Prince in the afternoon

Gene Kalbacher

“I DON’T CARE WHAT PEOPLE expect,” proclaims Prince, the provocative 20-year-old musician who has emerged as perhaps the most versatile and engaging performer on the pop/soul scene. “They don’t expect me to wear what I wear, they don’t expect me to say what I say—but I’m doing it.”

Indeed. One must expect the unexpected from Prince. Onstage, Prince is a brash, flamboyant, scantly clad guitarist/vocalist, singing about such unholy subjects as “Head” (not the anatomical part of the human body the top of the spinal column, but deep intimate human activity) and incest, throwing barbs at and catching return volleys from his audience, and leading an oddly attired band that is recently and sexually mixed (blacks and whites, men and women).

But offstage, curled up in an armchair in a suite at the Malloran House, Prince is as reserved in repose as he is frenetic in action.  A visitor half expects to encounter Prince sprawled across 
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White suit and black vest.

Where the onstage Prince is brash and saucy, the offstage Prince is composed and polite. And while his statement “I don’t care what people expect” is declarative in content it is subdued in tone. His smile is benign, almost meek, beneath his wispy black mustache.

His smile may be shy but his music is outspoken and his credits astonishing. He’s three albums for Warner Bros. have sold close to three million copies. Moreover, he not only wrote, arranged and produced every song, but played virtually every instrument as well. At this stage of his career it would not be an exaggeration to say he is the most prodigiously talented black youngster to bask in the bright light since Little Stevie Wonder.

BUT EVEN MORE IMPRESSIVE THAN his blend of sultry throbbing funk and sweet soul, however, is his resolve to speak his piece without pulling any punches.

“I Wanna Be Your Lover,” from his second album, was a platinum smash single and a radio mainstay in 1979. His most recent effort, last years Dirty Mind, has sold Robert risky but flunked on the radio. The warning label on the album jacket reads: “Programmers please audition briar to airing.”

Songs about incest, oral sex and homosexuality aren’t your standard broadcast fair, and Prince remains philosophical about the cool radio reception. His record company, his management and he himself were mindful of the eventual outcome, but, he points out, “everyone felt it was probably more an extension of me and my audience than anything I’ve ever done.”

Prince is quick to point out that the album started as a series of demo tapes, “not all of which I intended on using.” Unlike his two earlier efforts, Dirty Mind what sequenced according to the order in which the songs were recorded.

On the other albums,” he says,” I used to sit down and say, ’What’s gonna sound best?’ I’d make sure it was in a relative key and things like that. I tried to do it from an intellectual point of view, and I don’t think that was so wise. Now I tend now to analyze my own stuff. I just do it!”

Does he have any regrets about having released such a controversial songs when he could’ve taken a safer route? “No,” he answers decisively. “Only because it’s real to me.

I knew I was going to get in trouble for them, and I subsequently did. I knew it then, but I didn’t know whether or not I was ready to stand up for them. Now I feel strongly about them after listening to them.”

Although he refuses to restrict the subject matter of his songs, Prince admits that, for now, he is restricting the lengths of his songs. He credits his former manager for convincing him that he “couldn’t continue writing seven-minute terror songs.”

Explains Prince: “I wrote a lot of strange things. I’ll probably start again when I’m excepted for what I am rather 
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time of day. “I’m trying to look at it realistically,” he says, “In time I’ll be able to do exactly what I wanted to do.”

Considering the controversy already stirred up by “Head,” “Sister” and “Uptown” (a national rock-concert TV program deleted the word “gay” from Prince’s performance of the song), how much more expressive can he be?

’Head’ was a lot longer,” he answers. “When I first cut it, it went on and on. See, well,” he proceeds, laughing and then stopping himself. “I was trying to take a real life experience—there are parts of the longer version that are sometimes shocking to me.

That would never have made it on an album. No one would ever put it out. It (’Head’) doesn’t get on the radio now. All I’m saying is that now I’m trying to condense everything a little bit more only so that—I don’t want to be stupid about it; I don’t want to make so many songs that are so long that they never get heard at all.

I want to be listened to first. Then I can give longer, detailed versions of things.”

FOR A MUSICIAN WHO DESCRIBES HIS childhood as “depressing,” his music is anything but. The son of a jazz band-leader, Prince taught himself to play to piano at age seven and let his first band, Champagnee, by 12.

By the time he was a teenager, he had run away from home and picked up the guitar, the instrument with which he feels more comfortable. Although he describes his native Minneapolis as a musically circumscribed market, Prince maintains that the competitiveness among the local bands not only fostered but mandated originality.

“Have you ever been to Minneapolis? He asks. “It’s a really small joint and if you really dig country & western music, that’s the place to go. The radio stations don’t play any new-wave music; they only play country & western music. The clothes, the dance, the music—everything is so behind.

I’d call my sister, who lives here (in Manhattan) and ask her what was going on. I was shocked because we got everything (in Minneapolis) she talked about six months later.”

As a teenager, Prince attended very few concerts and listened to few records. How, one wonders, did he develop such an understanding of and proficiency with so many different instruments and styles of music?

We jammed a lot with other bands,” Prince recalls. “There was a lot of competition around ’75. It was a time when there was a lot of spirit. It was nice back then.

I think that helped me come out of myself,” he continues. “We got in a lot of trouble from other band members if we copied anything (from them), and we gave them a lot of trouble if they copied anything (from us), so it was a real competitive thing. You had to be at out as you could and as different, and as much you as possible.”

After playing original material with the group Champagne for five years, Prince left the fold to follow his own career.

 [text missing] producing all the tracks. Several major labels expressed interest in his work, but Prince held back until he landed a deal with a company (Warners) that would enable him to produce his own records.

Upon the release of his debut effort, For You, Prince assembled a touring band. His current road group (Andre Samone, bass; Dez Dickerson, guitar; Gail Chapman, keyboards; Matt Fink, keyboards, and Bobby Lee, drums) is pictured on the sleeve of Dirty Mind, but played a very insignificant role in the actual recording of the lp. Fink it’s credited as the co-writer of “Dirty Mind” and as the synthesizer player on the title track and “Head,” Lisa Coleman contributes backing vocals on “Head,” but that’s the extent of the members’ musical input. Does Prince plan to employ these musicians on his fourth album?

It’s hard to say,” he replies. “They're on this record because they're my friends. I see my band differently than most bands, I guess.

They’re just my friends,” he adds obliquely. “I think maybe I might meet new friends sometime, so maybe I’ll get new band members. They all have aspirations of being big in their own right; they want to do other things, so it’s hard to say.”

PRINCE MAY BE UNCERTAIN ABOUT the recording status of his road band, but he’s positive that listeners are looking for something new.

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They make a lot of noise, they shout a lot of obscenities and good things.

It’s a free crowd,” he adds. “They’re ready for change. I can sense it.”

For what change is the audience ready?

Change in music, change in lifestyle. They wanted to be open and they want to dress anyway they want you at the gigs and stuff like that,” he remarks.

Tradition at black concerts a lot of times wants to wear your best clothes, to come looking really dapper. It’s not like that at our concerts. There are a lot of black kids out there, but they are like open-minded and free, and they want to have a good time…

Especially where I lived, there were very few events that you got to go to. So any chance you got to show off your best clothes, you did. It was basically for ego.”

When asked how the record business difference in actuality from the way he'd envisioned it when he began his career, Prince reveals the motivation behind his music.

I imagined more spirit over all. I guess I got even more hip do it once I got into it and started talking to people who’d been through all the things that happened before me—like Woodstock and all the festivals that used to have.

That’s kind of what I envisioned.” He points out, leaning forward in his chair. “I always wanted to do outdoor gigs. But they don’t do that so much anymore, only the big giant groups. It’s hard for upcoming groups to get brakes like  [text missing]

[text missing] feel inside and speaking for the time.”

That’s the way I always thought it was supposed to be. See, we didn’t hear (in Minneapolis) about all the money that was to be made. We just heard about acts that were being followed. We all knew we wanted to be an act that people followed. We don’t talk a lot about material things—we talk about people we meet.”

Prince claims that he spends most of his money on himself. “I give away a lot of my money to friends,” he notes. “So you might say I spend it on myself.”

At what point did he feel he had made his mark in the record business? Did any particular instance drive that point home?

You can never really tell,” he muses. Records are like writing letters to somebody, and doing a gig is like talking to the person face to face. The difference is that you feel the response right away when you’re in concert. I think that when you get your first fan letter, you start thinking you’re reaching somebody, and it makes you want to keep going.”

Besides spending money on his friends ( and thus he avows, on himself) Prince derives the most satisfaction from “just knowing that somebody is listening.” He may not care what people expect from him, “and I don’t care if they don’t like it,” he contends, but adds: “I just want them to hear it and know that I have the privilege of telling them