Is Prince just being Prince?

CODE NAME: ENIGMA? Or is Prince just being Prince?

Mark LePage



After 15 years of left turns - the most recent of which saw his conversion to Jehovah’s Witness - there’s a temptation to use “Princely" the way people (over)use “Kafkaesque” - to describe an arbitrary world view exemplified by the namesake. As Kafka was to the existentially absurd (the theory would go), Prince is to the eccentrically imperious.

That temptation will not be dispelled by anything Prince said this week. As a lead-in for tonight’s concert at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, one of the few left intact on his current mini-tour, Prince had decided to conduct two interviews, one each for the anglo and franco press. And to borrow another phrase used to describe Kafka, this week was an epic of suspension and postponement. So it goes with a figure who has always left more questions hanging than he’s answered, beginning with his very name. Whether as Prince, the Artist, TAFKATAFKAP*, or O(+>, he has always exercised a royal prerogative.

This would not have been the first interview we’d done. In 1996, Prince surprised everyone by coming to Montreal, agreeing to in-person interviews and, once past the security rhinos, being co-operative, charming and sane. His outfit was interestingly diaphanous, the kind of outfit Prince would wear, his presence less androgynous than sexy in a fashion unique to O(+>, and his manner watchful but relaxed. So what gives this time out?

* The Artist Formerly Known As the Artist Formerly Known As Prince

After the better part of a fortnight arranging what was initially an interview by email and, after a half-dozen contradictory messages, trying as late as press time yesterday to set up what might well have been an in-person talk, nothing happened. Prince had been serviced with a list of queries (don’t get excited: the questions went to a tireless and harried jazz-fest cabinet minister, who bounced them to a Princeling, who presumably screened them for Prince. I don’t have his E-mail address.). Prince responded through the Princeling that he “(would) not answer these questions.” Were they too intimate? Too brusque? No reason was given.

Then a reason was given. First, Prince wouldn’t answer “this woman’s questions.” Once it was made clear that the E-mailer was male, the Prince handler decided her employer would rather, no, ITAL/insisted/CLOSE a woman do the interview. After considering a list of female pseudonyms, I abandoned Operation Some Like It Hot; and for obvious reasons, the jazz fest could never have gone along with it anyway. Herewith some representative questions:

- What might we hear in the Montreal set list? I know you’re a huge jazz fan, so:

- what does jazz mean to you? why haven’t you played more of it?

- what was it like playing with Miles?

- what does playing this festival mean to you?

- “I was born here, unfortunately. I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they’re good.” That was you on Feb. 16 1976 in the Central High School newspaper. Looking back, how do you feel about the young man who was so confident but also seemed savvy beyond his years about the perils of working in the music business?

- A reference is made, in one of the MP3 tracks, to Mariah Carey having generated $1 billion for Sony (and having been unfairly compensated). In ’96, we spoke at length about the inequity of record contracts, and your feelings about the mass wealth you had generated for the Warners corp. How do you feel now?

- Can you please explain how you came to be a Jehovah’s Witness? What first attracted you to their reading of scripture?

- How does it affect your view of your back catalogue? Given the occasional sexual references, would you still perform Darling Nikki or Cindy C or Sexy MF (or even something gentler like Cream)?

- What are Rhonda Smith and Kat Dyson (Montrealers in his band) up to?

Nothing absurd or invasive.

Meanwhile, contrary information was filtering out from the cluster of Prince handlers who were all somehow empowered to whisper on his behalf. He was reportedly very excited to play Montreal, especially in the Jazzfest conext, and wanted very much to communicate to his fans via the newspapers.

And yet, we just kept on not getting in touch, which is a shame given Prince’s current obscurity - and his cloistered creativity. Without a record deal, with no radio presence, he is releasing a cyberload of new music. Some of this - MP3s accessed from his New Power Generation website - reveals an omnivorous artist burnishing the reputation in his Minneapolis sanctum.

Working with full control - every artist’s stated goal - is usually every artist’s downfall. Thirty-seven minute flute-rock jams, anyone? For God’s sake, keep most of them away from the controls. We know what happens when the heavyweight champeen fires the crusty old coach from the hood. Prince, though, is always disciplined. And his range is, if anything, broader. The website is stocked with acid guitar workouts, enough funk to fill a (George) Clinton presidency, a manifesto called The Work, low-key grooves and the vintage lewderies of Daisy Chain ("black girl givin’ it up / white girl givin’ it up"), a single (whose title I don’t have) as good as anything he’s released in ten years. It revolves around an open challenge to listeners who “get tired of the muzak / that’s playin’ on that no-funk radio.” The material is vibrant, varied, tight and seemingly bottomless.

Meanwhile, jazz-fest handlers were bottoming out, dealing with an exponentially escalating series of demands designed to bend their nervous systems. ’With Prince, everything is possible’ would seem to be the official slogan; while everything possible seems instead to be impossible.

We never got to party like it’s 19 questions. Jazz-fest staffers were looking for planes, limos, venues and restaurants. Why does he do it? The reflex opinion, that he’s an indulgent wacko, is wrong, I think. He’s crazy like a Sexy MF.

These New Power Games are Prince’s version of ITAL/droit du seigneur/CLOSE, but with a purpose beyond simple self-gratification. Prince maintains a certain celebrity status by keeping the outside world - the machine including promoters, labels, the media and all things NotPrince - hopping and guessing. In celebrity reality, this is systems maintenance. It is a facet of the need for control that sent him running from the conventional record company plutocracy in the first place

In fact, I have a grudging respect for his attempted media manipulations (if not for his treatment of innocent festival staffers). And when he whirls onstage tonight in his heels with that IUD of a guitar, he will communicate in the manner he knows best.

*The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince

- Prince performs tonight at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier of Places des Arts at 8:30 p.m. The show is sold out.

After the better part of a fortnight arranging what was initially an interview by E-mail and, after a half-dozen contradictory messages, trying as late as press time yesterday to set up what might well have been an in-person talk, nothing happened. Prince had been serviced with a list of queries (don’t get excited: the questions went to a tireless and harried jazz-fest cabinet minister, who bounced them to a Princeling, who presumably screened them for Prince. I don’t have his E-mail address). Prince responded through the Princeling that he “(would) not answer these questions.” Were they too intimate? Too brusque? No reason was given.

Then a reason was given. First, Prince wouldn’t answer “this woman’s questions.” Once it was made clear that the E-mailer was male, the Prince handler decided her employer would rather, no, insisted a woman do the interview. After considering a list of female pseudonyms, I abandoned Operation Some Like It Hot; for obvious reasons, the jazz fest could never have gone along with it anyway. Herewith some representative questions:

- What might we hear in the Montreal set list?

I know you’re a huge jazz fan, so:

- What does jazz mean to you? Why haven’t you played more of it?

- What was it like playing with Miles?

- What does playing this festival mean to you?

- “I was born here, unfortunately. I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they’re good.” That was you on Feb. 16 1976, in the Central High School newspaper. Looking back, how do you feel about the young man who was so confident, but also seemed savvy beyond his years about the perils of working in the music business?

- A reference is made, in one of your tracks released as an MP3, to Mariah Carey having generated $1 billion for Sony (and having been unfairly compensated). In ’96, we spoke at length about the inequity of record contracts and your feelings about the mass wealth you had generated for Warner Music. How do you feel now?

- Can you please explain how you came to be a Jehovah’s Witness? What first attracted you to their reading of scripture?

- How does it affect your view of your back catalogue? Given the occasional sexual references, would you still perform Darling Nikki or Cindy C or Sexy MF (or even something gentler like Cream)?

- What are Rhonda Smith and Kat Dyson (Montrealers in his band) up to?

Nothing absurd or invasive.

Meanwhile, contrary information was filtering out from the cluster of Prince handlers who were all somehow empowered to whisper on his behalf. He was reportedly very excited to play Montreal, especially in the jazz-fest context, and wanted very much to communicate to his fans via the newspapers.

And yet, we just kept on not getting in touch, which is a shame given Prince’s current obscurity - and his cloistered creativity. Without a record deal, with no radio presence, he is releasing a cyberload of new music. Some of this - MP3s accessed at his New Power Generation Web site - reveals an omnivorous artist burnishing his reputation in his Minneapolis sanctum.

Working with full control - every artist’s stated goal - is usually every artist’s downfall. Thirty-seven-minute flute-rock jams, anyone? For God’s sake, keep most of them away from the controls. We know what happens when the heavyweight champeen fires the crusty old coach from the ’hood. Prince, though, is always disciplined. And his range is, if anything, broader. The Web site is stocked with acid-guitar workouts, enough funk to fill a (George) Clinton presidency, a manifesto called The Work, low-key grooves and the vintage lewderies of Daisy Chain ("black girl givin’ it up / white girl givin’ it up"), a single (whose title I don’t have) as good as anything he’s released in 10 years. It revolves around an open challenge to listeners who “get tired of the muzak / that’s playin’ on that no-funk radio.” The material is vibrant, varied, tight and seemingly bottomless.

—-


Meanwhile, jazz-fest handlers were bottoming out, dealing with an exponentially escalating series of demands designed to bend their nervous systems. “With Prince, everything is possible,” would seem to be the official slogan, while everything possible seems instead to be impossible.

We never got to party like it’s 19 questions. Jazz-fest staffers were looking for planes, limos, venues and restaurants. Why does he do it? The reflex opinion, that he’s an indulgent wacko, is wrong, I think. He’s crazy like a Sexy MF.

These New Power Games are Prince’s version of droit du seigneur, but with a purpose beyond simple self-gratification. Prince maintains a certain celebrity status by keeping the outside world - the machine including promoters, labels, the media and all things NotPrince - hopping and guessing. In celebrity reality, this is systems maintenance. It is a facet of the need for control that sent him running from the conventional record-company plutocracy in the first place

In fact, I have a grudging respect for his attempted media manipulations (if not for his treatment of innocent festival staffers). And when he whirls onstage tonight in his heels with that IUD of a guitar, he will communicate in the manner he knows best.

- Prince performs tonight at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier of Place des Arts at 8:30 as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The show is sold out.