THE GUARDIAN (2011)
Prince: ‘I’m a musician. And I am music’
But suddenly there he is, sans entourage, full of handshakes and apologies. Perching himself on a banquette, he looks impeccable. His trousers and chunky polo-neck sweater are as black as his shiny, sculpted hair. His ring, ear cuffs and huge, shrapnel-like neck chain all gleam silver. His skin, uncannily smooth, does not look like that of a 53-year-old. Charisma seems to add a few inches to his height. He orders a cup of green tea. “They don’t take Mastercard here,” he says with a sly grin. “Only Amex. So I’ll have to wash the dishes.”
You expect funny peculiar from Prince, one of the few superstars who still enjoys an old-fashioned forcefield of enigma and hence endures the rumours that enigma tends to spawn. Funny ha-ha, however, is more surprising. He often seems mysteriously amused, cocking an eyebrow and pulling a coy, wouldn’t-you-like-to-know smirk, but he likes to laugh out loud, too. He is determined to be entertaining.
Asked, for example, why he doesn’t appear to have aged, Prince embarks on a baroque explanation that takes in an illustration of celestial mechanics involving a candle (the sun) and a sugarcube (the Earth); DNA research; his late father’s Alzheimer’s disease; the reason he doesn’t celebrate his birthday (“If you look in the Bible there’s no birthdays”); the importance of study; God’s concept of time; and the Purple Rain tour. “Time is a mind construct,” he finally concludes, setting his candle and sugarcube aside. “It’s not real.”
All of this is accomplished in a tone that ranges from preacher to schoolteacher to salesman to stand-up comedian to chat-show raconteur. He very rarely talks to the press (“If I need psychological evaluation, I’ll do it myself”) and his ban on writers using recording devices suggests a certain paranoia, but he’s surprisingly good at being interviewed.
People must be intimidated when they first meet you, I say. Do you try to put them at their ease?
“I do that pretty quick. I’m real easy-going.” He stares at me for a moment. “You’re not intimidated, are you?”
Not now, but definitely by your reputation.
“A lot of that comes from other people. The press like to blow things out of proportion so this person becomes bigger than they are. The sooner this thing called fame goes away, the better. We got people who don’t need to be famous.”
Prince misses the days “when I could walk the street without being harassed and bothered”. He remembers the first time he realised he was famous, around 1979. “It happened very fast. I had some old clothes on because I was going to help a friend move house and some girls came by and one went: ‘Ohmigod, Prince!’ And the other girl went,” he pulls a face, “‘That ain’t Prince.’ I didn’t come out of the house raggedy after that.”
Prince, along with Michael Jackson and Madonna, was one of the regents of pop music in its blockbuster pomp. Unlike them, he could do everything: sing, write, play, produce, design, make movies, call all the shots. With 1984’s Purple Rain, he could simultaneously boast the No 1 album, single and film in the US. During his imperial phase, it felt like his only competition was himself. “I had creative control,” he says proudly. “We had to fight for over a year before I even got signed. So whatever I turned in, they had to accept. They weren’t even allowed to speak to me!”
Rumours circled him because he was such a defiantly outlandish presence: the pop star as inexplicable alien, with a sexuality as ambiguous as it was voracious, and so unsettlingly potent that the censorship lobby PMRC was spurred into existence by a single song, Darling Nikki. Did he work hard to make himself as fascinating as possible? “We were very fascinating,” he says. “In Minnesota it was a clean slate. It was punk rock. There were a lot of fascinating people around.”
He took so many gambles, in terms of image as well as music. Did he ever worry that he might blow it? “All the time. You want an example?”
He chuckles. “You’ll have to pay for the autobiography.” (There is no autobiography.)
Does he think the atomisation of pop culture since the 80s allows for another star of his stature? He thinks for a moment. “It would have to be manufactured. Michael [Jackson] and I both came along at a time when there was nothing. MTV didn’t have anyone who was visual. Bowie, maybe. A lot of people made great records, but dressed like they were going to the supermarket.” He thinks flamboyant showmanship is making a comeback but, he adds: “How many people have substance, or are they just putting on crazy clothes?”
What does he make of Lady Gaga? “I don’t know,” Prince says diplomatically. “I’d have to meet her.”
Prince will happily talk about how much he adores Adele (“When she just comes on and sings with a piano player, no gimmicks, it’s great”) or Janelle Monáe, but he won’t criticise other artists. “The new pushes the old out of the way and retains what it wants to. Don’t ask me about popular acts. Ask Janelle. Doesn’t matter what I say. We ain’t raining on anyone’s parade. I ain’t mad at anybody. I don’t have any enemies.”
Actually he has many, but they’re not fellow musicians. He is drawn back again and again to the perfidy of pretty much everybody in the music industry who doesn’t make music themselves. There was, of course, that business in the 90s when he went to war with Warner Bros, changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and marking his eventual exit from the label with a triple CD pointedly titled Emancipation. “A lot of people didn’t know what I was doing,” he says, “but it helped some people. I don’t care what people think.” He’s not as angry now. “I don’t look at it as Us versus Them. I did. But you know The Wizard of Oz? When they pull back the curtain and see what’s going on? That’s what’s happened.”
Now his opponents are no longer the ailing majors, but the people selling or sharing music online. He was one of the pioneers of self-financed website releases; more recently he made lucrative deals to give away albums with tabloid newspapers. But he has no plans to make a new album, even though he has hundreds of songs stacked up. “The industry changed,” he says. “We made money [online] before piracy was real crazy. Nobody’s making money now except phone companies, Apple and Google. I’m supposed to go to the White House to talk about copyright protection. It’s like the gold rush out there. Or a carjacking. There’s no boundaries. I’ve been in meetings and they’ll tell you, Prince, you don’t understand, it’s dog-eat-dog out there. So I’ll just hold off on recording.”
His management’s pre-interview list of guidelines insisted, “Please do not discuss his views on the internet,” but perhaps Prince hasn’t read them. “I personally can’t stand digital music,” he says. “You’re getting sound in bits. It affects a different place in your brain. When you play it back, you can’t feel anything. We’re analogue people, not digital.” He’s warming to his theme. “Ringtones!” he exclaims. “Have you ever been in a room where there’s 17 ringtones going off at once?”
Does he have a ringtone?
“No,” he says, looking as offended as if I’d asked him if he drove a clown car. “I don’t have a phone.”
He’s equally put out by covers of his songs, Glee’s version of Kiss being the latest offender. “There’s no other artform where you can do that. You can’t go and do your own version of Harry Potter. Do you want to hear somebody else sing Kiss?”
Next weekend, Prince is back in Europe – this interview is to promote his headlining appearance at the Heinken Open’er festival in Poland – but he bats away an inquiry about the annual Glastonbury rumours. “They use my name to sell the festival,” he glowers. “It’s illegal. I’ve never spoken to anyone about doing that concert, ever.”
Touring is where the money is these days, of course, but it also seems to be where his heart is. He describes himself as a “loving tyrant. I’m probably the hardest bandleader to work for, but I do it for love.” His band have rehearsed around 300 songs, from which Prince can choose at whim, which makes playing live more fun that it used to be. “Purple Rain was 100 shows, and around the 75th, I went crazy,” he says, “and here’s why. They didn’t want to see anything but the movie. If you didn’t play every song, you were in trouble. After 75 you don’t know where you are – somebody had to drag me to the stage. I’m not going! Yes you are! It was bloody back then. I won’t say why but there was blood on me. They were the longest shows because you knew what was going to happen.” Now, he says: “If there’s a challenge it’s to outdo what I’ve done in the past. I play each show as if it’s the last one.”
For inspiration he keeps coming back to Sly and the Family Stone, and it was that band’s former bassist, Larry Graham, who introduced him to the Jehovah’s Witnesses a decade ago. The faith seems to have made him calm and content, albeit at the loss to his songwriting of the anguish, combativeness and transgressive sexuality that animated some of his strongest 80s material. “I was anti-authoritarian but at the same time I was a loving tyrant. You can’t be both. I had to learn what authority was. That’s what the Bible teaches. The Bible is a study guide for social interaction.” He puts it another way. “If I go to a place where I don’t feel stressed and there’s no car alarms and airplanes overhead, then you understand what noise pollution is. Noise is a society that has no God, that has no glue. We can’t do what we want to do all the time. If you don’t have boundaries, what then?”
Sometimes he seems a little too fond of boundaries. “It’s fun being in Islamic countries, to know there’s only one religion. There’s order. You wear a burqa. There’s no choice. People are happy with that.” But what about women who are unhappy about having to wearing burqas? “There are people who are unhappy with everything,” he says shruggingly. “There’s a dark side to everything.”
Noting my unconvinced expression, he tries to clarify, but gives up with a sigh. “I don’t want to get up on a soapbox. My view of the world, you can debate that for ever. But I’m a musician. That’s what I do. And I also am music. Come to the show for that.”
It’s been over an hour, and he’s starting to look restless. Does he feel most at peace when playing music?
“I can feel pretty peaceful doing other things as well,” he says, with what I think might be a saucy look.
Does he ever feel nostalgic?
“I tend to dig some of the art from back then. I like putting it on shirts and bags. The fans dig it. But musically, no. Each band brings different songs out of you.”
He keeps playing down his own stardom and doffing his cap to his band or God or Sly and the Family Stone, but does he ever think, perhaps midway through playing When Doves Cry to 30,000 people: “I’m really very good at this”?
“Well I don’t think it,” he smirks, raising an eyebrow. “I know it.”