Prince: Melissa Maerz remembers what it's like to get schooled by the icon
EW’s TV critic recalls the night in 2001 when His Purpleness slammed the door in her face
C’mon. Prince can’t be dead. He’s just messing with us.
That was my first impulse when I read that Prince had died at the age of 57. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to believe this magical hologram of a human was actually mortal. Guys like Prince didn’t die in an elevator. They just levitated into the next earthly realm, no elevator necessary.
Besides, wasn’t Prince always messing with us?
Wasn’t he messing with Carlos Boozer when he rented the NBA player’s Hollywood mansion and, according to Boozer’s teammate Jay Williams, “changed the front gate to the Prince sign … changed the master bedroom to a hair salon … changed the streaming blue waters that led to the front door to purple water”?
Wasn’t Prince messing with Charlie Murphy when he wore a “Zoro-type outfit” to a pick-up basketball game?
Wasn’t Prince messing with Tavis Smiley that day he said, “When I found out there were eight presidents before George Washington, I wanted to smack somebody”?
Or maybe I just assume that’s the case because Prince messed with me once. Personally. At least, I think that’s what he was doing. I guess now I’ll never know.
It was June of 2001. Prince was about to release his new album, The Rainbow Children, and would be kicking off his upcoming birthday with “Paisley Park: A Celebration,” a week-long party at Paisley Park studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota, and two concerts at the Xcel Energy Center. He was going to hold a press conference on June 7 at Paisley Park, which wasn’t too far from my office as music editor of City Pages, the alt-weekly paper in Minneapolis. One of his reps called my office and asked: Would I like to go?
I was 22 years old. This was my first “adult” job. Before this, the biggest interview I’d ever done was with a small-town psychic. I had no idea what I was doing. It was as if someone had called and said, “Hey, there’s an ancient Greek cynocephalus out here waiting for you. Would you like to ride it home?” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to him. It was just that I had no idea how that was possible.
I’d heard that Prince was tired of talking about certain subjects in interviews. The Warner Bros. legal battle. His name change to a symbol. His semi-recent decision to become a Jehovah’s Witness. He was eager to just talk about the music again.
Prince’s rep told me there were rules about the questions I was allowed to ask. “Could I ask about the upcoming album?” I wondered. There may not be an upcoming album, the rep told me. Could I ask if he was ever going to release those lost tracks he recorded with Miles Davis? Nope. No “personal questions” were allowed.
There were only three things I could discuss if I wanted to avoid being kicked out of the press conference: his upcoming shows, his online music club, and the forthcoming album, The Rainbow Children. Wait. Wasn’t I just told that there might not be an upcoming album? Could I listen to this album, which may or may not be an album, before I interviewed Prince? I could not. No advance copies were available. Unless, of course, the album didn’t exist, in which case there were no copies at all, advance or otherwise.
It didn’t matter anyway. From the moment I got to Paisley Park, it was clear that Prince was counting down the seconds until he could deliver a wild-eyed monologue about all of the things. There were about two dozen journalists packed into a room, and most of us were locals. Our tape recorders were confiscated upon entry. Prince does not like to have his voice recorded. We had to take notes. Jon Bream, the local music critic for the Star Tribune, who’d been feuding with Prince for years, was forbidden to attend. So was Cheryl Johnson, who wrote a column for the newspaper that often traded in Prince gossip. (Prince’s “Billy Jack Bitch” is about her.) Those of us who remained were fresh meat, having never written about Prince before. Most of us were young. Many of us were female.
Prince was in an excellent mood when he entered the room. His hair fell to his shoulders, looking as if it had been freshly flat-ironed and feathered. He wore a velvety red top with the type of sheer sleeves you often see on stylish Barbie dolls from the 1980s. Everything he had on perfectly matched that shirt: red pants, red platform boots. If I had to guess, I’ll bet his underwear was red. There was a thick, flashy chain with a diamond-emblazoned “NPG,” for New Power Generation, hanging from his neck. His opening line? “The first person to wish me a happy birthday gets dropped in the alligator moat.”
This was going to be fun.
He was chatty. He was funny. He was ready to talk about the things he wasn’t supposed to talk about. He bashed the music industry, complaining that Ken Burns made $50 billion off his documentary series about jazz, and Miles Davis, whose music was prominently featured in it, never saw a dime of that money. (But … wasn’t Miles Davis dead? And didn’t his estate get paid for use of his music in the series? Never mind!) Prince ranted good-naturedly at President Bush for charging him too much for property taxes. He gushed about the beautiful deer he sometimes saw running around outside Paisley Park. And then things got weird.
Prince started talking about the Bible. “Psalms is a beautiful book,” he told us. “It’s like a piece of music. There are very clear roles in the Bible about male and female roles in society.” He didn’t elaborate on what that meant until later. “Twenty-first-century women do not want to live by a role,” he said. “They want to say to men, ‘Let’s switch our roles.’ But things don’t work that way. You have to know your role and make it work. It’s the same thing with the music industry. You have to find the good roles that work and go with them.” You have to understand: he was talking to a room full of women. Women who were music writers. Women who were working in what was absolutely viewed as a “men’s role.”
To me, this was heartbreaking. I was too shy and too green as a journalist to challenge him on it in front of the room. And honestly, I was a little afraid I’d get kicked out of the room. But later, I went back to my office and wrote a column. It was terribly written. Hey, I was 22 years old. But this was the gist of it: How can someone who so revolutionized gender roles with his androgynous style and fluid, freeing approach to sexuality suddenly insist that we should all stick to ‘”traditional” values?
The day after my piece was published, Prince’s rep called. He’d be at Paisley Park later that night. He wanted to talk.
I couldn’t get there fast enough.
When I arrived, “Paisley Park: A Celebration” was already in full swing. It was nearly impossible to find a parking space. From the outside, Paisley Park looks like a giant compound that could be the headquarters for something innocuous — a paper company, or an athletic facility. It’s big and box-like and nondescript. But inside, it’s a fairy tale. The hallways are painted like a blue sky, with clouds floating above your head. There’s a black piano that looks like some kind of avant-guard Corvette. There are two recording studios, an indoor basketball court, and a gym. (I desperately want to know what Prince wears on the treadmill.) There’s a “play” room, with black lights and stars painted on the ceiling. And there are performance spaces. Alicia Keys and Common were scheduled to play in one that could hold a few thousand people. As fans gathered before the stage, waiting for the concert, I spotted Erykah Badu in the crowd.
I checked in with Prince’s rep, expecting to be immediately whisked away toward some purple kingdom where Prince awaited, rings waiting to be kissed. Instead, I’m told I have to wait. And wait. And wait. I waited for hours, without any explanation. Finally, I was escorted to a small conference room. And suddenly, there was Prince.
He came up from behind me, as if he’d teleported in from another dimension. He startled me, perhaps on purpose. He was wearing platform boots and walking with an elaborate cane. Or, rather, he didn’t walk. He stomped. He looked like the mayor of a city invented by Lewis Carroll and sustained through an economy of glam rock. He literally beckoned me with his finger, a stern expression on his face.
We sat side by side on a couch, each looking forward, not making eye contact. When I reached into my bag to get my notebook, Prince shook his head and waved his hand dismissively. No. This conversation was not for attribution. He just wanted to talk.
So we talked. At first, he was friendly. He wanted to discuss my column. He wanted to explain what it means to be a Jehovah’s Witness. He felt that I was misinterpreting his point that women needed to “know their place.” He really just wanted me to understand where he was coming from. He was a good listener. But when it became clear that I wasn’t seeing things from his perspective, his tone changed. He was angry. At one point, he was scolding me about my ignorance when a pretty young dancer entered the room. “Hell-oooo,” Prince purred at her. She winked at him. Then he went right back to his anachronistic lecture on gender studies.
Things got so heated that Prince finally decided he’d had enough. Abruptly, he got up from the couch, when I was still talking. He grabbed his cane, and strutted away toward the door, banging it on the floor as he walked. The door slammed. And he was gone.
I sat there for much too long afterward. Partly because I was so shocked: Did that just happen? Partly because I wasn’t sure what to do.Was Prince coming back? Was he fetching a Bible? Did he need to place a call to the Watch Tower Society? Maybe he just went to get something he wanted to show me, something that would support his argument? But he did not return. His point — whatever he viewed his point to be — had been made.
Eventually, I walked back to the concert space, still feeling kind of numb. Alicia Keys was on stage, playing “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” on the piano. My hands were shaking a little bit. I watched her there, still processing everything, when I felt someone behind me. I turned around. And there at the back of the room was Prince. Staring me down. Wearing sunglasses. Indoors.
Now … it’s possible that I was reading this wrong. Alicia Keys was on stage — why would his attention be on me? Then again, the whole night felt so surreal that nothing was out of the question. Why would Prince care what a 22-year-old journalist from a small local alt-weekly thought about him? No one who mattered was reading my column. Why would he take time out from this epic three-night party to talk to me?
Since then, I’ve learned that every music writer in Minneapolis has a story like this. I used to think it proved that Prince was obsessed with power, to the point where he even needed to prove to underlings like me that he could control his message. But maybe there is no subtext. Maybe Prince just genuinely wanted us to understand each other. I wonder if he saw a young journalist and thought, I am going to treat this person the same way I would treat someone from a national magazine, and in return, maybe she will treat me with the same respect.
Prince was not like other musicians. He wasn’t like other people. He made 39 studio albums of varying quality and commercial success, yet he viewed them all the same way — as perfect, interchangeable equals. Picking a favorite song is like picking a favorite child, he often claimed. Every track mattered. Every note mattered. They were all essential to the larger plan. And maybe every person was, too. Even a reporter who didn’t really know what she was doing, explaining exactly what he said at a press conference and still — somehow — getting it wrong.
He always knew what he was doing. Always.