“Born Again”

Robert Crampton

From the outside, Paisley Park looks like something on a light industrial estate on the outskirts of, say, Swindon. The building is a low rise modern box, grey panels, set in a few acres of car park and lawns, 50 yards off a highway. There are no huge fences and no armed guards. If you kept driving past it, you’d reach Canada in about 8 hours. Turn left, and you’d hit the Rockies in a couple of days. These are the plains of the Midwest, each state as big as England. This is Chanhassen, outside Minneapolis, in Minnesota, home state of Fargo, Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, the Mary Tyler Moore show and – the man i have come to see – Prince. Or: The Artist, Squiggle, Symbol, TAFKAP, Prince Rogers Nelson, his original name. Whatever.

This business of the name is probably what Prince is now is now best known for in Britain. Which is a shame because, still, his worst stuff is better than most other musicians’ best, and his best stuff is very good indeed. Yet it is a long time since 1999, Purple Rain and Sign ’O’ The Times. There have been alot of second rate albums, canceled tours and weird, self-indulgent stunts masquerading as the eccentricities of genius since his prodigious talents last found their way fully into the shops. His live act, I read, remains unsurpassed.

Inside the building, things get a little stranger. The symbol by which Prince now prefers to be known is painted on the walls, carpets, mixing desks. There are piano keys painted on some ceilings, a blue sky and clouds on some walls, a night sky on others, starfish and crescent-moon designs in the carpet, naked theatrical bulbs around the reception desk, a dove mural on another wall. On the wall facing the front door is a huge montage of mountains, clouds and Prince’s head in profile. Yet none of this is as garish as it sounds. It isn’t probably what you or I would call tasteful but, with the quiet and the smell of incense, the atmosphere is pleasant enough.

There is a bit of faffing about, but thankfully not too much of the disgusting sycophancy with which American superstars often surround themselves. We hear the new album, Newpower Soul. It doesn’t make a great impression, apart from one song called Come On, about being married, and another called Until U’re In My Arms Again, which I take to be about his baby son, born horrifically handicapped in October 1996, dead within the week. “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.” Thinking of this man thinking of his boy who isn’t there makes you feel for him. It could be a potential crossing point over a racial, geographical and cultural divide which proves to be otherwise nigh-on unbridgeable. But we can’t mention this subject. “No baby,” the publicist says. “Or he’ll walk.”

The Complete Rhyming Dictionary is on the mixing desk – which could be a great disappointment for those who think their man is a great poet, or a tribute to his desire to write listenable-to lyrics. Back out to reception, I admire the wall-loads of gold, platinum and, more often, triple-platinum discs. He says they mean nothing to him, these and the awards in their display case. So why put them up?

We are shown his latest video (lots of Hispanic women in tassled white underwear, so no change there) and, during this, Prince appears and stands around nervously. he is tiny, 5ft 4in, can’t be much more than 8st, has a 27in waist apparently. A real flyweight. He is wearing a maroon velvet suit. The jacket is open to the waist, showing his hairy little chest, yet the eye is drawn to his left ear.Fitting around the outside of it is a thing which I later learn is called an ear cuff. It looks like a bodyguard’s ear piece, except it is made of gold and has a star hanging off the top with a diamond in the middle of the star. All the members of his band wear these ear cuffs. He is also wearing a diamond wedding ring – he got married in 1996.

His face is very heavily made up with a foundation that lightens his skin, mascara, eyeliner. His moustache and sideburns are shaved to a tiny trace, but he has thick, Chaplinesque eyebrows. He is carrying a cane. His hair is straight and elaborately set. He comes over. His handshake is weedy – deliberately so, according to his publicist, who has told me that, a bit like the Royal Family, he has to go easy with the greetings so as to preserve his fingers. Despite the clothes and the accesories, he does not have that aura which very famous people are supposed to have. Which is good, because usually aura can reliably be translated as insufferably arrogant.

He is not arrogant at all. He asks if I would mind Larry Graham sitting in on the interview. Larry Graham was the bass player with Sly and the Family Stone. These days he works with Prince (and the influence of Graham’s former band shows on the album we have just heard) and seems to be a kind of mentor and father-figure to him, although he is just 11 years older. I say, well, no disrespect to muso legend Graham, I’m happy to interview him later.

Prince nods and accepts my wishes. Off we go, up to a conference room, where we sit at one end of a long glass-topped table. I ask if he always dresses so flamboyantly for the office, whether he ever feels like putting on jeans and a t-shirt. “Man, I wore jeans in 1982!” I nod. “They were uncomfortable! I like to be comfortable. Feel that,” he says, fingering his trouser leg. I half extend my hand. “Go on man, feel that, it’s like skin.” I reach over and under the table, and pinch a fold of the velvet. It’s actually a bit scratchy, but I say, very nice, lovely. “Right. Like skin.” He adds, cryptically and in a more level tone: “I like to be clean.”

His voice is deeper and much more confident than I had imagined. I had expected some kind of ghostly, batty murmurings. Instead, there is this earthiness and humour in his tone, and a trace, perhaps, of self parody. His accent is more southern than you would expect from someone who has spent all of his 40 years in Minneapolis. The rhythm is alot like Muhammad Ali, another black icon who, for a while, was better known for his name change than for his artistry. indeed, Prince has invoked Ali’s rejection of his “slave name", Classius Clay, by way of a case law in his own defense. The difference was Ali did it early in his life and career, his glorious achievements still ahead of him. Also he chose a name, not a pretentious symbol. Also, Ali was making a political point against his record company and made it unashamedly. Prince is, was, making a point against his record company and, I think, his father and made it in a half-baked fashion.

He’s got himself into a pickle with the name. You’ve got to call yourself something, so he’s ended up with this awful The Artist. The people around him, if they have to, refer to him in rather embarrassed fashion as The Artist. Those of us not in his employ don’t call him anything. Besides No Baby, we are told most definitely No Prince.

 I say, so tell me about your life here. Is it true you only sleep three hours a day? “Yes,” he says. “From 6 till 9.” In the morning? “Yes.” Don’t you ever feel like a lie-in, say till 10 or 11am? Aren’t you tired? His expression goes grave, like a chessy politician contemplating the sacrifices he has to make to serve the public. “Yes, I’m tired. But I have so much to do, directing the flow between two studios, recording all the time, jamming all the time.” I say, do you work so hard because you have to be in charge of everything? “It’s not so much that I have to be in charge of everything, it’s that I do everything.” A look at the sleeve credits to his new album – and indeed all his albums – bears this out. He even gets a half credit for the photographs.

So we talk about his motivation for all this work. “I do my music to excess. Music, music, music – it’s like a curse that way. It can be a curse. It’s been like that since I was seven years old and my father left for the last time. That’s alot to do with it. My sister used food and I used music.” Is your sister (I pause, struggling to remember the current American euphemism for fat), er, a big lady, then? Prince nods ungallantly. “Uh-huh, yes she is.” We both look at the table. “Not that we blame him, my father,” he says, unconvincingly. “He didn’t like me to play as a kid. He was a musician, he didn’t want that racket on the piano. Then he split and i played all the time. The music sort of filled the void. It was cool.”

Was it a poor background, I ask? “No,” says Prince,. “I got poor when I was a teenager.” He then talks about the ghetto only existing in your mind, how “if you think like you’re disenfranchised, then you are disenfranchised, you dig?” and so forth. He said that as a teenager he was broke and he had to wear the same shirt, and that was a trial. “Like you feel special, but you don’t look it,” he says, and that is why now, he reckons, flash clothes, a rich man’s clothes, are so important to him.

He says: “Right now, I’m trying to eliminate all drama from my life.” I look at the gold and diamond ear cuff and nod. “I became so obsessed about not having any power that I was reduced to writing on my face.” I ask if he regret that now and he shakes his head and says: “Absolutely not, no.” So, about 8 minutes into our alloted 30 we are talking about his wrangle with his former record company, Warner. At the height of the fighting a few years ago, he took to writing Slave on his face in eyeliner, something which earned him a great deal of criticism. My sympathies tend to be with the record company – they seemed to have allowed him a great deal of freedom anyway, and balked at his wish to release three albums a year, arguing – with justification – that a sub-standard product might alienate his audience. Besides, multi-millionaire rock stars who renegotiate their already vastly lucrative contacts in full maturity (Prince was 34) and then start comparing themselves to people in chains  it’s a bit much.

I have no doubt that Prince is being sincere in saying he wasn’t free under Warner – because of course he wasn’t, fully – but when he talks about all the argy-bargy, he mentions money a lot more than he does artistic freedom. “Purple Rain sold 14 million. Say $10 a pop – that’s on the low side, but say $10 a pop. That’s $140 million I made for them. For one album.” How much did he get per album> “Seven cents. That ain’t so cool.” He says: “I see brothers trapped into this daily. You’re 17. An entertainment lawyer says, ’Here is the standard seven-album deal’. You don’t own your music, but there’s a cheque for $80,000 with your name on it and you think you’re in the promised land.” He says promised with the stress on the first syllable, just like Martin Luther King once did.

He says that he is now free, but “Prince’s music is still enslaved”. “I paid for that music,” he says. “And they own the tapes. They can own the stores, the stations, that’s cool. But don’t keep the music. There is $38 billion worth of recorded music sold each year.” He is very taken by David Bowie’s recent deal whereby he has leased his masters to his record company for 25 years and $90 million. “That’s pretty nice ain’t it? He was the creator, he still owns the music and his son can have it. I did 14 or 15 albums for Warner. That’s more than David Bowie – and he’s older than me.”

He talks with ironic admiration of the way record companies, radio stations and cable channels can manipulate and, if necessary, terminate an artist’s career. “It’s brilliant, man. It works perfectly.” I say, is it the case that most of the executives of these companies would be white and, in the US anyway, many of the artists whom he says are being ripped off are black? He isn’t ready to go that far, even though it is uncontroversially true. He mumbles. “They are your words, not mine... but power is structured that way...these brothers, they want money, power and respect. They end up powerless, broke and degenerate.”

There is not much chance of Prince ending up powerless or broke, not with his back catalogue, even if he cannot profit from it as fully as he would like. Should he choose 1999 could make alot of money next year – even though Warner owns the title. I point out that his name change has made him a figure of fun in Britain at least. He laughs. “I get $7 an album now. If I sell 100,000 albums – which they consider a failure – I’ve got $700,000 in the bank. That’s cool. I’ve got the money in the bank. I’m holding the puppies, you dig?”

Nor is he ever going to be degenerate. Famously abstemious, he does not smoke, drinks only the occasional glass of wine and has sacked members of his entourage for taking drugs. Indeed, he barely eats. He is a vegan. His musicians are required to be at least vegetarian. His life is work and business, and whatever time is spare, if his songs are anything to go by, goes on sex and religious worship. I ask him why sex and his (by now tellingly repetitive – there’s more of it on this new album) boasting about his own athleticism in that department is so important to him. He says: “Sex is spirtuality. Flesh on flesh, it’s the highest form of spirituality here on earth. Wanting somebody, building a light for them, them wanting you, your lights becoming one light, becoming them, making love. Then you are just beings moving their bodies around.” Had he ever wanted somebody who didn’t want him? “Yes, my teacher. When I was 15.” Was he popular with girls back then? “Not at the beginning, no. After we got in a band...”

Now we talk about fame. I want to talk about the gilded cage, the prison of celebrity. He isn’e having any of that. “You are surrounded by people who love you and want to care for you, who will build your light up, who want to do hings for you. You walk differently, talk differently, act differently. You hold your head up.” There is no possible downside to this that Prince can comprehend. Most British stars can at least understand that it might not be entirely healthy to be surrounded by people who agree with everything they say, and many will go to great lengths to enhance their one-of-the-boys/girls credentials. Prince is not like most British stars.

He does have some humility – but that humility is before God, not man. What a deeply religious people the Americans are, and none more so than black Americans. Prince is no exception. He was brought up in several denominations – Seventh Day Adventist and Baptist among them. Now, he seems o be leaning – as I discover later from Graham – towards another, more fundamentalist sect.

“You’ve gotta have belief,” says Prince. “It’s the only way to make it through this maze. And God is there, he’s everywhere, he ain’t dead, contrary to popular opinion. And he will come again and it will be the most beautiful, powerful, electric moment, the sky’s gonna go all purple and red.” He says that, “I’ve always imagined angels and demons fighting, like two people arguing. You’ve got to battle it out.” He says that he has given alot of his wealth away. He says that “30 million people in the world have Aids and 21 million of them are in Africa” – which is precisely accurate. “That’s an organised effort to diminish light. It’s fertile soil, rich soil. These people are farmers. You see folks with flies on ’em, then who are you? You’d better help somebody.”

I ask him why he has stayed in Minneapolis. “Hey,” he says. “It’s pretty beautiful.” He gestures out of the window. I follow his hand and we both look at the car park for a while. I think of the miles of featureless sprawl surrounding us. Maybe, I think, if you were brought up in the grim city, this burbscape does look beautiful. Later, some of us drive around one of Prince’s old neighbourhoods (he had alot, moving many times between parents, relatives and friends). It is perfectly pleasant: tree-lined streets; well-kept, small, wooden blue-collar houses neatly maintained – and lots of huge brick churches. He says: “All my life I fantasised constantly about this. Having somewhere I could work all the time.”

Did he ever think of moving to LA, like most entertainers do? “It’s a different energy there. I go there, make videos there hang with Stevie (Wonder) or whatever.” What about other celebrity friends? “Lenny Kravitz flies up. Chaka Khan.” Does he have other homes? “I had houses in Paris, LA. Got rid of ’em all. Paris, it was a million-dollar villa for a month of the year.” Now, he just has his mansion up the road where, heart-achingly, he has built an adventure playground so that he could watch his son play while he worked.

Feeling rather shoddy, I try to get him to talk about the tragedy by praising the song he wrote about it. I really liked that song, “Until U’re In My Arms Again", I say. “Thank you, thank you,” he says in a small voice. His eyes lock onto mine for the first time. I think there is some beseechment there. Later I read that Prince gave a press conference soon after the birth and said he was “enjoying being a father”. The baby, born with Pfeiffer’s syndrome, a rare deformity in which the skull hardens prematurely, was already dead when he said that.

At this point Prince’s wife, Mayte, comes in, along with two Yorkshire Terrier puppies, Mary and Mia. The puppies start chasing each other round the room, yapping. Mayte is a beautiful 25-year-old Puerto Rican dancer, and she is wearing a dress that seems to be clingy and floaty, transparent and opaque all at once. “Is that my dress or yours?” asks her husband, deadpan. Her attitude to him is, if not servile, then certainly subservient. Her attention is all on him, his well-being, his – probably precarious – equilibrium. There is an awkward pause as we admire the puppies’ antics. “I’m from Yorkshire,” I say, with obvious desperation. Prince fusses over a dog. “Right. Best dogs I ever had.” Another pause. “You gotta hear Chaka’s album, man. It’s amazing.”

He shows me to the door. “Man bought me a book yesterday,” he says. (It is on the table, a music-industry reference book.) “It says I’m a record-company executive now. It’s only a title, man. ’Rock star’ is a title. ’Negro’ is a title. I don’t want a title.” He says he will play London in the autumn, but “there are some funny people in London. I want to make sure I’m dealing with the guy who hands you the money rather than the guy that hands you the bill, you know what I’m sayin’?”

Minnesota is 1 per cent black, compared with 12 per cent across the States. It is a liberal state – the only one to vote for Walter Mondale in the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1984. It is known throughout America as a place where blacks and whites get along. Prince listened to alot of “white” music as a boy, and became a superstar by producing music that white people liked. His heroes – Miles Davies, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye – did the same. Unlike them, partly because he employed Hispanic dancers and musicians, partly because he avoided race-conscious lyrics and partly because he stayed in the sticks – Prince never became a hero to his own people. As big in the Eighties as Michael Jackson, in the Nineties Prince could have gone down what seems to be Jackson’s preferred route towards an abandonment of his ethnicity. Maybe he did go down it a little way. But he stopped and came back.

Now, he seems – at 40, out of Warner’s embrace, still on strained terms with his father, after such a dreadful personal loss – to be a man looking for faith. Yet, he does not seem at ease finding that faith in racial consciousness or exclusivity. Instead, he is finding his faith in the verities of old-time religion. For instance he has given up swearing. Graham, whom I spoke to as promised, told me: “He’s a spirtual man. Sometimes we study. For hours, six, seven, eight hours a day we sit down and get into the scriptures.” I ask Graham where he goes to worship. “We go to the Kingdom Hall in Navarre, just 15 minutes up the road, for our spirtual training. Five meetings a week.” And does The Artist go too? “He goes with us sometimes.”

I ask Graham what people who go to the Kingdom Hall are called. He says: “In England, yeah, they would be called Jehovah’s Witness.” Sure enough, I later find copies of Watchtower and Awake in Studio B, right next to a symbol-shaped guitar. In one issue, God is referred to as The One. That is also the title of Prince’s latest single. I ask Graham: how do people react to The Artist at the Kingdom Hall? “Totally different from if we went any place else without security. There’s no security needed. The star of the show is God.” So be warned. Next year is 1999: he may come knockin’ on your door, but he won’t have come to party.