He's Still Here
Casey Affleck has spent most of his career on the fringes of Hollywood. But with his Oscar-worthy turn in 'Manchester by the Sea', he’s finally standing center stage.
On Thursday, April 14th, at about six in the evening, a black SUV pulled up to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. It was an hour before showtime, but Prince didn’t need much preparation – this was the eighth stop on his Piano and a Microphone Tour, a series of unusual shows, mostly two a night, that saw one of the world’s greatest showmen scaling down his performance for an intimate keyboard recital. “He only soundchecked for a few minutes,” Lucy Freas, the promoter who’d set up this concert, tells Rolling Stone. As had been his habit for more than a decade – whether playing a 4,600 seat theater by himself or a 20,000-capacity arena with a full band – the shows were pop-ups, arranged on short notice. Freas had gotten an e-mail with the subject line “Prince” a few days before. Prince’s team was looking for an independent promoter – was she interested? She was on the phone 10 minutes later.
These Atlanta shows had originally been scheduled for April 7th, with tickets on sale nine days before (far more time than the 32 hours the Sony Centre in Toronto had to sell tickets for a show in March). The Fox Theatre sold out instantly, and Freas was already working on more dates in Philly, St. Louis and Nashville, as well as a Miami arena concert. But illness forced Prince to postpone Atlanta for a week, and when he arrived that night, he still wasn’t feeling well. “Don’t worry,” his tour coordinator told Freas. “Nobody will know. He’ll perform, and he’ll give it his all.”
When he came onstage for the first show, he seemed at ease, greeting fans in the front before he sat down at the piano and launched into a version of “Little Red Corvette,” dropping in bits of “Dirty Mind” and the Peanuts theme. It was a mesmerizing hour and 20 minutes. Piano was Prince’s first instrument – his father, John Nelson, had tried to make his way as a jazz pianist – so the night was a homecoming, a return to the source of all of Prince’s music. (“[My father] didn’t teach me that,” he joked at one point during a playful elaboration on “Chopsticks.” “I taught myself.”) Some moments it felt as if the songs were taking shape for the first time, brief hesitations giving way to new ideas. Others – particularly in the second show, where he played a driving version of “Black Sweat,” from 2006’s 3121– felt completely realized, his voice and the rhythms ground out by his left hand filling all the space.
As with so many visionary artists, there was a period in Prince’s career – almost all of the 1980s – when he seemed able to look around corners, when his music seemed to live in the future, and then assemble that future around us. Perhaps because of that, there were moments at the Fox Theatre that feel now like premonitions. At the 7:00 show, he covered “A Case of You,” by Joni Mitchell, long one of his favorite artists. The year before, Mitchell had been found alone and unconscious at her Los Angeles home, having suffered a brain aneurysm. (She has since made a partial recovery.) He also played David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a tribute to an artist who had died just three months earlier, and who had been – as Prince himself always was – restless and deliberate with his art and image, and who challenged the norms of gender and genre. The song is about the wish to transcend – to snatch a moment of glory that can transform the impermanent into the eternal – and Prince embodied the lyric, starting each line with a vocal stab that then floated upward.
At the 10:00 show, his third and final encore began with “Sometimes It Snows in April,” from 1986’s Parade, a eulogy for the character Prince played in the film Under the Cherry Moon, Christopher Tracy. “Sometimes I wish life was never ending,” goes the chorus. “All good things, they say, will never last.” The show concluded with “Purple Rain.” Prince slipped in snatches from “The Beautiful Ones” and “Diamonds and Pearls,” then came back to the 1984 song that announced his ascension to megastar status. The audience joined him in the familiar wordless falsetto at the end, hands clapping, voices lifted. And then it was over.
Three weeks before – follow ing shows in Montreal and Toronto – he’d had afterparties at local clubs. At Toronto’s Everleigh club, the post-show jam came well after closing time. “It was three or 3:30 a.m.,” says promoter Rubin Fogel. “He had flown in on a private plane. He couldn’t fly back until 6 a.m. because of airport curfews. So he just decided to play.”
In Atlanta, there was no afterparty. He went directly to the airport, and around 1 a.m., an emergency call came from the plane. The 1988 Dassault Falcon 900 was less than an hour from Minneapolis, but the jet put down in Moline, Illinois. Though it would be dismissed as the flu – the same cause given for the show cancellations in Atlanta the week before – reports have surfaced that Prince was allegedly treated for a drug overdose, possibly Percocet, at a local hospital, and left because no private room was available. His dynamic stage shows had not been without a price – sources say he had hip problems, possibly dating back more than 30 years to injuries sustained during the Purple Rain tour.
He seemed frail but in good spirits the next night, Saturday, April 16th, according to those who attended a dance party held at his Paisley Park compound. He showed off a new guitar, but left it in the case – “I can’t play the guitar at all these days,” he said, according to longtime Prince chronicler Jon Bream’s account of the night in the Minneapolis Star Tribune – briefly entertaining a crowd of 300 with his take on “Chopsticks” on a new purple piano. “Wait a few days before you waste your prayers,” he told them.
The following Thursday morning, April 21st, Prince was found in an elevator at Paisley Park. Sources say he had been living by himself in an apartment on the second floor in the back of the 65,000-square-foot complex, having torn down his nearby house in 2005, around the time of his second divorce. The last time he’d been seen alive was about 8 p.m. the previous night. A 911 call was placed at 9:43 a.m., but medics could not revive him and Prince was pronounced dead at 10:07 a.m. He was 57.
In Minneapolis that night, the streets around First Avenue, the club where the performance scenes of the Purple Rain movie were filmed, were shut down, as thousands of people gathered to dance and sing along to Prince’s music. They were not alone. They danced in Los Angeles and in Brooklyn, where Spike Lee rolled up the garage door of his 40 Acres and a Mule production company and a DJ blasted Prince tunes through the night.
They were gathered to enact the music, which has always been about community – the utopias of musical and sexual freedom he called Uptown, Paisley Park or Erotic City. He was rock’s greatest trickster figure, the trick being that he could become whatever you imagined a rock star to be. “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” he asked in one song. The only answer was yes. He shifted his voice from male to female, and shrouded himself in mystery and impeccably tailored clothing (when he chose to wear clothing), selling fantasy in his music and image. Those fantasies were outrageously sexual and passionately religious, sometimes at the same moment. Rock & roll had always crossed the sacred and profane, so he upped the ante to the apocalyptic and the pornographic.
More than any other Eighties star, Prince brought the dreams of rock & roll past into the present: He wore Jimi Hendrix’s coat, sported Little Richard’s mustache, mastered James Brown’s dance moves, and he did all this over drum-machine beats, showing how the impulses of history could be turned into the sound of the future. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” he intoned at the beginning of Purple Rain, turning the album that catapulted him to superstardom into a pop marriage ceremony. Whether the people listening were black or white, whether they were straight or gay, they were now bonded, their union consecrated by his music.
Now, he was gone, and so in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Brooklyn, they honored him in the only way that made sense: by dancing in the streets.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born on June 7th, 1958, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis. From the beginning, he carried the hopes and burdens of his father’s dreams. John Nelson led a group called the Prince Rogers Trio, though his day job was at Honeywell, a manufacturer of everything from thermostats to airplane parts. “I named my son Prince because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do,” John once said. His mother, Mattie Shaw, was a vocalist who brought to mind the wounded grit of Billie Holiday. She had sung with John’s trio, but let it go after they married – the couple already had five children from previous relationships. Mattie was 17 years younger than John, and their personalities differed. “My mom’s the wild side of me,” Prince told Rolling Stone in 1985. “She’s like that all the time. My dad’s real serene; it takes the music to get him going.” Wildness and serenity would be one of many contradictions he embodied throughout his life.
Music came to him young. “He could hear music even from a very early age,” his mother told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1984. “When he was three or four, we’d go to the department store and he’d jump on. . .any type of instrument there was. Mostly the piano and organ. I’d have to hunt for him, and that’s where he’d be – in the music department.” When he was no more than five, his mother took him to see his father perform. It was a burlesque show. As the dancers did their thing, the theater vibrated with screams and excitement. “From then on, I think I wanted to be a musician,” Prince later said. Eros and music were fused, the power of the combination imprinted on his mind. It would never leave.
Both of his parents were strict Seventh-day Adventists; Prince would say later that the most he got out of religion was “the experience of the choir.” He told Chris Rock on MTV in 1997 that the church’s message “was based in fear,” but he took much from his Adventist Bible study: The church focuses strongly on the Book of Revelations, and the imminent apocalypse that will precede the return of Christ. Prince would begin his breakthrough album, 1999, with a song that turned the apocalypse into a celebration. And his greatest album took its name from the Adventist magazine Signs of the Times.
When Prince was about eight, his parents separated. He’d later remember constant arguments, with his father’s music career as a friction point. His father “felt hurt that he never got his break, because of having the wife and kids and stuff,” Prince said. “I think music is what broke [my mother] and my father up.” John moved from their home in North Minneapolis into an apartment downtown. He left behind his piano, and this is when Prince gravitated to the instrument in earnest. “I had one piano lesson and two guitar lessons as a kid,” he told the Star Tribune. “I was a poor student, because when a teacher would be trying to teach me how to play junky stuff, I would start playing my own songs.” By the time he’d reached high school, he had already mastered keyboards, guitar, bass and drums.
Not long after the divorce, his mother remarried, and Prince moved in with his father. Their reunion didn’t last long. When Prince was 13, his father kicked him out, perhaps because of a dalliance with a girl. Years later, Prince remembered calling him from a pay phone, begging to come back, and being refused. “I sat crying at that phone booth for two hours,” he told Rolling Stone in 1985. “That was the last time I cried.”
He moved in with his Aunt Olivia, but his domestic exiles created longing and anger that played out in his career: He would build a community in his music and his band, but then cut off band members whenever he felt it necessary; he would most often record albums by himself. He was the only one he could count on. “What if everybody around me split?” he said to Rolling Stone in 1990. “Then I’d be left with only me, and I’d have to fend for me. That’s why I have to protect me.”
He was shy and quiet in public, but a cutup with his friends. At school, he was a disinterested student. Music and sports were his passions. James Harris III (later known as Jimmy Jam) met him in a junior-high music class. “As soon as the teacher left the room, we just started jamming,” says Jimmy Jam. “His keyboard runs were amazing – things I couldn’t dream of doing, and I thought of myself as a pretty good keyboard player.” Prince made the basketball team in junior high and freshman year of high school, despite being not much more than five feet tall. “He was a great basketball player,” says Jimmy Jam. “He would come up the court and girls would be screaming. He had a huge Afro, and if you had an Afro in those days, it was definitely a premium.”
His first band came at 14, named Phoenix, then Soul Explosion. Prince played guitar, his friend André Simon Anderson (later known as André Cymone) played bass. When his aunt tired of the band’s noise, Prince ended up living at André’s house. Soul Explosion would rehearse in the basement. “We used to have a philosophy that when everybody else is eating turkey dinner and watching football games and doing all that kind of stuff, we need to practice,” says Cymone. “We’re going to be superstars, and if we’re going to be superstars, we have to practice.” There was a 10 p.m. curfew on music, but Prince eventually moved from André’s room down to the basement, where he could turn down his guitar and play until 4 a.m. These nocturnal music-making habits would stay with him the rest of his life.
By 16, he was writing his own songs. The group became Grand Central (with Morris Day on drums), then Champagne. A demo session brought Prince to the attention of Chris Moon, who ran a local studio. When the rest of the band went across the street during a lunch break, Prince stayed behind. “I look out of the control room into the studio, and he’s playing the drums,” says Moon. “Then I see him wander over and play a bit of piano. And then he stops playing that and picks up the bass.” Moon wanted someone who could add music to some lyrics he’d been working on. He proposed a partnership, and eventually gave Prince keys to the place. It took him about six months to master the studio well enough to run sessions for his one-man-band adventures.
Moon played a demo tape for Owen Husney, a Minneapolis promoter. “Most artists, their sound would be derivative,” Husney says. “This didn’t have that. He was attempting to create something new. And when I heard that vulnerable little falsetto voice, it was like, ‘I want to protect this person.’ ” He signed on as manager and raised $50,000 so that Prince had new instruments and a place to live. Then he created an elaborate press kit to market his new artist.
Warners offered a three-album deal and signed a 19-year-old Prince in 1977. The label wanted Prince to collaborate with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire. “The ink wasn’t dry on the Warner Bros. contract, and he said, ‘Nobody is producing my album,’ ” Husney says. A session was arranged so that Prince could prove to the label that he didn’t need help in the studio. “He put down a guitar track and got it right,” Lenny Waronker, then head of A&R for the label, remembered. “Then he put down the drums – wow. You could just tell – the guitar was locked in, the timing was good, you could tell it was easy for him.”
As Waronker left the studio, Prince told him, “Don’t make me black.” Growing up, Prince had been bused to grade school in a white suburb, listened to the Minneapolis rock station KQRS and played Carole King covers in high school. He knew two worlds, and knew there was more power in controlling both, not one. He ran down a list of artists that inspired him: Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones. Warners may have thought it was signing a kid who could play and produce his own work like Stevie Wonder – which would have been remarkable enough. Prince was putting the company on notice that this was only a starting point.
It was not a smooth start. According to Ronin Ro’s Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks, Prince’s 1978 debut, For You, burned through $170,000, almost three times its budget. The music bounced with the hint of a new perspective – light pop melodies lifting up R&B grooves, rock guitar pulling them back down – but it felt airless, as if one man had locked himself away with these sounds for too long, which he had. Though the single “Soft and Wet” reached Number 12 on the R&B chart, the album sold poorly, and when Prince put a band together, Warners wouldn’t spend money to put it on the road.
He needed his next album to be a hit. 1979’s Prince was taut and expansive at the same time. Instead of typical R&B horns, Prince stabbed at his keyboards and guitar, and the music nodded toward the post-punk pop of the Cars or Blondie. Its single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” topped the R&B chart and reached Number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, and would sell 500,000 copies.
His next album, 1980’s Dirty Mind, celebrated orgiastic pleasures, from simply doing it all night, to doing it in a threesome, doing it with a bride on the way to her wedding, doing it with strangers and doing it with your sister. There was nothing you couldn’t do, these songs said. The music was just as polymorphous. Ice-cold New Wave keyboards were heated by funk guitar, and though some of the melodies had a Sixties classicism, the sound was utterly new – so stripped-down it almost seemed like dub reggae, a music of subtraction. On the album cover, Prince wore a trench coat over black bikini underwear. What audience was he trying to appeal to? Black? White? Men? Women?
This would become the central dynamic of Eighties pop, as Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna used music and image to cross the boundaries of race, gender and genre in ways that electrified and united audiences. But Prince was there first with Dirty Mind. It peaked at 45 on the Billboard albums chart, but its impact was bigger than that. The critic Robert Christgau would call Prince “the first commercially viable artist in a decade to claim the visionary high ground of Lennon and Dylan and Hendrix.”
That vision could not be contained to an album a year. He’d need more. After the Dirty Mind tour wrapped in April 1981, he wanted to create a funk band, and he approached the Minneapolis group Flyte Tyme – including Jimmy Jam on keyboards and Terry Lewis on bass – with an idea: He’d write, produce and perform the material, they’d sing and tour it. Calling the new band the Time, Prince recorded the six songs on their debut album in two weeks. Then, in 10 days in August, he recorded his own fourth album, Controversy. Its October release coincided with an interesting invitation: The Rolling Stones wanted Prince to open their dates at the Memorial Coliseum in L.A., before crowds of 100,000, on October 9th and 11th.
Prince opened the first show – which also included George Thorogood and the J. Geils Band on the bill – at two in the afternoon. “He came out with the trench coat and bikini briefs,” says J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf. “When the trench coat opened up, the audience didn’t quite understand. People started turning on him, yelling, throwing things.” Prince was unable to finish his set. Two days later, things were even worse. Bottles flew at the stage during the first song, and Prince walked off in the middle of another.
It was the last time Prince would open a show for anyone. After this, he built his own world.
Prince began work on his fifth album, 1999, in early 1982. He was 23 years old and entering a golden period: For the next three years, it seemed like every waking moment yielded a song, and every song was a hit. He now had three groups: his own band, the Revolution; the Time; and a trio of women in lingerie he called Vanity 6. Before long, he would also be creating music for percussionist Sheila E. He was ceaseless, sometimes working for three days straight without sleep. “Do I have to eat?” he mused in Rolling Stone in 1985. “I wish I didn’t have to eat.”
By the end of 1985, he had made 15 albums in seven years – seven under his own name; three by the Time; two from Sheila E., and one each from Vanity 6, Apollonia 6 and the Family. Those albums generated 13 Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The Minneapolis sound – that synth-driven blend of funk, pop and rock which Prince pioneered – was everywhere, especially after Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, whom Prince had fired from the Time, began producing a string of hits for artists like the S.O.S. Band, Klymaxx and Janet Jackson. Then there were the Prince songs that became huge hits for Chaka Khan (“I Feel for You,” 1984), Sheena Easton (“Sugar Walls,” 1984), and the Bangles (“Manic Monday,” 1986).
Prince had gone after all this, but on his own terms. No one would have predicted that he’d break through with singles about the End Times or a sexually voracious woman, or that he could increase the power of his burgeoning fame by refusing to do interviews. Yet that’s exactly what happened with 1999. He started work on the album at the Minneapolis home studio he called Uptown, and then shifted to Sunset Sound in L.A., recording so much material that he insisted Warners release a double album. The label – enthused by a hit Prince had crafted for the Time, “777-9311” – agreed. The album arrived in October 1982, and when he went on tour behind it, Vanity 6 and the Time opened. His universe was taking shape.
The shows were ecstatic. He was a guitar hero who could dance like James Brown, then bounce out of a split and run to the keyboards to unleash another solo. And in the spring of 1983, radio and MTV embraced “Little Red Corvette” – his ode to a fast girl who kept condoms (some of them used) in her pocket – flipping the switch on platinum sales.
Prince wanted a mass audience as expansive as his vision for his music. Jackson, whose crossover juggernaut Thriller was released a month after 1999, was a rival. But “Michael wasn’t the biggest priority to kill,” Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin said. “It was everyone.”
The mixed-race, mixed- gender band Prince had assembled, the Revolution, was the first step: “His dream was that we’d be Fleetwood Mac mixed with Sly and the Family Stone,” said Lisa Coleman, who played keyboards. Said Prince, “I wanted community more than anything else.” Jams during soundchecks were beginning to yield song ideas. The next album would be more collaborative than any he’d made before.
Purple Rain wouldn’t be just an album. Prince wanted to make a movie as well. William Blinn, who wrote the first draft of what would become the script for Purple Rain, recalled how the story took shape when Prince sat at the piano to play Blinn some of his father’s music and began to talk about his dad. “It was as if he were sorting out his own mystery – an honest quest to figure himself out,” Blinn said. “He saved all the money on shrinks and put it in the movie.”
Director Albert Magnoli spent a month in Minneapolis hanging out with Prince and his band, the Time and Vanity 6. He rewrote the script to focus on the musical rivalry between the Revolution and the Time, and the domestic drama that Prince’s character, the Kid, endured at home. Hollywood studios weren’t interested, and Prince’s managers turned to Warner Bros. chairman Mo Ostin, who put up $2 million against future royalties. It was a shrewd move. On a budget of $7.2 million, the Purple Rain movie grossed $68 million. The album went to Number One and stayed there for 24 weeks, eventually selling more than 10 million copies.
Prince had understood, as James Brown did when he cut Live at the Apollo in 1962, that if more people could experience the power of his live show, they would recognize how unique his gifts were. The movie gave him the fame he’d craved. And as the wild success of the album showed, it was once again on his terms. “When Doves Cry,” the first single, was a more disorienting form of pop music than anyone had ever taken to Number One before – it had no bass, carried instead by strangulated guitar, the crack of Prince’s trademark Linn drum machine, and keyboards. And “Purple Rain,” which went to Number Two, showed how different he was from Michael Jackson – Jackson needed Eddie Van Halen to play guitar on “Beat It,” his rock breakthrough. The solo that blew Prince’s rock ballad wide open was his own.
The Purple Rain tour began in November 1984. “I really couldn’t liken it to anything other than the Beatles,” says Alan Leeds, Prince’s tour manager at the time. But those roaring crowds also marked the end of the golden period. Things would never be the same.
In April 1985, prince announced he was taking a break from live performance and released his seventh album, Around the World in a Day. He refused to let Warners promote a single, or market the album in record stores. Thus did he begin a period of withdrawal that never truly ended. After Around the World in a Day dropped quickly from Number One, he relented and let Warners focus on “Raspberry Beret” as a single and video – it became a Number Two hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
His connection with his band began to fray. He had elevated Wendy and Lisa to star status, an acknowledgment of their abilities and contributions, and a welcome sign that he could treat women as more than sex objects. Yet they wanted more creative input, and would leave in 1986, after his next album, Parade, the soundtrack to the disastrous film Under the Cherry Moon, which Prince himself directed.
His last two albums had gone to Number One; Parade climbed to Number Three, and then no higher, despite its Number One single “Kiss.” When he told Warners his next album would be a triple album, the label refused. He had always gotten his way up to then, but Prince lost the fight. And so took shape a contradiction that had no undoing: The album that would prove to be his greatest work was also the proof that his power was no longer absolute.
He pared the triple down to a double: Sign ‘O’ the Times. It contained dreamscape pop like “Starfish and Coffee” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”; bedrock funk workouts like “Housequake” and “Hot Thing”; and a trio of songs that formed his most tender exploration of romance and gender: “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Strange Relationship” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” It stands as one of the best records of the 1980s, but he was no longer unstoppable. Sign ‘O’ the Times peaked at Number Six, and its fortunes might have been helped by a tour, but Prince refused to bring the production he’d mounted in Europe to the U.S. He opted instead for a concert film, shot mostly on a soundstage at his recently built Paisley Park facility in suburban Minneapolis.
In 1987, he delivered a raw album called The Funk Bible to Warner Bros., then experienced a late-night vision that convinced him the album was too angry to release. He asked the label to destroy more than 400,000 copies of what would come to be known as The Black Album. In return he gave them a more spiritually and musically uplifting collection, 1988’s Lovesexy, but wanted all the songs grouped into one continuous track on the CD, to control the listening experience. It failed to crack the Top 10 of the albums chart, his first album since Controversy, in 1981, to do so. Worse, the Lovesexy tour – his first tour in the U.S. in three years – lost money.
Angered that Warners would not let him release the music he wanted at the pace he wanted, he dropped his name for a symbol, thinking that his new glyph persona wouldn’t be bound by Prince’s record contract. When he found out there was no freedom from his contract, he took to writing the word “slave” on his face. He became a figure of ridicule. “You’re the only slave that owns the plantation,” Alan Leeds told him. But in his haphazard way, Prince was a revolutionary. The relationship between labels and artists has shifted drastically in the digital age, and Prince’s concerns about owning his masters and controlling his music are now common currency.
In 1996, he ended his contract with Warners. It should have been a time of celebration. But it was marked by stress and tragedy. On Valentine’s Day, he had married Mayte Garcia, one of his backup dancers, and the couple were expecting a child. He spent the spring working on two projects, his final album for Warners (Chaos and Disorder) and a three-CD set that would announce his freedom (Emancipation). According to Prince biographer Alex Hahn, on April 21st – exactly 20 years before his death – after what seemed to be one of his marathon three-day working sessions, Garcia found him passed out in the Paisley Park studio. He was brought to the hospital, but when he regained consciousness, he wouldn’t stay.
That October, the couple experienced an unimaginable loss: Their child was born with a rare genetic disorder and died within a week. In pain, Prince refused to address the truth in an interview with Oprah Winfrey just days after the child’s death. “Our family exists,” he said. “It’s only the beginning.” But this wish was not to be. The couple separated in 1999.
In 2004 , Prince could claim something he hadn’t enjoyed for more than a decade: He was the center of attention, and once again it was for his music. On February 8th, he opened the Grammys in Los Angeles, performing a medley of “Purple Rain,” “Baby I’m a Star” and “Let’s Go Crazy” with Beyoncé, and throwing in a bit of her hit “Crazy in Love.” For five minutes, it was Purple Rain all over again, 24 million people watching in awe as he demonstrated his command of the stage. It would take the Grammys another six years to match these ratings.
Five weeks later, on March 15th, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in a ceremony held in New York. The night’s highlight came during a rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Harrison was posthumously inducted that evening as a solo performer, and the song was sung by Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty, who had known Harrison well. But the final moment went to Prince. It is a purposeful moment – in front of the keepers of rock’s legacy, he stakes his claim as a guitar god, edging the song from a solemn honor into something more thrilling. His playing is lyrical, but full of power, as for nearly three minutes he makes his guitar moan and strut. “They rehearsed a bunch of times,” says Paul Shaffer, the musical director for the Hall of Fame inductions. “Every time, you could see this was going to tear the roof off the place. But Prince kept a little something in reserve for the actual performance itself.” At one point, he shifts gears so quickly it sounds as though he’s trading bars with himself, a one-man guitar duel. Behind him, Harrison’s son, Dhani, plays acoustic, and beams with joy.
Shortly after the induction, Prince began an 89-date arena tour of the U.S., and released a new album through Columbia, Musicology. He now used the music industry for his own purposes. He released live albums and rarities through his website, and took advantage of the promotional power of major labels when it suited him. He functioned as a modern pop star, earning money reliably on the road and looking for revenue wherever he could find it.
He had remarried in 2001, to Manuela Testolini, the same year he became a Jehovah’s Witness. The faith lasted longer than the marriage. They divorced in 2006, shortly after he demolished the Minneapolis house they shared. He made Paisley Park his residence, when not renting L.A. mansions for $70,000 a month.
There were moments – like his majestic Super Bowl halftime performance in 2007 – where he was center stage in the culture again. There was also chaos, much of it self-generated. His Paisley Park label folded in 1994, and there were layoffs at the compound in 1996. At the time of his death, it had ceased being a full-time operation. There were no longer engineers always on duty if he got the urge to record in the middle of the night, or any security, for that matter. There was Prince, his assistant, and someone to care for and run the building.
On April 19th, Prince went to the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis to see jazz and R&B singer Lizz Wright. He stayed for the whole set, including the encore, a rarity for him, and left with a strut and his cane over his shoulder.
Two days later he was dead. Some have speculated that hip difficulties may have led him to painkillers. He is said to have had corrective hip surgery in 2010. At press time, the results of Prince’s autopsy had not been released.
On April 23rd, a memorial service was held at Paisley Park for Prince, whose remains had been cremated. “It was quiet and somber,” says Sheila E. “The lights were dimmed. Candles were burning. Just like Prince would have done. His music was playing at a low volume. There were very few people, and they’re in disbelief. You expect him to walk out into the room and greet you.”
But if he greets us now, it will be through his music. There is, by all accounts, a vault of unreleased material – an unimaginable number of songs and live performances, though their fate is unclear. It doesn’t really matter. There is already enough – an overwhelming amount. It’s said that there was a point when he made one song – at least one – every day, as if he was guided by that line in “1999” about how we’re all running out of time. And we are. But the music keeps going.
Additional reporting by David Browne, Patrick Doyle and Andy Greene
It is, in theory, a mundane sight, nothing 2 get excited about: just a 55-year-old man in his suburban Minneapolis workplace, scrolling through a Windows Media Player library on a clunky Dell computer. An equally ordinary multiline phone sits beside it, near a lit candle, bottled water and some expensive-looking lotion. A huge old Xerox machine looms over the desk; a window at the far end of the room looks out onto barren trees and an empty, snow-lined highway. It’s early evening on Saturday, January 25th, 2014, in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
The office is on the second floor of the 65,000-square-foot Paisley Park compound. The little guy sitting at the keyboard owns it all, had it all built back in the Eighties. And Prince being Prince, it’s fascinating to watch him do just about anything. The more ordinary the activity – clicking a mouse, say – the weirder it feels. Prince has a large Afro, and he’s dressed in dark, diaphanous layers, with a vest over a flowing long-sleeved shirt, form-fitting grayish-black slacks, and sneakers with high Lucite heels that light up with every step. He’s wearing obvious makeup – foundation, eyeliner, probably more. His thin, precision-trimmed mustache extends just past his lips in a semicircle.
On characteristically short notice, Prince invited me here to report what we intend to be his seventh Rolling Stone cover story. I spend seven hours at Paisley Park, and he sits for two lengthy, thoughtful, amiable interviews. I was told not to curse or to ask about the past; though I eventually violate both rules, he invites me to join him on the road later. In the end, however, he won’t sit for a photo shoot, instead offering us pre-prepared, heavily retouched pictures. The whole thing falls through. I hold on to my reporting, assuming, all too correctly, that we will save the material for our next Prince cover.
That night, Prince doesn’t look his age – doesn’t look any particular age, really. He’s very thin, but not fragile – a strict vegan who, by his own account, sometimes doesn’t eat at all (“I have gone long periods with no food, and also water – people have to remind me to drink water because I always forget to do that”). He doesn’t sleep enough, either, and he avoids sex: One of the most deliriously sensual performers who ever lived – the one who sang “Jack U Off” and “Gett Off” and “Do Me, Baby” – insists he’s celibate. His reasons are both religious and “energy” related (“The hunger turns into something else,” he says), though he maintains close relationships with several young female singer-songwriters. He is, at this stage in his life, a kind of cheerful musical monk. “I am music,” he says. Playing it is his greatest and perhaps only pleasure. But he’s been an ascetic even on that front as of late, recording less than ever, waiting four years between albums. It’ll stand as the longest break of his career.
Prince famously liberated himself from his record deal with Warner Bros. in 1996, and it apparently took him years to realize that his freedom extended to not releasing music. “I write more than I record now, and I also play live a lot more than I record,” he says. “I used to record something every day. I always tease that I have to go to studio rehab.
“I’m a very in-the-moment person,” he continues. “I do what feels good in the moment . . . . I’m not on a schedule, and I don’t have any sort of contractual ties. I don’t know in history if there’s been any musicians that have been self-sufficient like that, not beholden. I have giant bills, large payrolls, so I do have to do tours. . . . But there’s no need to record anymore.” He makes a direct connection between fasting, celibacy and his abstention from recording. “After four days, you don’t want food anymore. . . . It’s like this thing that says, ‘Feed me, feed me.’ When it realizes it’s not going to get fed, it goes away. . . . It’s the same with music. I had to see what it’s like to stop making albums. And then you go, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I don’t feel the need to do that anymore.’ ”
Prince brings me up to the office to play tracks from PlectrumElectrum, the album that would finally break his recording fast. He chose from 100 or so songs laid down in one of the downstairs studios with his recently formed backing band, 3rdEyeGirl – the hardest rocking ensemble he ever assembled. “All recorded live, no punch-ins,” he says. “You just do it till you get the take you like.” (The album doesn’t come out for another eight months, by which time it’s accompanied by a more traditional Prince LP called Art Official Age.)
Prince and I meet for the first time a few minutes earlier, as he emerges from a rehearsal space with the young women of the band. Hannah Welton, the drummer, a bubbly 23-year-old who looks like Carrie Underwood and plays like John Bonham, introduces herself brightly: “Hi, I’m Hannah!” Prince laughs, not unkindly, and imitates her, chirping “Hi, I’m Prince” in a high voice, as he reaches out a firm, businesslike handshake. His actual speaking voice is deep, soft and calming, like a DJ on a smoothjazz station.
As we walk along, he shows no sign of reported double-hip-replacement surgery – no limp, no cane, no apparent discomfort. His brown eyes are alert, and his wit is quick – looking back, it’s nearly impossible to square his affect with posthumous rumors of an opioid addiction. He claims not to feel the passage of time, and says mortality doesn’t enter his thoughts: “I don’t think about ‘gone.’ ” To the contrary, he is immersed in the moment, invested in a creative future that he believes will be long and bright. The pause between albums seems to have been healthy for him, as is the youthful, enthusiastic, near-worshipful presence of the 3rdEyeGirl members. For the first time in years, he’s been opening up Paisley Park to local fans for spontaneous events. There’s talk of staging one of these shows on the night of my visit, though it evaporates with no notice.
On his way upstairs, Prince struts past a hallway decorated with a photographic timeline of his career – there’s “Batdance” Prince, “Slave” on-his-face Prince and even his 1985 Rolling Stone cover (he notes that he refused to do a photo shoot, so we ran a still from a video that, in his considered opinion, made his teeth look strange). “There’s room for Purple Rain or the Super Bowl here,” he notes of one empty space, murmuring something about eventually turning Paisley Park into a museum. It already seems a bit like one: a huge, dark, nearly empty space with only a skeleton crew on hand.
We stop at a mural where a painted image of Prince, arms spread, stands astride images of his influences and artists he, in turn, influenced. He tests me, making sure I can recognize Chaka Khan and Sly and the Family Stone, while giving me a pass on missing Tower of Power and Grand Funk Railroad.
Playing the album in his office, he charmingly takes pains to turn the player’s visualizer function on, providing state-of-2002 fractal accompaniment to the music. On a stand in the corner is a century-old Portuguese guitar with a teardrop-shape body. A Canon telephoto lens with no camera attached sits atop a couple of coffee-table books: Vanity Fair’s Hollywood; Palaces of Naples. The walls of the office are painted in a blue-skies motif, with the words DREAM STYLE on one of them. Hanging on another wall is a clock emblazoned with the cover of his 2007 album Planet Earth – the only timepiece of any kind I see anywhere in Paisley Park.
Between songs, Prince laments the state of a music industry he thinks is focused on anything but music. “You’re trying to find the personality first, make sure you’ve got that locked in,” he says. “And it’s better if they got scandal on ’em or a reality show or sex tape. And they have it down to an art. They’re getting street cred for Justin Bieber now!”
He puts on one of the album’s poppier tracks, the sweet throwback “Stopthistrain,” with vocals from 3rdEyeGirl drummer Welton and her husband, Josh. I suggest, gently, that the song might fare best on the charts if no one knows of its Prince connection. He nods. “That’s kind of the blessing and a curse these days,” he says, “that I’m competing with [my] older music. And I don’t know anybody who has to do that. They always play Beyoncé’s latest track. But I go on Oprah and they want me to play what they remember.”
He ends by previewing a couple of songs from what will become Art Official Age, excusing himself from the room when he gets to the wailing ballad “Breakdown.” The breakup-themed lyrics seem particularly personal: “I used to throw the party every New Year’s Eve/First one intoxicated, last one to leave/Waking up in places that you would never believe/Give me back the time, you can keep the memories.” Afterward, he confirms that the song comes from a “sensitive . . . nude” place: “You could touch it and it would just hurt instantly.”
Before Prince sits for an interview, there is another test. I sit and chat with the members of 3rdEyeGirl in a cavernous atrium, where the black carpet is decorated with Prince’s old symbol and the words NPG MUSIC CLUB, and the motorcycle from Purple Rain is on display above. We gather on a purple couch that is noticeably frayed, and they explain their unlikely origins. The bassist, taciturn Denmark native Ida Nielsen, arrived first, joining Prince’s bigger funk band, the latest incarnation of the New Power Generation, which he’s still gigging with as well. Prince tells me how she beat out an old bandmate of his who re-auditioned: “She was eight times better than him, and she was new.”
Prince specifically wanted a female band, seeking out members via YouTube – back in 2010, he had discovered Nielsen on MySpace. “We’re in the feminine aspect now,” he says. “That’s where society is. You’re gonna get a woman president soon. Men have gone as far as they can, right? . . . I learn from women a lot quicker than I do from men. . . .At a certain point, you’re supposed to know what it means to be a man, but now what do you know about what it means to be a woman? Do you know how to listen? Most men don’t know how to listen.”
I ask 3rdEyeGirl’s guitarist, Donna Grantis, who has a half-shaved head and Hendrixian chops, about her influences. “Prince,” she says, flatly. Her husband, a pleasant rocker dude named Trevor Guy, came along with her and ended up working closely with Prince, serving some managerial functions. (Prince believes artists shouldn’t have managers: “You should be a grown man, be able to man-age yourself.”) Josh, Welton’s husband, an R&B-singer-turned-producer, also became part of the Paisley family, working on some of Prince’s final albums.
They’ve all been living in a nearby hotel for a year and a half, spending at least six days a week in Paisley Park. They come off as members of a benign cult. “It’s sort of like an alternate reality,” says Grantis. “It’s an alternate universe being here, because we’re in this awesome bubble of, like, making music all day. I have no idea what the date is or what day it is.”
As we talk, I glance over my shoulder and realize that Prince has at some point materialized behind me, silently eavesdropping. He nods and moves away again into the darkness. The band and I go into the industrial kitchen, where we’re served dinner, and I am soon summoned into the control room of the complex’s Studio A, where Prince sits at the mixing desk. “This room was built in ’87, and the first record I did in here was Lovesexy,” he says. “We never really got this room clickin’ like any of my home studios or the hot-rodded boards I used in Los Angeles when I had a record deal. It’s real cozy and private – I just kinda wished it sounded like what goes on in my head. And I’ve been tinkering with things forever. . . . I suppose I will keep messing with it – or another generation will.”
We talk of many things, and his ban on discussing the past turns out to be slightly flexible. He makes a point of noting that his reputation as the puppet master behind the Time and even Vanity 6 was exaggerated. “It was all collaborative,” he says. “It’s not just my vision. It’s one thing to say, ‘You know what would be cool?’ and visualize it . . .but then you’ve got to actually find the people. [The Time’s] Morris Day is as good as any funk drummer who ever did it. And Vanity? Nobody could talk like her.” He’s most passionate and lucid when he talks about music: “ ‘Rock Steady’ by Aretha Franklin, ‘Cold Sweat’ by James [Brown], all the Stax records, Ike and Tina Turner – we took it for granted, thinking that music would always be like that. That was just normal to us.”
There are frequent, sometimes tricky-to-follow digressions: He seems to have branched out from his study of the Bible, which began in earnest when he became a Jehovah’s Witness under the tutelage of bassist Larry Graham. “It’s just all expanded,” he says. “Anything I believed then, I believe even more now – it’s just expanded.” While still deeply Christian, he’s also spent time studying what appears to be an Afro-centric interpretation of history, along with the physics of sound, some Eastern ideas (chakras are “science,” he says) and a selection of unabashed conspiracy theories. He has thoughts on the JFK assassination (“The car slows down – why doesn’t it speed up?”); AIDS (“It’s rising in some communities, and it’s not rising in others – any primate could figure out why”); and the airplane trails known in some circles as chemtrails (“Think about where they appear, why they appear, how often and what particular times of the year”).
At one point, the phone rings: It’s the young British singer-songwriter Delilah. Prince’s voice suddenly gets even deeper. “I know it’s late there,” he purrs into the handset. “I’m going to will you awake.” On a possibly related note, Prince says he’s unsure if he’ll marry again. “That’s another thing that’s up to God,” he says. “It’s all magnetism anyway – something would pull me into its gravity, and I wouldn’t be able to get out from it.”
We take a break and head to Paisley Park’s empty nightclub, where 3rdEyeGirl are waiting onstage. “I can take you out there and hit this guitar for you,” Prince promised earlier, “and what you’ll hear is sex. You will hear something where you’d run out of adjectives, like you do when you meet the finest woman.” He wants to prove that 3rdEyeGirl can activate my chakras, so he seats me on a stool onstage, no more than three feet away from him. He picks up a custom Vox guitar – the brand some of James Brown’s guitarists played. “You’re gonna start vibrating in a second,” he tells me, and kicks the band into the fiery Seventies fusion instrumental “Stratus,” tearing through solos that arc endlessly upward. He warned of goose bumps, and delivers.
Afterward, the band does a photo shoot in Studio C – one shot is intended for the cover of a “Stopthistrain” single that never actually comes out. Prince disappears for a while before returning with a MacBook that has Delilah live on Skype – he shows her the shoot via webcam. It’s past midnight when we begin talking again. He mentions a desire to mentor Chris Brown, says he invited him to Paisley Park. I note that some people think what Brown did to Rihanna was unforgivable. He’s shocked. “Unforgivable?” he says. “Goodness. That’s when we go check the master, Christ. . . .Have you ever instantly forgiven somebody?” I shake my head. “It’s the best feeling in the world, and it totally dismantles that person’s whole stance.”
He talks more about mentoring and helping peers, so I wonder aloud if he thinks he could’ve forestalled Michael Jackson’s fate. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Prince says at first. “I’m too close to it.” He goes on: “He is just one of many who have gone through that door – Amy Winehouse and folks. We’re all connected, right, we’re all brothers and sisters, and the minute we lock that in, we wouldn’t let anybody in our family fall. That’s why I called Chris Brown. All of us need to be able to reach out and just fix stuff. There’s nothing that’s unforgivable.”
He seems to be hinting at past problems of his own, so I ask if he was ever self-destructive. His eyebrows shoot up. “Self-destructive? I mean . . .do I look self-destructive?” This leads him to a disquisition on why he avoids talking about the past. “People say, ‘Why did you change your name?’ and this, that and the other. I’m here right now, doing what I’m doing right now, and all of the things I did led up to this. And there is no place else I’d rather be than right now. I want to be talking to you, and I want you to get it.”
We talk about retirement. “I don’t know what that is,” he says. “There’s always some way to serve. . . . It feels like I’m teaching at a school, but also a student at one. I never felt like I had a job – does that make sense? So those words, job and retire . . . ”
He tries to explain why he can imagine playing into old age, with a dizzying detour into mysticism via the Wachowskis. “Life spans are getting longer,” he says. “One of the reasons is because people are learning more about everything, so then the brain makes more connections. Eventually, we’ll be in eternal brain mode because we’ll be able to hold eternity in our minds. A lot of people can’t do that. If you can’t think all the way back eternally, you can’t think all the way forward eternally. Everybody usually thinks about a beginning, a big bang. If you take that event out, then you can start to see what eternity is. Remember in The Matrix where they said the only thing that has an ending had a beginning, and vice versa?”
It’s nearly 2 a.m., and Prince is done for the night. He walks me through the depths of Paisley Park, his shoes glowing in the dark, to retrieve my jacket and bag. As we walk, I hear doves cry – actual doves that live in a cage somewhere in the rafters. As I put on my coat, Prince invites me to join the band in London. The zipper catches badly on the way up. “Fuck,” I say, and my host looks stricken.
“So much for not cursing,” he says.
I apologize. Prince looks me in the eyes, and wraps me in a tight hug. I am, as promised, dismantled by his instant forgiveness. I can still feel that embrace as I walk outside, where moonlight shines on a thick layer of immaculate, freshly fallen snow.
From the age of 11, Prince was in my ears and in my head. I patterned everything in my life after him: his fashion, his affect, his taste in women and, of course, his taste in music. I wouldn’t have started listening to Joni Mitchell without him. And that led me to Jaco Pastorius, who led me to Wayne Shorter, who led me to Miles Davis. I had a simple rule: If Prince listened to it, I listened to it.
In the wake of his death, as we all try to come unstunned, everyone is talking about his genius. That’s understandable. But most of the discussion is general. I like to think about the specifics. I like to think of the way he innovated even early on, the way he turned away from the traditional blueprint of funk and soul music.
Think about James Brown. Prince certainly did, as did every funk and soul artist of his generation. But Prince was brilliantly perverse in the way he absorbed him. If Brown was about a tight crack snare and percussive horns as an extended rhythmic arm, Prince went in the opposite direction – he made undeniable funk from a dud of a dead snare sound and the artificial horns of the Oberheim synthesizer.
Brown’s magic streak ran between 1965 and 1975; anyone who was anybody in black music borrowed from that period. Michael Jackson borrowed dance moves. Rappers borrowed samples. But Prince looked to the period after that, when Brown was thought to be in decline. In soundchecks, Prince would make the Revolution endlessly play Brown’s 1976 hit “Bodyheat.” They’d lock into the groove and stay there. It was like Prince was using the Revolution as a sampler, and he looped that groove so that he could play along with it – and, eventually, play around with it. “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” from Sign ‘O’ the Times in 1987, is a brilliant reworking of Brown’s “Gravity,” from 1986. Who else was really listening to Brown at that point, let alone listening sharply enough to put his music through the replicator and remake it on the spot? Only Prince, who was perhaps Brown’s truest heir.
It was the 1999 track “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” that told me Prince was not a regular person, or a regular musician. He had removed the bass from the original demo (an innovation that would pay off even more powerfully on “When Doves Cry”), added a dizzying snare/high-hat combination and delivered his vocals in a kind of ice-cold, almost robotic manner. It wasn’t just one new idea – it was several, all together; you knew from that song and the album tracks around it (“Automatic,” “Lady Cab Driver”) that he was going to be the new breed leader. Stand up, organize.
After I got into the music business, I got to meet Prince several times. I roller-skated with him. I went to parties that he threw. But I always felt like a fan, never a peer. He was singular in his music – he was his own genre – and that same singularity extended to everything in his life. As he got older, the way he managed his career showed off that contrary streak. It came to the forefront in the way he mastered his records, in the way he handled reissues, in the way he used (or didn’t use) the Internet. In the winter of 2012, the Revolution reunited at First Avenue in Minneapolis. They were all set up for him to join in and play. He drove right past. Prince was a great drummer, and he was always marching to his own beat. Control was Job One to him, which allowed for amazing things in the studio and onstage – unprecedented leaps of inspiration and synthesis, and energy so prolific it seemed like it would never be shut off. But there was a level of mistrust when it came to letting the outside world in.
There’s so much we all don’t know about him. This is what I do know: Much of my motivation for waking up at 5 a.m. to work – and sometimes going to bed at 5 a.m. after work – came from him. Whenever it seemed like too steep a climb, I reminded myself that Prince did it, so I had to also. For the past 20 years, whenever I was up at those hours, I knew that Prince was up too, somewhere, in a sense sharing a workspace with me. For the last few days, 5 a.m. has felt different. It’s just a lonely hour now, a cold time before the sun comes up.
A friend of mine gave me this huge poster of Prince’s first album. I was like, “Oh, my God, he’s beautiful.” I took it home and put it next to my water bed. I would look at it and say, “I’m going to meet you someday.” Then I saw him play. He was wearing a trenchcoat, a G-string, leg warmers and boots. I met him afterward, and that was almost his normal wear. I said, “Are you sure you want to wear that outside?” I’d never seen a man dress like that. He was my favorite guitar player in the world. That’s why I fell in love with him. We were playing “Purple Rain” during the Sign ‘O’ the Times tour. My eyes were closed, and I’m in a place of bliss and heaven, on the verge of crying. I opened my eyes and he asked me to marry him. I kinda said, “Yes,” and we kept playing. We became friends first, then fell in love, then we fell apart. Then we became like brother and sister. I called him “honey” or “baby.” He was my buddy. Music was his life, and he lived and died for it. That’s his legacy.
Prince opened up my imagination and showed me where I wanted to go as an artist. Here was an African-American cat, skin color like mine, playing the guitar like I wanted to play. And not just guitar – he played nearly all the instruments on his albums, and it sounded like a band. The music, the vibe, the colors, the hair, the band – everything was amazing to me as a teenager. Through his music, he was saying, “You can do this. This is how I did it. Now you do it your way.”
Later on, I got to know him as a friend. We got together all over the world: Paris, New York, Amsterdam, Minneapolis, Miami – wherever he happened to be. I would visit him at Paisley Park, which was an incredible place. It was like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – this larger-than-life compound that is just his world. We would go into the studio and jam, and he would film and record it. When we were done, he would hand me a cassette. He’d say, “This is just for you. I have the master tape here, and I’m gonna lock it up.” Everything isn’t for business. It’s about the art, the moment, the memory.
He used to kick my behind at pool. His technique was amazing. He had the same attitude he had onstage; he would just come at you. Once, when I was dating [model] Vanessa Paradis, I took her to his apartment in Paris. I think we were there from 11 p.m. to, like, six in the morning. Prince asked if she wanted to play pool, thinking he was going to destroy her. And she beat him terribly. It’s a great memory.
He could be incredibly funny. I remember watching a Chris Rock special at his house, and we just laughed and laughed. Another time, I hung out with him and Dave Chappelle. He loved having talented people like that around, whether they were musicians or artists or dancers or comedians.
He was a loving guy. If he liked you, he really liked you, and treated you beautifully. He could be aloof. There would be times I wouldn’t hear from him for a year, then he’d show up when you least expected it. I heard about his plane making an emergency landing, and I thought, “OK, he dodged a bullet.” And then, a week later, I got the news. I still haven’t recovered. I really feel like a piece of me died.
Prince’s music was so picturesque that even I could see it. I could see his boss Mr. McGee, who thought Prince was never going to be shit. I could see Old Man Johnson’s farm. I could feel that “Purple Rain” too. Prince’s songs were that vivid, the images were that strong. I think I related to the way Prince saw things because we both grew up in the Midwest, where we met all kinds of people and had a great spectrum from which to learn. We both grew up hearing blues, rock & roll, jazz and gospel, and found the value in it all.
When Prince and I spoke last, we talked about how we needed to fix this world. All this bullcrap about getting our country back and “Make America Great Again” – it’s always been great. We just have to stop people filling their minds with lies and prejudice and open them up to the possibilities. Prince was so inspired, and so inspiring. He was kind, he was disciplined and he knew where he wanted to go. He was able to make big transitions. If Michael was the King of Pop, Prince should be the Emperor. Prince fought for his artistic freedom. He didn’t allow anyone or anything to get in his way. By following his own path, Prince took music to a whole other place, like the Beatles did. He wanted to change the way things were, like Marvin Gaye did. When you do that, you have to be very sure of yourself.
That spirit that drove him gave us an incredible reservoir of music. He loved funk, so he really needed to know how to make things funky. He loved jazz, so he needed to break down what made things truly swing. If Prince wanted to talk about love and sex, he got really into that – deep. And he made us see and feel it all with him. In fact, I’m trying to figure out which child of mine was born because of listening to Prince.
Prince's Hot Rock, Issue 394 April 28th, 1983. Prince was just 24 when he appeared on his first ROLLING STONE cover, in 1983. It was just as “Little Red Corvette” was taking off – but he was already surrounded by an intense aura of mystery, brought out in no small part by his recent decision to stop talking to the press. “Rumors started to spread, and now his silence feeds them,” wrote Debby Miller, who talked to everyone in the Prince camp but the man himself. “Is Prince his real name? Is he black or white? Is he a shy little Prince or a despotic king?”
Prince Scores. Issue 429 august 30th, 1984. Purple Rain was just weeks away from theaters when Kurt Loder headed to Minneapolis to report Prince’s second RS cover story. Again, Prince refused to sit for an interview, but this time he walked out of the shoot after test Polaroids, forcing the magazine to use an image from Prince’s first RS cover shoot. “The picture one acquires of this wonderkid from scanning his songs and canvassing his colleagues is murky and uncertain,” wrote Loder, “which is the way he wants it.”
Prince Talks. Issue 456 September 12th, 1985. The cover line said it all: “Prince Talks.” After refusing to say a word to reporters for years, Prince was finally ready to grant an in-depth interview to promote 1985’s Around the World in a Day, which was failing to match the sales of Purple Rain. “I used to tease journalists early on,” he confessed to writer Neal Karlen, “because I wanted them to concentrate on the music. . . . I don’t live in the past. I don’t play my old records for that reason. I make a statement, then move on to the next.”
Prince’s Women. Issue 472 April 24th, 1986. Prince’s fourth RS cover centered around his Revolution bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman shortly before they splintered off to form a pop duo.
Prince Enters the ’90s. Issue 589 October 18th, 1990. A year after “Batdance” gave him his fourth Number One hit, Prince spoke to RS while working on his movie Graffiti Bridge and touring to support the soundtrack.
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