My Strange Relationship with Prince
With the anniversary of his death upcoming I look back at our interactions at the beginning of his career and mine
Of all the musical forces that defined the ‘80s I had the most unusual interactions with Prince Rogers Nelson, that bold singer-songwriter-producer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He would be in and out my life quite a bit in “the Me decade,” I’d have no interaction with him for years after, and then he’d become my unlikely benefactor in the 21st century.
My first serious introduction to his music occurred at a house party hosted by friends from St. John’s University, which we’d all graduated from in June 1979. I knew “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Sexy Dancers” from the radio, but at the party my college pals played the entire ‘Prince’ LP, particularly vibing the hard rocking “Bambi.” As early adopters my college friends had already sensed that Prince wasn’t just another Stevie Wonder influenced R&B love man (though he was partially that), but a musical adventurer unbound by tradition.
In the fall of 1980 word got out that Prince was gonna play the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village, then New York’s premier showcase club. So by college friends bought a block of tickets and we had a mini college reunion. After all these years I still remember the shock of seeing Prince and his first band, which had men and women, blacks and whites, in an very segregated era of music. His single “Uptown” was already in rotation on black radio and his mixed race and gender band epitomized “black, white, Puerto Rican/ everybody just a freakin’.” Prince, in his first trademark outfit -- trench coat, black bikini underwear, red bandana, heavy eye-liner -- was a blaze of audacity and talent. He sang falsetto like Smokey, shredded on guitar like Santana, and bent gender like Bowie. It was my first time hearing the ‘Dirty Mind’ classics “Head,” “Party Up” and “When You Were Mine.” Still vivid in my mind is Prince humping the leg of bassist Andre Cymone and then walking over to kiss keyboardist Lisa Coleman. When he did the incest song, “Sister Sister,” I nearly fell backwards out of my chair. Whatever was going on up in frigid Minnesota was sho nuff freaky.
Not long after Prince’s Bottom Line appearance I interviewed for the position of R&B editor at Record World, the second biggest music trade publication. I’d been a college intern at Billboard, the number one music trade, so I knew about talking to record retailers and radio programmers as well as interviewing artists. So, in January 1981, I started my first (and only) nine-to-five job. I would cover black music for Record World. My first interview on the job? Prince.
On a cold overcast January day, I walked from Record World’s offices on Broadway and 53rd Street to a Lexington Avenue hotel a few blocks north of Grand Central Station. I was greeted at the hotel suite door by Howard Bloom, a bespectacled, crafty dude who was then one of music’s top independent publicists was overseeing the launch of Prince’s first serious media campaign. Though ‘Dirty Mind’ was Prince’s third album on Warner Bros., this was first time he was being positioned as a serious artist, and not a sexy teen idol, and was being introduced to the Big Apple’s critical music press.
I was shocked, as most folks were initially, at how petite Prince was in person, cause on stage he already seemed larger than larger than life. I’m six-foot-one so I felt like I was almost bowing to shake his hand. Draped in the gray rain coat, red bandana and platform shoes of the ‘Dirty Mind’ cover, it seemed like Prince’s body consisted solely of a huge head surrounded by a halo of hair. His eyes were doe like and as big as two full moons. Then he opened his mouth and his on-record falsetto was replaced by a low, resonant voice and a dry, laconic delivery that danced on the edge of sarcasm.
We sat in comfy chairs facing each other with Prince looking me over with a judgmental gaze. I don’t remember him using his hands much to speak. It felt like he kept his hands in his raincoat pockets while we talked, locked down (perhaps to hide his own nervousness?) and peered at me with his chin lowered. His eyes stayed focused on me and did precious little blinking. This is the piece I wrote after that interview in Record World in January 1981:
“With controversial lyrics, striking musical ability, and an eye-popping stage presentation, Prince is one of the most intriguing figures in pop music today. His latest Warner Bros. album, ‘Dirty Mind,’ cracked the Black Oriented Album top ten; the single “Uptown” reached #5 on the BOS chart, while also garnering considerable disco play.
“But Prince’s appeal doesn’t end on the dance floor. Critics from the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, the Soho Weekly News and the Real Paper have all praised him. A typical comment is that he is a mix of Smokey Robinson’s falsetto, Jimi Hendrix’s rock sensibility, and Sly Stone’s onstage outrageousness. Prince himself sees his music “as an expression of myself and my experiences. I always write truthfully about myself. Some don’t understand what I’m saying, but I find when I speak to people that I’m saying things they think, couldn’t say. It reflects what my generation is about, I think.”
“Despite his musical prowess (he plays 26 instruments), Prince’s lyrics, especially on ‘Dirty Mind’ have attracted the most attention – and sparked controversy. For example, “Sister, Sister” deals with incest, hardly an everyday topic for a pop songwriter. Prince says the song is “a plea to my sister to be my friend” and it is “only strange by weak people’s standards.” His position on all his material, be it the anti-draft “Party Up” or the sexually explicit “Head,” is that as long as it deals “with real reality and not some imaginary place” any song is right.
“Many of his lyrics are improvised in the studio. In fact his entire recording process is haphazard in comparison to many acts. “I just get a burst of energy and creativity and do it,” he says. His three Warners albums (‘Dirty Mind,’ ‘Prince,’ ‘For You’) were recorded in an average of 12 days and mixed in about the same time. Because of this approach, he says he finds it easier to play all the instruments on his albums. Later he teaches his five-piece touring band the parts.”
“Prince grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father was a musician and Prince experimented on the family piano. Songwriting came easy to him and he slowly began learning other instruments. Minnesota radio “was so slow we’d be six months behind the rest of the country,” so his musical taste became insular. “Today I really don’t listen to anyone special. It keeps me from being influenced by others.”
“At 18 he signed with Warners, becoming probably the youngest artist to ever produce his own album. His ‘Prince’ album spawned the million-selling single ‘I Want To Be Your Lover.’ Prince says he enjoys touring “but we still haven’t done enough. Touring is the difference between writing a letter and visiting someone in person.” When not on the road he lives in Minnesota. “I still don’t have my own place,” he says. “I live with various people, free loading, and staying inside most of the time’.”
This interview, and others he gave on that trip to New York, was the start of Prince creating his mythology, his very elaborate depiction. The key idea Prince pushed was: I’m not influenced by anyone and that he was self-created in lonely Minnesota homes. Of course over the years it became clear that Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, Santana and the Beatles all meant a lot to him and he’d go on to write songs baring their signature. Minneapolis radio may have been many months behind, but clearly Prince was up on what was happening in contemporary music. When Prince made ‘Dirty Mind’, new wave and post-punk music had clearly impacted him and was reflected in keyboard and guitar tunings.
Maybe a week after the article ran in Record World I was having lunch with a record label publicist at a midtown Manhattan bistro when I noticed Prince and Howard Bloom at another table. This was in the days before Prince would have people moved out of his eye line and have huge bodyguards carry him on their backs. This was Prince on the come up, a man still dwelling in the realm of normality. I gave him the black man nod. He looked at me with those big eyes. I went back to my meal, planning to go over and say “Hi” after I finished. I was there on the dime of another record label and didn’t want to seem anxious to chat with an act from another label.
A few minutes later Bloom came over and said Prince was inviting me to attend his upcoming performance on Saturday Night Live. Eddie Murphy had joined the cast in 1980 and saved the show, but I don’t remember what he did on the show. Honestly I don’t really remember Prince’s performance very well either. Not that I wasn’t looking. It’s just that the way SNL is set up at 30 Rockefeller Center the show exists on a number of stages strung out in front of bleachers. I was sitting in the far right corner of the seats, while the music stage was far left. So I never saw the whole stage. But, from a distance, I spied a bit of Cymone and guitarist Dez Dickerson, Prince singing and then knocking over the mic stand before scrambling off stage.
It was really cool of Prince to invite me to his (and my) first SNL taping. But the real surprise came with the release of ‘1999’ in October 1982. On side two was a song titled “All the Critics Love You In New York” which had me calling other writers who’d interviewed Prince on his ’81 trip, including the gifted Barry Michael Cooper, and asking, “Is this about us?” Probably yes and no. Certainly we’d all showered him with praise. But the song is also a wider celebration of New York itself, a city that embraced his music, sexual provocation and bi-sexual vibe. Still, it was cool to think we scribes had made enough of an impression on Prince to be referenced in a song.
Throughout the early ‘80s one of the great pleasures of my Billboard gig were the releases of Prince’s music, whether under his name or the Time or Vanity 6, and then hearing his compositions during brilliant live shows at the Ritz, the Palladium and Radio City Music Hall. Each performance was at a bigger venue, had more production and a wider array of music. All were marked by moments of the unexpected. Dressed in dark clothes and a big hat, he played guitar behind Vanity 6 at the Ritz. At the Palladium Morris Day, Jerome Benton and the rest of the Time torn up the stage, forcing Prince to give a crazy dynamic show, which included a daring leap from speakers down to the stage. Years later, when I heard he’d had hip replacement surgery, I thought back on his youthful onstage daredevil moments.
It was during these early tours that Prince, Day, Benton, Vanity and everyone on his team perpetuated the fiction that all this music was being created by a mysterious producer named Jamie Starr. Since, at that point, no outside music journalists had yet ventured to the Twin Cities to confirm this tale I, and everyone else, just jotted it down (though it seemed odd that such a prodigious music maker had just suddenly appeared out of the frigid Minnesota air). In retrospect I am incredibly impressed that Prince created this narrative, carefully rehearsed his squad, and got everyone to stay on message – even after it was clear he was Jamie Starr.
Looking back I believe Prince was as interested in myth making as music, as playing with personas as he was in drum machine sounds. His playful deceptions included many other incarnations aside from Jamie Starr (eg: Alexander Nevermind, Joey Coco, Christopher), making neo-funk records with some acts (the Time), jazz fusion instrumentals with others (Madhouse), and tinkering with his identity in song after song.
Through a publicist I worked with to promote my books I got introduced to Alan Leeds, Prince’s road manager, who’d later served as President of Paisley Park records. But more important than that position was the fact that Alan was a true historian of great black music, having begun his career as the first white DJ at a Virginia R&B station in the early ‘60s before joining James Brown’s organization during the golden age when Brown and the JBs, his backing band, were inventing funk. Alan taught me much about the music business during our many talks and, inadvertently, he became a back channel to Prince, where I got a heads up on his moves and I even passed along info to him.
In 1985 I’d moved to the black bohemian enclave of Fort Greene, Brooklyn and befriended aspiring filmmaker Spike Lee, who had just shot an indie comedy called ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ I invested in Spike’s breakthrough film and, at Spike’s request, tried to connect him with Prince, who was headlining Madison Square Garden in, I believe ‘86. Alan tried to schedule a screening of the film for him but it didn’t happen. So while Prince never invested in ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ he’d become a huge fan of Spike’s work. Years later the two collaborated on several music videos and Prince’s catalog would furnish the soundtrack for Spike’s film ‘Girl 6.’
Though I was a Prince fan and felt I had a connection to him, I wasn’t afraid of being critical. In 1984 I flew out to Detroit on November to attend the opening concert of the ‘Purple Rain’ tour at the Joe Louis Arena. I’d attended the New York premiere of the film and, like everyone else, was blown away by the concert footage of Prince and the Time, and the unexpected comic timing of Morris Day and Jerome Benton. The film’s blatant sexism seemed a minor issue then, but makes parts of it uncomfortable to watch now.
‘Purple Rain’ had elevated Prince from important cult artist to pop superstar up there with Michael Jackson and Madonna. So this Detroit ‘show in particular, and the tour overall, was a coronation of his Royal Badness. For me, however, the show wasn’t as electric as the many Prince performances I’d witnessed since seeing him at the Bottom Line. This is some of what I published in Billboard November 17, 1984. The review was titled ‘Too Much ‘Rain’ Clouds Prince Show.’:
“From the moment Prince & the Revolution ripped into the opening chords of ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ the first show of the much anticipated “Purple Rain” tour Nov. 4 at the Joe Louis Arena was fascinating and often exciting, but filled with far too many moments of déjà vu. The impulse is strong in the age of video for artists to repeat the imagery of a popular clip on stage, cementing the connection between the visual statement and the live performance. But Prince is basing the bulk of his concert tour on “Purple Rain,” the film, instead of using “Purple Rain,” the tour, as a platform to go beyond those symbols and gestures. From the black lace that covers his eyes in “Darling Nikki” to the water spewing guitar of ‘Baby I’m A Star,” Prince is obedient to the images of “Purple Rain.” At the start of the anthemic title song he started to play a brown guitar then, apparently, realizing his mistake, switched to the white guitar utilized in the film.”
I wrote the show had an “is it live or is it Memorex quality” and was disappointed at “the absence of so many standards from Prince’s rich catalog.” I concluded my review stating “Overall it was quality arena rock show, but one with obvious room for improvement. The tour is already sold out until January, so Prince has no financial incentive to add older hits or rethink his staging. Still, he has led us to expect him to reach for greatness, and this show, for all his appeal, simply doesn’t do it.”
At the after party in Detroit Prince sat alone in a corner as the guests gawked at him from behind a velvet rope. Prince had entered an enduring period of calculated isolation. He’d go to busy nightclubs, places where he’d be eyeballed by everyone, yet he’d sit unsmiling in the VIP section and gaze out at those gazing at him. Often he would have security move people out of his eye line, as if their looking offended him. But wasn’t he the one wearing custom-made purple-tinted clothes and, in the later years, carrying a walking stick? Plus he usually had a beautiful mixed-race woman by his side. And we weren’t we supposed to look?
At the time I never knew what, if any, reaction Prince had to my review. I do know that the ‘Purple Rain’ show loosened up as the tour progressed and became more spontaneous. I attended a concert at the Capitol Center outside D.C. where the first 10 to 15 minutes of the show started with a funky jam played in total stage darkness, a bold move in a 20,000-seat arena and totally in keeping with the looser tenor of his earlier gigs.
My next interaction with Prince wasn’t direct but it was memorable, even a bit comical. Alan called just before the release of the ‘Parade’ LP, which essentially was the soundtrack to his black & white French Riviera opus ‘Under the Cherry Moon’. He said Prince wanted me to hear the album, so I’d get a call on Saturday morning and be told where to go. The implication was that Prince would play it for me. Sounded damn good to me. Prince was deep into his “I don’t do interviews” period so any interaction with him would be a major scoop for me.
I waited anxiously that Saturday morning in my Brooklyn apartment. And I waited and I waited and I waited. I sat there until well after noon. I didn’t have a cellular phone so I couldn’t leave my land line. By 1:00pm I was definitely feeling like I was the butt of a practical joke when the phone finally rang. A woman’s voice gave me an address near the United Nations. I hopped on the Lexington Avenue line and, forty minutes later, I was entering the lobby of a luxury high rise. I was directed to a private elevator that took me directly to the penthouse. The door opened and a fluffy white dog greeted me. I took a step inside and there was the lovely singer Jill Jones in platinum blond hair in a slinky black dress, offering me wine and cheese.
The living room was dominated by a white piano with a circular skyline cut into the roof, so sun and moonlight fell on the keyboards. The walls were white, the pillows were purple, the sound system was dope, and the album full of gems. Slipping wine, eating cheese, chatting with Jill while hearing Prince’s new music made for a pleasantly odd afternoon, though I couldn’t help feeling that I was being video- or audio-taped for Prince’s later amusement.
In 1989, when I left Billboard after seven years to write books and pursue screenwriting, I thought Prince and I were basically cool. When word got out he’d cut an album in ‘87 called ‘The Black Album’ which had gotten shelved in favor of the ‘Love Sexy’ LP. Someone slipped me a copy. I found the album a murky listen and a huge drop-off from the pop song craft he was cable of. In my opinion he’d made a wise decision to pull it off the market and, instead, release the more accessible ‘Love Sexy’ in ‘88. As for the song titled “Bob George”? I hadn’t thought much about it since I couldn’t understand the words and felt the track was just OK by Prince’s lofty standards.
When the record got an official release in November 1994 someone called and said “Bob George” was partially about me and, I must sadly admit, the line “that skinny motherfucker with the high pitched voice” was an apt 1987 description. Apparently the “Bob” was his former manager Bob Cavalllo. Since the song was actually written in the mid-80s Prince perhaps was pissed about something I’d published (maybe that ‘Purple Rain’ tour review in Billboard?) and freestyled his irritation one night Minneapolis.
Ultimately, like “All the Critics Love You in New York,” I had to take it as a compliment that he’d felt strongly enough about something I’d written to respond emotionally to it. As a music journalist I was often touched by the musicians I wrote about. Sometimes they made me cry. Often they bored me to tears. That an artist of Prince’s caliber had taken the time to curse me out on record meant I’d struck a chord. In the hip-hop era critics getting dissed on record is standard procedure, but for Prince to take me that seriously remains a badge of honor (if the song was about me.)
The last time I spoke to Prince, neither of us mentioned “Bob George.” In 1997 I was a producer on Chris Rock’s HBO half-hour variety show and Prince was a musical guest on our first season. I brought my lunch with me to watch Prince ‘s soundcheck on our small Manhattan soundstage. Even though the song Prince was performing was the uninspired “Face Down,” it was a thrill to have Prince doing a mini-concert ten feet from you. He noticed me munching on my lunch, a chicken sandwich on white bread, and came over to lecture me on my eating habits, saying sternly, “If you saw the poultry farms in Minnesota you wouldn’t eat that.” I’m sure Prince was right, but I was hungry.
From the late ‘90s well into the 21st century I had no contact with Prince and, sad to say, ever declining interest in his newest music. For me ‘Diamonds & Pearls’ in 1991 was his last good to excellent album. It felt like the more artistic freedom Prince enjoyed the more indulgent his recordings became. Instead of the tightly crafted albums that fueled his rise, new music came out in torrents (one LP was three records) with Prince seemingly unwilling to separate the gems (there was usually one or two per release) from material that should have stayed in his legendary vault. I became disenchanted with his output and, since I was no longer under a professional obligation to listen to everything, I started skipping new Prince albums unless friends insisted they were good.
At the same time I was always excited to see Prince live, watching him evolve from black bikini underwear to tailored suits, from show-off protégé to cool showman with a massive catalog of great songs. Every flabby later album release just made his spectacular ‘80s output seem more remarkable. The intimate shows he began doing throughout the early 21st century confirmed his musical mastery and, to a degree, break down the wall of celebrity he’d once built around himself. I saw him do a sublime show in the ballroom of L.A.’s Roosevelt Hotel around 2009 where he mixed blues in with his standards, strolled the aisles playing guitar, and smiled a lot, displaying a wonderful mix of maturity and swagger.
In 2010 Prince did a series of concerts in Europe and America that featured a slew of gifted, young female singer-musicians as opening acts (Janelle Monae, Esperanza Spaulding) for multiple-night performances at arenas like Madison Square Garden and the Los Angeles Forum. A surprise guest at these performances was a tiny light-skinned black ballerina named Misty Copeland, who’d dance a solo and spin around on his piano during “The Beautiful Ones.” Even next to Prince Misty’s star power was dazzling. She danced with the American Ballet Company, which I’d never heard of since the extent of my ballet knowledge came from taking dates to see the Dance Theater of Harlem. What I would find out later is that Prince, master mentor to and talent scout of gifted young women, had become a regular attendee at ABT’s shows, seeing Misty’s pop potential way before anyone else.
In 2013 I attended a cocktail party at a Tribeca bistro hosted by broadcaster, talk TV star and woman around town Bevy Smith. Bevy had built a rep for hosting cocktail parties sponsored by various luxury brands and had invited me to a few previously, but chit chat over drinks is not my thing and I don’t drink much. But this one evening I was at home writing, needed a break and, at the last minute, hopped on the subway to Tribeca. That the party was held downtown as opposed to, say, the upper west side meant I could get there and back home to Brooklyn quickly. It’s probably the only reason I went. That little bit of travel convenience changed my career.
After cocktails Bevy’s guests retired to an upstairs room for dinner. At the end of my table I noticed a beautiful, vaguely familiar face. It took me a minute, then a realized this was the woman who danced on Prince’s piano! I shifted my seat closer to hers and began to pepper Misty Copeland with questions about Prince, ballet, and her career. At the end of the night I asked Misty and her manager Gilda Squire about buying a ticket to see her dance at ABT. Turned out the night I was able to get a ticket for was an historic one: it was Misty’s New York debut dancing the lead in the Firebird at the Metropolitan Opera House. That performance would, eventually, lead me to make a documentary about Misty titled ‘A Ballerina’s Tale,’ which would be the first film I directed to be released theatrically.
So where does Prince come in? One of my main goals with the film was to do a multi-camera solo shoot with Misty dancing one or two of her favorite ballets. To finance that I launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise $40,000 to rent a studio, a lighting rig and hire a camera crew. The campaign, though stressful, was close to reaching our goal when we received $13,000 donation from the New Power Generation, which was the name of one of his band’s. While that donation was sweet we were still about $3000 short. Apparently Prince noticed and had the New Power Generation pledged an additional $4500 that pushed our Kickstarter campaign us over the top.
Prince didn’t want his name in the credits or to be interviewed for the film. If you look at the doc’s end credits you’ll see New Power Generation in the mix. He wanted to help tell Misty’s story and, using yet another of code names, he did. That I was also a big beneficiary of his generosity was very funny to me. I’d tried to get him to invest in ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ Twenty years later, Prince made it possible for me shoot a key sequence for a film of mine.
I have no special insight into his tragic death in 2016 other than I found the spectacle of folks going on national television to say how close they’d been to him very weird, since none of them seemed to know about his misuse of prescription drugs. His most profound, and darkest depiction, was how he cultivated superficial friendships, dazzling people with his mystique, yet lived for many years with an intense, private pain.
I was born in 1957; he in 1958. We were both late Baby Boomers, basically the same age, and I’d fully expected to watch Prince play guitar and sing his classics as we both rolled through our 60s into old age. Between his Super Bowl half-time show in 2007 and his engagement with social justice (his benefit concert in Baltimore following Freddy Gray’s murder in 2015), Prince had become an elder statesman and a mentor to many, either directly or through his music. In the years before his death he’d entered an elite group of classic American artists, like Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin, whose body of work embodied innovation, individuality, vision and boldness. I consider myself very lucky to have seen his rise from small clubs to global superstar.