The Artist Formerly Known As Successful

He wriggled away from Warners and the quality control went West. He swopped Prince for Victor for Slave for O(+> and the fans just couldn’t keep up. He is the funky superstar who lost touch with reality and fell to earth with a thud. Now he’s telling Phil Sutcliffe he’s back, but do we believe him?

Phil Sutcliffe

”I have dreams of angels holding notes indefinitely in perfect pitch and you don’t want it to stop because if it does you’re dead!” The Artist laughs. He blurts this out apropos of nothing very obvious. He is sitting in the Paisley Park boardroom talking to Q. He looks slightly embarrassed to have said such a thing.

”Uh, it s a dream I’ve had several times.”

The Artist had another, rather less metaphysical, dream: to escape from a record contract with Warner Bros which had, he came to feel, creatively manacled him from the very beginning.

As L. Londell McMillan, the young New York lawyer who concluded the negotiations after seven predecessors had, he says, “struck out”, explains: “The reasons he felt the contract was unfair had little to do with money. His interior life revolves around music, its creation and performance. He writes constantly. But with Warners he didn’t own his own creations, the masters of his recordings. Furthermore, he couldn’t release what he had ready if the company said the time wasn’t right So when those tapes sat in a vault for years, for him that was like having those songs die.’

But The Artist got what he wanted. The severance – all terms strictly confidential – was agreed in April 1996. Since then he has operated independency on his own NPG label, releasing a triple CD of new material, Emancipation an archive quadruple, Crystal Ball, and now the “single” album Newpower Soul. What’s more – on Valentine’s Day a few weeks before the Warners divorce, he married his “ideal woman”, Mayte Garcia, a dancer with his band since the Diamonds And Pearls tour of 1991-’92.

The angels were singing in perfect pitch.

Then, later that year, just before Emancipation s release, their first baby, Boy Gregory, was born and died within a week.

TO OUTSIDE APPEARANCES The Artist is man who could not stand too much reality and made a myth to live in. He even decreed a pleasure dome, the palace studio complex of Paisley Park in Chanhassen, a suburb of Minneapolis. Although the blank exterior suggests a factory unit, in the year of the wedding Mayte had the interior walls painted with blue skies and fluffy white clouds. Some of the ceilings are inset with glimpses of a black, starry cosmos. On a balcony doves coo. The Artist s ubiquitous symbol, O(+>, is displayed hugely in mosaic flooring and dangles in miniature from the studio cat’s collar.

The Artist’s persona still remains daunting and magnetic. When he appears, everyone stares. He introduces himself via fleeting appearances.

Suddenly, there he is, poised on the staircase,
O(+> peering out into the car park He carries himself with pert elegance. Cream shirt, high-waisted black trousers. He skips down and away through the main glass doors to talk with Mayte and an old cove wearing a baseball cap and cowboy boots who is standing beside a purple BMW. .. and therefore must be his father John L. Nelson, last rep “estranged” after selling complaints of filial ingratitude to The Sun. The encounter seems amiable.

A little later, the common area. The Artist is eating takeaway potato salad from a plastic pot. He has been vegan for some time now. Pleasantly, in his surprising bass-baritone, he asks if we heard a hit single on the album. Mmm, possibly this, possibly that. He pays no attention, leaves his food barely touched and announces he’s ready to talk.

The boardroom table is glass-topped, through which we can admire The Artist’s white high- heeled boots. He s always been very particular about footwear. As a kid he saw The Jackson Five “and they all wore flat shoes and it didn’t work”. On the other hand, Carlos Santana got it exactly right because “he had those crazy boots”.

So, here he is. But who is he? His formative experiences offer some clue, and The Artist’s attention to some of them himself with a called The Sacrifice Of Victor on the
O(+> album (1992). At least, the lyrics read like autobiography.
The Artist hesitates. Wiggles a hand to indicate yes and no.

Well, the first verse says, “I was born on a blood-stained table/...Epileptic til the age of seven – true”. You were epileptic?

He decides. “I don’t want to talk about the Prince period. For now it would be like talking  about another person “

Whether The Sacrifice Of Victor s references to his mama protecting him “from a man with a strap in his hand” or black children being bussed to “white” schools relate to Prince s upbringing remains unclear. But the song does specifically thank “Bernadette the lady” who persuaded him of the merits of “discipline” and “education”.

No ambiguity here. This is Bernadette Anderson, lone mother of six (including Prince’s
friend and later bandmate Andre Anderson/Cymone), who took him in when he was 12 and homeless. His parents had split up, he’d rowed with his stepfather and run away from home, been kicked out by an aunt, then stayed with his father for a while until a bust-up ensued.

It s a story not to be blurred into conventional black music backgrounds from the cottonfields to Compton, but those years surely moulded the Prince Rogers Nelson who became The Artist. On the ragged edge of poverty yet secure with the Anderson family, he set up his own hermitage in the dank basement of their home. There he practised his startling multi-instrumental skills. Concentration was his priority, isolation the means. Owen Husney, his first manager, who came across him in 1976, speaks of dropping by to find the youngster’s subterranean lodgings flooded. Prince told him it was like that six months of the year - that s why the bed, where he played guitar, was on stilts and approached by a raised walkway of planks he’d knocked together.

Prince evidently came to believe he could be whoever he wanted to be. He could write a song, he could write himself. Once the world knew him, he began to play an identity game, composing under noms de plume: Jamie Starr, Alexander Nevermind, Madhouse, Christopher Tracy. . .

It always looked a tease – until June 7,1993, that is, when he told a press conference that, because Prince had been dispossessed “in perpetuity” by his record company, he was changing his name to O(+>. By his account, the injustice preying on his mind had provoked a full-on identity crisis. “I would wake up at nights thinking, Who am I?” he said.

Mocked in the media for poor-little-rich-boy self-indulgence, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince found himself abbreviated to TAFKAP and then Taffy.
O(+> being unsayable, at the wedding when Mayte came to “take thee O(+>” to be her lawful husband she had to silently point the preacher towards the O(+> on her necklace.

When he won, the victor seemed untouchable, his new world signed and sealed in every sense. However, come June 1998, what every interviewer is told is “Don’t ask about the baby.’

Boy Gregory never had a chance because he suffered from Pfeiffers Syndrome, the premature hardening of a baby’s skull. Though it happened just before the release of Emancipation, The Artist went ahead with some promotional activities. He was asked about the boy’s health when he was already dead. For a few days aU he could bring himself to say was that Gregory was OK, progressing. Then the announcement was made. After telling a couple of chat shows that he and Mayte would try for more children, he stopped talking.

But in February last year, two sisters who had worked for The Artist, Arlene and Erlene Mojica, engaged as nanny and Mayte’s bodyguard then sacked the previous December, expressed concerns about the death to the Minneapolis police before selling their story to The News Of The World. The police investigation, concluded that June, only confirmed the natural causes.

Q says, “You’ve been through a personal crisis . . .”

The Artist cuts in, “I’m not speaking about that.”

The interview judders and moves on. Some people can discuss such matters in public. For The Artist, secret or unknowable at the best of times, the subject is impossible.

CHRIS POOLE, A PR who represented The Artist in Europe for five years pre-Emancipation, remembers his former client, who reads every word written about him, once asking, “Why does everyone think I’m mad?” The answer was, “Because you do weird things and you don’t explain them.” That was when Prince agreed to his first press interviews since the mid-’80s. Nowadays, The Artist is rather good at them, but still draws the line at tape recorders because, says Poole, he s “obsessed about bootlegging”.

Across the boardroom table from him sits cool old Larry Graham, long ago bassist with Sly & the Family Stone and Graham Central Station, nowlose friend and collaborator. Graham and fellow  Warner refugee cum NPG label debutant Chaka Khan are credited inspirations on Newpower Soul. Both have “solo” albums coming up co-created by The Artist – who chooses to see the pan-generational arrangement as a fitting celebration of his 40th birthday on June 7.

“I’m having a mid-life crisis!” he crows. “I feel 16. I’m with my teenage idol. I got the funk from Graham Central Station rather than Sly. He was too early for me.’

Both patron and veteran protege are keen to chuckle over the radical improvement in their income per unit shifted since going indie.

”Larry could sell several hundred thousand albums and wind up in debt because he was only getting seven cents a copy,” The Artist calculates.

”Now I’m on seven dollars a copy,” Graham purrs.

”It was the same for me “ The Artist avers. “Now I get $7, Larry gets $7, Chaka gets $7. . .”

Just as well. The word was that his finances needed a lift. Although The Artist clinched a reported $100 million new deal with Warner in 1992, over the following years the Paisley Park label expired, his merchandising shops in Minneapolis, Miami and London closed, record sales plummeted and his tours lost money. Fans were losing patience.

It was rumoured that Madonna offered him a rescue merger with her Maverick
Records label.

“That s not true “ The Artist scoffs. “We haven’t talked in years.”

Were you nearly bankrupt in the mid-’90s?

“You can’t believe those rumours,” he chortles. “I will never be bankrupt. I did a US tour last autumn and you can make upwards of $300,000 nightly (the 71 dates were designated Comeback Of The Year by Quincy Jones’s Vibe magazine). People say the marketing of Crystal Ball through the Internet went wrong, but we sold 250,000 plus at $50 each... Hey, did you see David Bowie got that $90 million bond because he owned aU the copyrights in his catalogue? If I ever get mine back, I’ll have everything I want and I’ll give my $90 million away.


“I will. All of this is why I didn’t mind whatever people said when I was writing ’Slave’ on my face. If they made jokes I’d say, Go right ahead. I had their attention.”

However, some black Americans saw nothing to laugh at in the Slave sign. In fact they were offended by it. The Artist’s lawyer, L. Londell McMillan, was among them. “The reference is traumatic to African-Americans” he intones. In one of my first conversations with him I said, Take the ’Slave’ off your face. He said, Get me free of this contract and I will. It became clear that he was a desperate man. And I was there with him the day the document came through with the countersignature from Warner and it was all over. I asked him if he was ready to go to the bathroom and wipe that thing off and he did it. He closed the chapter.”

Meanwhile, Mayte has drifted into the room, gliding in diaphanous Prada couture. Plainly, her entrance could cue closure, but her husband is to continue so long as he can cleave to matters fiscal or funky.

”My Warner-Chappell publishing contract is up at the end of the year” he grins. “That’s the last contract m existence with my name on it.”

What about with Larry and Chaka?

”We don’t have contracts! I give Larry studio time. But I’ve stolen every lick he ever hit. Who am I? The president of the record company? The president of Larry Graham? No contracts, no budgets.”

The UK release of Newpower Soul through a distribution deal with BMG/RCA was announced at a week’s notice. Such haste begs the question: is Paisley Park as robust an enterprise as The Artist would have us believe? And wouldn’t lawyer McMillan rather see Graham and Khan properly signed to his client?

“Working without contracts is not advisable,’ he says with the hint of a sigh. “They are not absolutely necessary, but they are useful to clarify agreements between people. However even though I’ll give him my two cents’ worth of opinion. The Artist is free to conduct business as he deems proper - and live with the consequences.

On the other hand, Chris Poole fears that The Artist learned little from the way he lost much of his following in the mid-’90s. Supervising his London shop, Poole experienced fans’ indignation at the increasingly erratic ^ albums, especiallythe careless contract-filler Chaos And Disorder.

”Prince thought his fans would stick by him through thick and thin,” he says. “But not when they were asked to support rubbish. On the ’95 tour he was due to visit the shop. When he arrived, there weren’t many people there and he drove away, which pissed off those who had been waiting. He s a strange mixture of arrogance and insecurity.’

McMillan argues that much of his bad press comes from backstabbing by ex-employees: “People say he rules with an iron fist, but he uses the velvet glove too, it s just that no one hears about the $20,000 bonus for someone who had a great year. Its better copy if he’s an asshole.

Nevertheless, Poole speaks of The Artist as “the closest thing to genius I’ve overworked with”. But he worries for him: “Most stars suck the energy from the people around them and it s easy to get bitter about that. I feel many of his relationships end up disappointing both sides because his expectations are unreasonable - which may be why he never seemed to have any real friends.”

Poole watched The Artist try to form an alliance with fellow corporate “martyr” George Michael and fail to elicit the empathy he craved. ’He lacks a certain social grace” – something which one of The Artist s own anecdotes confirms. ’One time in London I walked up to Michael Stipe,” he recalls. “I said, Do you own your masters? No, I didn’t say hello. He looked scared. He started stuttering. He said, I don’t know. I said, You need to and you should help me get mine. He just said, Have a nice day. That was it . . .”

His style, though, is rarely pensive. He finds another riff.

“When you’re independent you go down the plant, see your record on the conveyor, it’s a completely different feeling, isn’t it Larry?”

“You can hear the freedom in the music,” Graham affirms.

“FREEDOM CANT be bad, can it?” enquires The Artist. “Can you have too much music like people say when I put out three or four CDs? No. When I was a kid James Brown put out a single and then an album every three months and I was waiting, eager to hear them. Today I own every song he ever made. But I read even Elton John was saying I should edit my music and sell my albums cheaper.

“Elton’s cool, though. When I was in LA he sang a song from my wife’s album to me. There was Elton, me, Stevie Wonder on the other side of the stage. What a life, eh?”