Prince still holds throne of music royalty

Renee Graham

THERE’S A 17-year-old out there who has never experienced the visceral effect of this.”

Prince mimics the motion of banging out a big guitar chord, and even without a Fender Telecaster in his hands, one can almost hear his soaring, elegiac solo from “Purple Rain” or the hip-tickling intro of "Kiss.”

He’s relaxing in his dressing room, aglow and fragrant with candles, several hours before he’ll ascend, via a rising platform in the middle of an X-shaped stage at the center of the Toyota Center in Houston, and perform the first of two sold-out shows.

He’s talking about a subject that occupies his mind these days - the heady rush of real music performed with passion and precision, the intangible joy of a stuttering horn, the hissing hi-hat of a drum, or the lavish retort of a guitar.

That’ll give you shivers, that’ll change your life,” Prince says with a satisfied smile. “There’s nothing else like that.”

For 25 stunning years, there has been no one else like Prince. In an industry in which the word “genius” has been falsely applied and misused into meaninglessness, there’s no disputing Prince’s virtuosity. He’s won a fistful of Grammys and an Academy Award, and was inducted earlier this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And he has composed such classic songs as “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry,” “Erotic City,” "Little Red Corvette,” and “Sign O’ the Times.”

Heir to James Brown and George Clinton, and creative father to the spiritual soul of D’Angelo, as well as the genre-twisting, anything-goes approach of OutKast, the man born Prince Rogers Nelson can still scream like the Godfather of Soul and make a guitar weep and wail like Jimi Hendrix.

Prince has been playing to sell-out and near-sell-out crowds across the country since March on the “Musicology” tour, named for his biggest album in a decade.

"It’s been great, absolutely perfect,” Prince says as he sits on a dark, plush couch in his fabric-draped dressing room. He apologizes for the mess, but the spacious room is orderly and comfortable.

He is, of course, immaculately dressed - a brown vest over a lighter brown shirt with cuff links, white pants with gold piping. He’s svelte but not slight, and at 46, the years have been very good to him. Delicately handsome, he looks 20 years younger with nary a blemish or line on his face.

Now a devout Jehovah’s Witness who eschews curse words and will no longer perform his most risque songs, he is a man of easy humor, hilarious impressions (primarily of mendacious, money-grubbing music-industry suits), and a probing curiosity that can lead him to ask nearly as many questions as he answers.

Though he has long endured a reputation as being petulant and mercurial, on this day, he’s in high spirits - perhaps, in part, because his tour, which concludes next month, has been an unqualified success, one of the biggest of an otherwise balky summer touring season.

And even though he’s been out of the spotlight for a decade, he has never doubted his ability to fill an arena.

’Let’s Go Crazy’ is what it is. It’s like a piece of Americana in a way, and when you play the song before 20,000, there’s going to be a reaction,” he says between sips of bottled water, referring to his massive 1984 hit from his film debut, “Purple Rain.”

"But I don’t take this for granted,” Prince says. “I feel this has been a blessing, and I’m very appreciative.”

Don’t call it a comeback

Many have called 2004 Prince’s comeback year. In February, he made a surprise appearance at the Grammys, opening the ceremony with a medley of his hits and performing with Beyonce.

A few weeks later, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and during a tribute to a fellow inductee, the late George Harrison, Prince stole the show with a scintillating guitar solo on Harrison’s "While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

When he was first informed of his election to the hall of fame, Prince says: “I didn’t feel anything at first, but other people were so engaged by it. There would be 60-year-old white grandmothers congratulating me, and it’s always an honor to have people appreciate what you do.”

Then, in April, he released “Musicology,” an album some consider his most pop-friendly music in more than a decade. Now platinum, it debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart and remains in the top 10.

Yet between 1991’s “Diamonds and Pearls” and “Musicology,” Prince seemed bent on confusing and alienating his fans. He changed his name to a symbol and was embroiled in a protracted battle with Warner Bros., his longtime record label, to free himself from a long-term contract worth $100 million. He compares record companies to Satan trying to tempt Jesus with the riches of the world.

To symbolize his predicament, he even began writing the word “SLAVE” on his cheek. The issue was finally resolved when Prince released a series of albums, mostly packed with unreleased tracks from what he called “the vault,” to fulfill his obligation to the label.

Unwilling to sign another long-term deal, he set up the NPG (New Power Generation) Music Club, and through its Web site, he released a series of little-noticed albums, such as last year’s all-instrumental "N.E.W.S.” From the name change to his eccentric albums, Prince still defends his actions and his music.

Now, it’s all water under the bridge, but it was a serious matter,” he maintains about his dispute with Warner Bros., which ended in 1996 and was marked with the release of a three-CD set, “Emancipation.”

I think many corporations are immoral. What was happening to me happens to artists all the time, you feel me?” Prince says. “What I was doing wasn’t about arrogance; it was about someone trying to put me in a paper cage, and tell me, a grown man, what I couldn’t do.”

During his performance that night, Prince takes swipes at his former label, with the ad-libbed lyrics, “Warner Brothers used to be a friend of mine, now they’re just a monumental waste of time.” For “Musicology,” Prince struck a one-off distribution deal with Sony. It was released on his NPG Records, and he retains complete control over the album.

As for his 1990s output, music some categorized as indulgent and obscure, Prince says, “I dismiss terms like ’comeback’ and ’accessibility of music.’ I never went anywhere. I was still making music. The media just stopped focusing on me.

Besides, I’m from the Duke Ellington school. He never changed his sound,” he adds. “I’m from the Marlon Brando school - you have to get with what I’m doing. If you want to be the best, you can’t follow.”

Cleaning up his act

This year, lots of people are getting what Prince is doing. At his Houston show, the audience cuts liberally across racial, ethnic and generational lines. There are faded T-shirts from his “Purple Rain” tour in the mid-’80s, there are middle-age men in purple shirts (tour tickets suggest concertgoers “Wear Something Purple"), prepubescent kids with their parents.

Fans know the words to newer songs such as “Musicology” and “On the Couch,” as well as to such classics as “Let’s Work” and “D.M.S.R.” He performs for more than two hours, including a tribute to Ray Charles with sax master Maceo Parker singing and playing “Georgia.”

Prince also gives props to R&B legend Rick James, whose death was announced earlier in the day. On Prince’s first tour in the ’80s, he opened for James.

In those days, Prince was a prodigious upstart out of Minneapolis playing every instrument, composing and arranging every song. (Which, for the most part, he still does.) He was two albums deep into his career - with his debut, “For You,” and his self-titled sophomore offering, which featured the hits “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Sexy Dancer.”

In Houston, he performs “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” but noticeably absent are such salacious songs as “Erotic City,” “Gett Off” and “Darling Nikki,” which gave Tipper Gore such a case of vapors that she formed the Parents Music Resource Center and got albums deemed explicit branded with “Parental Advisory” stickers.

These days, Prince won’t be found writhing in beds or bathtubs onstage, as he has in the past. He’s been married nearly three years to his second wife, Manuela Testolini, and champions monogamy, but that’s only part of the reason he’s cleaned up his act.

In a culture in which booty videos with bikini-clad women gyrating in slow motion abound, there’s nothing interesting or daring in singing about sex anymore, he says.

"When I sang about sex, no one was singing about sex. Now that’s not new anymore,” Prince contends. “Now since no one is singing about monogamy, that’s what I’m singing about, you feel me?

I was there in ’92-’93 with the band that made ’Sexy MF,’ “ he adds, referring to his 1992 song with the world’s funkiest application of a certain dozen-letter cuss word. “I know what it’s like to hear 70,000 people yelling that at me, and I don’t need to hear that anymore. We want to retire some of these songs.”

And with a quarter-century of songs, Prince has more than enough music to fill a frenzied evening.

It’s a challenge and a testament to the strength of a catalog,” he says, remarkably without a hint of conceit. “I’m in awe of the scope of it.”

Some of the songs he performs, like “Controversy” or “Baby I’m a Star” are decades old, and Prince messes around with the arrangements to keep them interesting. At his Houston show, he performs 1983’s “Little Red Corvette” and 1991’s “Cream” with just an acoustic guitar, and he even offers a countrified version of 1988’s “Alphabet St.,” as bluegrass legends Flatt and Scruggs might have recorded it.

He jousts with the younger members of the crowd, telling them, “I know what ya’ll need,” as his band launches into the opening vamp of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.”

No one seems to enjoy the moment more than Prince, who seems at peace with his past and with where his long musical journey has delivered him.

I’ve never fit into a certain genre, and you can’t pin my work down,” he says. “I don’t think about the future. I have to make the music I have to make now, and I have to go where the spirit takes me. Everything is about right now, and because I approach things like that, I enjoy every day so much more.”