CHAOS AND DISORDER
Los Angeles Times 7/14/96
NEW YORK -- In the past, the few reporters who have gained access to Prince Roger Nelson had to submit to measures more befitting the secrecy of a covert military operation.
He insisted that interviewers not use tape recorders or take notes. Lots of topics were declared off limits, and the location of the encounter was always subject to a last-minute change.
Now, though, the elusive Minneapolis star has at least relaxed the rules enough to allow a little scribbling. And as he enters a plush hotel suite in midtown Manhattan -- after a security guard has inspected the joint -- his poker face slowly cracks into a gentle, disarming smile. "Nice to meet you," says the singer, his doe eyes warming. He sits on a sofa, looking a bit stiff in his impeccably tailored black suit as he waits to begin what he says will be his only U.S. interview in connection with his new "Chaos and Disorder" album.
"So, um, how much time we got?" he asks. Like a lot of eccentrics, this diminutive icon, 38, turns out to be a rather shy, self-conscious fellow. His remarks during the interview are often painfully terse, sometimes willfully vague and on occasion petulant. But in general, he's polite and earnest.
And while he's predictably less than forthcoming on most personal matters, part of the reason he's here today is to announce his impending divorce -- from Warner Bros., his record company for 18 years.
"Chaos and Disorder" will be his final effort for Warner Bros., he vows, without going into details. And despite his much-publicized differences with the label, he claims to bear no real grudges. "I was bitter before, but now I've washed my face," he says. "I can just move on. I'm free."
Tensions between artist and label first came to a boil in early 1994, when he decided to drop the name Prince and asked that people start identifying him by an unpronounceable symbol -- disassociating himself, in a most burdensome way, from the guy who recorded some of the most popular and acclaimed albums of the '80s.
To further express his frustration, he stopped performing Prince-era material in concert and began appearing in public with the word "slave" written on his cheek. In 1994, he also released "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," a successful single that was distributed not by Warner Bros. but by the independent company Bellmark Records.
Bob Merlis, senior vice president at Warner Bros., confirms that "Chaos and Disorder" is expected to be the artist's final album of newly recorded material for the label -- although the company might continue to dip into Prince's back catalog.
"Fulfilling the terms of his contract included delivering this new album and whatever the vault records will be," Merlis says. "So I think it's safe to say that he's in a position now to make a new deal with another record company," Merlis said. "We've come to a point where we feel that if he's happier somewhere else, we don't have any beef with him." At present, Prince hasn't determined what his next step will be -- or at least doesn't wish to go on the record with it.
No financial straits
For all his maddening guardedness, the star -- who has no plans to promote "Chaos and Disorder" with a tour, limiting his appearances to appearances last week on David Letterman and "The Today Show" -- seems genuinely torn about what his future will be beyond this album.
In one breath, he'll say, "If I knew the things I know now before, I wouldn't be in the music industry." In the next, he'll talk about his craft with such passion that it's impossible to imagine him working in any other field.
What's clear is that his experiences in the music industry have made him more sensitive to the travails and tantrums of other artists. He followed George Michael's legal war to free himself from Sony Music and has also been keeping track of the plight of the hip-hop trio TLC, which last year declared bankruptcy in an effort to get out of the low royalty rate written into its contract.
"TLC is a very talented group," he says. "Talent can't be bottled up or contained.... We gotta wake up to that. Why should somebody else be making $100 million when they're making $75,000? It will continue, too -- that's the sad truth."
Prince's history with Warner dates back to the late '70s, when he was signed to the label while still a teenager. After achieving his commercial breakthrough with 1982's "1999" album, the androgynous, charismatic performer quickly became a pop sensation -- many even considered him the foremost artist of his generation.
A one-man musical movement whose fiercely innovative blend of funk, rock and soul crossed racial and cultural boundaries, Prince reached his commercial peak with "Purple Rain," the 13 million-selling soundtrack album for the semi-autobiographical film in which he starred. As the years passed, Prince produced and wrote hit singles for other artists, and his "Minneapolis sound" had an enduring impact on contemporary R&B. Meanwhile, the star himself continued to release his own albums -- some breathtaking, others spotty -- at a breakneck pace. With his sales declining in the '90s, Warner began questioning his game plan. Prince argued that his record company, fearing that his pace would undercut his profitability, was trying to stifle him by not allowing him to release albums as frequently as he wanted to. He dismisses the label's concern as "having nothing to do with a man's soul or his need to express himself."
Matters grew worse when Warner decided in 1994 to drop its distribution deal with Paisley Park Records, the Minneapolis-based label that Prince had established more than a decade earlier. The label had been losing money since its inception, but Prince says it was a lack of corporate support that did in the project in.
"I was under the assumption that [Paisley Park] was a joint effort with lawyers and businessmen," he explains, a little obliquely. "All we do as artists is make the music. I didn't think I'd have to be marketing the records, or taking them to the [radio] station. If Michael Jordan had to rely on someone to help him dunk, then there would be some trouble." While the artist insists that his problems with Paisley Park and Warner in general haven't had a traumatic impact on his bank account ("I'm not in financial straits and never will be," he says firmly), they clearly haven't had a positive effect on his career.
"Diamonds and Pearls," which has sold 2.3 million in the United States since its release in 1991, was the last genuine smash among his new studio collections. Last year's "The Gold Experience" hasn't broken the 500,000 sales mark, and this year's "Girl 6," the soundtrack to the Spike Lee movie, has sold fewer than 100,000 units, according to SoundScan.
Positivity, not sex
So he could use a hit album right now, to remind folks that there's a reason we all began suffering his antics in the first place. True to its title, "Chaos and Disorder" rocks hard, but it's also typically eclectic, with passages of wistful guitar-pop and lithe funk. The artist cites a rather unexpected point of reference in explaining his approach to the album.
"Someone told me that Van Halen did their first record in a week," he says. "That's what we were going for -- spontaneity, seeing how fast and hard we could thrash it out. It was done very quickly, and we achieved what we wanted to achieve in that period of time."
In speaking about his songwriting, he actually expresses a greater feeling of being misunderstood than he does in his accounts of the music business. He's disturbed by the wacky theory that he's obsessed with sex.
It seems that the man who evoked the ire of rock music watchdog groups with a graphic account of masturbation, and who later designed a cave for his stage show as a replica of female sex organs, is a little frustrated by the fact that some people focus chiefly on the carnal elements in his lyrics -- which, to be fair, have also addressed the subtler aspects of relationships, as well as larger social issues.
"You know, there are people who view positivity, rather than sex, as the biggest factor in my writing," he points out. "But then, they're more sexual, I guess."
He adds that he's always "had good relationships with women -- much better than I have with men." He continues to populate his band with female musicians, and he repeatedly brings up the name of R&B maverick Me'Shell Ndegeocello, with whom he seems to have formed a sort of mutual admiration society.
"Me'Shell and me are like this," he says, holding two fingers together. "She's really quiet and soft-spoken, but when she picks up an instrument.... Musicians, when they really communicate, don't have to talk. They just play."
He pauses, then adds, a touch mysteriously: "The people who are supposed to understand do understand. "You learn that more and more as you grow older. After I'm free from Warner Bros., it'll either be very quiet or very exciting. But it won't be in the middle. It'll be extreme. Life, I mean. It'll all be extreme."
The man with the most celebrated identity crisis in pop is installed on the 48th floor of a Manhattan hotel. The lift goes up so fast your ears pop. A security guard opens the door, and there he is. Dressed from head to toe in black he sits like a crow in his cold, remote eyrie high above the city.
It is the middle of the afternoon but his face is immaculately made up and his high-maintenance hairstyle scraped and greased into extravagant shape. The near-stilleto heels on his boots are at least 3 inches high. His handshake is firm and when he eventually speaks his voice is deep and well modulated.
The musician that most people still call Prince, even if his entourage fearfully avoids calling him anything at all, has a new record out on Monday called Chaos and Disorder. Nothing unusual about that. Apart from 1993, he has released one and sometimes two albums of new material every year since 1978, a staggering output by the standards of today's pop superstars (over the same period Michael Jackson has released just 5 new albums). Musically Chaos and Disorder is nothing out of the ordinary either. Another rich stew of roller coaster funk riffs and spiky harmonies leavened by a couple of pretty pop tunes -- including the single Dinner With Delores -- it is defined mostly by a rather more solid dose of princely guitar soloing than the norm.
What does make this album special is that it is his last with the group, the New Power Generation and his last for Warner Brothers, marking the end of an artist/record company squabble that has been as intense as that of George Michael and Sony. "I have decided to part company with Warners, but surprisingly we're now on the most amicable terms we've been for a long time." he says.
So the man with no name now has no group and no record contract. He obviously still feels a strong sense of injustice about Warners owning the mechanical copyrights of his recordings despite having negotiated and signed a contract (reported to be worth $100 million to him) as recently as 1992. "I'm not free to write or record with whom I want," he says. "If I wanted to write and record a song with you I could not do it."
Yes, he is fantastically vague when it comes to discussing the nuts and bolts of the dispute. Part of the problem apparently stemmed from Warners' reluctance to release the sheer volume of work he is capable of producing for fear of flooding the market. You can see the company's point. Prince's writing and recording habits are prolific to the point of profligacy. He tells me he wrote three songs the day before. Two of these were "worked on" in a recording studio session that ended at 5 am. He has hundreds of unreleased songs in the vault.
He cannot even remember whether or not he wrote any original material specifically for the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago's Billboards show featuring his music which has caused a sensation in the American dance world and is coming to the festival hall next month. "I am energised by music," he says. "Music is my reason for existence, writing it, playing it listening to it." Interviews have the opposite effect on him. A mixture of extreme shyness and overweening arrogance, he is an erratic and unforthcoming conversationalist. On February 14th he married his former backing singer and dancer Mayte, who is expecting his baby. But any talk of their relationship is strictly off-limits ("Too personal," he says, as if admonishing a naughty child). He will not discuss the lyrics to his songs. "Once they are in that record they are yours to make what you want of them. I don't want to spoil the process by explaining what I think they are about."
He will not say if he is negotiating a new recording contract and has no plans to tour. Despite finding himself at a significant watershed both in his personal and professional life, he does not wish to dwell on the past and will not talk about the future at all. Perhaps at the age of 38, he is feeling threatened by the prospect of growing older? "Not at all, I love growing older. You can figure things out quicker because you've seen how things happen in the past and so you what the results a certain action will have. Also, the older I get the closer I am to where I'm going, which is a better place." This is the only point at which he begins to get at all animated: "We all have a purpose within us. We are put here for a reason. My talent is God-given, but the music is made by me. I make the choices that make the music." He starts to sound like a preacher, an image reinforced by his long, black frock-coat and the gold cross-cum-arrow which dangles from his neck. A lot of cosmic waffle ensues. He insists I should read a book called Embraced by the Light by Betty Eadie, which is about near-death experiences and the I will fully understand what he is talking about. But he goes all coy when asked if he has had any near-death experiences himself: "That's too psychological." Interviewing him is like trying to shake hands with a shadow. He changed his name to a symbol in 1993 because his spirit told him to. Was he pleased that he had done it? "Absolutely." Would he consider changing it again? "Yes, if I was instructed to. I just do what I'm told."