New Gold Dream

O(+> invites Adam Mattera into his lair, his thoughts and his straitjacket.
 
Adam Mattera



O(+> wants to talk. This is a Big Deal. The man that used to be Prince has kept a tight-lipped silence for over a decade now –recoiling from the idea of doing TV interviews, god forbid,  press conferences for the fear of being misinterpreted or misunderstood – only last year breaking the silence to give a number of selective audiences with if you high-profile music magazines. Now, on his Royal decree, he is receiving journalists by, if not the truckload, at least the car loud. Five yesterday apparently, and five more today. He must have something pretty important to say.

So it’s more than a little shocking when at 2pm Wednesday afternoon – two days before his Gold Experience tour is to premiere at Wembley – his publicist comes on the phone offering an interview with The Artist Without A Name. Out of the blue. No it’s not a joke. Drop everything and come right now – we are leaving in 30 minutes for an audience Backstage at Wembley and so it begins. A trip straight to the intriguing heart of the O(+> experience. 

It’s difficult to get a handle on the scale of the operation here – the sheer number of people mobilized in order to keep, if not his name, then his O(+> in the papers and his shows on the road. Backstage at Wembley behind levels of security that would shame Fort Knox, scores of men and women dash about with their own formerly-Princely concerns: fixing lighting rigs, staring into digital displays.

"We’re about to do interviews with The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” someone squawks into a mobile with an air of deadly seriousness.

We’re led back through a confusion of hanging sheets to the labyrinthine corridors hidden backstage. They’re arty seen glimpses of O(+>’s latest fantasy playground: a huge, glitzy gold-spread double bed with a gold plated topless angel forming the headrest, [Very Ab Fab]; an immense organic looking amorphous construction that can only be done much-anticipated Endorphin-machine: doors signposted ’Make-Up’ and, more excitingly, ’Mayté’ [his Asian-babe dancer/acrobat/’muse’] left teasingly ajar to review chintzy furs in pinks and white:; and everywhere the overwhelming smell of incense. The smell of O(+>. We’ve already been informed there are to be absolutely no recorders, notepads or bends to be brought into the room. There’s even a rumor going around at one point that there are to be no questions directed at The Perfumed One. no one even dares to question these bizarre requests. We even signed agreements to the effect. 

This is His domain and if we are to enter we must play by His rules.

One of the rules is that we are to wait: to wait and ponder. If it’s recent public appearance at the Brits is anything to go – is only utterance being the cryptic soft-spoken burst of “Prince. Best? On record – slave. Live – totally free. Come. Get Wild. Peace” then this will be a somewhat brief – and perplexing – conversation. The atmosphere is tense and expectant, nothing is in our control, even the order of our audience is to be determined by the throw of a coin. When I’m finally signaled as ’the next one’, I’m giving a body-search, to rival that of a hippy returning from Amsterdam, by a solemn faced bodyguard, I feel more than a little off-kilter. Then I’m shown into his dressing room.

The room is dimly lit by candlelight and heavy with incense. It’s styled with that familiar Paisley touch – garnish, chintzy velvet throws everywhere, a surprisingly modest spread of fruit, honey and French bread – your 16-year old Goth sister’s bedroom. 

O(+> stands before me and offers a delicate hand as I am introduced – he isn’t – and we are left alone.

He wears a bright blue, silk trouser suit in familiar style of in recent months. He’s short, of course, and unexpected more frail looking – certainly not the tauntly muscular Prince of Parade days. He’s also wearing an inordinate amount of slap – heavy pan make-up and mascara, which adds to the clownish, unreality of his presence. His eyes are shielded by wrap-a-round glasses, so his eyes are not visible at any point. SLAVE is scrawled on his cheek. 

He hasn’t said anything yet.

"I feel like I’ve been sent to see the head master,” I offer to break the silence. I’m totally sincere: I do find the whole affair more than a little disconcerning.

"Don’t be scared,” here he reassures me as we sit on the sofas, covered by huge chintzy throws. Then he begins maturing, walk to himself and to me, very quickly and in a voice far deeper than you’d expect.

"The doctor told me I should chill… I got to stop thinking about it… It’s make me ill.”

It’s a vague and mystifying opener. Frankly I have no idea what’s he’s talking about, though later it becomes a little clearer. He makes a reference to someone lying in hospital, but before I can ask him, he’s already changed the subject.

"Thank you for coming,” he offers directly and with unnecessary modesty.

"I want you to help me. I want you to half days,” he says drawing my attention do a single glittering gold CD case on the table.

Now this is exciting. Really, all for me. I pick it up to examine it. It’s called The Gold Experience and bears that O(+> moniker. It’s obviously been well handled – indeed it even appears to have been assembled by hand. In my enthusiasm it comes apart in my hands.

Shit. I’ve destroyed The Gold Experience and as far as I know it’s the only one.  O(+> doesn’t seem to notice. Maybe he can’t see much through those glasses. By the time I discreetly stop fiddling, he’s been talking for minutes about artistic freedom and the need to release his music when he wants to. It keeps coming back to the infamous George Michael versus Sony case, with which he appears to be obsessed. 

"Take the song Father Figure. Who wrote that?” He inquires. 

Er… George Michael?

"Yeah, I think so. I think George Michael about that. So when you didn’t like that. But now they own that. It’s not his anymore. But I don’t want to be like George Michael. I don’t want to disappear for five years and stop making music. I can’t do that.”

O(+> is angry with Warners. That is blatantly clear. It’s written all over his face – literally. 

"They put this on my face,” he states dramatically and without provocation. “I’m a slave to Warners until they set me free. I’m a slave to my music too. Music is my life. Music has to be free.”

He talks steadily and, yes, quite normally. This is like having a conversation with a regular person.

"You know the song Letitgo?" He continues, “Now that was a great pop song. If Warner have promoted it properly it would have been a huge hit. Now I don’t have any control of that. They can stop working an album after one single if they want to. Now I would have loved to put Strollin’ out to chill people out in the summer, y’know?"

So signing a contract with a major label is like signing your soul away to the Devil?

That idea obviously strikes a distinct chord with my host, who slaps his thigh and rolls back on the sofa, reiterating  "That’s it, my man” over and over, with gleeful approval. 

"That’s right, man. You be signin’ your soul away to Lucifer. Those dudes kinda look like Satan too!"

Hasn’t he anything good to say about Warners? When he signed at 17, he fought for total control of his project – Warners initially wanted Maurice White to produce his debut For You – and achieved it to a level unprecedented at the time.

Prince smirks and shakes his head. 

"People always say that. They think you make all this money and they gave it to you. They didn’t give it to me. I gave them my music. Now they own it. Like Purple Rain – they own the master, so they can do what they want with it. I don’t have any control. Can you believe that?"

"You got to remember that all that glitters ain’t gold.”

It’s a favorite line – the hook of his new song Gold.

"They said you need a manager, you need a lawyer. There are oldest people around you being nice to your face and talking about you behind your back. That’s why I don’t have a manager now – I deal with these people directly myself. I want to speak to their faces. I want to see my enemy.”

Given  O(+>’s commendable, but perhaps somewhat idealist, attitude founded no doubt on his removal from the realities of the every day – the glut of rumors of constant personnel changes in his camp come as little surprise. Either you are with him or you are against him. 

"They said I’m gone insane. Now I’m not crazy. I know I’m not crazy,” he rails.

"There was a time when I thought I was going mad with all this stuff happenin’ and it was makin’ me ill. But that was before I changed my name.”

Off – the name. Now we can change tack a little, lighten the conversation.

What, four instance, does his mother call him on the phone? 

He smirks at the presumptuousness of the question. Then he becomes quite serious.

"She don’t call me ’Prince’. Only my enemies call me ’Prince’. Only those that want to hurt or offend me call me ’Prince’, ’Prince’ is dead.”

He pauses dramatically. “I killed him".

It seems clear that the decision to change his name was, for him, a spiritual choice: a breaking with a past he now despises – he refuses to play Prince songs in his live shows – a move towards his own personal ’dawn’. He laughs at my inquiry if the name change was an attempt to free him from his contract. “I wish it was that simple, man. O.J. would be doing it and walking free, right.”

Prince has a lot to say about names. It’s about personal autonomy: he can call himself whatever he wants, so long as it has meaning to him. He sees this as part of the tradition of Afro-american slavery and emancipation.

"My name is Prince Rogers Nelson. But who was Nell?” He laughs incredulously.

"I don’t know any Nell. Do you? It’s like when we were comin’ of the ships you can be Blackman you be Brown. My name didn’t mean anything to me. I don’t know why people are so surprised I changed it. Muhammad Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and people excepted it. Malcolm X change his name.”

I suggest that it might have had an adverse effect: all this debate about the pronunciation of his chosen sign, declarations of intend to become a dolphin – surely it’s drawing attention away from his music?

He deflects the point by bringing it back to his slick cyclical argument. 

"They talk about that ’cause there hasn’t been any new music to talk about. So everyone writes about that instead. Cause I can’t put out any new music. Warners won’t let me.”

Of course there has been a deluge of Prince-related music over the past 12 months - Come,  the 1-800 New Funk compilation, The Most Beautiful Girl In The World. 

Has he merely forgotten These or does he no longer considered them his work? [Come – the album that marked the official death of Prince – was largely old material cobbled together to satisfy his contract with Warners].

"You know what someone says to me the other day,” he says laughing. “They said I didn’t have the funk anymore. Now who’s to say what’s good or bad? It doesn’t mean anything. You may like Little Red Corvette. I happen to think Gold is the best song I’ve ever done, but you’ll never hear it, if Letitgo had sold as many as The Most Beautiful Girl then it would be considered just as much a success.” 

Does he really equate commercial success with artistic merit? There is no time to ask.

It is clear he has an agenda and it keeps coming back to it. So when exactly is The Gold Experience coming out? 

"Never!” Comes the quick reply. 

He is loathe to give away any new product to Warners and wants them to fulfill his contract by releasing material from as far back as the Revolution days. 

"But I’d like to send it to you. I’d like to send you whatever kind of music it is you like – the Ambien just off, the rock and roll stuff. You can access it whenever you want.”

Oh. I get it now. The internet. His fascination with exploring new avenues of communication is apparent to anyone that accessed last year’s CD-ROM experience Interactive. Indeed The Gold Experience is littered with references to ’accessing new experiences’ as well as pie-in-the-sky freedom songs like Dolphin

He sees Internet as the key to this brave new dawn where artist and fan can immediately connect. No nasty record labels. No ugly lawyers involved. 

He’s getting increasingly animated, miming tapping a keyboard whilst talking about music being “free, like air.” But what about the practicalities of such a venture? What about fans that can use, or rather can afford a computer.

"We can fix that. The NPG will fix that,” he replies dismissively without suggesting how.

O(+> exist in a world of metaphysical concepts, not to be tied down by inane pragmatism. 

"We will all be part of an underground network, a global New Power Generation. I want you to help me spread the word.”