Burning Down the House

Prince has still got that red-hot magic

Anthony DeCurtis




“Hammering! That’s the word. That’s it!” Prince folds over in laughter and stamps his high-heel boots on the floor. Those heels, as it happens, are clear plastic, and lights twinkle within them. It’s a perfect metaphor for the electricity that seems to be coursing through the singer at the moment.

Prince is responding to a description of the torrid version of “D.M.S.R.”—a jam from 1999 touting the virtues of “dance, music, sex, romance"—that he and his backing band, the New Power Generation, unleashed earlier that evening at the sold-out Gund Arena in Cleveland. It was a full-on funk stomp that got the house up and shaking. Hammering only begins to convey the performance’s pulverizing rhythmic assault. “Pulverizing! That’s good, too,” Prince says, laughing again. “What you see is people responding to what this band is—and what we’re doing.”

It’s just twenty minutes after the show, and, at a time when most performers would be just beginning to cool down, Prince is utterly composed. He’s crisply dressed in a purple tunic and black pants and looks as if he has spent the evening relaxing in his living room rather than burning down a 20,000-seat house. But that’s how effortless things seem to be of late for the forty-five-year-old musician. Everybody in the Prince camp—most definitely beginning with Prince himself—bristles when anyone suggests that the current wave of Princemania constitutes a “comeback.” The official line is that he never went away. From a strictly literal standpoint, of course, that’s true. He’s been as busy as ever, using his own label and his Web site, the New Power Generation Music Club, to release CDs such as The Rainbow Children (2001) and N.E.W.S. (2003), as well as the DVD Prince: Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas.

But whether or not you buy the message that Prince never left, it’s clear that many of his millions of fans had gone somewhere in recent years, and now many of them are staging a comeback of their own. Suddenly, liking Prince doesn’t feel like such a chore; in fact, it’s fun. His stripped-down, pleasingly straightforward new album, Musicology, delivers on the promise of his spellbinding performances earlier this year on the Grammy Awards broadcast and at his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His live shows have become ecstatic parties, sweaty, two-hour romps through the likes of “Controversy,” “U Got the Look,” “Take Me With U” and a sizzling version of Sam and Dave’s classic “Soul Man.” Nearly a recluse before, Prince is now all over the media, chatting on talk shows, posing for photographers, being interviewed by reporters.

It’s like an old friend has returned. Indeed, the spring of 2004 is beginning to feel like the summer of 1984, when Purple Rain made Prince one of the biggest rock stars in the world. When he sings, “Don’t you miss the feeling that music gave you back in the day?” in “Musicology,” he might as well be speaking about his own music. After abandoning his name for an unpronounceable symbol, after painting the word “slave” on his face as part of a battle with his record label, after disowning decades of his own work, Prince is enjoying himself again. And, as always, his enthusiasm is irresistible.
I had an epiphany last night,” Prince says about his appearance in Columbus, Ohio. He’s sitting on a couch in his dressing room, shortly before taking the stage in Cleveland. The room is warm and humid, to keep his throat and nasal passages clear and his vocal cords supple. Candles burn on every available surface.

“I was offstage, listening to Michael Phillips take his solo,” he continues, alluding to the instrumental portion of the show in which the saxophonist takes a long, atmospheric excursion during “God” while Prince changes clothes and takes a break. “I was thinking, ’Wow, listen to those people responding, and all he’s doing is playing a saxophone.’ They can feel that what he’s doing is real. So many shows now, they have pyrotechnics, pre-taped vocals and musical parts, and it’s so dead. But here’s one man breathing into an instrument, and the whole room feels alive. It made me want to rise up to that level when I came back onstage.”

Part of the goal of the Musicology album and tour is to connect audiences once again to the power of live music. “Take your pick—turntable or a band?” Prince challenges on the album, and his concerts are like a clinic in inciting the sort of pandemonium that only a band can create. That’s true even for the players themselves. “This is school for me,” says Phillips, 27. “Every night I watch how he connects his gift to the crowd. I’ve spoken to him about it. He told me that playing a solo is like making love. You have to pay attention to the things that make your partner respond—and space them out so they come at exactly the right time. It’s one big, long orgasm.”

Prince’s deal with Columbia: Because “Musicology” is so listener-friendly, Prince overcame his near pathological wariness about record companies and agreed to allow his lawyer to work out a deal with Columbia Records. Columbia, which is part of Sony Music, will distribute and help the market the album domestically ( and be reimbursed for the costs of doing so) and license it for sale in the rest of the world. It’s an arrangement that essentially requires no upfront costs on the label’s part, while providing a strong profit incentive for the company to sell as many copies as possible. On his end, Prince gets the enormous reach of an international corporate powerhouse.

According to Sony’s president, Don Ienner, the label has filled orders for upward of a million copies of the album worldwide. “And with the first copy shipped, we started making money,” he adds. “We have really high expectations for this, and, though there are no guarantees, we hope to remain in business with Prince for a long time. How often does an artist of his stature become available on any terms?”

Prince receives no payment from the label. But retains complete ownership of the album. He also gets a much higher percentage of sales than he would under a more traditional arrangement. “One advantage of writing “slave’ on my face back then was that when I meet with a label now, they already know they’re not going to be owning anything", Prince says wryly. “Maybe at one time they could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken. We don’t roll like that no more.

Being at Peace: “I feel at peace. I knew it would take time, and I had to deal with a lot of ridicule. But this feels like peace right now. Spiritually I feel very different from the way I used to, but physically? Not at all. I don’t look at time that way, and I don’t believe in age. When you wake up, each days looks the same, so each day should be a new beginning. I don’t have an expiration date.”

About Tom Petty: “It was an honor to play with Tom Petty (at the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame ceremony). “Free Fallin’” is one of my favorite songs. I used to love whenever he would come on MTV, because you knew you were going to get a great tune. MTV isn’t like that anymore.”

“Kiss” Highlight: For a tumultuous run of songs at the end of the Cleveland show, Prince invites perhaps two dozen women in the audience onto the stage to dance. One willowy girl wears a purple two-piece bathing suit festooned with the glyph that had become the singer’s name for a time. Prince struts over to her, and she becomes his dance partner during “Kiss”. After the line “Act your age, not your shoe size", he holds the mike out for her, and right in tune, she sings, “And maybe we can do the twirl!” Prince’s eyes widen and he yowls, “Wooo!”

“The security guard wasn’t going to let her get onstage", Prince says backstage after the show. “ I said, “You can’t send that girl home dressed like that!”