The gospel according to Prince

Wickham Boyle

In New York in September 1999, on the day Hurricane Floyd was expected to strike, schools were closed, businesses sent workers home, but a Prince concert exploded when everything else fizzled. When I called the receptionist at Arista, she told me, “Prince is a force of nature, and the show will go on.” Arista was celebrating the rebirth of the man named Prince, the man formerly known as The Artist, the artist known for a hot second only by an unpronounceable symbol. That man, who is Prince again, has given us legendary music, from the Millennium theme, “1999,” to “Purple Rain” to “Little Red Corvette.” Prince even dedicated an entire album to cum.

Prince’s life and music have often been notorious. His contract with Warner Bros. became a battleground. Prince felt he was in bonded servitude to the recording giant. “One day I was listening to Martin Luther King Jr. whipping his words around—I know he had issues too, we all do—but Jesus, I saw light in those words about who is free and who is a slave. So I took a pen, and I wrote slave on my face. I had to challenge people to see what the truth is. You know, the record managers even said to me, ’Well if you’re a slave, then what are we...slave owners?’ People thought I was crazy, using a symbol instead of my name: ’He thinks he can get out of a contract by changing his name.’ I did.” Prince has an unusual envelope and he likes to push its edges.

Hell, he chooses to live in Minnesota; he dresses like Diana Vreeland on smack; he took on the recording industry-and, for my money, won. He is a little man, but with a voice deeper and more resonant than you’d imagine. He wore pants with no bottom on the MTV Awards, and he is a fervent Jehovah’s Witness. He is an enigma.

So when I get the call to interview Prince on his hotel, I am ready to roll: “OK, I know, no tape recorders...what do you mean, in an hour?” I throw on red lipstick, basic TriBeCa black, and spotted pony shoes and taxi to The Palace Hotel. Where else would Prince stay but a Palace?

I use my code at the reception desk; they call up. I take the elevator to his assistant’s room. Prince’s name is never spoken. Are we still unclear what to call him? He has a reputation for being tardy, so I am preparing to hang.

Instead, in a wink, royalty calls and I walk down the carpeted hall, past a vase of purple roses. (I hear Prince requests the purple theme.) I am ushered into a sitting room where two couches intersect, between them are more lavender and purple freesias. It is suddenly so quiet, I feel a whoosh inside my head, as if the air is being compresses. I sit, hands folded, reverent and, in truth, terrified. Silently, Prince enters, his outstretched hand welcoming me. We are polar opposites: he, a small man, I, a capacious woman—black and white on first take. Something clicks.

He is dressed and done with a real feathered, fantastic coif. He tells me, “Sista, I always have gay hairdressers. Those men can work some hair.” His jumpsuit is my idea of Chanel-goes-to-outer-space: black knit, open neck, long funnel sleeves lined in white silk and divine buttons anointing the cuff. His boots have high but not obscene heels; they are white, pointed, with an accent of black leather piping shooting up the top. Prince wears a belly-length medallion that reads NPG (New Power Generation) in diamonds. He has a simple diamond ring on his left hand. OK, we both rocked that look.

I’m told Prince wants to talk music in the Internet age, so I dive into—Prince’s retort to Napster—his own music-direct, artist-to-consumer site. It launched at a Studio 54 party on February 13. “The record industry people are white-listing music because they own everything. That white lists keeps the artist out.” When Shawn Fanning, the Napster Boy himself, posted Prince’s music, the lawyers couldn’t sort it out, so Prince dialed in. “Hey, Shawn, I said, you’ve got some of my stuff your site. Get it off.” You know it was bizounce-gone.

As for Prince’s site, subscriptions pour in every day. How many? I want facts. “No, no numbers,” he demurs, that mellifluous voice seeming to emanate from someone else’s boots. “I am not putting out figures on how many hits or members. The deal is artists having creative control and directly reaching their audience.”

NPG Music Club promoted Prince’s music and touts other edgy artists, like Ani DiFranco. “You know she’s the real thing. Ani said blow up MTV, kill CNN and NBC. She’s like Morpheus in The Matrix, she stays outside and that gives her power. She’s an inspiration. The Music Club is an energy. We start the motion with music, but it moves to politics, to anywhere you want.” According to Prince, CNN doesn’t tell us all the news, and MTV won’t play a wide selection of music, so artists like he and DiFranco have gone underground, back to subversive roots, “It’s like radio has to sneak my new music on, but the Web lets fans be hooked up.”

The Web is artist power: “Unadulterated, energy, no producer, no record store, no question of percents of royalties, also no competition with other artists. Jesus said respect the creator, not the delivery service, not FedEx.” Prince laughs, head thrown back.

The question of creativity is super-charged for Prince; there is the big—C Creator—Him, God, Jehovah—and then all the artistic creators. Prince is adamant about both but says, “Religion is my favorite subject. I want to try to find answers to the unanswerable questions.”

In conversation, we two quickly go to what Prince describes as “mind meld, or telepathy Matrix-style"—you know, when you share sentences, yak like old friends sans wine, smoke, coffee, or blow. Halfway through our nonlinear romp, I interrupt. I’m parched, desperate to find water. We traipse from sitting room to bathroom to bedroom, finally locating two glasses left from dinner. We laugh. He thumps my leg or leaps up to act out a scene, demonstrating what he calls “Showing your worth by moving a room,” a talent Ella Fitzgerald, the Williams Sisters, or Duke Ellington might evince. Prince becomes Clive Davis negotiating with an artist, or Larry Graham, the bass guitar guru for Sly and the Family Stone and Prince’s mentor on religion. Prince testifies a la Graham on redemption and adds, “I love interviews now because they are informal witnessing.”

Prince says there used to be many more people who could show their worth. “Take politicians. In the past, we had leaders like Solomon—he could speak poetry. People would shout, ’Did you hear what that brother said?’ Hey, in politics now, that’s not what time it is. For instance, look at the back of the one-dollar bill, what’s on it?”

I blurt out, “The pyramid, but the top is cut off, and an eye is superimposed.” I’m on the edge of my smarts ’cause I feel we may be veering into unknown, New Age territory.

"Right but why?” Prince prompts, then answers. “The power source is cut off from the base, the people. The states aren’t all that united.”

"I see it.” I am trying to stay the course.

Well, if you get it, then you journalists have to stop the front and tell how it rolls. All of it; the music, the politics.”

We are back to music, our touchstone. Prince lets loose on how he vibes out a happening concert. “I can tell how good the concert is by whether fans notice me. At a Springsteen concert people didn’t even know I’m there. At Michael Jackson, oh Lawd, I had to run out, and I took 5,000 people with me. Michael is a good performer, but Bruce is off the chain-banter, joking. The band tightens up behind him. It’s about the connection.” I offer a story about leaving my ratty, ’70s style, Village apartment at four a.m. to bike to the Bottom Line, crashing an early Springsteen gig—hot waitresses danced on tables, hollering.

"You see, that’s connection.” Prince purrs.

Prince talks about what he’s learned as he’s gotten older. “I don’t count dates anymore, but even though I am not keeping track of age, I can still learn with age. I look at things now for the energy, and I respect that energy. The Web is that. It is instant access, creator to consumer. You don’t need a middleman. Because you know when that man is in the middle, he can take away your rights. And then have the nerve to say he is protecting you. If we can’t honor our creativity, how can we honor our humanity?”

Lest you think Prince is sequestered in a studio 24/7, let me unfold the edges of his wisdom. From music, Prince careers to politics. “Clinton can’t sell this country. We did get a new president, didn’t we? Oh yeah, well, Bush can’t sell a country like he’s trying. You mess with world structures and it’s all over. I watch all the shows. Charlie Rose; the guy who talks with artists real muffled, you know, on Bravo (James Lipton, we decide); and that Politically Incorrect show.” He’s tugging my pants cuff now, and I’m snorting as I laugh. Prince is loud and says he loves that show, but I want to know why they can’t make the host look less like the walking dead, you know, liven him up. I have now worried Prince, who screams, “You said that, sista, not me. Don’t put that on me, I like that show.” I imagine Prince in Paisley Park, his sprawling digs in Minnesota, sitting up with late-night TV. It is clear he has, pardon the techno-joke, broadband intellect.

Modern as he is, Prince likes his conversation and prose cussless. As a mom, I’m cautious, but occasionally I feel the pull of a perfect expletive. Prince knows that power and has forsworn swearing because “when you use those words, you call up all the anger, all the negative times the word has been used before—you bring it toward yourself. Why would you want that?” Hold on, is this the man who brought us a song called “Head” ("I’ll give you head, till you’re burning up...”") Yeah, it’s the same Prince, but he’s had an epiphany.

Larry Graham first broached the subject of swearing with Prince. “Larry said, ’Did you ever do your show without cursing?’ Oh, I started side-stepping and telling him what the audience wants, but Graham pushed me, and the response was no, I had never tried. If the audience only knew a swearing show, then how could they choose?”

Prince asks if I dig what he’s saying, and I tell him that, like a wide receiver, I’m open, so keep throwing.

School violence is a concern for him. “All of us are responsible, but more needs to be put into God’s hands. The Good Book says man has only governed man to his own detriment. When I look at the violence, I wonder where the parents are, but also where is God in their lives? A kid is an open computer ready for programming. Some weird relationships happen, smoking too early and sex. Larry Graham is sure his kids will stay virgins until they get married, that religion will hold them, but what about other kids?”

Since in terms of his religion, Prince has been redeemed, would he like to live his life over, and do it within the confines of his new path? No. “We can only protect ourselves by understanding. We can be here in the now, we can experience the eternal right now. That’s all we can do. Remember the agitation in the heart, sometimes it is too much.” Prince says all the agitation is one of the reasons he lives in Minneapolis. “There is a heaviness I feel when I get off the plane in New York. When I return home, I feel the weight lift. I think Minnesota is a spiritually driven state. I feel that. I know I have to have stillness so I can hear Him speak to me.”

Prince agitates from a place of faith, a combo of religious and artistic strength. There is no crisis of confidence in Prince, no writer’s block or fear of failing. The calm is palpable. “I know I am going to write another song, so it gives me peace. It’s jut there.” What he wants to change is the way the music pie is divided. According to Prince, music is a $40-billion business. “Now, sista, get the billion right. This is real money—we talkin’ ’bout billions. Can’t they give us one billion to do what we know needs to happen? We won’t need slave reparations if they give us what is ours. As Jesse Jackson says, ’We need the playing field level, we need an open net, and we need to know the rules.”
"In general, how do you think the black population is doing?” Prince means folks, not the Michaels Jordan and Jackson. I realized my eyes are downcast for the first time in our raucous talk. “Well, you brought us over here, told us we were three-fifths of human, and now we want our due, what we earned. Even in sports we don’t get what we should, Michael Jordan changed basketball, the Williams sisters are tearing up tennis. Do they get a piece of the gate?”

Prince muses, “Why would someone give away the rights to their music, ostensibly their babies?” My response is that some people feel so unpowerful they will jump at any offer. “Exactly.” He rises off the couch and is ready to pounce. “You know the old adage, ’A little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing’? Too many of us were made to believe that. Unfortunately, when times are rough, you will give up anything. We need to learn as a society not to buy when bad stuff is being sold. Intellectual property is like that—it is our power as artists. We cannot give it away for fear there won’t be anything better coming. Some will be left behind, some will not make it. But everybody gets a chance to hear the truth.”

Prince is evangelical. “All of life is a choice, but there are consequences for choice. You know it is not going to be open season on civility. People can’t talk bad about you like it doesn’t do anything. There are consequences.” This man deeply believes that, in artistic and life terms, he is saved. Call it trans-cerebral conversation, or celebrity wisdom, but the connection is kinetic. I always knew explosive ideas were the best drugs. I also wouldn’t mind an appointment for a real hairdo.