Prince Charming

The singer breaks his media silence to talk, playfully, about his career, talent-free musicians and religion

Doug Elfman

ANAHEIM, Calif.—It’s four hours before showtime in the Anaheim Pond, so Prince and his band of seven go onstage to fine-tune songs during a sound check. Prince calls the shots, both big ("we’re adding a new section") and small ("it sounds too bright to me"). His choices make each song less muddy and richer in tone.

His playfulness peeks out only when his trombonist gets carried away and dances into the spotlight. Prince stops the music and does a funky impression. “The man was dancin’!” The band laughs. Then, it’s back to business.

This tour is ready for the mainstream. It’s a greatest-hits show that runs heavy on the 1980s featuring “When Doves Cry,” “Purple Rain,” “Kiss” and “Little Red Corvette.” Everyone who buys a ticket receives a copy of his new album, “Musicology.”

Two shows go to Las Vegas this weekend. Saturday’s concert is part of the SBC-presented “Tiger Jam VII"— golfer Tiger Woods’ annual concert to raise money for children’s charities.

But at this moment, Prince steps off the stage during rehearsal and boards a golf cart. He drives his interviewer to his dressing room. It is softly lit, the aroma is anonymously pretty, and it is warm and moist, the better to soothe his throat.

The interview is one of only a handful he has given to writers and TV hosts for this tour.

“If you don’t do that, then you’re considered off the radar,” he says. “Their radar.”

By “their” radar, he means he has sold millions of albums and thousands of concert tickets in the past 10 years, thanks largely to his online music club. (He stopped slaving away for record companies years ago.) But his success has been scantly reported.

Letting the press see him backstage now, though, helps with publicity, and it may dispel a distorted story or two. One notion this reporter had held was that Prince is a perfectionist. But during the sound check, he seemed professional, efficient and correct. When he’s told this, Prince smiles, just a little.

“One of the reasons I get the best musicians in the world is they know I’m like that,” he says.

Prince’s tight playing blew a lot of people away at this year’s Grammys. Was it easier for him to stand out in 2004 than it was two decades ago, when his peers had more musicality?

“It was easy then, too,” he says with a confident grin.

“I grew up maybe 10 years before I got in the business,” he says. “People coming out now, they’re 19 and 21, and most of them are dancers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to be able to put music together” is more valuable.

Prince used to flash his bellybutton for attention. But today, showing a navel is one of the few skills many entertainers have, he suggests.

“That was cool when it was only Cher and me,” he says and laughs. “They probably should not call themselves `musicians.’ “

These professorial quotes are not delivered sourly. In fact, his joyful demeanor ("I’m just so happy to be alive") resembles nothing of the personas he has cultivated onstage (the wild showman), in dramatic movies (the pouter) or in TV interviews (the wallflower).

Prince says he doesn’t like to dredge up his past. But he does compare his theatrical days—his famous rise as a big-haired rocking funkster who pretended to have threesomes onstage— to Las Vegas.

“It has a Vegas mentality to it,” he says. “It was all excess. The `Lovesexy’ tour—we had a basketball net, we had a car!” He drove that car onstage in 1988.

He enjoys Vegas quite a bit, because he likes seeing people feed off the city’s energy. He jokes that if people spot him walking through the airport, they barely say, “Hey, Prince,” and return to the slot machines.

He thinks the music industry could learn something from the old Vegas and be both skillful and improvisational.

“Vegas has become what it’s become. It’s a showplace. So, an event has to be rehearsed,” he says. “I understand that. But when the Rat Pack was up there, you didn’t know what was gonna happen.”

At age 46 (Prince thinks of himself as wiser, not older), he’s become an inspiration. He has influenced musicians including OutKast rapper Andre 3000, alternative artist Beck, pianist-singer Alicia Keys, punky pop singer Pink and hip-hop singer Musiq.

Prince started out wanting to be the master musician he is, he says. Only now when he performs, he finds himself inspired by Musiq and others he’s influenced.

And he still thinks about basketball onstage.

“I love basketball analogies,” he says. “Kevin Garnett, if he gets hyped, the whole team gets hyped. Sometimes, I’ll think of that. I’ll get hyped like KG onstage, and then I see the effect by that, and I feel powerful.”

His years of not talking to the press were surrounded by a monster fight with his former label, Warner Bros. He’s still not comfortable with the role of record labels.

• Industry executives wrongly mold young musicians into products, he says. “You start changing music, and it’s not your music anymore.”

• Music listeners enable executives by buying their products. “You’re your own warden in your own prison.”

• Radio is run by a corporation’s national playlist. “Vegas isn’t supposed to sound like L.A.; L.A. isn’t supposed to sound like Minnesota,” he says. “ `Let’s Go Crazy’ was No. 1 on R&B (charts). I don’t think that would happen now, because we’re not talking about alcoholism and `the club’ “ in the song.

Prince refuses to gauge his success based on sales charts and best-guitarists-ever lists in magazines.

“No way I’m gonna be led by a list,” he says. “Someone outside of me can’t define me.”

During his entire run, Prince has notably defined himself as a believer. In the past few years, he has been baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness. This occurred during a period in which he experienced a divorce, the deaths of his parents and his child, and another marriage.

He no longer curses. And he has further defined his music as less explicitly sexual, and even more explicitly spiritual and political. A new song, “Dear Mr. Man,” quotes both the 14th Amendment and Matthew 5:5.

Prince offers a look at a rough draft of a new song he has written in a journal. It’s intense, political and spiritual. It addresses the notion of “being in the world, but not of it,” as Prince says. It is obvious to him that the ugliness in the world is created by Satan, and he would like more musicians to address such topics as God, free will, current events and jingoism.

“What does it mean to be nationalist? What does it mean to be patriotic?” he says. “I love America. This is our freedom. You’re free to make up your mind.”

Prince clearly has spiritual faith, but does he have faith in humanity? Yes and no.

“There are a lot of wonderful humans who understand God’s will,” he says. “It was not God’s will for us to die or to destroy ourselves.”

But “people who say there is no God” and who live “on the edge—that kind of humanity? No.”

Interview time’s up. He’s polite and appreciative in his goodbye.

Before the concert starts, Prince is wheeled to his in-the-round stage in a trunk. He appears; he sings “Musicology.” Most fans will stand, sing along and scream for the next two hours.

“We’re just getting started,” Prince says and unleashes a James Brown-esque conductor’s move and catchphrase. “You’re about to have the best night of your life—good God!”