Prince: Vice Is Nice

Larry Katz



IF IT WASN'T AGAINST THE LAW, I wouldn't wear anything," Prince said backstage after his sold-out St. Patrick's Day show at Metro. He'd finished his set wearing nothing but black bikini briefs, thigh-high leg warmers, ad a pair of high-heeled boots. Getting down and almost naked before 1200 frenzied people "just feels natural," says the rising young superstar, who all gimmicks aside, might actually be the musical boundary breaker of the eighties. One listen to his latest album,  Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.), produced, composed arranged, played, and sung by Prince, will tell you why.

The music is an eminently danceable mesh funk, hard rock, and electronic pop; Prince's airy falsetto recalls the young Smokey Robinson; the lyrics are blatantly sexual and seethe with teenage rebelliousness; and topping everything off is Prince's persona, that of a kinky but lovable new age/new wave androgynous waif. 

But talent and outrageousness might not be enough to make prints of pop music gig. First he has to demonstrate that he's capable of "crossing over." Prince is already a huge star in black markets, and could easily sell out a big arena in a city like Detroit. But neither Prince nor his record company want him to end up being exclusively a black act. So now he's hitting the "white" venues in selected major cities, hoping that he'll be able to rise above racial categorization. 

Prince was more demurely dressed the afternoon before the Metro show during an interview at the Parker House. He entered the room wearing worn jeans and a black sweater with an open zipper running up his left shoulder. Without his fringed boots, he probably wouldn't stand more than 5 feet, 5 inches. He answered my questions slowly, hardly raising his voice above a whisper. Occasionally the corners of his mouth threatened to flare into a smile, but most of the time his face remained utterly impassive. He's twenty years old and shy, and though he's not uncooperative, he is quiet, very quiet.

Prince grew up in Minneapolis, the son of a half black jazz musician father and an Italian mother. He began playing piano when he was seven and started teaching himself other instrument out of "boredom." "Once you learn piano," he noted, "everything else falls into place." He learned to play the drums by beating on the box of newspapers, pretending to flaps were snare  and cymbal, and a box itself the bass drum. When he makes a record now, he'll first play whatever "instrument I wrote the song on. If I write it on drums, then I'll play the drums first. For Dirty Mind It was a lot of guitar songs." The songs, which touch on oral sex, incest, and homosexuality, are, Prince says, autobiographical.

Friends left his parents when he was twelve, and went to live with an aunt. When he got an electric guitar, he had to leave her house, and he started playing in bands and living with friends. "I wouldn't really call it a gang," friends recalled. "Whenever I hear that word I think of flights. We stole things, but we didn't have fights with other groups of people. It was interesting. You're learn a lot. It's like . . .  psychiatry or something. People constantly telling you how they feel about you and things like that."

How did they manage to survive? Bridge thought hard. "Quaker Oats' oatmeal. It's saved a lot of us from malnutrition. White now I won't touch oatmeal. Whenever I see that little guy in the store, I just . . . go . . . berserk."

Is Minneapolis as out of it as people on the East and West Coast like to think?

"Maybe more so," friends responded, "and I'm sore.grateful I came from there, because I wasn't able to hear a lot of other music. I got everything so late there . . . it was such a drag. We have to play what was in the Top Forty . . . yeah, it's pretty out of it." But Prince has no intention of ever leaving Minneapolis. "Any place you go to is what you make it," he concluded. "I'm not moving."

Prince sites the "isolation" of Minneapolis when he disclaims having any influences. The suggestion that he sounds like a Smokey Robinson just brings a shake of a head. "We were more into competition with other brands, and amongst ourselves," he said. "I don't listen to a lot of music now. It's boring if I'm not playing it. I like to do a lot of other things."

Like what?

"I'd rather not say."

When asked if he has any secret dreams he'd like it to fulfill, Prince replied, "senility," totally deadpan. Why senility? "I'm close to it now," he said without a trace of humor on his face or in his voice, his large, pale eyes betraying nothing. "I'd like to go over the edge and see what it's like."

The tour manager suddenly returned to the room and hurried Prince out. I asked him if Prince is always so reticent. "You should see him rehearse the band," he answered. "He's like a little general. No drugs, no booze. He's totally serious about this."

The sold-out show at the Metro that night was a revelation for those who have only heard Prince on records. His band perfectly captures the feel that Prince creates by himself on disc, but they didn't slavishly stick to the record's arrangements. They whipped from one song into the next with Prince always the center of attention, whether clutching the mike and falling to his knees, or prancing through syncopated steps with the guitarist and bassist, or stalking to staged whacking out guitar solos. And his voice  . . . not only is Smokey evoked, but the James Brown of twenty years ago, the soulful screams making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Was this the same bashful kid I spoke to a few hours ago?

After the show, the promoters were happy and relieved. Everything went smoothly (read: no race riot). The Prince production in Boston was considered a risky proposition, and no doubt, promoters in other parts of the country feel the same way. Luckily for us, they'll always be willing to take a chance if they think they can make some bread. And Prince has so much talent that even the subtle racism pervading the music industry shouldn't be enough to stop him. Prince, the little general, is on a march.