The reverend in paisley

A stroll in the Park with the Minnesota Scrabble champ

Michael Holden

POWER, THE SAYING GOES, IS NOTHING without control. Imagine selling 60 million records, or 60 million anything. Consider being the most overtly sexual performer of an amoral decade, making it look good and enjoying all the fringe benefits you would imagine that entails. Then, in what passes for your spare time, you write songs for other people that revitalise their careers like Harley Street prescriptions, and all the while you live a life of mystery, where people aren’t even sure what your name is today. That’s power, of a sort, as experienced by the artist we used to know as Prince. But somehow, like ambitious royalty at the mercy of government, what he really wanted was control.

"I preferred him when he had a beard,” sighs a pensioner in a hotel bar just outside Minneapolis. To the residents Chanhassen, Minnesota, the artist christened Prince Rogers Nelson 40 years ago is almost one of the boys. Not for them the “what’s that written on his face/what’s he wearing/who’s she/what’s he on about?” hysteria that characterises the rest of the world’s obsession. They just preferred it when he had a beard. His name was Prince, and he is funky. And someone they know probably fixes his plumbing. Most Friday nights he plays a free concert at his Paisley Park studios at which a hundred or so locals watch, without the benefits of cigarettes or alcohol, largely improvised jam sessions featuring George Clinton, Chaka Khan, Larry Graham from Sly And The Family Stone and other passing legends. “lm up there most weeks,” says the barman who looks like a well-groomed wrestler. It’s like Jimi Hendrix living peacefully on the edge of Chigley. Now the locals have a new problem. “He” (this being the preferred term of reference when “he” is not around) has decided to speak to the press. The people of Chanhassen now have the same world weary air as townsfolk in black and white films asking the lead characters if they’ve “come about the gold".

Having played piano from the age of five. Prince was 19 when he completed his first album, Prince For You. By then he was capable of playing all the instruments himself as well as producing it. He also spent all of his three-album advance from Warners in the process. It peaked at number 163 and marked the beginning of a stormy relationship with the company that ended when he took to wandering about with ’Slave’ written on his face. In the interim. Prince struck gold somewhere between sexuality and spirituality, made some of the most successful records in history and rose to become part of a triad of performers (along with Madonna and Michael Jackson) that achieved an unparalleled level of success and influence in the 1980s. In the meantime, living oo three hours’ sleep and expecting his colleagues to do the same, developed a legendary live show with a work rate – often as not involving an extended small hours club gig after each stadium show – that often left his session musicians for dead.

The man was a musical genius, but in Britain in particular he committed the cardinal sin of being “a bit weird". There were the Brit Awards when he turned up with a minder three times his size and talked about God. There were a handful of expensive and deeply unsuccessful films. There were inordinate amounts of beautiful women and, worst of all, he wouldn’t talk about it. Which left us to talk about him. Hes changed his name to a symbol. He lives in a sock and eats tinfoil, he’s made of wax and speaks in Latin. Whatever takes your fancy. Until now After what, in human terms, amounted to a messy divorce from Warners – “To be honest: said one Warners executive. “we were glad to get a break from him.” – he has been on something of a creative bender- He recently played a 100-date tour of America, then there’s the weekly jams. His last album’ Crystal Ball, was"four CDs long and available from his label NPG, by mail order only. That came April and he’s now made another one Newpower Soul, and all of a sudden he feels like talking.

FROM THE OUTSIDE, PAISLEY PARK LOOKS LIKE A building glimpsed from a motorway. Smart, industrial anonymous Past the mound of employee cigarette stubs by the doors is a reception area which doubles as a holding pen. Here, all visitors are required to sign a four-page legal document which roughly asserts that they cannot discuss anything they see that takes place in the building. Then you wait. In the past it was common for the odd journalist granted access to wail days or even weeks for an audience. When it happened, if it happened, it was sometimes over the telephone. Not today, we are assured. “The Artist", as he’s known round here’, “Is in the building.” And in time so are we.

Hans-Martin Buff, in-house engineer at Paisley Park and, according to the sleevenotes, the man who has “bathed and circumcised” Newpower Soul, squeezes the pager on his belt. “Yes,” he breathes, “I’m on call 24 hours a day.” When The Artist gets inspired, Hans plugs him in. Today though he is supervising the album playback. As we listen to the songs, with titles like ’Mad Sex’ and ’Push It Up!’, Hans. who has either grown weary of them or been told to hurry things along, cuts each one out after about minute. For the most part, the music seems to roll downstairs like an expensive pram It is funkadelic-esque.

Lyrically, The Artist boasts that he “has butter for your ’muffin", and so on. The truth is, though that, if you gave almost any one of the song on it to an ambitious young singer they’d be made for life (Sinead O’Connor and The Bangles, for example, have him to thank for ’Nothing Compares 2 U’ and ’Manic Monday’).  As a Prince album it s OK, but as an exercise in songwriting it’s world class.

Our first encounter with the man himself comes in the kitchen. Here, myself and other journalists have been watching the video for his latest American single, ’The One’. It starts in te and features his wife, Mayte, scrubbing the floor of a shed. Prince, dressed as a tramp, looks in through the window. Then
everything goes colour and there are women everywhere, as per. While one of his staff rewinds the film, so we can watch it for the fourth time, he appears. Scooting gracefully across the building’s central courtyard, he carries with him an expensive-looking cane topped with gold chains. As his heels glide  over the tiles and the gold slaps against the cane, it sounds like orthopedic beaded car seat being gently thwacked against a lampost. This is the signal. He is here. He is wearing a maroon funk-bodysuit, the kind of garment only he can wear. You or I would look ridiculous in it. This, perhaps, was the reason his shops did so badly. This is not the kind of situation where you can go up and greet the man like a long-lost friend, get him in a headlock or anything like that. You just sit tight and wait your turn. As it is he comes in, eats something a biscuit possibly and leaves. We watch the video again.

As the time for the interview approaches, the heavens open. The sky turns black and raindrops bounce of the glass’ roof of Paisley Park like hailstones. Some caged doves — out of sight somewhere but to the ear reminiscent of efette owls — fall silent. The hour is upon us. I slowly climb the stairs toward the conference room where the meeting will take place. When Scots pop diva Sheena Easton met Prince in the 1980s she was subject to a makeover so efficient that she remains one of the wealthiest women in music to this day. Yet no one has any of her records. Perhaps he will do something similar for me. As I approach the door, Prince ambushes me from a side room. “Ooh!” l say as he appears. Equally alarmed he drops his cane. We both bend down to pick it up and almost clash heads in spite of a seizable height difference. “This is Th Artist” announces his press officer. We go to shake hands, he drops the cane again. This could go on all day.

Sat down safely and with the stick leant up against the table where it can cause no further harm, he looks almost relaxed enough to have a pint in front of him. But then he holds all the aces. No tape recording of the interview is permitted and, should you rub him up the wrong way — putting your feet up on the table, lighting a cigarette and saying “lend us some money” for example he would run off and make a record, and you would limp home with nothing. As it turns out, I will be the one that asks to leave, with the sound of his laughter carrying on behind me.

TODAY HE HAS ALL THE CONTROL HE EVER wanted. Writing, recording and releasing his and other artists’ work however and whenever he wants. If he’d been in that position back in 1977, how would things have been different?

"I would have given more money away,” he answers immediately, in a voice far distant from the refined whimper that characterises his few public speeches. “I don’t own those master tapes” he adds, going on to explain that, unlike David Bowie, he won’t be doing multi-million dollar deals on that basis. “Man,” he laughs in defense to Dave’s millions, “that was a good day at the races!"

If there was ever someone you wouldn’t expect to sit; and talk laughing about days at the races it’s Prince. But this is what he is doing. So would the music have been any different? “Man, there’s no telling, noo telling. The whole of existence could have been different, right? Right. He talks a lot about money, though more, it seems, from fascination than greed. Though he has made plenty, he has made even more for other people, and then they doubted his music too. This was the root of his argument with Warners and the basis of his newfound freedom.

"Once you get free of all that dogma,” he proclaims, “then you find out who you really are “

Surely, though, his early contracts enabled him to establish himself as an artist, let alone The Artist? “I’m not mad at none of those people, I still have friends at those record companies. But had things been different,” he says, breaking into a smile, “I would have had my statue going down the river. Then he starts to giggle.

At that moment Larry Graham enters into the room, beyond all question one of the finest bass players ever to walk the earth. For much of the ’70s, Larry dressed as though he captained a disco space yacht. Today he looks like he owns one. “Whoah!” says Larry, whose entrance I can only presume is a device to rescue Prince from difficult questions. But we are having a laugh now, and Larry is soon in the thick of it.

"Self-employment is a birthright,” continues The Artist before explaining at length that we are all born free, have this robbed from us by work and then have to find ourselves again. So it’s “about rediscovery then? I venture. ’That’s it, yeah! “ says Prince getting exited now. “You could be my analyst!”

I’d have to charge you.

“Whoah, then you’d be a liar,” laughs Prince. Fair enough. So based on your experiences, what advice would you have for artists at the beginning of their career. “Listen to the rhythm of your heart,” he answers. Larry nods. Since rediscovering self-employment. Prince has allowed Larry, Chaka Khan and other great musicians who made great records and were given six and seven figure bills for the privilege, to record at Paisley for free. “What am I gonna charge him?” he asks, pointing at Larry. “What bill do I send, the electric bill?” The pair dissolve into hysterics. They can’t get over how much fun they have.

The door opens again. This time it’s Larry’s wife Tina, she is smiling, Prince and Larry smile even more. “You knew Larry stopped me swearing?” ventures Prince. “I used to swear all the time.” With a song called ’Sexy Mother fucked in your repertoire it must be tough not to.

It transpires that George Clinton had been at Paisley recently, eating meat and swearing. Prince and Larry were on him like a shot ’"I said, ’George, what do you wanna eat that for?’” explains Prince. “’It’s soul food,’ he tells me, I told him that’s ’cos when you’ve eaten it you ain’t got no soul!” Larry manages to stop laughing and adds, “he was swearing too! I said, ’George, what do you wanna use those words for?’ He said, ’J don’t place that much importance on language.’ I said, ’So what do you use those words for? I had him!” he cries. “Same way he got me,” adds Prince. “It’s like people smoking!” continues Larry. miming someone with a cigarette, I can give up anytime I want.”

By now we’re all laughing. Suddenly Prince jumps to his feet and begins playing air guitar, knocking the came over again, “I used to listen to Larry play and think, ’How does he do that?’ Now I know. You can’t play like that unless you got love!” Larry waves him away in an ’aw shucks’ kind of way.

The door opens a third time. This time it’s Mayte carrying two Yorkshire terriers. Now that events are reaching fever pitch it scarcely seems to matter. Bring ’em on. “You have to eliminate doubt” says Prince. “That’s the truth,” adds Tina.

“I used to think, where am I gonna find a bass player like Larry Graham?” he continues. “Now I got Larry Graham!” There is an enormous clap of thunder. “I used to be scared of the thunder,” says Prince, calming down for a moment, “until my wife made me a garden. Now I know it’s just more energy for the broccoli!’

“I’ve had problems with my lettuce though,” adds Larry. This can’t go on. They are so positive it’s overwhelming. I feel weird, good but guilty. A fag-smoking, meat-eating, swearing heathen amongst these good good people. I have to get out. “You’ve made me feel strange “ I tell them. “Good or bad?” asks Prince. Good, I tell them. Everyone looks happy. “Take that with you,” says Prince, proffering a handshake firmer than his first. “Take this with you,” says Tina, handing me a Jehovah’s Witness leaflet. On the cover there is a drawing of a woman and child hand-feeding what looks like a wild bear under a massive tree beneath the slogan, “WHY IS LIFE SO FULL OF PROBLEMS?” I promise to read it, but in the meantime go outside for a cigarette, and watch it fizzle out in the rain.