New Musical Express (NME)
11 March 1995
My Name Isn’t Prince, And I Am Flunky
March 1 1995. A stretch black limousine is purring gently in a London car park. Two young men stand nearby, pressing their faces against a high steel fence that is dwarfed by the neighboring twin towers of Wembley Stadium. They talk in quick voices, check their watches and anxiously wait for a glimpse of their hero.
As the limousine door opens. they pull harder on the railings but then a large hand reaches down. I think it’s time both of you left now,” booms a deep voice. They turn around and stare into the eyes of the security man. Momentarily, they are confused. Then they hear the thud of the limousine door. They spin around, their hearts sink when they realize it’s too late. The man they were waiting to see has gone.
Beyond the gates lie a connection of executive cars, a swish coach with tinted-glass windows and an open door that leads to the belly of Wembley Arena four people venture past the door, step over miles of black cable, past the naked mannequin which lies on top of a flight case and walk towards a dimly-lit corridor blocked by two sharp suited guards.
Suddenly a small man appears from behind a grey door. He is wearing a long velvet coat and eating bread wrapped in a pink napkin. As the foursome step a little closer, they recognize the wire thin moustache, immaculate black hair, huge brown eyes and elegant gold jewelry.
“Who are these?” the diminutive star demands, glimpsing the people who have crossed his no-go threshold.
His publicist explains they are journalists. The superstar nods approval and then climbs a set of stairs to the Wembley Arena stage.
“I’ll see you in a minute,” he says, and then disappears from view.
REWIND TO December 1994. The Artist Formerly Known As Prince is locked in conversation with his publicist. He is talking about his on-going battle with his record company, Warner Bros. Music, his new, unreleased album, The Gold Experience’, and his forthcoming world tour.
He is asking what people think of him. What people expect of a multimillion dollar megastar who is preparing for an unequaled four-year world tour. Do the public want him to break his legendary silence? To talk about his music, dispel the myths and explain why he killed the artist known as Prince?
“Do you think I should do interviews again?” he asks, though in his mind he has decided the answer is yes.
His publicist says he should talk, explaining that being remote is an ’80s thing and the public expect to hear from their heroes. “Even Michael Jackson has done a TV interview,” the publicist adds. I think you should.”
Fast forward to February 20 1995, and Prince and his publicist are sharing a table at the UK Brit Awards. Their $350-a-head seats are just a few feet from the official Warner Bros. table, which both men snub, and TAFKAP/Symbol has written ’SLAVE’ on his right cheek. The word is an apparent protest at his record company’s refusal to issue a backlog of albums which he has made.
Eventually he leaves his table and makes his way to the stage to receive his award as best international male artist. Once there he makes a typically elliptical speech: “Prince best, Gold experience better. Get Wild. In concert free. On record slave. Peace.”
The assembled guests quietly mock him, wondering how a man who signed a $100 million record deal could consider himself a ’slave’. Worse still Dave Rowntree of Blur, has scribbled the word ’Dave’ on his cheek, and it is Dave, not Symbol, who’ll make the morning headlines.
“I’ll talk,” says Symbol as the night wears on. “I’ll talk before the tour.”
Two days before the tour and Symbol is rehearsing his band into the ground. Wembley Arena has been fitted with his $250,000 ’Endorphinmachine’ – a stage set mimicking the human endorphin glands which produce morphine like hormones - and Symbol has been working his band until 2am each night, by which time he is too tired to continue. He has been in London for a week practicing, partying and watching Eric Clapton at the Albert Hall and fake lesbian group Fem 2 Fem at the London Astoria.
Today, though, his thoughts center on the launch of his gargantuan tour.
“It’ll end in New York In 1998,” he says later. “We’ve already booked Madison Square Garden for the final date. We’re bringing all our friends. It will be special.”
Symbol’s entourage is vast. There are five bodyguards stationed outside his dressing room door; all of them well dressed and wearing small brown earphones that link them to a production room. One sports a six-inch scar from his ear to his chin, another drips with expensive jewelry a third has a skinhead crop, immaculately pressed suit and piercing eyes that say: “Don’t even think about it.”
Outside the dressing room is a long corridor with white walls and a blue rubberized floor. It leads to six rooms where his dancers and backing band are busying themselves in make-up rooms, hair-dressing booths and enormous walk-in costume wardrobes. One of thew rooms contains a chaise longue draped with a red velvet square. in another, two women laugh and exchange jokes as they change. The whole place is heavy with the smell of incense, an odour like fresh flowers.
Before we are granted permission to speak to Symbol, we are handed a document outlining a list of preconditions. There are to be no tape recorders, no notepads, no writing implements and no cameras. The interview is to last a strict 20 minutes and can be terminated at any point.
“You’ll be searched before you go in,” comes the warning.
And the warning is correct. Outside Symbol’s door the bodyguard stands your correspondent against a wall and begins a thorough body search. Appeased, he taps on Symbol’s door, presses a code into the security lock and hovers close behind.
Symbol stands as the journalist steps inside, extends a warm hand by way of greeting and then sits down.
His room is surprisingly small; the size of an average front room in a terraced house. Against one wall there is a vast mirror and a table top which holds oranges, bread, china cups and saucers, an ordinary electric kettle and an abundance of candles. There are two sprawling house pants in the corners of the room, a medium- sized table in the center and two large leather sofas which are covered in purple, red and green velvet drapes.
Inevitably, there Is a huge TV/stereo in one corner, with two large speakers on the floor. And built into one wall are two sliding double doors which lead into Symbol’s personal changing room; a space bedecked with mirrors and innumerable hair sprays, moisturizers, restless of makeup and bottles of cologne.
Symbol is sitting in the center of the one of the sofas with the word ’SLAVE’ written on his left cheek. He is dressed in a blue all-in-one which is cut to the waist revealing his taut, lean physique He wears blue suede ankle boots, chunky black wraparound shades and a gold necklace with coin- like circles that hang into his chest. His publicist leaves the room, the boom of the rehearsal disappears as the door closes and Symbol relaxes into his seat.
Finally, it’s time to talk...
THE BIG issue for Symbol is his recording contract with Warner Bros. It demands four new albums at a rate of no more than one a year. The record company, ideally, would like to release one LP every two or three years to ensure maximum sales. With Symbol’s cooperation, it would release a single, an album, and then further singles and watch as the records reached the ten-million-plus sales of ’Purple Rain’.
Symbol, however would like to release one LP every six months to keep up with his prolific songwriting and recording output, or maybe even more. He sits on the board of WB and the 2 sides have tried many times to reach an agreement. But on every occasion the talks breaks down. Now he wants out.
“There’s a brilliant Prince and the NPG album waiting to be released,” he says, but WB won’t release it. See, if they give me control and let me release this (holds up a copy of his new ’The Gold Experience’ CD) then Madonna would be straight in wanting the same.
“I’d like to put out 700,000 copies of some blues guitar music with a guitar magazine but Warner won’t let me. I’d give away a single with just the A-side and tell people to come back next year and buy the B-side. Record companies are run by men who think they run America. They think they’re the smartest but they’re not. They don’t know what’s going on in my mind.”
Symbol says he can release music on the Internet (’The Gold Experience’ was recently advertised on the Internet as having a release date of “Never!”). When it’s suggested that most people cannot get access to the Internet he scoffs “We’ll fix it.”
“Once the Internet is a reality the music business is finished. There won’t be any need for record companies. if I can send you my music direct. what’s point of having a music business?”
His main bugbear with Warners is that they don’t understand. He repeats he doesn’t mind the situation and says the problem has had no effect on his ability to write and record.
In simple terms, it’s not something that gets him down.
“They don’t understand me. I understand them. I’ll just give there one album every year for the next four years. I’m not going to take them to court and the stories saying I will have just been made up. I won’t do that. I could give them four albums tomorrow but they don’t want that.”
And what will you do while you’re waiting for your contract to expire in 1998?
“I’m going to say on the road until the contract ends. I’ve already booked a show for Madison Square Garden in 1998. We’re going to get loads of people down there. I can keep touring until then. I love being on stage, I love touring and I’m strong enough. I never get tired.”
Symbol says one of his reasons for breaking his silence is to make sure young musicians don’t ever experience the contract war he has become embroiled in.
“I want to help young musicians. I don’t want people to be in the same position. I’ve been doing this for 16 years now, I know how it works. A manager knows thinks when you start out that he ain’t gonna tell you because it isn’t in his interests. He’s only gonna tell you the things he wants you to know. You understand what I’m saying?
“But I’m not bitter. I’m not angry. Mo Austin (Warners boss) gave me ’The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’ to release as Symbol. And I will love that man forever because of that. I don’t have a problem with Warners. I’m content with them.”
So why do you scrawl that slogan across your face?
“Because I am a slave to the truth. It’s there to remind myself. I’m not a slave to Warner Brothers. It’s not there to embarrass Warners – why would I do that? You gotta understand that. I don’t need to. It’s not about that. I’m not angry with them. It’s just there as a reminder.”
Symbol is animated when he talks about his contract. He sits forward on the edge of his sofa, his hands wave about in the air, he is imploring the world to listen. He also knows that there is no quick legal fix to beat Warner. American contract law is far more stringent than that in the UK and he has seen what happened to George Michael: a costly legal battle which ended in defeat and which could now take up to five years to resolve. (If Michael is to overturn his judgement tying him to Sony Music, his only hope is a victory in the European Courts. But before that he would face probable and costly legal defeats in the Court Of Appeal and the House of Lords.)
“I’ve seen what happened with that case,” Symbol adds. “And I don’t want to go down the George Michael row.”
Face to face, Symbol is far removed from the unworldly public image built around him steadily since his recording career began in 1978. It is difficult to equate the man sitting on the sofa with the pop star who apparently dreams of reincarnation as a dolphin, who inspires national radio polls in Australia - where the nation wants to name him ’Davo’ (an affectionate, if unimaginative, colloquial nickname for people called, er, Dave) – and who mumbles ’Thank You, God’ acceptance speeches at major awards. His dressing room is essentially a slightly tacky boudoir with a cheap-looking rug that could have been bought from IKEA for $35.
So does it worry you that people think you are mad?
“No,” he laughs, crumpling into the sofa in a heap. “I don’t care. If people think I’m insane, fine. I want people to think I’m insane. But I’m in control. It was different before I became this (points to the Symbol on the cover of ’The Gold Experience’). I didn’t have control. I didn’t know what was happening beyond the next two albums. But now I know exactly what the next two albums will be. I’m not playing anyone else’s game. I’m in control. I don’t care if people say I’m mad. It don’t matter.”
But if your sanity is intact, why did you change your name from Prince to Symbol?
“I got a whole new mindset when I became Symbol. I can’t explain how I feel now compared to then. I don’t want to destroy the mystique by revealing everything. And if people come to see me just to hear ’Purple Rain’ then I’m sorry. I’m playing these (Symbol) songs now. I’ll play Prince songs occasionally. I just want people to understand who I am. See, you could go away and tell people I am stupid. I just want you to help me I want people to understand The only thing I care about is your journalistic ability. Your ability to articulate.”
But if you’re so keen to let people understand you, why won’t you let journalists take notes or record their interviews with you?
“You don’t need to do that. The mind is perfect.”
The mind isn’t perfect!
“You will only remember the things that are important.”
There is a knock on the door.
The 20 minutes is nearly up and there is an abundance of questions still unasked. But Symbol is happy, he’s jovial, falling about on the sofa and making the points he wants to make.
His publicist stands at the door and is motioned away by the small one’s left hand. “A few more minutes,” he says. And again we are alone.
So tell me about your vices.
“What’s a vice?”
A habit that can be self-destructive.
“I don’t know about those.”
Well how about your obsession with sex?
The mood stiffens and Symbol slaps his boot in apparent agitation He refuses to say whether he slept with Kylie Minogue (as it was rumored) or his dancer Mayte Garcia.
“I won’t use the word ’sex’ and I won’t use the word ’beauty’. Those are two I can’t use because people have different tastes and they ask you what kind of sex you have.”
Again, Symbol falls over in the chair laughing and clapping his hands together.
What about drugs? Do you take drugs?
“I’m interested in all experiences.”
Can I take that as a yes?
“I didn’t say that. I don’t think people are interested. I’m not interested if you take drugs. I think we’d better chill it there.”
But you’re an icon...
Symbol stops laughing.
“What did you say?”
I said, a lot of people see you as an icon. There’s only a handful of people in the world in your position.
“I don’t see myself as an icon. I don’t see that. Do people care if I take drugs? People aren’t interested in me. I didn’t put myself on a pedestal. If I’m on a pedestal it’s because other people have put me there.”
Do you feel anything for a person like Michael Jackson?
“I could talk to you about Michael Jackson but I would just be doing the job that a journalist does so there’s no point. I met Michael, if other people talked then he’d say something that would tear the house down from what everyone else would say anyway.”
Throughout the interview Symbol has been wearing shades. I ask him to take them off, trying to reason they are defensive and they make it easy for him to hide.
“OK,” he says, and lowers them to the bridge of his nose. “I’m only wearing them because I’m tired. My eyes are red. It’s because we’ve been rehearsing. It’s just to protect my eyes,” and then he puts them back on.
Do you ever relax?
Do you wish you could?
How do you try?
And suddenly Symbol’s veneer dissolves. He no longer appears as the invincible round-the-clock superstar. He lowers his voice, sits upright at the front of his sofa and looks to the floor. He Is suddenly fallible.
“The only time you can get tranquil is when you are at one. And the only time that happens is when you are with God I do that sometimes. When I’m like that I’m not happy. He tells me to carry on doing what I’m doing, which is my music. I’m always happy I’m never sad I never slow down. I’m constantly occupied with music.”
And what about...?
“Look, they’re calling me. I’ve got to get back to rehearsal.”
THE INTERVIEW over – Symbol refuses a direct request for a follow-up conversation tomorrow - five journalists huddle around a table in a room marked ’Catering’.
They chain smoke each other’s cigarettes, desperately scanning their memories trying to recall every quote from their individual interviews.
One talks about how strange and detached from reality the whole situation was “It’s difficult to remember everything. I was just sitting there thinking. ’I’ll have to remember this’, and impossible!”
Across a table, a group of American roadies are talking to their two English counterparts about bubbly beer, the strongest coffee in the world and the number of drive-by shootings in the USA. A member of Symbol’s crew walks in, scans the room, exclaims, “Oh shit,” and walks out. In the dressing rooms and wardrobe areas five people walk by dressed as devils or in skimpy dresses.
And then the journalists are returned to Symbol’s now-empty dressing room to listen to ’The Gold Experience’ LP in the company of his bodyguard. Two women walk in and head straight for his changing room to re-stock the cosmetics and his publicist returns, sits on the floor and shakes his head in awe of the new album.
As we leave, Symbol is still rehearsing on the vast Wembley stage and we leave with impressions of a control freak who has banished really from his life in his quest for invincibility A man with a paranoia so deep- seated that he killed his own identity and refuses to recognize the name – Prince Rogers Nelson – with which he was born.
And a man who is a creative and commercial colossus who considers himself no more than a slave.