New Musical Express (NME)
6 June 1981
Half a million dirty minds can’t be wrong about this man
A new sex symbol in America who writes songs about oral sex and incest, this is the Prince the ladies die for Chris Salewicz listens to his trashy talk
THIS FELLOW sitting across the table from me in an uptown Manhattan Holiday Inn room may be a Prince but he ain’t no Charlie.
On the other hand, this ’20-year-old Prince is just as much a lad with the ladies as is our prospective monarch: in the musicality of his speaking voice, which is much lower in tone than the high pitch you’d expect from listening to his records, there is a slur that comes from lack of sleep. “I haven’t been to sleep for a couple of nights ... Well, I’ve been to bed, but not for sleeping,” he adds meaningfully
“Ho-ho-ho!” I spontaneously chuckle with disrespectful satire, miming macho rib-nudging.
Such lack of awe for the Big Willie talk that is such an essential part of Prince’s everyday mood and music obviously pisses him off a bit. But, really, what does he expect?
Stiff, not a bad lad when all is said and done...
Prince has flown in to New York from his home-town of Minneapolis, Minnesota for this interview. This is just the beginning of a lot of mileage he’s going to be putting under his belt. This week he also jets to Europe for a series of dates that includes one London show, at the Lyceum.
In the jargon of the trade. Prince is “working” his ‘Dirty Mind’ album. released at the end of last year. Like his first two Warners LPs. ’For You’ and ’Prince’. ’Dirty Mind’ was produced, arranged, written and almost entirely performed by Prince alone.
In America, ’Dirty Mind’ is an “underground” hit—which means that via word of mouth and exceptionally favourable press coverage it has notched up a more than healthy half-million sales. Radio play has been virtually nil, this being due to much of the subject matter of, the LP, which contains the kind of lyrics that might have come out of a few heavy sessions of Freudian dream analysis. Amongst other topics, the album deals with oral sex, troilism and incest. It also concerns itself with direct political matter, however, ’Dirty Mind’ climaxes with the song, ‘Partyup’, and an atmosphere of militant defiance that insists “ you’re gonna have to fight your own damn war,” cos we don’t wanna fight no more.
THERE IS a weird mist about the body music made by the green-eyed, sensually slack-jawed Prince, as there is also about the multi-instrumentalist himself. An academic analysis of his intensely immediate sounds indicate their origins lie in areas as far apart (and as close together) as pre-Disco Philly, Eddie Cochran’s primal rock’n’roll rhythms,. The Beatles, and the inevitable Jimi Hendrix, who seems to have provided much of the spiritual source material for the notoriously lascivious, wild spectacular which Prince enacts every time he steps out onstage. Yet the hypnotic accessibility of this compound belies a mysterious, vinegary cold within the cool of its core.
Whatever, Prince dislikes suggestions that he is re-defining R&B. Or that his first two, less cohesive LPs were an interpretation of disco in rock terms.
’To me disco was always very contrived music. It was all completely planned out for when the musicians were recording it in the studios. Basically, what I do is just go in and play.
“It’s easy for me to work in the studio, because I have no worries or doubts about what the other musician’s going to play because that other musician is almost always me! All the other musicians on the record are me. Disco music was filled with breaks that a studio musician would just play and fill up when his moment came. But I don’t do that at all—I just play along with the other guy.”
Prince’s voice, which lies in a region occupied by Michael Jackson and Smokey Robinson, also has its curious edge. Too much that of a beautiful young boy, it is like the silky near-castrato of a choirboy beneath whose starched, spotless surplice is a body crawling with crabs.
Maybe that’s what Prince is about—the twin sides of human nature. “Sin and salvation” says the man who dedicates to God ’Dirty Mind’, a record that promises “incest is everything it’s meant to be.”
But Prince has a lot more going for him than the majority of his compatriot contemporaries who have experienced any measure of significant success. “All the groups in America seem to do just exactly the same as each other—which is to get on the radio, try to be witty, say the most sickening things they can think of and gross out the interviewer. They think that’s going to make them big and cool!
“They’re a little too concerned” says the man who claims he’s given away most of the cash he’s made to friends and acquaintances in need, with keeping up the payment on the Rolls Royce when really they should be busying themselves with doing something that’s true to their own selves. Obviously the new wave thing has brought back a lot of that greater reality. There are so many of those groups that there is just no way many of them can make it in those vast commercial terms. So they have no choice but to write what’s inside of them.
“I think it’s all getting better, actually”
Such a subdued, low-key character offstage that one feels it certainly must be his alter ego that takes over in performance. Prince all the same remains always a natural communicator. He waxes warm and cold, though —just like his two-edged music. But it’s his prerogative; he’s very much his own man, working on his terms in a similar manner to that insisted on by other of black America’s genuine musical artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
He dislikes being considered a prodigy: “I don’t even know what the word really means,” he shrugs. “I’m just a person.”
Prince also bristles uncomfortably at PR descriptions of his fluency with 27 separate instruments. “That came about because that was the exact number of instruments I played on the first album. But actually there are a lot of instruments which if you can play you can also play another six related ones.
The black and white front cover shot on ’Dirty Mind’ is an exact representation of the persona Prince presents onstage—the army surplus flasher’s mac (which he is wearing in the Holiday Inn at this very moment: “It’s the only coat I’ve got"), the dark jockstrap-like underpants. The photograph has been cropped at pubis level, missing out the bare thighs and leg warmers that complete Prince’s androgynous stage-wear.
This image, though, is far from the soft-focus colour job of the horseman astride his winged white steed that graced the rear of ’Prince’. Pretty dodgy stuff—enough to make a strong man weep.
It was his need to extend the autonomy he’d already gained in production and arrangement terms that led to Prince breaking with his Minneapolis-based management .following the release of ’Prince’, and signing a deal with the former managers of Little Feat. “I think I’ve always been the same. But when you’re in the hands of other people they can package it in a way that is more... uhhh ... acceptable. All along I’ve had the same sort of ideas that came out on this record. It’s just that my former management had other thoughts about it all.” His voice curls downwards.
“The songs on ’Dirty Mind’ were originally just some demo tapes that I recorded and took to LA to play to my new management. Even they weren’t too happy with them. We also had long talks about what I felt was me getting closer to my real image, and at first they thought that I’d gone off the deep end and had lost my mind. Warners basically thought the same, I think.
“But once I told them that this was the way it was, then they knew they had no choice and they’d have to try it, because they weren’t going to get another record out of me otherwise.
“I know that I’m a lot happier than I was. Because I’m getting away with what I want to do. With the other two albums I feel I was being forced to suppress part of myself— though also I was younger.”
This grabbing of greater control of his own destiny was probably inevitable, considering the production and arrangement autonomy Prince already had.
“I just turned down all the producers that Warners suggested to me for the first album. Even when they finally agreed to let me produce myself they insisted I had to work with what they said was an Executive Producer, who was really just an engineer. And that caused a whole lot of other problems, because he was versed in short-cuts and I didn’t want to take any— though (laughs) that was why it took five months to make.
“The recording’s become a little easier these days. I used to be a perfectionist—too much of one. Those ragged edges tend to be a bit truer.”
PRINCE IS the third youngest in a family of four brothers and four sisters. They are not all of the same blood: ’There was a lot of illegitimacy—different fathers, different mothers.”
Prince’s father, who obviously christened him as he did because he knew he’d need to team how to fight, was an Italian-Philipino leader of a mid-west pro jazz band. He left his son’s black mother when the boy was seven.
“That’s when I first started playing music” he says. “He left the piano behind when he left us behind. I wasn’t allowed to touch it when he still lived with us.”
His background, he says, was “essentially middle-class, though our financial position took a big down swing when he went.”
Around the age of nine. Prince started spending much of his out-of-school hours in his mother’s bedroom, poring over her substantial porn collection. “She had a lotta interesting stuff. Certainly that affected my attitude towards my sexuality.”
His mother’s choice of replacement for his father also affected him. At the age of 12 Prince moved out of the family home and into that of one of his sisters. “It’s very difficult having a step father— basic resentment all the way around. Nobody belongs to anybody.”
During this time, up until when he graduated from high school at 17, Prince played in a succession of high school bands, notably one called Champagne.
“It was all Top 40 stuff. The audiences didn’t want to know the songs l was writing for the group. They’d just cover their faces ... largely because of the lyrics. I remember I had this song called ’Machine’ that was about this girl that reminded me of a machine. It was very explicit about her, urrhhh ... parts. People seemed to find it very hard to take.
“There was quite a lot of Sly Stone stuff we used to do. I really liked it when he’d have a hit, because it would give us an excuse to play them.”
It was also this spell of living with his sister that was to inspire the “incest is all it’s meant to be” line. “I write everything from experience. ’Dirty Mind’ was written totally from experience...”
So he’s experienced incest? “How come you ask twice?” (chuckles)
Oh well, one often hears it’s far more common than is popularly imagined...
For someone who is sold heavily as a primal black artist. Prince visually is hardly black at all.
“Though they say that even if you’ve just got one drop of black blood in you it makes you entirely black. But in fact I don’t necessarily took on myself as a member of the black race—more a member of the human race ...”
THE PERSPECTIVE on the apparently obsessive sexuality of ’Dirty Mind’ is shifted by the non-specific politics of ’Partyup’: “I was in a lot of different situations when I was coming up to make that record. A lot of anger cane up through the songs, it was kind of a rough time. There were a few anti-draft demonstrations going on that I was involved in that spurred me to write ’Party up’.
“Really, that song is just about people who’d rather have a good time than go and shoot up one another. That’s all—it’s pretty basic. I just seem to read about a lot of politicians who’re all going to die soon and I guess they want to go out heavy, because they’re prepared to make a few mistakes and end up starting a war that they don’t have to go out and fight.
“I just think the people should have a little more to say in some of these foreign matters. I don’t want to have to go out and die for their mistakes. ’Thank God we got a better President now’ Prince continues, rather startlingly. “with bigger balls"—the reader may note the recurrent sexual imagery—“than Carter, l think Reagan’s a lot better. Just for the power he represents, if nothing else. Because that also means as far as other countries are concerned.
“He also has a big mouth, which is probably a good thing. His mouth it his one big asset.”
Perhaps this is Prince’s Minneapolis background coming out. Who else has Minnesota turned up in recent years? Only Prince, Bob Dylan, Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey. Which is at least a healthy bit of yin and yang. (More like Cheech and Chong.—Ed.) Prince says he still lives in the city in which he was born precisely because it is so isolated. Ask Prince about his musical influences and he’ll go all coy on you. You don’t hear anyone, he’ll claim, if your home is in Minnesota. All the radio stations play is C&W music, he says. In fact, he genuinely doesn’t appear to have heard, or even heard of, a large percentage of acts with whom one might assume he would be familiar.
“Listening to the radio there,” he insists, “really turned me off a lot of things that were supposedly going on. If they did pick up on something they’d just play it to death, and you’d end up totally disliking it So I missed out on a lot of groups.”
There was a certain amount of deliberate choice operating here.
“When I started doing my own records l really didn’t want to listen to anybody, because I figured I should just disregard what anybody else might be doing. Though I suppose subconsciously I might have been Influenced just by the mood that was going on around me. I can only be a product of my time... Unless I cut myself off totally... Though that,” he adds, purposely enigmatic. “is soon to come.”
From what’s he going to cut himself off?
What does he intend to do?
“Just write music, and things like that. Hang around in my head. And just make records. I don’t think I’ll perform anymore. I don’t want to do this too much longer.”
Is it stopping being fun?
“It’s still fun. But I get bored real fast. Yeah, it’s still fun. But I can’t see it going on for too much longer in the same fashion.”
And so Prince strides off into the sunlit Manhattan streets, heading for that last plane to Minnesota.