The Little Prince Grows Up

Robert Sandall

A mile or so down Highway 5 from the Paisley Park studio complex, where Prince and his band New Power Generation are currently rehearsing the show to be premiered at Blenheim Palace this Saturday, there is a sign which reads “Life is too short to be little”.

Who put it there and why are not clear as you drive past, but, like so much else in and around Minneapolis, it immediately brings to mind the city’s most famous son: his protean ambitions, his prodigious work rate, his tiny size and, last but by no means least, his ineffably cryptic public persona.

For of all the superstars to have emerged from the razzmatazz of rock in the 1980s,Prince is the most musically respected and the least personally understood. Madonna has just made a movie out of bits of her private life; Michael Jackson’s autobiography, Moonwalker, deals at length with the pets and the amusement parks which comprise his.

Prince,by contrast, exists only in his work and in our imaginations. The Garbo-esque silence and secrecy which surround his off-duty self are, in these media-mad times, remarkable. There hasn’t been a full Prince interview since 1983 the year before Purple Rain earned him major league celebrity. “I play music,” he revealed at the time. “I make records, I make movies. I don’t do interviews. “

And he isn’t exactly doing one today, either. But he has granted a tour of his $10m recording, film and rehearsal complex, prior to the release of a new album, Diamonds and Pearls, on September 9; he is allowing a private viewing of the 90-minute show which will be supporting the album in Europe and America this autumn. And, before the performance, he is prepared to say hello, or something on a strictly off the record, no-note-taking-or-tape-recorders-allowed basis, of course.

Whatever Prince’s reason for keeping away from journalists may be, shyness doesn’t sem to have much to do with it. As he skips coquettishly on and off the triple-tiered set in Paisley Park’s “sound stage” aerobically stretching his improbably petite 5ft frame over monitor speakers and casually issuing technical instructions as he goes Prince looks like a kid in a high-tech sandpit. You would never guess that this hyperactive sprite in the citrus-yellow chiffon top, high-waisted magenta trousers and tiny, pointy boots with high heels has just turned 33.

When he shakes hands, he surveys his inevitably taller interlocutor with playfully twinkling eyes and adopts a slightly fidgety manner which, again recalling a clever child, is both engaging and distracted at the same time. He talks, though, like a cool dude, laconically, in a voice much lower than the one you usually hear on record. As often as he can,Prince reverts to gesture rolling the big brown eyes, nodding and shaking his head, smiling slow, wide smiles.

But however he chooses to communicate,Prince doesn’t put out much. He likes to say Yes, Uh Huh, or failing that, No. If he scents criticism as he does when asked about the sparing use of his guitar and the abrupt inclusion of rap, a genre he has previously disparaged, on the new album he takes polite but swift umbrage: “Everybody has the right to change their mind.” Another favourite tactic is to turn questions back on the questioner. “What do you think?,” he frequently asks.

At all times you are aware that he has at least half an ear on the drum sound-check jack hammering away in the back no, make that fore ground. The situation, in fact, almost seems calculated to make the would-be interviewer feel like an irrelevant intruder upon more serious business. The abiding impression is of a person impatient with the loss of control that having to field inquiries implies.

Which isn’t to say that the guy is a rampant egomaniac.

In the current show the individual skills of the band are more prominent than ever before. Reflecting the eclectic range of the Diamonds and Pearls album which makes up half the set, this is a perfectly arranged marriage of funky rhythmic teamwork, pop-rock virtuosity and soul-revue showmanship. It isn’t just the efforts of the boss that ensure that versions of repertoire classics such as Kiss and Purple Rain are delivered here with an unrivaled passion and precision.

Rosie Gaines the most mature female soul-singer he has so far shared vocal duties with gets several opportunities to take the center-stage alone and performs a thrilling cover version of Aretha Franklin’s Respect. A trio of male dancers cut comical capers on the trampoline and off the high walkway at the back. And although there are several visual stunts which feature Prince variously sprawled atop a blue baby-grand piano, or spreadeagled, Christ-like, on a hydraulic moving heart, he has thankfully given up those tedious and tacky X-rated humping routines. In general, he seems now to be devoting more of his on-stage efforts to making us listen than, as used to be the case with Prince, frenetically devising things for us to watch. This show breathes without panting.

The change of emphasis was corroborated by the band-members I spoke to. Locally recruited for the most part, they are, with the exception of a new bass-player, Sonny Thompson, the same bunch who came here last year on the Nude tour. He called it that, one of them told me, because of its deliberate lack of visual frills: “ Prince thought that if this band could cut it without the sauce, they must be good.” The reportedly heavy losses sustained by the Lovesexy extravaganza in 1988, of course, never entered the equation. “ Prince has to do less babysitting with us. In the past he had to work to make up for other people. This is the band he’s always wanted.”

Maybe. But not all of them are so keen on him. Another member, who begged to remain anonymous, talked of tyranny of 18-hour days, of being forced to attend rehearsals while running a fever, of having to survive, as Prince himself does, on three hours of sleep a day and of an intense longing for the next tour to be over. This person has no plans to remain in New Power Generation beyond the present contract and claims to know of others who have left “burned out, basically”.

Well, we always knew that Prince modeled himself in part upon “the hardest-working man in show-business", James Brown, a man with a military instinct for discipline. More surprising, though, was this disaffected employee’s insistence that, contrary to the Paisley Park anti-materialist rhetoric,Prince is deeply concerned about his record sales. In recent years these have fluctuated wildly: 1989’s Batman sold 4m worldwide, but neither Lovesexy (1988) nor Graffiti Bridge (1990) made it into seven figures. None of the seven albums with which he has flooded the market since 1984 has come close to equaling that year’s 15m seller, Purple Rain.

Touring,Prince believes, is a good way of selling albums. It is certainly a more reliable way than through the cinema as he learned with last year’s flop movie Graffiti Bridge and with a previous stiff in 1986, Under the Cherry Moon. With his first American tour in three years about to begin and the slightest question mark now surrounding the durability of his mass appeal,Prince’s decision to open his doors just a crack to the media, seems significant. Life, after all, is too short to be little.