Prince in pieces


Apart from his music. Prince never gives much of himself away in public - or even in private. But over six strange days in Paisley Park, including a phone interview with the man himself, it was possible to piece together a picture of Prince as a man with no manners, but a deeply spiritual sense of purpose

Chris Heath




Prince. He never writes, he never phones. After six days of waiting, of standing in the same room as him, of being passed in corridors, of being blanked at nightclubs, I am getting tetchy and paranoid. Sitting in the Paisley Park boardroom, a painting of and exploded purple galaxy on the ceiling above me, as usual, I am waiting. In a few minutes, I am told, I can hear Prince’s new LP, “Diamonds and Pearls”. But I’ve heard that several times in the past few days and there’s always been some problem: busy studios, incorrectly sequenced CDs, missing CD players. So spend some of Prince’s royalties phoning up friends in London. As I chat, one of the other phone lines flashes, but I ignore it. A few seconds later, in strides Gilbert. Gilbert used to be Prince’s bodyguard: he is now president of Paisley Park Enterprises and Prince’s closest confidant. I look guilty. I think he is going to tell me off for using the phone.

Instead, he gestures toward the flashing light. “That’s Prince. For you.”

Six days. Forever breathing the same air but ignoring each other, me out of etiquette and he out of... well, those are the sort of things I’m here to find out. I’ve come halfway around the world and we’re going to talk...on the phone.  “Hello, Chris. This is Prince. How long have you been in Minneapolis?” 

Six days. Since last Tuesday. and he says he just wants “to say hello.” Still, I am talking to him.

IT’S A MESSY BUSINESS, getting near to Prince. I’ve been doing it, initially by accident but latterly party
by design, four years now, ever since his manager at the time Steve Fargnoli, phoned me at home in London in 1987. “Lovesexy” had just been released to rather muted enthusiasm particularly in America. The sleeve had become an issue: Jean Baptiste Mondino’s photograph of Prince gazing into the distance naked, an overly phallic lily behind him, was widely seen as and act of ludicrous self-regard.

I had like the record, having been an indecently keen  Prince fan for some years. More importantly I had, in a hastily-written review for Smash Hits, mentioned what to me seemed to be to covers obvious symbolic point: the one thing that print is wearing on the cover is a crucifix. Britain’s was offering himself coma naked and frisky as one of my two lover, giving himself to a higher force, and act of naked dedication. It was hardly a difficult deduction – in one of the songs prince quite plainly sings of “The feeling U get when U’re in love/not with a boy or a girl but the heavens above” – but this one review was somehow the only one that fingered that point, and Prince had single it out. Fargnoli suggested I might be, in some never to be specified way, useful.

Despite various conversations and meetings with Fargnoli or his associates, little came from all that, though I did get an introduction. Maybe even an induction of sorts. I was in Paris covering the opening night of “Lovesexy” tour, And after the concert was ushered on a ferry gilded with flowers to a party on an island just outside the centre of Paris. Fargnoli took me over to meet  Prince, sitting quietly in the corner between Shiela E and Cat. He stood and grasped my hand an unusually long period of time and said, quietly with a smile, “You understand”. By way of a reply, I simply mumbled, “I hope so.” He invited me to a concert later that night and that was that.
 
Shortly afterwards Fargnoli was ousted (he and Prince are currently in litigation) and, when I visited Paisley Park for the first time last year, these earlier contacts seem long forgotten. The complex is a strange place, even to visit. Something in the water, as Prince himself one supported, does not compute. It’s something you see in the faces of the people who work there. They’re like students taking a long perplexing exam, trying to work out what the question means before they can start writing. And the question is this: what does Prince want? “Ask him!” you want to shout. But there are few, if any, people here who can ask him a straight question or demand a straight answer.

There was a tabloid story once that claimed Prince fired employees because they weren’t telepathically responsive. It wasn’t true, but they were onto something. There’s a lot of second guessing going on around Prince.

IN THE SUMMER of 1990, just before the release of the Graffiti Bridge movie and album. Things seemed a little fractured, and those around Prince didn’t always contribute the most flattering portraits. He was a genius, yes, but one who had exiled himself from all but his own brand of reality, a man playing at being king-of-the-castle, one who was interested in only in so much as they could become a piece in the jigsaw that is the wondrousness of Prince.

And you could feel that already people knew Graffiti Bridge was not going to work. It sounded marvelous in description, a delicate hymn to the spiritual, but few seemed sure of what had been filmed. Before shooting, thanks to Prince’s habit of basing screen roles around his real associates, the script was changed willy-nilly. Kim Basinger’s departure just before shooting didn’t help: the two lead female roles were combined and given to Ingrid Chavez almost overnight.

Chavez was the most cutting because everything she said seemed twinned with so much affection. She and Prince had got together after a strange flirtation at a Minneapolis club. She sent him a note saying, “Hi, Remember me? Probably not, but that’s OK, because we’ve never met. Smile. I love it when you smile.” He introduced himself as Dexter, so she said she was called Gertrude. That was the night he canceled “The Black Album” and he quickly replaced it with “Lovesexy”. (In the subsequent months she also wrote him poems, to which he’d improvise music; collaborations which form the root of her LP, out in the new year.)

What she told me that summer was of a relationship that bucked under Prince’s inability to exchange grand ideas and ideas about what living is, for actually doing it. She tried to make him just do normal things, like going for a walk in the woods. But he’d make weak excuses. Or refuse. Or – even worse – say “what for?” “I think he lives almost in some sort of fantasy,” she said. “He talks about the life he wants to live more than he leaves it. But you don’t know what the ground feels like unless your walking barefood.”

When he read what she said, “hurt and angry. He called her up. An hour and a half they were on the phone.

LAST YEAR THERE WAS of course, no testimony from Prince himself.  Before this year he has answered questions publicly only four times since 1984’s “Purple Rain”. In 1985 a local Minneapolis journalist, Neal Karlen was allowed to interview him for Rolling Stone. Internet year, on the set of Under The Cherry Moon, he answered some questions to camera for MTV. The following year, on his birthday, he phoned up Detroit DJ The Electrifying Mojo and chatted enjoyably on air for a while. Then, last year, he began a shirt Neal Karlen into his presence for an interview, so just time friends insisted that he could not use a tape recorder north take notes in his presence. (The story goes that Karlen resorted carrying around a can bring, then periodically pleaded a weak bladder before ducking into the toilet for frantic note taking.)

But now, it seems, some effort is being made. Those around Prince, if not Prince himself, clearly feel that there is some work to be done on his image. As I arrive once more in Minneapolis he is just releasing “Get Off,” a record that seems calculated in its lewdness, but his staff are most concerned to play down what they see as his sexual threat. They gloss over his more spiritual leanings, the core of his finest music, and treat Graffiti Bridge as an unfortunate incident best forgotten. (But not a failure: Prince doesn’t have failures. After its woeful American release,  Chavez told me that Prince would never admit Graffiti Bridge was a failure – he would simply blame the world for not “getting it”.)

Nevertheless, “Diamonds and Pearls” is a crucial LP for Prince. “Lovesexy", a religious record with a naked man on the cover, sold disappointingly. “Batman"’s success, was associated more with a hit film and a comic-book hero. “Graffiti Bridge” was a multi-artist soundtrack saddled with a flop film. “Diamonds and Pearls", however, is a Prince LP. If it sells poorly it will be because people don’t want a Prince LP.

So I wait to hear it, finding myself in Chanhassen, an outer suburb of Minneapolis, with a brief that is utterly uncertain. I can hear Prince’s new LP, talk to his band, go into rehearsals, and, perhaps, if things go well, if the stars are right, if I smile nicely, if I give off the suitable ’you understand” scent, Prince will talk to me. A little. Perhaps. Without it being recorded, of course.


IT DOESN’T START WELL. I arrive on Tuesday night, and when I call in on Wednesday I’m told I wasn’t expected until Thursday. Oh. So I wait. Can I go into rehearsals? No, not just now. Er, Prince isn’t in a very good mood this week. Oh. But i can talk to the bandmembers.

Pity the poor members of Prince’s band, always being offered up as cattle fodder to journalists. Still, they talk and as a rule you’re sweet and loyal, but also quite open. They say Prince is a workaholic. It drives you a bit mad, especially when he expects you to work Saturdays (It’s a six-day week in the New Power Generation), but you know it’s  worth it. Prince always tells you that he works you so hard because he knows you’ve got it inside of you, and that’s flattering. Prince is the boss, and the people who have trouble with him are the people who can’t accept that. The way to go wrong in this band is to think that you could do what he can do, without him; or to imagine that without you the whole Prince magic will fade.

When you’re hired, it’s Prince himself who makes the phone call. He asks whether you’d like to do the offered job, as though you might want to think about it for a few weeks, then, when you said yes, puts you through to his assistant who books you on a plane for the next day. His lifestyle: he talks about music, makes music, most of the time, but he jokes a bit, plays pool, shoots hoops. And he loves God. He doesn’t talk about it, but it’s obvious.

They tell you all this, patiently and with good humour, but it’s embarrassing. They know why you’re talking to them – not because you’re interested in them, but because you’re interested in him. Consequently  these conversations take on a disconcertingly religious tone. Because it is obvious who you are both talking about, it isn’t necessary to mention Prince by name. It is just Him and He. The one whom you can’t see but who’s the reason for everything you’re both doing.

Rosie Gaines is  the first I talk to this time. She’s the keyboard player and singer Prince drafted in for 1990’s “Nude” tour. (Levi  Seacer Jnr, guitarist and current band leader, used to play in her band in San Francisco.)
She’s the one Prince announced was “the new Aretha Franklin", and who sings songs by the old Aretha Franklin in the middle of his shows. This afternoon Prince, who is somewhere yards away in the building, it’s just been asked her questions on camera for a documentary he’s making. I ask her whether she asked him any questions.

”Nooo,” she says, grinning. “I wish I could have.”

Like?

"What’s it like to be him? What does he do to unwind when he’s finished with the music? And I want to ask him just to come out to my house for dinner and meet my husband and have a barbecue, just not be Prince for a day.”

He has been around her place once, actually. In the driveway, anyhow. Prince called up one night after midnight when Rosie and Husband were settling down on the sofa to watch TV. He’d just done some new music, and it was so funky he had to play it to someone. She was the closest. So she gave him directions. When he was outside he phoned again from the car and she came down and sat for half an hour in his blue BMW, listening to his new music: “The Flow,” “Walk Don’t Walk.”

Rosie really likes Prince. She listens to his music and she knows he has love in his heart. Also, he made her feel good about the way she  looks. She told him she didn’t like herself on camera. He was having none of it. He told her she was sexy inside and that with enough confidence she could bring it out.

She is still talking about how she’s rather have her voice then be skinny, when Levi Saunders in. He tells me how he and prince listen to other artists’ records together. “You have to. To be competitive in this in the business you have to know all the other things that surround you.” Anything from LL Cool J to Bon Jovi. He says they dig “Living On A Prayer” ("We always talk about that song – he says it’s good rock ’n’ roll"), Fishbone ("He loves Fishbone. That’s all he talks about because they try everything"), The Cocteau Twins ("They have to own thing. There’s Dan, and there’s everything else, and that’s how he is").

Still don’t album, but as a sub date give me a tape of seven new mixes of “Gett Off”. The original “bootleg” version, issued for Prince’s 32nd birthday, had a sleeve covered in graffiti by Prince, including “warning: Don’t Come To The Concert!” It’s their new slogan. They are so baaad, mere humans won’t be able to bare it. “Don’t come to the concert!” rapper Tony M. (for Mosley) tells me, “You won’t understand. You will not understand.”

Tony used to watch Prince when he played guitar in Grand Central at summer festivals and school parties. He had a reputation for being quiet. When he reappeared with a contract with Warner Brothers, Tony remembers, a lot of people would have liked to have seen him fall on his face.

Tony first met him in late 1983 down at First Avenue club where he and Damon, now a dancer for the New Power Generation, were enjoying a winning run in the weekly dance contests. Prince gave the nod, and his production people hired them as extras for Purple Rain. It’s taken since then, via occasional roles in videos, for the three current dancers to get into Prince’s band. This band. says Tony, is one Prince trusts. They have band outings. Sometimes Prince will call to suggest they meet at a downtown cinema around midnight to catch the new film everyone’s talking about.  Last week they saw Terminator 2 and Boyz N The Hood. A few weeks ago they all went to see Truth Or Dare (as Madonna’s movie is called in the States).

FRIDAY COMES AND I HEAR Prince speak his first words. It’s a joke. “Dearly beloved.” he mutters into the microphone in Minneapolis’ stadium. “We are gathered here today to get through this thing called. . .  soundcheck.”

These are the rehearsals for the opening ceremony of the 1991 Special Olympics, the annual games for disabled athletes. The band  soundcheck alone at first, and it is only when Prince wants to join them onstage that the order goes out through the house PA. “Any non-essential personnel must now leave the field.”

His authority when he reaches the stage is obvious. Everyone stands by their instruments watching him, waiting. Ignoring them, he takes a guitar and begins a solo. They wait. Then, without warning, he bursts into “Baby I’m A Star” and, right away, they’re there with him. When they were playing this groove without him, it sounded like any other mediocre funk dead-end. Now it romps around joyously. A little girl dances in front of me on top of some rolled-up carpets. When the song finishes, she gives an enthusiastic round of applause and looks puzzled when no one else joins in. Cheers’ Kirstie Alley, here to rehearse a speech for tomorrow night, sits cross-legged on the turf. nodding her head. Prince’s father, John Nelson, stands near the stage, poker-faced and stock still throughout.

That afternoon at Paisley Park, Prince and his father wander around, passing me on the walkway. Both have changed clothes since the soundcheck. Before, Prince was in a tight black affair with a tight high neck. Now, he’s in something yellow and speckled, with a matching headband. He looks good. His father grunts “Hi”. He doesn’t.

DOWNSTAIRS IN GLAM SLAM, the club opened last year by Prince and Gilbert, is where the normal people mingle, Prince’s Purple Rain bike sits behind a chain fence, and there’s a shop selling Prince-style designer clothes from cheap T-shirts to customized leather jackets  (a snip at $1,500). I
f you’re a member or a special guest, you can go up the back stairs and see lots of graffiti on the stairwell: the lyrics to “Elephants And Flowers", “Music will guide us and love is inside us,” “It’s almost 1999”, “New Power Soul” (in mirror writing) and “For a good time phone 777-9911” (Don’t bother. it’s been disconnected.) Upstairs is the members’ balcony, from where you can lean down and watch the action below.

Prince likes to watch. He’s famous for it. One night in a restaurant , I’m served by a waitress who’s wearing a Glam Slam badge. “I like the club,” she tells me, “but not the owner.”

Prince ought to be a hometown hero in Minneapolis. He has stayed here, built a studio  complex, has made Minneapolis a film production centre
. He regularly plays local club concerts and supports local charities. His records celebrate his hinterland.

But at best, he’s ignored. Minneapolis radio is white FM rock at its most pure. You hear “Gett Off” on KMOJ-FM, an urban radio station supported by donations, and even they are far more likely to be playing Color Me Badd or  DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. At worst, people here despise him. They think he’s a snooty weirdo, cruising around in his limousine with his bodyguards. Sitting in clubs and summoning girls to do his bidding. Creepy.


The waitress thinks so: “I talked to him a couple of times. He is not very nice. I introduced him to my friend and told him she was a big fan. He didn’t say anything.” So she gave Prince a piece of her mind. “I said, ’You’re always in clubs and you don’t drink, you don’t dance, you don’t do anything, you just sit in the corner. . . ’ “

What did he say?

“Nothing. His bodyguard said, ’He likes to people-watch.’ I said, ’Why doesn’t he go people-watch on a park bench?’“

Later, another round of drinks. “I met Janet Jackson. She was nice...”

AT THE SPECIAL OLYMPICS opening ceremony, the backstage lift is kept on the ground floor long before  Prince’s arrival so that he doesn’t have to endure annoying everyday waiting-for-the-lift-to-come experience. He doesn’t  come until the ceremony has begun. The band dressing room is the one normally used by the Minnesota Vikings. It has a nice purple carpet. Prince has his own room: the door is ajar and i can see the drapes and scarves that adorn it, all warm, soft, autumn colours.

I adjourn to the green room, a tiny dressing room which is acting as celebrity central. Prince isn’t there, but every other celebrity who has turned up for the ceremony is. Arnold Schwarzenegger chats to Hulk Hogan. presumably about biceps. Jon Bon Jovi waits in line to talk to Hogan. Debbie Gibson stands with her mother in front of TV handyman action hero McGyver and Latin rap sex symbol Gerardo. Randy Travis hogs another wall. In the doorway, Warren Beatty confers with Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith (the only conversation that can be heard is the intriguing response from Beatty to an unheard question of Johnson’s: a grin and “No. I haven’t spoken to her since. . .”). Next to me Kirstie Alley and The Wonder Years’ Fred Savage sing to each other the chorus of Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman”.

Prince s performance is short but. despite the blustery sound, pretty good. The second song, “Baby Im A Star", had been chosen because the organisers had asked for something upbeat. and obviously the songs message – self-belief above all – is a suitable one. Afterwards in the dressing room, there is no sign of him. The New Power Generation girlfriends and wives and husbands wait patiently on yellow plastic chairs lining the walls, waiting for their partners to emerge, one by one, from hair and make-up debriefing, It’s like parents waiting for their kids after school.


AFTER A COUPLE OF HOURS at Glam Slam, the most determined revellers, notably Warren Beatty, Kirstie Alley and Gerardo, head “a 45-minute drive out of town to Paisley Park for a further party. I’ve not been explicitly invited, but nor has anyone told me not to come. so I follow the flow. There is an open space at the centre of Paisley Park. offices on one side, the canteen on the other, that reaches up to the roof. and a DJ flown in from Los Angeles has set up two decks. The music is standard semi-tough house and hip hop. Its obviously perfectly coot, perhaps even required, to play Prince s music in front of him. The DJ had spun plenty at Glam Slam and here we get more: “Gett Off, “Anotherloverholenyohead", The Family’s “The Screams Of Passion”.

Prince doesn’t realty get into the swing of things. For much of the night he stands up on the walkways on the floor above, leaning over the railings that surround the atrium dancefloor, just watching. He looks like Batman draped in shadows on the edge of a high building, surveying the subjects of his Gotham City below. Carmen – the pretty new female rap star signed to Paisley Park but also, one suspects, a new special friend – pops up to see him every now and then. He comes down just the once to talk to Alley and Beatty. He doesn’t dance. After a while he disappears, perhaps to the private flat he keeps upstairs at the back of Paisley Park. (They say it has stained-glass windows, but you can’t see from the front.) Around 4am, the party breaks up.

ON SUNDAY I AM AGAIN supposed to hear the LP, but again it doesn’t happen. The next day is the day that I am sitting in the Paisley Park boardroom, taking advantage of their phone. This is the day he calls. His voice is huskier, more manly than you might imagine. He says he just phoned to say “hello” and to tell me about his LP. hies sorry that he can’t be there to play it to me, but he has to go into town. As he starts moving into goodbye mode, I begin to panic at what I’ll be taking home. “Prince speaks! He says ’Hello! How Are You!’” So I try to engage him, desperately following any line of conversation from his last answer so he has no chance to sign off. Surprisingly, it works.

We talk about his new LP. “All my last records . . . have been connected to films. This is just my music. . . I just wanted to tell you how long we took making this...”

He contrasts it with “Lovesexy", his reassessment of devotion, which flew out of him. “I did ’Lovesexy’ in seven weeks from start to finish, and most of it was recorded in the order it was on the record.” he says. “There was a couple of funky things I did at the end and put earlier on, but its pretty much how you hear it. I didn’t change anything.”

The “Lovesexy” tour was part pop spectacular, part evangelical fervour. Prince would beseech the crowds to love God. over and over. The 1990 “Nude” tour seemed to move away from that. I mention that people thought that he’d backed off from his evangelical  position. It’s something he jumps upon. “People got that wrong.” he insists. “’Batman’ was all about that same feeling. ’Graffiti Bridge’ was about that feeling. ’Graffiti Bridge’ was probably more about that feeling than ’Lovesexy’ was. ’Lovesexy’ was a state of mind I’ve come to, and I know it is still there.” He gets increasingly impassioned. “If I didn’t have it. I wouldn’t make records any more. When you have that. . . you know who you are, and you know what your name is. I didn’t know that before. I thought there were places I had to get to, I thought there were things I had to do. I was a lot more competitive before. Now I realise that’s not what’s important.”

I ask whether he minds having records that aren’t very successful.

No,” he says. “They all serve a purpose.” Money has not been mentioned, but what he says next seems a deliberate riposte to all those stories saying that he’s in financial trouble. He says it with a definite I-know-what-you-thinkand-you’re-wrong determination. “I’ve already made money, all the money I need. That happened a long time ago. I was never that interested in money anyway.’

He launches into his thoughts on critics. Though his tone is more playful than resentful, he has a genuine anger. How could anyone be so mean-spirited that they would put down music made with such noble intentions as his? “I would never criticise someone else who gave me something for my head/’ he says. “Like. when I was young, I remember what happened to Stevie Wonder when he did the ’Secret Life Of Plants’ record.” The critical reaction – to point out that it was cod-spiritual pseudo-environmental Muzak – was nothing short: of a betrayal. “Stevie was our friend and we’d gone through so many things, and then we turned our back on him. They said it was no good. But we can’t say that if he’s our friend. and if we do say that, he won’t be our friend any more, and he doesn’t want to play music for us. . . It was the same with Joni Mitchell. They said she was off her rocker and that she’d gone away. And the more they said that, the more she went away. . .”

It seems appropriate to mention Graffiti Bridge. He is not the slightest bit defensive about it. “Some people got it. Martika saw it six times.” This leads into a rapturous appreciation of the young Cuban teen idol. She is clearly the type of person he wishes all his audience, all the world, might be. He says that she is, as yet, totally undervalued, that people have not got a clue to her depths. “She is,” he says. “like a flower that’s unfolding.”

"THAT’S NICE,” SAYS MARTIKA, when I speak to her a few days later. She is just waiting to speak to Prince on the phone about a dance mix he’s done of “Love... Thy Will Be Done”. “I feel the same way about him. Though he’s sort of unfolded already, I guess.” Martika had been thinking about calling Prince for months. When she saw Graffiti Bridge (she says it’s true – she has seen it six times) she noticed that a tot of the words were about the noticed that a lot of the words were about the same things she’d been jotting in her notebook. “It’s hard to explain, but I had a really strong instinct that I needed to call him.” So, last December, she sent him a message and flew out to Minneapolis.

She suspects that initially he planned to treat it like any of his “collaborations”. He had the basis of a song (the one that would become the title track of her latest LP “Martika’s Kitchen") and perhaps, had her unfoldingness not been so apparent, she would have been wheeled in to sing it and sent on the first plane home. (Most of Prince’s songs for others involve them singing a lead vocal in place of his against a backing he has already recorded.) But they sat down and she showed him her notebooks. He was impressed. He advised her how to restructure songs, and pieced together different ideas in her books “like a jigsaw”. She visited several times, taking the four tracks they worked on together away to New York to finish on her own. She flew back to play him the whole LP, and the video for “Love... Thy Will Be Done”. When he watched the video, he was visibly moved. He said he couldn’t watch it.

"It’s so obvious what he is saying,” says Martika. “Unfortunately I think a lot of people don’t get it. It’s so key. It’s all about... loving the light, and the spirit, and the importance of that. It’s the only thing that really matters. “Everyone’s too concerned about whether  Prince is normal or not. Which,” she laughs, “he isn’t. It’s obvious. The man’s at a different level... He has a calling obviously. Its his mission in life. Something’s definitely been guiding him, and motivates him, something very powerful.”

She asks me about my time in Minneapolis, and I hint at some of the strangeness: He’s rude. “I know what you’re saying. He’s very difficult to understand like that. But I don’t think he means to be. Sometimes when Prince can be frustrating. I think he’s just so lost in what he does. He constantly hears music and he just gets so absorbed. His head’s in another place. And I’ve always told myself, if he pisses me off. I’d know he’d never mean it.

"If you go into any situation with Prince with the attitude of expecting the expected, even the things you would conventionally feel appropriate - manners, or etiquette...” She sighs and starts again. “To really deal with Prince you have to be willing to just go with it. He really is such a good soul. And he is not like a typical person. I’ve never met anyone like him. But that’s part of the magic, the fact that he’s so different. Don’t expect it to be anything like you’ve encountered before.” She’s a touchingly militant champion for him, You have to excuse the eccentricities, the unpleasantness. What matters is so much more important: the music. So you have to believe. “He’s an angel, he really is. That’s the best word for him. He’s a magical person. He’s just in touch with something so spiritual. He’s such a beautiful person. You know what I’m saying? And. you know – I love him.”

PRINCE ENJOYS EXPLAINING why he makes music. His first explanation is flip and arrogant: “I like music to play in my car. and when ! need something new to play I record something. Instead of buying a tape I make music.” And at the moment in his car? “’Diamonds And Pearls’, of course.” He usually cues up the frantic band rap “Push", then goes from there. Unless it’s sunny, in which case he plays “Strollin’”. There’s nothing else he could play.

“I don’t listen to any of my old music, you know,” he announces with strange pride, as though it would be some awful thing to do.

And as far as other people’s music. . .

“You know when you buy someone’s record and there’s always an element missing? The voice is wrong or the drums are lame or something? On mine there’s nothing missing.”

I ask him if there’s any other current music which he listens to, and with a dismissive chuckle he says, “No.” The pleasures of listening to Bon Jovi, Fishbone, the Cocteau Twins et al are conveniently displaced for now.

He talks some more about his new projects. I mention the possible video with Kate Bush. Frequent transatlantic phone conversations with the floaty Ms Bush have been openly alluded to during my stay at Paisley Park, but Prince denies any knowledge. Strange. I mention Spike Lee’s video, planned for “Walk Don’t Walk", and he is a little more open. “It’s scheduled, hopefully,” he says. The two men met before (Lee came on the set of Graffiti Bridge; Prince, you may recall, is written into Do The Right Thing as one of the black heroes the Italian pizza-cooking son, Pino, adores). I ask whether he and Spike Lee share a common thread. Prince draws his breath playfully, as though I’m asking naughty questions.

“Ooooh,” he says, “I don’t want to answer that. That’s getting into philosophy.”

No harm in philosophy, I say.

“I don’t think so,” says Prince with a chuckle, meaning he does.

I ask him whether he feels the public’s perception of him is accurate. “There’s not much I want them to know about me,” he says, “other than the music.”

We talk about Paisley Park, where I am sitting and he is not. (Unless, it strikes me, he is sitting in his flat, just yards away. Wouldn’t that be perfect?) He says he wrote the song long before he built the place. He says it’s “much more than just a studio” to him. He needs somewhere that’s his to record. “The first time I had that was for ’Dirty Mind’ when I had a studio in my house. Then ’1999’ was done in the studio in the purple house.” After the last sentence he pauses, then adds, for no obvious reason. “I don’t live there any more. . .” He talks about how he lives in Minneapolis because there are no distracting outside influences on him. so he can concentrate on looking inwards and finding things that are unique and special and different. (The virtue of simply being different is something he has drilled into all his band. Perhaps even more important to him than being good or bad is to be different from anybody else, to be shiny and new. It seems almost a fetish"   Tony M. tells me that when he was trying to persuade Prince to let the dancers rollerskate on tour he couldn’t convince him until Tony played his trump card – “nobody else is doing it” –and his face lit up.)

I ask him whether he feels the public’s perception of him is accurate. “What do you mean?” he asks, guardedly. Do they have an accurate idea of how you live?

"There’s not much I want them to know about me,” he says, “other than the music.”

I’m not controlling this conversation, just clinging onto it by my fingertips. He mentions his work with other artists and says he writes songs for them “because they ask me.” He names Paula Abdul, Louie Louie, and Carmen, whom, rather disingenuously (as though I wouldn’t have noticed her walking around the office or seen her photo on the hallway wall- the latest female protege on the scene), he describes as “this new girl out of Cincinnati.” He raves about the New Power Generation, genuinely thrilled. “Rosie,” he says, “is like a tornado. There’s never enough hours in the day for her voice. There’s never enough tape for her voice . . . and my dancers, they’ve waited seven years for this.  . .” Eventually, after several more desperate pieces of stalling, he really is going. He signs off by breaking out of his conversational tone and heading into declamatory soul-star theatrics. “Don’t come to the concert, y’all,” he shouts down the phone, laughing. “Don’t come to the concert! I’ve got a band of assassins. . .”

I FINALLY GET TO HEAR THE LP. Gilbert takes me down to Studio A. Prince and the New Power Generation have been in here working on some new songs. One seems to be called “Standing at the Altar.” On the soundtrack Prince has four channels for himself: two for his vocals, one for “guitar,” and another for “guitar/dirty.”

There and then the record sounds fantastically good, and ,after spouting quite genuine over-enthusiasm, I go out to lunch. I’m expecting to be here a few more days. Rehearsals have been canceled this week, so I’m planning to stay for the “Gett Off” video.But on the way out Gilbert says goodbye in what seems an inappropriately conclusive manner. I put it down to my paranoia, but when I phone later I discover I was right, I’m to leave. Later I find out that Prince has been asking how much longer I’m going to be in town.

So I pack. Sheila E is outside my hotel, astride a turquoise motorbike, though art first I don’t recognise her. A boy walks towards me, proudly clutching an autograph.

"Who’s that?” I ask.

"I don’t know,” he says. “Ask my mum.”

I head home. I don’t know if I found anything. I don’t know if I fitted into some little game of Prince’s, or whether I’ve caused upset in it. He’s made a record that the world likes, and that’s good. But can a record alone redraw Prince’s personality, make him more human? His music, sleeves, videos – even his films – are littered with clever, sweet, sharp messages, but most of the world just picks up a picture of an awkward, pervy, self-indulgent geek. The man I talked to on the telephone was smart, polite, charismatic, and playful, but it’s another man – the people watcher, the one who doesn’t say hello, the narcissist who’s so into himself all he needs is mirrors and footservants – that so many people imagine being the real Prince. There’s one bit of our conversation that keeps playing over in my head. Written down, now, it looks a bit silly a bit precious and daffy. But at the time it was moving. He was telling me again why he makes music.

“I make music because if I didn’t, I’d die. I record because it’s in my blood. I hear sounds all the time. It’s almost a curse: to know you can always make something new.”

Have you always been like that? I ask him.

“No. When I was younger I had. . . other interests. . . but you know how the very first song I learned to play was ’Batman’. . . ?”

He leaves the sentence open. Yes, I say, you don’t think that’s an accident, do you?

“There are no accidents,” he says. “And if there are, it’s up to us to look at them as something else. And. . .” – and at that point he pauses, and even though we’re talking over the phone I can see him do one of those long fawn-eyed stares that makes you believe every curious syllable he speaks – “and that bravery is what creates new flowers.”

Of course Whenever I tell anyone about it, they say it sounds weird. Stupid and pathetic. It sounds like he should grow up. They think I’ve been charmed, indoctrinated even. But to me that, more than anything else sounds like the real Prince. It makes perfect sense.