USA TODAY (2008)

Prince shows off a different side for ‘21 Nights’

By Edna Gundersen
12 November 2008

BEVERLY HILLS — Downstairs in a dimly lighted screening room crowded with sofas, Prince leafs through the first authorized book of his career.

“I wanted to document something that was never done before,” he says, pausing at a photo of himself immersed in fog onstage. “I don’t expect that record to be broken unless I break it.”

Just over a year ago, he performed an unprecedented 21 sell-outs in London’s 24,000-seat O2 arena, the year’s highest-grossing engagement at $22 million.

The residency is chronicled in 21 Nights (Atria Books, $50), a coffee-table tome of Prince’s lyrics and poetry and 124 previously unreleased photographs by Randee St. Nicholas, who shadowed His Purple Highness onstage, backstage, on the streets and in his hotel suite at The Dorchester.

Billed as an inner-sanctum invitation, 21 Nights, in stores next week, is hardly a slide show of an unshowered Prince watching pay-per-view in sneakers and beer-stained T-shirts. The style never stops as Prince, his band and his leggy twin dancers are snapped sporting impeccable designer garb in GQ-ready spreads. The shoots were “casual and spontaneous,” he says, “but everyone had to be dressed up.”

He writes in the book:

Eye'd rather dress 2 make a woman stare
Eye’m puttin’ on somethin’ that another won’t dare
It’s a freezer burn compared 2 cool

The Vogue Italia persona is no pose, says Nicholas, director of 150 music videos, the first being Prince’s Gett Off in 1991.

“It may be glamorous to others, but that’s his comfort zone,” she says. “It’s not like he changes to go out and be Prince. The guy looks amazing 24 hours a day.”

When Prince suggested collaborating on a book, she proposed a fashion-centric chronicle of his London run.

“I knew I’d have him in one city, so he’d show up for photo shoots; he’s a very elusive guy,” says St. Nicholas, who has photographed music icons Bob Dylan, Diana Ross and Whitney Houston, as well as such Hollywood luminaries as Charlize Theron and Tom Cruise.

Because she shot primarily after hours, “there’s a certain mood of isolation,” she says. “You get a very intimate look at him by himself. His mystery is not something he works at. It’s who he is.”

Change of religion, life

Tonight, that mood of isolation permeates Prince’s luxurious 30,000-square-foot Tuscan-style villa, perched high in a gated Beverly Hills enclave. The royal one, clad in a filmy white sweater over a black shirt and slacks with (shocker!) flip-flops, lives solo in the nine-bedroom home, where a cook is upstairs preparing food for a post-midnight gathering with friends and bandmates.

“I’m single, celibate and sexy,” he says with a laugh. “I feel free.”

After being introduced to Jehovah’s Witnesses by friend and bass player Larry Graham, Prince converted in 2001. The onetime voracious womanizer who crooned Scandalous, Do It All Night, Sexy MF and Dirty Mind has purged his lyrics of naughty lingo and spends more time proselytizing than partying.

He’s as likely to show up on a neighbor’s doorstep with a Watchtower Bible as he is to frequent a hot club.

“Sometimes fans freak out,” he says of his missionary encounters. “It might be a shock to see me, but that’s no reason for people to act crazy, and it doesn’t give them license to chase me down the street.”

He turned 50 on June 7, but “being a Jehovah’s Witness, I don’t celebrate birthdays or holidays. I don’t vote.”

Reviewing a video of the sultry Te Amo Corazon, he points out his limited physical contact with co-star Mía Maestro of The Motorcycle Diaries. “That’s another way faith has changed me,” he says.

Screening the sensual Somewhere Here on Earth video, Prince admires another shapely love interest and says, “Back in the day, a woman that fine, I would have written some scenes together. But you can’t get sexier than this. You sense it in the air.”

Prince feels little connection to such past lightning rods as Do Me, Baby and Darling Nikki, which triggered Tipper Gore’s warning-label crusade.

“I did the Dirty Mind tour and pushed that envelope off the table. What I didn’t do, Madonna finished. I don’t want to go back. You have to get out of your own way.”

Music remains a passion. Not just a book, 21 Nights is a delivery system for Indigo Nights, a CD tucked inside. The 15 tracks, culled from post-concert club jams, include Delirious, Alphabet Street, covers of Whole Lotta Love and Rock Steady and two songs spotlighting protégé Shelby J.

He’s turned down multiple book offers, “but now we have to look at every form of distribution,” says Prince, who’s exploring a TV channel start-up to unleash his massive video archives.

He’s regarded as a maverick for fleeing the label system in favor of innovative distribution. In 2004, he bundled his Musicology album with concert tickets, grossing $85.3 million for 94 sold-out shows. Last year, he struck a deal with U.K. national newspaper The Mail, which included Planet Earth in its July 15 edition, leading Sony to cancel the album’s British release.

“We weren’t trying to upstage the record company,” Prince says. “I just wanted to get new music out. I asked Sony, 'Were you planning to sell 3 million copies in London?' I sold 3 million copies overnight. That’s a good, clear business deal.”

A '90s contract dispute with Warner Bros. left Prince deeply distrustful of the industry. Today, he acts as his own manager and lawyer. Before last year’s O2 residency, he negotiated before agreeing to perform under the arena’s product signage.

“I looked at those ads and thought, hmm, Viacom, that’s $1 million,” he says. “There are all kinds of possible deals artists aren’t privy to.

“I love to bring the Bible to the table. I ask if they believe in God, then: 'What kind of business do you want to conduct: transparent or hide the ball?' I’ll do tours and albums if the deal is clean.”

He'd consider an exclusive pact with a big-box retailer such as Wal-Mart or Target, and he’s eyeing another big-city residency. A major label deal? Doubtful.

“Behind closed doors, they’ll tell you it’s over,” he says. Record companies can’t profit unless they retain ownership of artists' work, “and that’s why labels are in a bad situation. People with content are going to win.”

And yet Prince is sitting on loads of content in search of a platform. After blazing a trail online as an independent distributor, he grew disenchanted with the Internet and in 2006 shut down his 5-year-old New Power Generation Music Club. No official Prince sites remain (3121. com consists of a blank screen). Posting Prince content draws cease-and-desist orders.

Cyberspace “is a black hole to me,” he says. “YouTube is the hippest network, and they abuse copyright right and left. You see a song like Purple Rain turned into Pure Cocaine; what should my response be? I chase the money to find out who’s behind it. It’s a matter of principle. I don’t want my music bastardized.”

He’s not impressed by iTunes' terms or sales projections (“They give you a figure that’s embarrassing”). While frustrated, Prince resists pessimism.

“I learned from Jehovah’s Witnesses that a fatalistic view is counterproductive,” he says. “An agent I was talking to earlier today had this viewpoint that someone has to win and someone has to lose. Nobody who thinks like that gets very far. Look at Frazier and Ali. Both of them got something out of that fight. I understand competition, but not the kind where someone has to die or be disenfranchised.”

Passion 'all goes into music'

After visiting his library to read Scripture and weigh in on intelligent design, Prince strolls to his bedroom to share tunes that will be released when he determines a distribution route.

“When are we going to get back to the poetry of Smokey Robinson and Bob Dylan?” he says, sitting on the edge of a round bed under a heart-shaped mirror. His stereo includes the turntable his father gave him as a toddler. He learned to play guitar spinning LPs on it.

Right now, he’s cranking newly crafted funk-pop-psychedelic wonders Boom, Forever and Dreamer, an ode to Martin Luther King Jr. inspired by discussions with Dick Gregory. He declines to play The Divine, a song so “mind-blowing” he doubts he’ll ever release it. “The minute the harmonies hit, I put it away,” he says.

On a love song, his voice takes on yearning as he pines for the feel of a lover’s lips and the move of her hips. “That’s what happens with years of celibacy,” says Prince, survivor of two broken marriages. “It all goes into the music.” He pauses. “This time, it has to be the right person.”

For now, songs offer sufficient companionship. “Music to me is a life force,” he says. “It’s not what I do. It’s what I am.”