The Man with no label has no name

David Sinclair

The man with the most celebrated identity crisis in pop is installed on the 48th floor of a Manhattan hotel. The lift goes up so fast your ears pop. A security guard opens the door, and there he is. Dressed from head to toe in black he sits like a crow in his cold, remote eyrie high above the city.

It is the middle of the afternoon but his face is immaculately made up and his high-maintenance hairstyle scraped and greased into extravagant shape. The near-stilleto heels on his boots are at least 3 inches high. His handshake is firm and when he eventually speaks his voice is deep and well modulated.

The musician that most people still call Prince, even if his entourage fearfully avoids calling him anything at all, has a new record out on Monday called Chaos and Disorder. Nothing unusual about that. Apart from 1993, he has released one and sometimes two albums of new material every year since 1978, a staggering output by the standards of today’s pop superstars (over the same period Michael Jackson has released just 5 new albums).

Musically, Chaos and Disorder is nothing out of the ordinary either. Another rich stew of roller coaster funk riffs and spiky harmonies leavened by a couple of pretty pop tunes —including the single Dinner With Delores—it is defined mostly by a rather more solid dose of princely guitar soloing than the norm.

What does make this album special is that it is his last with the group, the New Power Generation and his last for Warner Brothers, marking the end of an artist/record company squabble that has been as intense as that of George Michael and Sony. “I have decided to part company with Warners, but surprisingly we’re now on the most amicable terms we’ve been for a long time.” he says.

So the man with no name now has no group and no record contract. He obviously still feels a strong sense of injustice about Warners owning the mechanical copyrights of his recordings despite having negotiated and signed a contract (reported to be worth $100 million to him) as recently as 1992.

“I’m not free to write or record with whom I want,” he says. “If I wanted to write and record a song with you I could not do it.”

Yes, he is fantastically vague when it comes to discussing the nuts and bolts of the dispute. Part of the problem apparently stemmed from Warners’ reluctance to release the sheer volume of work he is capable of producing for fear of flooding the market. You can see the company’s point.

Prince’s writing and recording habits are prolific to the point of profligacy. He tells me he wrote three songs the day before. Two of these were “worked on” in a recording studio session that ended at 5 am. He has hundreds of unreleased songs in the vault.

He cannot even remember whether or not he wrote any original material specifically for the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s Billboards show featuring his music which has caused a sensation in the American dance world and is coming to the festival hall next month. “I am energised by music,” he says. “Music is my reason for existence, writing it, playing it listening to it.”

Interviews, however seem to have the opposite effect on him. A mixture of extreme shyness and overweening arrogance, he is an erratic and unforthcoming conversationalist. On February 14th he married his former backing singer and dancer Mayte, who is expecting his baby. But any talk of their relationship is strictly off-limits

("Too personal,” he says, as if admonishing a naughty child). He will not discuss the lyrics to his songs. “Once they are in that record they are yours to make what you want of them. I don’t want to spoil the process by explaining what I think they are about.”

He will not say if he is negotiating a new recording contract and has no plans to tour. Despite finding himself at a significant watershed both in his personal and professional life, he does not wish to dwell on the past and will not talk about the future at all.

Perhaps at the age of 38, he is feeling threatened by the prospect of growing older? “Not at all, I love growing older. You can figure things out quicker because you’ve seen how things happen in the past and so you what the results a certain action will have. Also, the older I get the closer I am to where I’m going, which is a better place.”

This is the only point at which he begins to get at all animated: “We all have a purpose within us. We are put here for a reason. My talent is God-given, but the music is made by me. I make the choices that make the music.” He starts to sound like a preacher, an image reinforced by his long, black frock-coat and the gold cross-cum-arrow which dangles from his neck.

A lot of cosmic waffle ensues. He insists I should read a book called Embraced by the Light by Betty Eadie, which is about near-death experiences and the I will fully understand what he is talking about. But he goes all coy when asked if he has had any near-death experiences himself: “That’s too psychological.” Interviewing him is like trying to shake hands with a shadow.

He changed his name to a symbol in 1993 because his spirit told him to. Was he pleased that he had done it? “Absolutely.” Would he consider changing it again? “Yes, if I was instructed to. I just do what I’m told.”