ESQUIRE (1995)


Amid pomp and circumspection,
rock's crown prince extends his purple reign

THE DARK CAR slid into the well-guarded alley. On the day after his second birthday as 0{+>, he got out of the car and walked quickly into the Glam Slam in South Beach, Miami. For twenty years, 0{+> has had a life of rear entrances, underground passages, announced and plotted arrivals, usually when night is well tipped into day.

He owns the Glam Slam and two other clubs like it and was here to perform on his birthday, make a video, and straighten out a little business problem. He stared straight-ahead, the master of the place, with debutante posture and, as is usual, "Slave" written artistically with marker on his right cheek.

His white silk shirt floated back from his frail body, a white Borsalino rode high on his hair, which glowed with glitter like stardust. He wore a mask of absolute expressionless stillness. His vacant face is his armor. It allows him to think without being bothered. It is convenient for creation, and it keeps the mystique.

Living in mystery is a stage of stardom, a reaction to early fame. Sometimes it is risky because silence can be misconstrued, but this is how 0{+> wants it. No interviews -- or if he does agree to one, he cripples the writer by removing his pen.

The big disco room had become a movie set since he left it after performing until five that morning, his wet body wrapped in a robe. As he had reminded the Glam Slam audience many times, "Prince is dead." He was feeling good, for each day was bringing him closer to the end of the contract with Warner Bros. Records that he feels enslaves him.

No one approached him. Those who did not know him well quickly averted their eyes when they passed, as though even to look on him were forbidden. He is the perfect combination of tininess and threat: Though he is thirty-seven in his past life as Prince Rogers Nelson, with a deep voice and a hairy chest -- this is still a boy-man. With his long, slender fingers, slightly pointed ears, and large beautiful eyes, the effect is elfin. He is very small and so dainty in his visible proportions that it is hard to imagine his childhood in a rough part of Minneapolis.

HERE, AS HE SITS with Carolyn Baker, a vice president of artist development for Warner Bros. Records, and two members of the band, the NPG, he is completely accepted as the genius, the boss, the coddled star, and the reason everyone is in this room. They are used to his ways -- the fabled sleepless energy that leads him to do aftershows in clubs following is performances. They know his talents as songwriter, performer, star of four movies, producer, autodidact on sixteen instruments, miniature sex machine. They know he is so prolific he could put out four albums a year if the record business worked that way. They know him in the many reincarnations as he redefines himself with the times. They know the things that make him an artist: the fact that he changes and gives himself the possibility to fail, that he moves through different mediums, that his life is the stuff of his work and the reverse. They accept -- it goes with the job.

"He's a a Miles Davis, who sounds like no one else heard. They hear, see, feel something we don't, and their job is to interpret for us," Baker says a few days later. "His whole world is colored differently from mine. People used to say, 'Will you tell him to do something?' And I'd say, 'No, you need to work around it.' He has a vision. He has got to be able to do it his way.... It's kind of like being an alien."

The large, heavily fringed 0{+> eyes are sneaking a peek at me, checking me out although I have been preapproved or I would not be in this room. One does not approach. One waits as the big white hat swivels slowly, the outlined eyes blink and consider. A little pencil line of hair surrounds his mouth. When he is ready, he comes over sucking a cherry Tootsie Pop, smiling redly. Juli Knapp, his director of operations, privately refers to and introduces him as "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince." Everyone is very scrupulous about this name thing.

0{+> and I go up into the balcony to talk. His bodyguard sits down in the row behind us, but 0{+> sends him away. "I'm a terrible interview," he says. His speaking voice is very low, like his low-register singing voice. I think he is afraid of not being as interesting as this whole edifice he has created, happier to hide behind his scarves and costumes and characters. With the press, as with his record company, he has trusted people and been burned. Actually, he is the perfect star in this era for which, as someone said, the best way to get attention is to shun attention. At least until the next album.

The stage 0{+>, historically dirty with his "motherf---ers" and sex talk, is obviously showbiz. He is very well-spoken, intense, funny, dipping into funk speech when he wants to, and very smart. He leans forward to tell me he feels angry at himself. When he signed the Warner deal he didn't know what he knows now, and sold what he feels is his birthright. He sold his master tapes. And now his future children won't have them. This is why he turned in disgust from "Prince" -- taken as a seventeen-year-old boy, his image controlled -- and the work that was Prince. This is why he became 0{+> and does not sing Prince songs: If I can't have me, they can't.

Of course he took the money, a deal worth a variously reported $30 million to $100 million. But they are not releasing or promoting his work the way he wants. Warner Bros. Records refuses to put out albums at the fast rate he writes songs, preferring to promote one album and one tour a year, as more might overwhelm the market.

All of this is involved in the name change. It was both a spiritual conversion and a business move. Just when he had been around long enough to have generations of fans, he became someone else and was reborn, artistically recast. He has his slave self, which is issuing a new album, The Gold Experience, and his semifree self, which contributed to Exodus, by the NPG. And there is a third self, a big hidden album.

For some time, he has been working on Emancipation, which will be his first album when he is free -- maybe fifty new songs. Then, he says, he will reemerge. He will speak to the press. His face has changed now, as though the plastic boss face was to keep everyone else calm. He tells me that his heart and perhaps his best work are in Emancipation. This album is a big surprise to people to people at Warner. No one seems to know about it.

"He's been here since the '70s," says Baker. "He was very young. Sometimes you love your parents but want to leave home. None of us wants to see it happen."

0{+> is a businessman. He has a $10 million studio, Paisley Park, where he produces other recording artists; he has these clubs throbbing until dawn, 0{+> stores in London and Minneapolis, where the symbol and the face take on iconic dimensions, his own love scent, and so forth. In 1992-93, Forbes ranked him the fifth most highly paid entertainer in the world. But a part of the Warner deal was a restructuring. Right now he is a businessman who made a bad deal. He doesn't want it to happen to others. He says he want to take care of other artists. His ambition is nothing less than to form an alternative recording industry where artists own their own work and have creative freedom. The NPG, the New Power Generation, the people of the sun, are part of this new quasi-hippie world. When he performs with them he is "Tora Tora," his head and face wrapped in a chiffon scarf, yet another self. He is hidden, as he was in the "My Name is Prince" video when he wore a curtain of chains over his face.

0{+> IS IN AN ARTISTIC CONUNDRUM -- art versus what is "commercial." When he hears that word, he almost leaps from his seat in the balcony. When they let him handle the single "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," he says he had his most commercial hit of the decade. ("It would have been spooky if it was the whole album," he says later.) It is every artist's devil -- his vision and the world's may not always mesh. His best stuff may be beyond them, but he knows how good or bad it is. Though sometimes he can fool himself, inside the artist always knows. The record company sometimes knows. The dilemma was there as early as his movie Purple Rain. People kept warning The Kid (0{+>'s role): "Nobody digs your music but yourself." Of course, central to artistic freedom is the freedom to fail on your own terms.

He talks about people who don't own their parent's work -- Nona Gaye doesn't own Marvin. Does Lisa Marie Presley own Elvis's masters?

He talks of the creative accounting of the record business, how black stores don't always have the digital scanners and miscount, so say, for instance, a big rap artist, who is said to have sold four million copies, might really have sold twenty million. He totally sympathized with George Michael, whom he considers a great talent, in his fight with Sony, which he says is an "even worse" company than Warner. Warner goes ahead and promotes what they want from the NPG album, which isn't always the right song, though the one he likes is nine-and-a-half minutes long. "Everyone gets to play on it. I have the best drummer in the world," he says.

According to his people, his deal is this: He gets an advance that might cover his living expenses while making an album. Once the work is delivered, Warner can decide how or if to promote and market it. The final decisions are not his. Thus, he is a "slave" to the system. Warner, I'm sure, has a different interpretation. I do not say to him that perhaps it trivializes the African-American experience for a millionaire rock star -- who travels with aides, bodyguards, a chef, a hairdresser, valet, backup security, wardrobe, band, technical people, a personal dancing muse, and a man who sits behind him n the Concorde handing him freshly sharpened pencils -- to write "Slave" on his face. This -- glittery chains on the face versus chains on the ankles -- is his version of slavery. Though he is half white, he identifies completely as a black man and talks about the lack of images for black children in movies and television.

"And who is at the head of those companies?" he says.

Mayte wafts into the balcony. She is his current inspiration after a long line of protégés including Apollonia and Vanity. 0{+ tells her what to wear for the video. Mayte has been with him for four years, since she was a famously virginal seventeen. Mayte, who is also of mixed parentage, grew up on army bases and studied ballet and belly dancing from the age of three. She fulfilled her mother's own balked ambition in the way 0{+> fulfilled his father's. Mayte is his Tinkerbell, his Linda McCartney. She bumps and grinds and tosses her black hair and cheerleads his songs. She shakes her ass and belly dances with a sword on her head. She punches the air and stalks the stage in hot pants, not shy about showing the cheeks of her tush, her dancer's thighs flexing. Her poster sells next to his in the lobby. She is always next to him.

TOGETHER THEY LOOK LIKE they live on sweets and air, two ethereal beings who inflate, take on power, persona, and sexiness onstage. Offstage they look like they should be wrapped in bathrobes, fed warm starches, and kept safe till it is time to step out again into the pink smoke.

They reappear -- she in her gold costume and he with his face wrapped in a chiffon scarf beneath a Mad Hatter hat with a rose and wearing a floor-length black gospel robe with the NPG insignia. When I tell him that he looks like Thing in the Addams family, he starts to shuffle and make squeaking Thing noises.

Glam Slam's lights are flashing, rebounding off the mirrored disco ball in the ceiling, and a member of the crew falls to the floor in an epileptic seizure. 0{+> looks at him with his blank expression and, standing rigid, alienated from the situation, makes no move to help. There are other people helping the man. 0{+> is disconnected. When things go wrong in the world he controls, he does not scream. He walks away. He and Mayte stand there in their funny show clothes with Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita on the monitors because the songs they will be doing is "The Good Life." The man is carried out on a stretcher and the video goes on.

It is 0{+>'s birthday night. He is onstage in a burnt-cherry-red jumpsuit cut open in the back all the way to the cleavage of his tiny behind. A fabulous dresser, masculine in his feminine clothes, he has always dressed out of his times and just like a prince in his frock coats, rampantly ruffled shirts with fingertip-dragging cuffs, tight high-waisted pants with matching French-heeled boots, royal medallions, arrogant walking sticks, tiny boleros with high Beau Brummel collars. He has borrowed from both masculine and feminine figures: the toreador, the languid Byronic poet coughing in his cuffs, the dandy, the fop, Prince Charming, Coco Chanel.

It's 2 A.M. or so in the Glam Slam and he is playing the music he wants to play. The place, which has been in a bit of a slump, is now filled with bobbing, heaving fans, their arms waving in the dark like undersea fronds blown back and forth by the currents. Mayte is strutting in her black boots, punching the air with a tambourine, keening, sweating alongside him, her ambition intertwined with his. The monitors are going, as are the video cams, in this big throb of video love. 0{+> pounds out the show -- all rocking, all beat, jamming and funk. He is the complete mid-career 0{+>. This is his night in his club with his symbol over the bar, on the waitresses' chests, on his boots, on his 0{+>-shaped guitar "Prince is dead," he keeps saying, enjoying it, shucking the old self, as Mayte flips her hair down and back. He asks to hear the crowd; he wants to hear feedback from the void.

He says the obligatory "motherf---er" to prove he has not crossed the line to Lite Rock. Reminiscent of his old dirty days, he gets into a whole "pussy control" rant: "How many ladies got pussy control?" "I got a headache tonight," says Mayte. "I got something for your headache," he says -- kind of like a dirty Captain and Tenille. He is no longer feeling "The Kid" when he says to them, "I am your mom's favorite freak." Mayte carries out a cake but he waves it away. "I hate that Happy Birthday song."

The next night he plays even longer -- three hours instead of two -- and is even hotter, released from his video chores, having imparted his bit to me. He has a chiffon scarf over his face, a white suit with fringe, another Elvisoid chest-baring white suit with gold trim. Up in the balcony, at 4:30 A.M., his three aides in black dresses are dancing away -- his accountant, one of his lawyers, his director of operations, all reminded of why they work for this man.

"This is your captain," he says onstage in the colored cone of streaming light, his rhinestone necklace shining on his slender throat. He is at his best in the hour of the owl with the creatures of the moon. Now, over these bodies, he has the power. When he is free, emancipated from his demon Warner, if it all works out, he will be laughing in the purple rain. And maybe it will be the last laugh.