watched the video, he was moved.
Martika asks me about my time in Minneapolis, and I hint at some strangeness. Sometimes, I say, you have to think: he's a person, and I'm a person...and he's rude.
"I know what you're saying. He's difficult to understand like that. But I don't think he means to be." Her position is clear. If he was rude, so what? You can excuse all that, you must excuse all that, because what it allows to exist-his music-is ultimately much more important.
Prince enjoys explaining why he makes music. His first explanation is flip: "I like music to play in my car, and when I need something new to play I record something. Instead of buying a tape, I make music." And at the moment in his car?
"Diamonds and Pearls, of course." He usually cues up "Push," a frantic band-rap business, then goes from there. Unless it's sunny, in which case he plays "Strollin'."
There's nothing else he could play.
"I don't listen to any of my old music, you know," he announces with strange pride, as though it would be some awful thing to do.
And as far as other people's music?
"You know when you buy someone's record and there's always an element missing? The voice is wrong or the drums are lame or something? On mine there's nothing missing."
He talks some more about his new projects. I mention the possible video with Kate Bush. Frequent transatlantic phone conversations with the floaty Ms. Bush have been openly alluded to during my tenure at Paisley Park, but Prince denies any knowledge. Strange. I mention Spike Lee's video and he is a little more open. "It's scheduled, hopefully," he says. I ask whether they share a common thread. Prince draws his breath playfully, as though I'm asking naughty questions.
"Oooh," he says finally. "I don't know that I want to answer that. That's getting into philosophy."
No harm in philosophy, I say.
"I don't think so," says Prince with a chuckle, meaning he does. I ask him whether he feels the public's perception of him is accurate. "There's not much I want them to know about me," he says, "other than the music."
I'm not controlling this conversation, just clinging onto it by my fingertips. He mentions his work with other artists and says he writes songs for them "because they ask me." He names Paula Abdul, Louie Louie, and Carmen, whom, rather disingenuously (as though I wouldn't have noticed her walking around the office or seen her photo on the hallway wall- the latest female protege on the scene), he describes as "this new girl out of Cincinnati." He raves about the New Power Generation, genuinely thrilled. "Rosie," he says, "is like a tornado. There's never enough hours in the day for her voice. There's never enough tape for her voice.. .and my dancers, they've waited seven years for this..."
Eventually, after several more desperate pieces of stalling from me, he really is going. He signs off by breaking out of his conversational tone and heading into declamatory soul-star theatrics. "Don't come to the concert, y'all," he shouts down the phone, laughing. "Don't come to the concert! I've got a band of assassins..."
I FINALLY GET TO HEAR THE LP. GILBERT LEADS me into Studio A and gives me a copy of the Lyrics to borrow during the listening, but tells me I mustn't write any down. Prince and the New Power Generation have been in here working on some new songs. One seems to be called "Standing at the Altar." On the soundboard Prince has four channels for himself: two for his vocals, one for "guitar," and another for "guitar/dirty."
The record sounds fantastically good, and after spouting quite genuine overenthusiasm, I go out to lunch. I'm expecting to be here a few more days. But on my way out Gilbert says good-bye in what seems a very conclusive manner. I put it down to Paisley Park paranoia, but when I phone later I discover I was right, I'm to leave. Later I find out that Prince has been asking how much longer I'm going to be in town. I head home. I don't know if I found anything. I don't know if I fitted into some little game of Prince's, or whether I've caused upset in it. He's made a record that the world will like, and that's a good thing. But can a record alone redraw Prince's personality, make him more human? His music, sleeves, videos- even his films-are littered with clever, sweet, sharp messages, but most of the world just picks up a picture of an awkward, pervy, self-indulgent geek. The man I talked to on the phone was smart, polite, charismatic, and playful, but it's another man-the people watcher, the one who doesn't say hello, the narcissist who's so into himself all he needs is mirrors and foot servants-that so many people imagine being the real Prince. There's one bit of our conversation that keeps playing over in my head. Written down, now, it looks a bit silly and precious and all those things that people who don't like Prince don't like about him. But at the time it was moving. He was telling me, in a different, more intense way than the first time, why he makes music.
"I make music because if I don't, I'd die. I record because it's in my blood. I hear sounds all the time. It's almost a curse: to know you can always make something new."
Have you always been like that? I ask him.
"No. When I was younger I had...other interests...but you know how the very first song I learned to play was 'Batman'...?"
He leaves the sentence open. Yes, I say, and I fill in the inference. You don't think that's an accident, do you?
"There are no accidents," he says. "And if there are, it's up to us to look at them as something else. And..." At this point he pauses, and even though we're talking over the phone I can see him do one of those long fawn-eyed stares that make you believe every curious syllable he speaks. "And that bravery is what creates new flowers."
Whenever I tell anyone about it, they say it sounds weird. It sounds like he should grow up. But it sounds like the real Prince. It makes perfect sense to me.