ROLLING STONE (1981)
Will the little girls understand?
Snaking out from the wings toward center stage at the Ritz, prancing like a pony with his hands on his hips and then flinging a clorine kick with a coquettish toss of his head, Prince is androgyny personified. Slender and doe-eyed, with a faint pubescent mustache, he is bare-chested beneath a gray, hip-length Edwardian jacket. There's a raffish red scarf at this neck, and he's wearing tight black bikini briefs, thigh-high black leg-warmers and black-fringed go-go boots. With his racially and sexually mixed five-piece band churning out the terse rhythms of "Sexy Dancer" behind him, the effect is at once truly sexy and more than a little disorienting , and his breathy falsetto only adds to his ambiguity -- for sheer girlish vulnerability, there's no one around to touch him: not Michael Jackson, not even fourteen-year-old soul songbird Stacy Lattisaw. At age twenty, Prince may be the unlikeliest rock star, black or white, in recent memory -- but a star he definitely is.
As quickly becomes apparent, Prince's lyrics bear little relation to standard AM radio floss. In addition to bald sexual come-ons and twisted love plaints, he champions the need for independence and self-expression. And one song, "Uptown," is, among other things, an antiwar chant. Further complicating the proceedings are the heavy-metal moans Prince wrenches out of his guitar and the punchy dance-rock rhythms of his band (bassist Andre Cymone, guitarist Dez Dickerson, keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Dr. Fink and drummer Bobby Z.), all of whom are longtime cohorts from Prince's hometown -- Minneapolis, of all places.
"I grew up on the borderline," Prince says after the show. "I had a bunch of white friends, and I had a bunch of black friends. I never grew up in any one particular culture." The son of a half-black father and an Italian mother who divorced when he was seven, Prince pretty much raised himself from the age of twelve, when he formed his first band. Oddly, he claims that the normalcy and remoteness of Minneapolis provided just artistic nourishment he needed.
"We basically got all the new music and dances three months late, so I just decided that I was gonna do my own thing. Otherwise, when we did split Minneapolis, we were gonna be way behind and dated. The white radio stations were mostly country, and the one black radio station was really boring to me. For that matter, I didn't really have a record player when I was growing up, and I never got a chance to check out Hendrix and the rest of them because they were dead by the time I was really getting serious. I didn't even start playing guitar until 1974."
With his taste for outlandish clothes and his "lunatic" friends, Prince says he "took a lot of heat all the time. People would say something about our clothes or the way we looked or who we were with, and we'd end up fighting. I was a very good fighter," he says with a soft, shy laugh. "I never lost. I don't know if I fight fair, but I go for it. That's what 'Uptown' is about -- we do whatever we want, and those who cannot deal with it have a problem within themselves."
Prince has written, arranged, performed and produced three albums to date (For You, Prince and Dirty Mind), all presenting the same unique persona. Appearances to the contrary, though, he says he's not gay, and he has a standard rebuff for overenthusiastic male fans: "I'm not about that; we can be friends, but that's as far as it goes. My sexual preferences really aren't any of their business." A Penthouse "Pet of the Month" centerfold laid out on a nearby table silently underscores his point.
It took Prince six months alone in the studio to concoct his 1978 debut album, because, he says, "I was younger then." Prince required six weeks. He controlled the making of both records, but notes that they were "overseen" by record company and management representatives. Dirty Mind, however, was made in isolation in Minneapolis. "Nobody knew what was going on, and I became totally engulfed in it," he says. "It really felt like me for once."
The result of this increased freedom was a collection of songs celebrating incest ("Sister") and oral sex ("Head") in language raw enough to merit a warning sticker on the album's cover. "When I brought it to the record company it shocked a lot of people," he says. "But they didn't ask me to go back and change anything, and I'm real grateful. Anyway, I wasn't being deliberately provocative. I was being deliberately me."
Obviously, judging by the polished eclecticism of Dirty Mind, being himself is the best course. "I ran away from home when I was twelve," Prince says. "I've changed address in Minneapolis thirty-two times, and there was a great deal of loneliness. But when I think about it, I know I'm here for a purpose, and I don't worry about it so much."
ROLLING STONE, FEBRUARY 19, 1981