Prince of vulnerability

He came from Minneapolis - like Mary Tyler Moore but more interesting. And at 40, he’s still there, holed up in the strange world of Paisley Park, trying to deal with the death of his baby son. Dan Glaister meets the Artist Formerly Known As Prince

Dan Glaister

As I wait for my appointment with the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, a purple BMW pulls up at the door to his Paisley Park studios. Through its tinted windows, the shadow of the driver can just be made out. Inside the lobby, I pretend not to watch, waiting for him to get out. Yet when he emerges, it is something of a shock. Small and lithe, the man who gets out of the car is not the person I expected. This particular purple BMW is driven by a man wearing baggy jeans untidily tucked into cowboy boots, his straggly hair partially covered by a baseball cap. He is, perhaps, sixty years old. I tell myself this is what the Artist could look like in 20 years time. Then the man I have been waiting for comes bounding down the stairs into the lobby. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he says in his deep voice, far too deep for a man of his frame, and bounces outside with his swaggering, tight-buttocked strut, head thrown back.

After a few minutes chatting the man who was Prince comes back in, fails to see us standing in the lobby and returns up the stairs. It is only later that I realise I had just seen father and son together, the tormented Artist and the man who, if you believe his lyrics, tormented him as a child, the man from whom we understood he was estranged, the man who told the tabloids that his son had never shared his wealth with him, that he was an outcast in his own town, that he passed his days in an alcohol-soaked daze, that he had worked 32 years at Honeywell computers and for what? A reconciliation has occurred, at least one ghost laid to rest.

For a studio enveloped in such an aura of mystery, Paisley Park is rather unprepossessing from the outside. A squat, grey building, it looks like any anonymous light industrial unit on any industrial estate. Stuck outside the small town of Chanhassen, half an hour’s drive from Minneapolis on the way to Fargo, it blends perfectly with the anonymous freeways and malls of nowhere America. On the inside, however, it is quite out of the ordinary. A pale blue carpet decorated with gold hieroglyphs, big sofas and armchairs dotted about, natural light pouring through a glass roof at the centre of the building, it is a sunny place. The Symbol is everywhere. Marked out in tasteful grey tiles in the centre of the building, painted on the wall facing the entrance, flanked by the Artist’s eyes. Gold discs are everywhere, commemorating sales of this and that, there’s even a trophy cabinet, complete with the Best Original Song Oscar he received for Purple Rain. Down one corridor, leading to the rehearsal stage, are a series of photographs, one for each year since his recording debut 22 years ago. Some of them are, frankly, shocking. Appropriately, betraying New Age sensibilities or a sense of humour - probably both - the sound of doves cooing takes the place of muzak in Paisley Park. A cat stretches out on the sofa, its Symbol pendant glinting, and watches contemptuously as two small dogs scamper around. The dogs belong to Mayte, the Puerto Rican dancer the Artist married at the forbidding red brick Park Avenue United Methodist church in a lower middle class area of Minneapolis. Mayte is charm herself. Assured and glamorous in her Prada print dress and immaculate make-up, she comes over all motherly, asking if we’ve had lunch yet, if there is anything special we would like.

And then we are taken into the presence. We are due to hear a playback of the new album in his studio, but when we enter, Artist and drones are hard at work, remixing. He has his back to us, the three other men in the room stare fixedly at the controls. We are immediately ushered out, the time is not right, but as soon as we are in the corridor, we are immediately ushered back in. The Artist shakes hands. Nobody speaks as we are shown to some seats behind the control desk. Then he speaks. “I’m going to hang out with the band.” And he leaves, with just the merest trace of a flounce. For perhaps 30 seconds nobody says anything. Then the room comes to life. “Hi, how ya doin’?” Suddenly, with the boss absent, it’s all handshakes and smiles.

After the album, it is lunchtime in the small kitchen-diner in Paisley Park. Mr and Mrs Artist are sitting in one of the two booths . She’s eating, he’s just picking, playing, fiddling with his potato salad and wholemeal crackers. “So did you guys hear any singles?” he asks as we file in. Come On, we chorus, one of two pieces of pure pop-funk on the new album, propelled by a deliciously subtle bass.

And then he floats out to prepare for the interview. We are here to talk to the Artist about his forthcoming European tour, kicking off in the UK in September, and his new album, Newpower Soul. Interesting as those things may be, there are, however, more important topics for discussion. The Artist is at a crossroads. He turned 40 last month, he professes to have found a way to avoid the machinations of the record industry, perhaps providing a way forward for other artists, he is smiling on the back of a triumphant US tour last year and... and he is coping with the death of his week-old baby son in November 1996.

Don’t ask him about the baby, we are told. Not unreasonably the man does not want to talk about the infant’s death from complications caused by Pfeiffer’s Syndrome, an obscure disorder which causes the skull to harden and not expand. After just a week of life and two operations, the Artist and Mayte decided to turn off his life support machine. It is a heartbreaking story, made worse by the story sold to the press by the couple’s nanny and bodyguard, which in turn prompted a police investigation. For the record, the police concluded that the infant died of natural causes. Yet while he does not want to talk about it, perhaps his music does, and should. In Liz Jones’s recent biography Slave To The Rhythm, she quotes Vernon Reid of the group Living Colour. Prince, he says, “is in a lot of pain. The degree to which he faces his own internal struggle is the degree to which he’ll have real happiness. For the music he’s given us he deserves happiness. The music he does at that point will be in another place.”

So it is a shock to hear the hidden extra track on Newpower Soul, Why Did I Waste My Kisses On You, end with the sound of a life support machine. It is also surprising to read in the album’s credits “Conceived and born at Paisley Park, bathed and circumcised by the Artist...” And it is sad to read the lyrics to one track, Until You’re In My Arms Again: “All of my life I’ve never wanted anyone like I wanted you/Every night I said a prayer to God and His angels... Every morning when I awaken I imagine you sleeping in your bed/Wrong or right the reason you were taken from my embrace, well it’s never said/Cuz every day that you don’t return is another day that my heart just yearns and yearns...” It’s not unusual for Prince, or the Artist, to indulge in autobiography - indeed pseudonyms. Anorak fans have been puzzling for years over a song called The Sacrifice of Victor, on the Symbol album. “I was born on a blood-stained table/Cord wrapped round my neck/Epileptic til the age of seven/I was sure heaven marked the deck.”

Don’t mention the baby is not the only advice we are given. “Purpose of visit?” asks the stern immigration official at Minneapolis airport. Business, I mumble, I’m a journalist here to do an interview. “Who are you interviewing?” The Artist, Prince. “Ah, good luck, I hear he’s a difficult one.” A local gossip journalist known as CJ, reputedly the subject of a Prince song called Billy Jack Bitch, said: “People are frightened of him. Can he be charming? Yes, charming is one of his personalities. He’s a musical genius - it’s just a human being he’s flunking on.” Before the interview, there is a small question of paranoia. Everyone entering Paisley Park has to sign a gloriously excessive Confidentiality Agreement. I signed. I have promised not to disclose any information I gain while in Paisley Park. And then I am taken up the stairs, taking care not to tread on the dogs. He shakes my hand and shows me into what must be the boardroom for Paisley Park Enterprises: a large glass table that could sit 20 people in a bare white room. He shows me to a seat, which I take as a sign of considerable assertiveness. The last time I interviewed him, some three years ago in his dressing room at Wembley, we had hovered uncomfortably for several minutes before I suggested that we take a seat. This time he was in control. This time I’m even allowed to take notes, although tape recorders are still prohibited. “Yeah, I’m getting better,” he says, “it’s going up and up.” Sitting back in his chair, occasionally hooking a leg over one of the arms, over the next hour and a quarter he emerges as open, assured, engaging, funny, lucid and eloquent, with just the occasional rough edge of a man who does not like to be contradicted.

His dress sense, however, has not changed. The day we meet he wears high-waisted black trousers, little white boots with heels, an off-white shirt with gold cufflinks, opened to reveal a hairy chest, which is in turn concealed by a blue and black scarf. A chain and curious jewellery hooked over the ear set off the image.

Compared with three years ago, when he was at the height of his dispute with Warner Brothers and spoke to me with the word Slave scrawled across his cheek, he is more relaxed. He now strikes one-off distribution deals to get his albums into the shops, although the last set, Crystal Ball, one for the fans, was sold first by mail order through the Internet, and then through a direct deal with three retail chains in the US. Although critics have called it a flop, he is bullish about its success.

"When somebody wants to say that you’re a flop in the industry, that’s because you only get seven cents an album. We sold 250,000 copies of Crystal Ball. That’s all we ever intended to sell. Now it’s finished, over, and guess who gets the lion’s share? Was it positive for me to take seven cents an album when we know that Purple Rain took $150 million? And I’ve got a contract for $100 million to do three more? I have no regrets. If I had not done that I would not have the knowledge I now have.” His US tour last year, covering 71 cities, was hugely successful, earning $27 million, and making the Artist sixth in the ranking of US tours for last year. The plan is to tour from next autumn until the end of the century.

"I make a lot of money on the road. I make $300,000 a night. You add that up and you can see why people want to put a rope around an artist. And sales of music is not as important as giving people a night they’re going to remember. I’d just as well give the music away.” A track called The War is indeed to be given away, he says, to the fans who bought Crystal Ball. The fans will also be interested to learn that he is recording a solo album - “In the style of Sign O’ The Times” - his first solo effort since that album, and perhaps the time to address the personal issues that surround him.

In the meantime, it is tour, tour, tour, although the live shows are a stripped down. “I’ve been part of some pretty grandiose spectacles and we wanted to get back to music,” he says. “I’m tired of all of it. I’m tired of making videos. I never really liked making them anyway. I never wanted to be a star. I didn’t want to get rich. It’s such a game and when you wake up from it you go, Oh man. You get whipped into so many things you don’t have to do. I don’t want to be a part of any lie or any game anymore. I want a job.” The discontent with the industry machine, and his happiness at having discovered a viable way around it, go some way to explaining the troubling change of name. “Prince was a company. It wasn’t my career. It’s embarrassing,” he tells me. “When you’ve got a whole machine behind you making sure your record is in every store that they own and on every radio station that they own... You’re being programmed.” But there must have been a fall-out for him from the dispute with Warners. He was, after all, subjected to enormous ridicule, and the name change has served to alienate many Prince fans. “There was no cost,” he flashes back. Then he considers. “Do you know, there were no colours in here. Everything was white and the carpets were grey. I just think that venting had to occur and its still occurring. I still don’t own my master recordings. I have a problem with the Prince era.” The problem could become acute again as we move into 1999.