'Comeback? I never went anywhere!' The music legend on his wild and wicked past, holding hands with Stevie Wonder, and why the music biz deserves William Hung
Following Prince’s death, EW critic Jeff Jensen revisits his 2004 cover story profiling the enigmatic, iconoclastic, musical innovator.
No pop artist has exhilarated me more or exasperated me more or meant more to me than Prince. Purple Rain was the soundtrack to my adolescence — and my arrested adolescence. I still have the cassette I got for my 13th birthday. It’s well-traveled from decades of moves and warped from sun exposure and resides permanently in the glove compartment of my car. Sign of The Times, so eclectic in its range of styles, blew my mind and opened it up to all music. It was with that record I became an obsessive, a fanboy lover and a fanboy hater. His voice, his guitar, his angst, his humor, his raunch and soul kept me company in my loneliest hours. His Symbol days and his bitter years confused me and betrayed me in my know-it-all twenties. His comebacks and his persistence in recent years have brought me back to him here in my humbled forties. His freak flag pride, his model of mutable, evolving identity and masculinity, his mad want for affirmation and transcendence, his struggle with his spirituality and sexuality — with wanting to love God and wanting to get laid — his insecurities, his failures, his offenses, his terrible pride, his whole sprawling, complex, glorious, hypocritical, profoundly human mess means more to me than I feel comfortable expressing in print, especially in this moment, as I’m trying to make sense of the fact that he no longer here, that he’ll never write another song, he’ll never make another record, he’ll never again have a chance to transform into something new, or to cut loose with guitar and piano or the dozen-plus other instruments he taught himself to play, or to describe with his thrilling, adventurous, wholly unique musical language what it means to be alive here and now, or just him, and I am devastated. I wanted to see him in his current “Piano and Microphone” tour. It would have been my sixth Prince concert. Now I’ll never see him again.
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It was 12 years ago this month that I got meet Prince and interview him for a cover story in this magazine. It was during the Musicology comeback of 2004. I was supposed to have dinner with him before a show in Glendale, Arizona. He kept me waiting for hours. At one point, I went to the convenience store across the street to buy some antacid to soothe my nervous stomach. As I was walking back to the arena, I realized that I had accidentally tossed my car keys away in the garbage when I had thrown away the Tums wrapper. I was digging them out of the bin when my phone rang. Prince was ready to see me now.
I met him as he was coming off the stage from rehearsal. He wore cranberry and black. His handshake was firm. His eyes were gorgeous. And I had no idea what to say. As we walked to a cafeteria, he broke the ice by talking about movies. He had just seen Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl. He wasn’t a fan. We sat down to eat — pasta. After closing his eyes for a few seconds and whispering to himself, he opened them and saw me eating. “You need to pray for your food,” he said. This kind of pissed me off, so I told him that I had said grace privately in my own way. This was a total lie, and he probably knew it, and he smiled, and the conversation flowed from there. You can read about it in the story below.
Prince famously refused to let journalists record his voice, but he did let me take notes. Our time together was a weird juggle of trying to engage him conversation, trying to record his every word on a yellow legal pad, trying to stay present in the moment. When our time was over, he invited me to come back to his dressing room after the concert and hang out with him and the band. I drifted out of his presence excited and terrified of this prospect. I’m going to hang out with Prince! AFTER THE SHOW! I never once thought to ask about the protocol for how this might happen. After the final encore, I waited for the arena to clear and then went to the proverbial velvet rope. I showed my press badge and such to the security guard and explained the situation, that Prince had invited me backstage. I was totally telling the truth, but somehow I felt like a total liar, or like billions of other groupies before me. “But he said to meet him here! That he wanted to hang out with me…” The security guard gave me a look that said, “Yeah, right.” I walked away embarrassed, amused, and really rather thrilled out of my mind. The time I had with him was glorious enough. He was every bit the rock/funk/pop renaissance man I imagined him to be, and every bit the flawed human being I knew he was. He was all diamonds and pearls and paradoxes.
Can I tell you one more story about Prince? It was the very first time I listened to the Sign o’ the Times album. I remember every single second of that experience. It was Washington, D.C., the summer of 1987, humid as hell. I was a vision in sweaty, semi-preppy pastels — light blue T-shirt and checkered shorts, boat shoes with no socks. I bought the tape from a discount record store four blocks from The White House. I listened to it on my Sony Walkman while sitting on park bench outside the Museum of Space and Flight on a hot day while eating Snickers bar, and when I got to “Housequake” (“SHUT UP ALREADY! DAMN!”), I lifted off. Sugar rush apocalypse. I do not dance, but I could not sit still, I was so jazzed, and I listened to the rest of the record while walking the perimeter of The National Mall. No other record had ever moved me like that. It moves me still. Today, of all days.
See the full cover story below.
They’ve been rocked. They’ve been funked. They’ve been wooed. Now it’s time to show him the love. It’s a manic Monday night in late March, and 19,000 men, women, and even children–the largest crowd ever to see a concert at Los Angeles’ Staples Center–are giving it up for Prince. He has plied them with hits–from “Let’s Go Crazy” to “Kiss” to “U Got the Look”–but one song in particular has brought them thunderously to their feet: an unplugged, stripped-down rendition of “Little Red Corvette.” It is the centerpiece of a solo acoustic set by turns warm, funny, and riveting, and it earns him a standing ovation that goes on and on and on…
Prince beams. He covers his me-so-pretty face with his hands, and the applause only gets louder. It’s a big, messy wet kiss, and it clearly means a whole lot to him. More than his fans might have considered possible. More, perhaps, than he’s willing to admit.
The last time we paid attention to Prince, it was as much for his increasingly bizarre behavior as for the brilliant rock/funk/R&B fusion that made him one of the greatest artists of modern pop. Changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Scrawling the word slave on his cheek. Releasing half-assed albums like Come to burn off his contract with Warner Bros. His mostnotable cultural contribution of the past decade? Carmen Electra. Thanks, Prince. Thanks a lot.
Yet through it all, there still existed the hope that a talent called “genius” time and again could return to form. That moment finally seems to have arrived. In February, his electrifying Grammy duet with Beyonce opened the show, and stole it. That was followed by Prince’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; his guitar heroics were the highlight of the ceremony. His current tour–on which he’s allegedly playing his hits for the last time–is selling out across the country. Critics are calling his new CD, Musicology (in stores April 20), his best in years. It’s the kind of thing we media types like to call a comeback, though according to Prince, we media types, as usual, are mistaken.
Two nights after the L.A. concert, Prince is backstage before a sound check at the Glendale Arena outside Phoenix, a city named, appropriately enough, after the fiery, feathered avatar of resurrection. Clad in a black sleeveless tunic and cranberry pants, Prince takes a plate from his bodyguard and loads it up with fruit, pasta slathered in cream sauce, and salad. Yes, Prince eats. He also goes to the multiplex. Last night, after his show in Bakersfield, Calif., he and his band unwound by checking out Kevin Smith’s latest flick, Jersey Girl, a so-so departure from his usual lewd-and-crude comedies. Prince was unimpressed. Not that the 45-year-old, happily married, devout Jehovah’s Witness can’t appreciate a cleaner act; he himself has scrubbed from his set list staples like “Head” and “Jack U Off.” It’s just that according to Prince, Smith didn’t replace it with anything interesting. “We walked out after an hour,” he sniffs. “Guess that’s what happens when the potty mouth don’t work for you anymore.”
Though 5 foot 2, Prince does not radiate “short.” From his complicated poodle haircut, to his dark doe eyes and the geometrically groomed stubble along his razor-sharp features, to his toned arms and quirky, customized attire, Prince’s carefully considered visage is a superconductor for his considerable charm, and it tricks the eye. He even has a scent, though an elusive one. Not a perfume but a powder, like he’s been dusted with incense. Prince in the flesh is pop evanescence incarnate. It’s only when he opens his mouth that he resembles the rest of us mortals.
Hearing him talk about ordinary things is almost a shock. He speaks in hushed-voice gushes–megabyte downloads of wit, logic, and Christian evangelism. In one rant about the nature of democracy, how the media shape perception, and the decline of morality in America, Prince links terrorism-induced regime change in Spain, Bowling for Columbine, The Matrix, Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man, the Jayson Blair/New York Times scandal, Mariah Carey, MTV’s Jackass, and Santa Claus. (We were discussing whether he thinks he’s misunderstood.) Strangely, the whole thing makes sense.
Of course, he does have his obsessions. Or perhaps obsession would be more accurate. Nearly every answer to questions about Musicology or his career is colored by his battle with Warner Bros. over ownership of his master recordings and the pace of his output (beginning with 1978’s For You, Warner released 20 albums in 21 years). Talking to him can be like chatting with a flashback-racked war veteran, or a heartbroken ex dumped for no good reason.
Prince’s attitude about the music industry in a nutshell: He wishes it would go away. He hates how labels have exploited our warp-speed culture at the expense of nurturing long-term careers. “It took me four albums to get on the cover of Rolling Stone. Now it takes new artists only one. There should be rules for that kind of thing!”
His rhetoric is either deeply cynical or worldly-wise, depending on your point of view; he is convinced record labels conspire to phase out their most successful artists at their peak in order to avoid getting locked into cash-rich deals. But occasionally, some grace breaks through. His beef is with “the system,” not the people who run it. “When I realized that, that’s when I took the word slave off my face,” he says. “I realized that they are as much slaves as I am.”
That’s why in 2001 Prince created the NPG Music Club, an online service that is now the official outlet for most of his music. He’s giving Musicology away to everyone who attends his concerts, an experiment he’s been itching to try since 1994 (the cost–about $9.99–is included in the ticket price). With its focused songcraft and shout-outs to James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Sly & the Family Stone, Musicology has an old-school vibe that reflects Prince’s belief in old-fashioned musicianship. If today’s young artists just knew their stuff, Prince suggests, they could have greater control over their careers and gain the clout to transform the industry.
“I think of the music business as a city,” he says. “You tear one down, another whole city starts developing. But a city needs human beings to run it. My whole point is that if the music came first, if the city was run by musicians instead of people with M.B.A.’s, everything would flip. This is what we need today. This is what I want to be–a musical mentor. To pass on the knowledge.”
He doesn’t find the current system completely useless: Columbia Records is handling the traditional retail distribution of Musicology. “I expect people will respond to it as a 21st-century Prince record,” says Sony Music U.S. president Don Ienner, who likens Musicology to Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind: urgent (and commercially successful) statements from supposedly dusty maestros. As for Prince’s desire for music-industry regime change, Ienner says: “There are certain things we don’t talk about. Obviously, he doesn’t feel the same way about us as he does about [his old label]. I hear what he’s saying. I don’t necessarily have to agree with everything he’s saying, but I hear him.”
Prince does see a place in his new world order for the current power players. “You know that guy who dances funny on American Idol? The Asian-American kid?” He means William Hung (see review on page 79). “That works for the record industry,” he says with a laugh. “We need somebody to release those kind of records.” Does his implied critique include packaged popsters like Britney Spears, too? Prince begs off, not wanting to name names. Kinda. “I mean no disrespect,” he says. “But I see it as my duty to school young people coming up. Lip-synchers? What does a kid–what do other artists get out of that? I don’t mind if Mariah Carey hits bad notes.”
Being a role model doesn’t mean Prince lacks mentors of his own, like Stevie Wonder. “His insight is priceless,” says Prince. It’s easy to see why he would connect with Wonder. Both are undisputed musical geniuses who fought for–and got–total creative control over their music. Prince Rogers Nelson was just 19 when he signed a multimillion-dollar, three-album deal with Warner Bros. in 1977. A wunderkind from Minneapolis who could play a dozen instruments by ear and wanted to combine James, Jimi, and Sly into a single, idiosyncratic sound, Prince used his freedom to create three albums of mounting brilliance that set the stage for his ’80s reign–and, perhaps, for a profound sense of entitlement.
“After Janet, we’ve gone too far. You can’t push the envelope any further than I pushed it. So stop!”
So what is he learning from Stevie these days? “I learn just by watching him,” he says. “One day, he wanted to show me what it’s like for him to experience the world, to actually feel a piece of music, so he held my hand. Here, hold my hand.” Prince extends his palm, and I take it. It’s warm and dry, and his nails are exquisitely manicured. “Now at first, it’s like ‘Whoa, I’m holding hands with a man!'” He quickly releases his grip and throws his hands up. “Now, those thoughts and feelings are mine, and we all have to work those things out for ourselves. But then I started thinking what it means for Stevie to be able to hold someone’s hand–anyone’s hand, even a man’s. He’s telling me he respects me. And by extension, he’s teaching me that I have to have that same respect for everybody in life.”
There are two things Prince doesn’t talk about. The first is his personal life, which means that we won’t be chatting about his wife, Manuela Testolini, whom I meet briefly in Prince’s candlelit dressing room after the sound check. She shakes my hand and tells me it’s a pleasure, all without breaking stride as she leaves the room. Her husband looks longingly toward the door, then invites me to sit on a small sofa. Musicology is steeped in the pining of a man not only in love but in love with fidelity. Yet when I ask him about this seemingly more mature Prince–a man almost as infamous for his romantic conquests as his music–he shuts me down. “That’s for all of you to decide. I don’t intellectualize my music.”
The second off-limits topic is Prince’s past…which rules out almost everything else you’d want to discuss with him. “I’ve changed. I’m a different person. I’m about the present and moving forward. New joke, new anecdote, new lesson to be discovered,” he says. “You know that old lady in Sunset Boulevard, trapped in her mansion and past glories? Getting ready for her close-up? I don’t run with that.” Even so, Prince begins concerts with a self-venerating video quoting extensively from a speech by Alicia Keys at his Hall induction.
Much of what has changed in Prince’s life has occurred in the several years since he committed to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. His music has always wrestled with Christian-tinged spirituality, but Prince says he didn’t start reading the Bible until he’d become a Witness. His religious fervor was evident in the 2001 concept album The Rainbow Children, which was roundly knocked by critics. (Prince also attempted to produce an evangelical video based on the album directed by…Kevin Smith, whose surreal tale of working with Prince can be found on the DVD An Evening With Kevin Smith. “I’m cool with him not liking Jersey Girl,” says Smith. “I f—ing hated his album Crystal Ball, so now we’re even.”)
As a result of his faith, Prince has developed an uncharacteristic modesty. In concert, he’s taken to changing “I’m your messiah and you’re the reason why” in “I Would Die 4 U” to “He’s your messiah…” Still, it appears he has some kinks to work out in squaring his dogma with his golden-god persona. Asked if he feels he’s alienated his fans over the years, Prince says: “No. The love has never left. I’ve always felt that there were people in my corner. It’s a gift, that God gives us the chance to feel such love. And it’s all for His glory: I don’t believe in idol worship. That’s why I don’t sign autographs. When I get asked for my autograph, I say no and tell them why, because I’m giving them something to think about.” This from a man who often prompts his concert audiences to scream his name. Ironies, contradictions, and exceptions escape Prince like doves from a cage.
There is also the predicament of his own potty-mouthed past–the one where he sang of erotic cities and a love that is soft and wet. But Prince has this problem solved as well. He doesn’t perform those songs anymore. The founding father of the warning label freely concedes he’s come full circle since he scandalized Tipper Gore with the word masturbating in “Darling Nikki.” “Look at this situation with the FCC after Janet: We’ve gone too far now. We’ve pushed the envelope off the table and forgotten there was a table. You can’t push the envelope any further than I pushed it. So stop! What’s the point?”
But the more Prince talks about the sign of the times, the more he ends up talking about his past–and defending it. “We’ve all used shock value to sell things,” he says. “I used shock to get attention. But back when I was doing the freaky songs in the freaky outfits, we were exploring ideas. I wanted my band to be multiracial, male and female, to reflect society. The song ‘Sexuality’ was about education and literacy. ‘P Control’ and ‘Sexy MF’ were about respect for women. Go and listen to the verses. All people focus on is the hooks.”
Of Prince’s many contradictions, perhaps the strangest is this: Here at the white-hot moment of his revival, the singer still simmers over small flash points of insult. By and large, he’s flattered when told that his influence can be seen in everyone from Beck to OutKast, whose Andre 3000 describes Prince as “the total package. To me, he’s the best of our generation–a total musician making almost otherworldly music.”
But ask him if he’s heard the Foo Fighters’ version of “Darling Nikki” and Prince, who a minute earlier said he never listens to the radio (“When I want to hear new music, I go make some”), replies by describing a Hawaii radio DJ’s response to the Foos’ cover. The DJ wondered if Prince had heard it–then said he couldn’t care less if he had. “Just no respect,” says Prince. “I wonder if that’s the kind of thing the FCC would like to clean up, too.”
So…does he like the cover? “No! I don’t like anyone covering my work. Write your own tunes!” He says he got up in R&B singer Ginuwine’s face for bungling the lyrics in a 1996 version of “When Doves Cry.” “I was just busting on him to bust him, but I was a little serious: Have some respect, man. If anyone tried to cover ‘Respect,’ by Aretha? I would shoot them myself!”
Of course, the Queen of Soul was herself covering an Otis Redding tune, but his point is clear: Young artists, respect your elder betters. Which is a savvy position for Prince to adopt in our ’80s-crazed moment. It’s the kind of thing a marketer might call “repositioning your brand”–as in angling for renewed relevancy while never admitting you lost it in the first place. Whatever you call it, don’t use the C-word. “People are calling this my comeback. Comeback? I never went anywhere!” Prince, in fact, denies that his Grammy appearance, his oldies-packed tour, and the nationwide movie-theater simulcast of his Staples Center concert were part of an orchestrated effort to kick-start his career. “I never stopped playing and recording. Never had a problem filling arenas. My appearance on Ellen wasn’t part of some master strategy. She asked if I would perform; I said yes.” Then, quoting from another man’s song, Prince says, “Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.”
When I joke that he’d better be careful or LL Cool J may come looking for him, Prince smirks: “I was about to say the same thing.”
The Phoenix concert starts an hour late, due, perhaps, to a certain interview ending right at showtime. As a result, Prince has to cut the acoustic set, which means no “Little Red Corvette.” But don’t worry, Phoenix: You should take the whole last-time-for-the-hits thing with a grain of salt. “Well, it is called the 2004ever tour,” says Prince when pressed on the subject. “And time is forever.” So…probably not the last time? “Probably not.”
Earlier, I asked Prince what the “Little Red Corvette” ovation at Staples meant to him. “What I was thinking in that moment was, Without any real sacrifice, there’s no reward. The affirmation of the Staples show was a blessing from God. You’ve read the magazines, the gossips. I’m not supposed to be here. But here I am.” Guess that’s what happens when the potty mouth don’t work for you anymore.