In the Realm of Pop’s Prince

The reclusive star performs here next week. Chris Heath was granted a rare interview at his Minneapolis studio.

Chris Heath

Should there be a poll of the pop stars’ pop star then the winner would be, by a wide margin, Prince. Others sell more records, but no one over the past12 years has been more admired than this petite eccentric showman from Minneapolis. Nevertheless only Michael Jackson has shielded himself more effectively from close public scrutiny - and Prince is more fascinating because his records and performances touch on more levels.

One moment he is trashy, flippant and doing a somersault in tasteless lingerie, the next he is parading his bewildering virtuosity and an ability to write some of the few pop songs that reach - if you’ll pardon the notion - some kind of transcendence. The basic biographical details have long been available. He was born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7 1958 (for years his publicity material insisted on 1960, but recently relented), in Minneapolis. His mother had sung in his musician father’s jazz trio. They separated and Prince spent his teenage years shuttled between various homes, by all accounts a shy youth obsessed with music. He was precociously talented.

By the age of 19 he had a record contract. His first LP, For You, only hinted at his songwriting promise, but on it he was listed as playing 27 instruments. (He still performs most of the parts on his records, layer after layer, for which he once offered the following rationale: “When I’m recording I could have an orgasm on my mind and my bass player could have pickles on his.”)

His early reputation was as a maker of lewd funk records. One song, Head, was a celebration of oral sex; another, Sister, was a paean to incest. His libidinous activities on-stage remain notorious. One of his perennial favourites is to seduce his microphone stand as though it were a woman. Spitting Image nicely lampooned his technique in a sketch where a jealous microphone stand bursts into Prince’s boudoir to find him unfaithfully bedding a second microphone stand.

The pervy sex-play was a good way of getting noticed, but it was his 1984 film Purple Rain that made him a star. Despite some terrible acting and its wafer-thin semi-autobiographical plot about a young musician trying to get through to both an indifferent audience and his battling parents, it was charming and thrilling, and a perfect advert for all his real talents: his songwriting, his charisma, his singing, his performing.

The film grossed $ 80 million; the soundtrack became one of the best-selling records of all time and earned him an Oscar. “People said Purple Rain was unreleasable,” he would later brag, “and now I drive to work each morning to my own big studio.” He chose to build his kingdom where he was reared. Paisley Park, his recording and film studio complex, sits next to a cornfield beside Highway 5 in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen.

At least once a year ever since, Prince has released a new album from there (far more often than any of his peers), each one a deliberate sidestep away from the last, touching on most of pop music’s vocabularies. There have been some wonderful, if inevitably patchy, results, but it has been hard for the public to keep up: his most recent LP, Diamonds and Pearls, is his most successful for some time probably because it largely backtracks and summarises his styles.

A workaholic, he has also written and produced records for a wide range of other artists including Sheena Easton, Paula Abdul, Martika, the Bangles and Madonna, sometimes under his own name but usually under one of his pseudonyms: Jamie Starr, Alexander Nevermind, Joey Coco are just three. These collaborations don’t always work and greatest success has come when other artists have reinterpreted his songs without his guidance. Chaka Khan’s version of I Feel For You and Sinead O’Connor’s of Nothing Compares 2 U were both worldwide number ones.

Nevertheless he writes and records the whole time: five years ago he estimated his stockpile of unreleased songs, kept in a vault beneath Paisley Park, at 400 and rising. There have also been more films: after Purple Rain there was an unconvincing farce set in the south of France, Under the Cherry Moon; a fine concert film, Sign O the Times; and the disastrous Purple Rain sequel, Graffiti Bridge. A lot of work, but Prince has offered few explanations. He has only spoken on the record a handful of times since the early Eighties.

In the vacuum of his silence, tales of his strange behaviour abound, making him a tabloid favourite. Probably one or two of the following stories are true. He expects assistants to receive his commands telepathically. He eats nothing but macaroni cheese. He has a food taster. Five bodyguards accompany him everywhere, even to the lavatory. He takes his own bed on tour. He likes baths filled with lemon juice and sour cream. My favourite is of how he held up shooting of Under the Cherry Moon because the Rolls-Royce in a particular scene wasn’t purple, his favourite colour. The film was being shot in black and white.

I spent a week in Minneapolis trying to discover a little more. It was a frustrating time, hanging around Paisley Park, mostly waiting for meetings that never seemed to happen, either sitting in his boardroom, which has a purple galaxy painted on the ceiling, or wandering around the eerily pristine complex. Paisley Park is, incidentally, not just the folly of an egotistical pop star but has put Minneapolis on the map as a film-making and recording centre. I would pass Prince in the corridors (he was wearing a different outfit each time I saw him, often only an hour or two apart), and watch him entertain at his Minneapolis nightclub Glam Slam, or chat with Warren Beatty and Kirstie Alley at a Paisley Park party, but for five days could not even force a “hello”.

On the sixth, he telephoned me, not, he said, for an interview per se but to tell me about his Diamonds and Pearls LP. In fact, he had little of interest to say about that record (his main point seemed to be that he thought it was rather good), but he chatted amiably and lucidly, rather enjoying the game of it, shying off trickier questions by objecting they were “getting into philosophy”.

He spun an amusing tale of why he makes new records. It’s because he only listens to his own music, and he likes cruising in his yellow sports car. “I like to play music in my car,” he told me, off-hand, “and when I need something new I record something, instead of buying a tape.” (He denied listening to any other contemporary music. His own music is so well-informed it’s an improbable claim and, anyway, one of his band members told me Prince’s current favourites include Bon Jovi, Fishbone and the Cocteau Twins.) He also provided another, more melodramatic explanation for his creativity. “I make music because if I didn’t, I’d die. It’s in my blood. I hear sounds all the time. It’s almost a curse: to know you can always make something new.”

Prince’s music is laced with both sexuality and spirituality; the cliched critical observation is that he treats sex as though it were a religion and God as though a lover. Perhaps because of the latter attitude, his religiosity is often underestimated. Though talk of God is littered over his earlier LPs, he has hinted at a particular religious experience in 1987. His subsequent LP was a spiritual tribute called Lovesexy and he was extremely hurt when his pose on the LP sleeve - his eyes heavenwards, wearing nothing but a crucifix - was seen as pornographic, not devotional. He was cagey to me about this change in his priorities, simply saying there is “a state of mind I’ve come to . . . when you know who you are and you know what your name is . . . If I didn’t have it I wouldn’t make records anymore.” In recent years it has been for his live shows that Prince is most celebrated.

He offers a rare combination. The great show people - those who demand your eyes stay fixed upon their every twitch and shimmy, are rarely great virtuosos. And the great virtuosos, determined that their skill should stand out from the show man’s ersatz tomfoolery - rarely condescend to entertain. Prince juggles the two better than anyone. He’ll break from some captivating theatrical shenanigans and, on the spur of the moment, play a heart-breaking 10 minutes of songs alone at the piano.

His bands - the latest are known as the New Power Generation - are trained to be able to drop into any of a large catalogue of songs at a flick of their master’s fingers. Of course he knows he’s good. As is fashionable, he advertises his forthcoming concerts by proclaiming them to be too potent for the average spectator to stomach. “Don’t come to the concert, y’all,” he shouted to me, by way of farewell. “Don’t come to the concert. I’ve got a band of assassins . . .”

Prince is at Earls Court in London on June 15, 16, 17 19 20, 21, 23 and 24, at Manchester Maine Road football ground on June 26 and at Glasgow Parkhead Stadium on June 28.