"So how can we do an interview that's not like an interview?" asks as he spoons a dollop of jam into his tea. We're sitting in the Cote Jardin restaurant in Monte Carlo's historic Hotel de Paris, overlooking a small garden that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. He is here to accept an award for Outstanding Contribution to the Pop Industry at the 1994 World Music Awards. I am here at his request, the final step in a full year of putting together his first lengthy conversation with a journalist since 1990.
Those 12 months have been an especially remarkable time for whom some call "the artist formerly known as Prince," or any number of variations on that theme; others, of course, will always call him Prince, much to his dismay. The year has included--in addition to the controversial name-change that signaled the "retirement" of one of this era's biggest pop stars and the songs that made him famous--a sales slump and the closing of his Paisley Park Records label. He went through four publicity firms in nine months. But this run of hard times was quickly followed by a triumphant rise with the single "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," his biggest hit in several years. And at the end of this particular peculiar period, has emerged with some of the best music he's ever made--though whether the world will ever be able to hear it is another question, in the hands of managers and lawyers and Warner Bros. Records as they negotiate how or if all this music will be released.
Which, perhaps, is why he feels that now is the time to talk after a long silence. It seems to be part of a campaign to generally increase his visibility by appearing at events like the World Music Awards, for instance--exactly the kind of thing the reclusive Prince of old would have avoided like the plague. Or to introduce three new songs on Soul Train or publish a book--titled The Sacrifice of Victor--of photos from his last European tour that presents him much more up close and personal than he has been shown in the past.
Meanwhile, he continues to move forward, exploring new, alternative outlets for his music, like an innovative CD-ROM extravaganza, Interactive, that incorporates dozens of songs into a kind of video game/video jukebox--or the Joffrey Ballet's wildly successful Billboards, set to his music, which may lead to his writing a full-length ballet score soon. And through it all, he has kept writing and recording new songs--or "experiences," as he now likes to call them--and struggling to find a way to get as many of them as possible released to the public.
"I just want to be all that I can be," says in his dressing room at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club, site of the World Music Awards. "Bo Jackson can play baseball and football--can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can? If they let me loose, I can wreck shit."
"Can you keep a secret?"
These--I kid you not--are Prince's first words to me. (And since the answer is yes, all I can tell you is that you really wouldn't be all that interested.) This is back when things were simple, when Prince was still Prince, blasting through a lengthy international tour.
I receive a call in New York on Friday saying that Prince has read something I wrote about the tour's opening shows. He wants to meet me in San Francisco on Saturday.
The driver who picks me up in San Francisco shows me the erotic valentine his girlfriend made for him, then tells me about the work he and his wife are doing for the Dalai Lama. It's time to wonder, Is this whole thing a put-on? But no, I get to the arena and there is Prince, sitting alone in the house, watching his band, the New Power Generation, start sound check. He is fighting a cold, so we speak quietly back and forth for a while, and then he leads me onstage to continue the conversation while he straps on his guitar and rehearses the band.
Mostly, Prince talks about music--about Sly Stone and Earth, Wind & Fire. He leads me over to Tommy Barbarella's keyboards to demonstrate how he's utilizing samples onstage now (such as the female yelp in the new song "Peach," which came courtesy of Kim Basinger, though she doesn't know it yet). He sits down at the piano to play a new, unfinished song called "Dark"--a bitter, beautiful ballad.
The band sounds ferocious and will sound even better at the evening's show. Prince works them unbelievably hard: A standard day on tour includes an hour-and-a-half sound check, a two-hour show, and an after-show at a club most nights. "The after-shows are where you get loose," he says. "It's that high-diving that gets you going."
The NPG have gotten noticeably tighter from all this old-fashioned stage sweat, funkier than any of his previous groups. Watching him cue them, stop on a dime, introduce a new groove, veer off by triggering another sample, you can only think of James Brown burnishing his bands to razor-precision, fining them for missing a single note. "I love this band," says Prince. "I just wish they were all girls."
He is talkative, with that surprisingly low voice that loses its slightly robotic edge when he's offstage. He is indeed tiny--what's most striking isn't his height but the delicate bones and fragile frame. He is also pretty cocky, whether out of shyness with a new person or the swagger needed to keep going through a tour. "You see how hard it is when you can play anything you want, anything you hear?" he asks underneath the onstage roar of the NPG. They play "I'll Take You There" at sound check, and Prince and I talk about the Staple Singers and Mavis Staples, whose new album he is just completing.
He leads the way to his dressing room--a blur of hair products and Evian water, with off-white mats on the floor and paintings stuck on the walls--and plays some of the Mavis album, singing along with her roof-raising voice. "Jimmy Jam is going to hear this and throw all those computers away," he says. "This is what we need now--these old kind of soul songs to just chill people out. The computers are as cold as the people are.
"That's what I went through with the Black Album. All this gangsta rap, I did that years ago. 'Cause if you're gonna do something, go all the way in. But there's no place to go past the samples. You can only, y'know, unplug them!"
There's a knock on the door, and a bodyguard says that someone named Motormouth wants to see Prince. He laughs and waves the visitor in--turns out to be an old Minneapolis DJ, a neighbor for whom Prince used to baby-sit. The gentleman lives up to his name; Prince listens politely and giggles softly, as Motormouth talks about his ex-stripper wife and his daughter and the days back in Minnesota.
Prince desperately wants to play a club show after the San Francisco gig, but his throat is too sore. Instead, there's a party at the DV8 club. He arrives with a phalanx of bodyguards, clears out half the room, and sits alone on a sofa. One of the security guys grabs me and sits me on the couch.
Prince hands me a banana-flavored lollipop. "I would have brought you a cigar, but I didn't think you smoked," he says. He pours us each a glass of port ("I learned about this from Arsenio"). Occasionally, acquaintances manage to make their way through the wall of security, but he is wary of touching them. "I don't like shaking hands," he says. "Brothers always feel like they got to give you that real firm handshake. Then you can't play the piano the next day."
We chat about the new contract he signed with Warner Bros., which was reported to be worth as much as $100 million. He says the deal is nothing like it is being reported, and though he wants most of the conversation to remain "just between us--I just wanted to talk about some of these things," he makes a few mysterious comments that will prove crucial to the next stage of his continual metamorphosis.
"We have a new album finished," he says conspiratorially, "but Warner Bros. doesn't know it. From now on, Warner's only gets old songs out of the vault. New songs we'll play at shows. Music should be free, anyway."
Before he heads off into the night, Prince lifts his glass of port and offers a toast.
Leaning closer, he whispers, "To Oz."
Having announced his retirement from studio recording on April 27, Prince takes the occasion of his 35th birthday to inform the world that he is changing his name to , a symbol that, in one form or another, has been part of his iconography in recent years. (After starting as a simple combination of the symbols for male and female, it sprouted another flourish when it became the title of his last album; he has also signed autographs with the symbol for some time.) He adds that he will no longer be performing any of his old songs, as they belong to the old name. The rumor floats that he wants to be called Victor (which, happily, proves untrue), while the media struggles with the whole idea; Warner Bros. sends out software allowing the new name to be printed, but many jokes and frequent references to "Symbol Man," "the Glyph," and "What's-His-Symbol" start turning up in the press.
Some in the industry combine the two announcements and speculate that changing his name might be a way to finesse his way out of his Warner's contract. With 500-plus finished songs in the vault, is Prince, or , or whoever, planning to use the name-change as a renegotiation strategy or some kind of scheme to get out of the Warner deal?
Past the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, past the American Legion post where a Little League game is in progress, after miles of fields and open spaces lies the gleaming, towering Paisley Park, the studio and office complex that houses Paisley Park Enterprises. There are dozens of people on the Paisley staff--an entire industry built around one man in heels--working to keep the studio and the songs and, mostly, the person at the center of it all humming and creating at their maximum potential. There's a lot that seems like star-tripping inside 's world, lots that can make you impatient--and multiple costume changes, even on off days, don't help matters--but over time it becomes clear that the whole structure exists so that absolutely nothing gets in the way of the music, nothing touches that he doesn't choose to address.
Tonight will go through his final rehearsal for a greatest hits tour of Europe. Several hundred tickets have been sold to benefit local radio station KMOJ, and the mixed-race, well-to-do crowd mills around the Paisley Park soundstage in flowery prints and orange suits, waiting for Minneapolis's favorite son.
The NPG and gospel singers the Steeles play brief opening sets. makes no reference to the name-change or the retirement when he ambles onstage to the opening chord of "Let's Go Crazy." In fact, he hardly talks at all through a loose 90-minute set. He closes the show with two new songs: a sexy shuffle called "Come" that he occasionally dropped into the U.S. concerts, and "Endorphinmachine," a metallic rave-up that kicks and stomps like the Purple Rain hits that made him a household name exactly 10 years ago.
But as always, what it really seems to come down to is the music. Prince decided that it was time to close the book on one stage of his musical development and find a way to move on to the next. "Prince did retire," says emphatically in the Cote Jardin, waving away the pastry delivered with his tea. "He stopped making records because he didn't need to anymore." Later, at the Sporting Club, he'll add that "it's fun to draw a line in the sand and say, 'Things change here.' I don't mind if people are cynical or make jokes--that's part of it, but this is what I choose to be called. You find out quickly who respects and who disrespects you. It took Muhammad Ali years before people stopped calling him Cassius Clay."
He is, quite simply, fixated on one thing: He has too much music sitting around, and he wants people to hear it. As explains it, Warner Bros. says it can handle only one album per year from him, while he's recording the equivalent of at least three or four every year. By the time an album makes its way through the corporate machine for release, he's finished another one. By the time he goes on tour to promote the first album, he's done with a third.
So what's a to do? The plan he is devising works like this: He will fulfill his Warner's contract--he still owes them five albums--with Prince material from the vaults at whatever rate they want (and, he adds, "the best Prince music still hasn't been released"). Meanwhile, will work with a smaller label to put out new music under his new name.
From almost anyone else, the whole thing would seem like a scam; from someone with a legitimate claim to having wrested the Hardest-Working-Man-in-Show-Business title from James Brown, it starts to sound a little more reasonable. Reasonable, that is, to everyone but his bosses at Warner's. "I knew there would come a phase in my life when I would want to get all this music out," he says. "I just wish I had some magic words I could say to Warner's so it would work out."
emphasizes that he has no beef with Warner Bros. or chairman Mo Ostin, that he understands their concerns about this proposed plan and respects them for allowing him to try out this arrangement with Bellmark for "Beautiful Girl." "I really think they would find a way to let me do this," he says, "but they're afraid of the ripple effect, that everybody would want to do it." His problem, ultimately, is with the structure of the music industry.
"Did you see The Firm?" he asks. "I feel like the music business is like that--that they just won't let you out once you're in it. There's just a few people with all the power. Like, I didn't play the MTV Music Awards; suddenly, I can't get a video on MTV, and you can't get a hit without that. I've come to respect deeds and actions more than music--like Pearl Jam not making videos."
What is seeking is the opportunity to get more involved in the presentation of the music, which is why an indie label like Bellmark appeals to him. He's shot a video for a song called "Love Sign," directed by Ice Cube, and he's looking into possible outlets for its release. He wants to be able to sell records at concerts and in clubs--a logical move, especially for someone like George Clinton, best known for his tireless touring--but Warner Bros. feels, according to , that such a move would cause problems with retailers. He wants to use his music to raise money for charities, but "they don't want to hear about giving music away."
"Shouldn't it be up to the artist how the music comes out?" he asks, shaking his head and staring at the floor of the spartan Sporting Club dressing room. Several times, he points to George Michael's lawsuit with Sony Music U.K. over "restraint of trade" as an example of how twisted things have gotten in the biz. "They're just songs, just our thoughts. Nobody has a mortgage on your thoughts. We've got it all wrong, discouraging our artists. In America, we're just not as free as we think. Look at George Clinton. They should be giving that man a government grant for being that funky!
"People think this is all some scheme. This isn't a scheme, some master plan. I don't have a master plan; maybe somebody does." He shakes his head again. "I just wish I had some magic words," he repeats. "It's in God's hands now."
He has asked me to fly out for this show, but we never speak. After the performance, his publicist says that wants to know what I thought of the NPG's set and how I liked the new songs.
What really happened tonight, though, was 's final appearance in this country as part of what is now a farewell tour. Which means that if he keeps to his word, this is the last time he will ever play such songs as "Purple Rain," "Kiss," and "Sign O' the Times" in America.
On September 14 Prince releases The Hits/The B-Sides, which sells steadily, if unspectacularly for such a long-awaited retrospective. Two new singles, "Pink Cashmere" and "Peach"--the last he will issue under the name Prince--are released; "Cashmere" grazes the pop charts, "Peach" doesn't even do that well. It is subsequently announced that his label, Paisley Park Records, is being dissolved, leaving Mavis Staples and George Clinton temporarily without a home and putting an album by former backup singer Rosie Gaines on permanent hold.
In the winter, ads turn up in several national magazines saying, "Eligible bachelor seeks the most beautiful girl in the world to spend the holidays with," and asking that photos be sent to the Paisley Park address. On Valentine's Day, drops his first single under the new name. It is a pleasant enough trifle, a Philly-soul-style ballad titled "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," and it is debuted at the Miss U.S.A. pageant. The video features some of the women who responded to the ads. "Beautiful Girl" is released not on Warner Bros. but on NPG/Bellmark Records. (Bellmark, whose president, Al Bell, was the pilot of the legendary Stax Records in the '60s, stormed the charts last year with "Whoomp! (There It Is)" and "Dazzey Duks.")
"Beautiful Girl" climbs to No. 3 on the U.S. pop charts, the biggest hit for under any name in several years (although 1994 also marks the 12th year in a row that he has landed a single in the Top 10). It is also, believe it or not, his first No. 1 ever in the U.K. And suddenly, the artist formerly known as Prince is a hot commodity again.
So how do you pronounce it?
And is that ever a problem when people around you want to address you?
"No." A very final, definite no.
But what becomes clear is that there are reasons for the name-change, and after sitting with for several hours, it even starts to make some kind of sense. "I followed the advice of my spirit," is the short answer. But it is, first of all, about age-old questions of naming and identity.
The man born Prince Rogers Nelson goes on to explain, "I'm not the son of Nell. I don't know who that is, 'Nell's son,' and that's my last name. I asked Gilbert Davison [ 's manager and closest friend, and president of NPG Records] if he knew who David was, and he didn't even know what I was talking about. I started thinking about that, and I would wake up nights thinking, Who am I? What am I?"
There are three DO NOT DISTURB signs on the door. A desk and a white upright Yamaha piano face the floor-to-ceiling windows with a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean Sea. A bowl of Tootsie Pops and assorted sweets sits on a coffee table. Tostitos, Sun Chips, and newspapers lie scattered in the corners. 7Up fills the bar, and various colored cloths are draped over all the furniture in the room.
's room in the Hotel de Paris is fancy, if not exactly elegant. It is here that he wants me to check out two albums that may or may not see the light of day: the next Prince album, Come, scheduled for an August release, and the first collection, titled The Gold Album, both pressed on CDs with hand-drawn cover art. This time I'm the one fighting a cold, and he expresses concern, keeping the tea flowing, pouring for us both when it arrives.
First comes the Prince album, which includes "Endorphinmachine" and "Come" and a fleshed-out version of "Dark," complete with a slinky horn arrangement that completes the sketch I heard a year before. skips back and forth between tracks. It all sounds strong--first-rate, even--but he seems impatient with it, like it's old news.
The Gold Album is another matter. He lets the songs run, playing air guitar or noodling along at the piano. The songs are stripped-down, taut, funky as hell, full of sex and bite. "Days of Wild" is a dense, "Atomic Dog"-style jam with multiple, interlocking bass lines. "Now" (which he debuted on Soul Train this same week) is a bouncing party romp; "319" is rocking, roaring, and dirty; and "Ripopgodazippa" is just dirty. This album is more experimental, more surprising structurally and sonically. Hearing the two albums back-to-back, it's clear that the Prince album may be more commercial than 's, but it's also more conventional--as conventional as he gets, anyway.
says that since the name-change, he's writing more about freedom and the lack thereof, and that's it exactly: The songs sound freer than he has in years. He sounds energized, excited, and also humbler and more focused than he did a year ago in San Francisco. His album covers used to include the phrase "May U live 2 see the dawn." This album opens with the words "Welcome 2 the dawn."
That night, the songs take on even more life at a late gig at a Monte Carlo "American blues and sports bar" called Star's n Bars. The occasion is a private party for Monaco's Prince Albert. Earlier in the evening, committed a faux pas that received international coverage when, dressed in see-through gold brocade and toting one of those lollipops, he left a royal reception before Albert did. To make up for his breach of protocol, is on especially good behavior at the show.
"Much props to Prince Albert for having us in his beautiful country!" are his first words onstage, and he later refers to Albert as "the funkiest man in show business." After the show, he autographs a tambourine for our host, inscribing inside, "You're the real Prince!"
The NPG are lean and in prime fighting shape, trimmed down to just Tommy Barbarella and newcomer Morris Hayes on keyboards, Sonny Thompson on bass, monster drummer Michael Bland, and dancer/visual foil Mayte. No more rappers, extra dancers, or percussionists. "This band is just beginning to play to its strength," said earlier. "The Lovesexy band was about musicality, a willingness to take risks. Since then I've been thinking too much. This band is about funk, so I've learned to get out of the way and let that be the sound, the look, the style, everything. They've never played together like this before."
They storm through 11 new songs, winding things up at 3 a.m., a pretty early night by standards. The next night, they're back at Star's n Bars, and even at sound check this time he's really ready to rip. We talked earlier about the title track to The Gold Album, which members of his entourage were raving about but he didn't play for me. He said then that he's worried about playing some of the new songs because the bootleggers will have them out on the market before he will. Here in sound check, though, he lets it go, and it's a stunner--a soaring anthem of "Purple Rain" scale, a gorgeous warning that "all that glitters ain't gold." (He recently quoted these lyrics as part of his speech at the Celebrate the Soul of American Music show, directing his comments toward the music industry.)
bounds off the club's stage and strides over, greeting me with a big smile and even a handshake. He's excited for tonight's show because "tonight we're playing for real people."
Well, as real as people get in Monaco, anyway. Before the band starts, at around 1:30, talk of international finance and the restaurant business fills the air. You could choke on the Chanel in here, and the number of coats and ties makes it feel like a boardroom instead of a barroom. But let me tell you: People in Monaco are ready to party.
Soon they're dancing three and four to a tabletop, screaming along chants, soul-clapping straight outta Uptown. "Days of Wild" goes on for 20 minutes, and an obviously impressed says from the stage, "I didn't know I had to come all the way over here to get a crowd this funky!"
They don't respond as much to the slower songs, though, not even to a drop-dead knockout version of "Dark," a reminder that this man not only has the most emotionally complex falsetto since Al Green but plays the baddest guitar this side of Eddie Van Halen. But when he takes the tempo up, they can't get enough. "Don't you got to go to work tomorrow?" he asks. "Oh, I see. I'm in Monte Carlo--everybody just chills."
Finally, at 3:30, he closes with "Peach" ("an old song"), and everyone puts their heels and sweat-stained blazers back on and calls it a night. He has played 14 songs, and--other than snippets of John Lee Hooker's "I'm in the Mood" (a longtime jamming favorite) and Sly Stone's "Babies Makin' Babies"--no one had heard a note of them before. No one was calling out for "Little Red Corvette." No one seemed to mind.
Earlier, I asked if the idea of never playing all those Prince songs again made him sad at all.
"I would be sad," he replied, "if I didn't know that I had such great shit to come with."
At the Monte Carlo Sporting Club, is checking out the set for his performance at the Awards. The backdrop is a big, silver, fuzzy symbol. "They got my name looking like a float," he whispers, more amused than annoyed.
But then, if your tolerance for tackiness is low, the World Music Awards is no place to be. The nominal point here is to honor the world's best-selling artists by country or region, plus some lifetime-achievement types. The presenters and hosts--the most random aggregate of celebrities imaginable--seem to have been chosen based on who would accept a free trip to Monaco. Ursula Andress? Kylie Minogue? And in clear violation of some Geneva convention limit on cheesiness, Fabio and David Copperfield are both here to present awards.
Honorees include Ace of Base, smooth-sounding Japanese R&B crooners Chage & Aska, Kenny G (who annoys everyone backstage by wandering around tootling on that damn sax), and six-year-old French sensation Jordy (who runs offstage and kisses Prince Albert in mid-performance, which somehow does not create an international scandal). Whitney Houston wins her usual barrelful of trophies, and the whole thing is almost worth it to hear Ray Charles sit alone at the piano and sing "Till There Was You." sits patiently through it all, not something he usually does (but again, this is royalty, you know). Before receiving his award from Placido Domingo (!), he puts as much as he can into "Beautiful Girl," though the show is making him do something he hates: lip-synch.
"It's cheating!" he says backstage, adding slyly, "Lip-synchers, you know who you are. See, if I would lip-synch, I'd be doing backflips, hanging from the rafters, but to cheat and be tiredä" I ask if he thinks people feel too much pressure to live up to the production quality of their videos. "Concerts are concerts and videos are videos. But I'm guilty of it myself, so that's going to change.
"Concerts, that whole thing is old, anyway. To go and wait and the lights go down and then you scream, that's played. Sound check is for lazy people; I want to open the doors earlier, let people hang out. Make it more like a fair." In his room, he has a videotape of the stage set he's having built for the next tour--a huge, sprawling thing, something like an arena-size tree house.
But still, the first thing does when he finishes "Beautiful Girl" at the Awards is ask for a videotape, wondering how one dance step looked, concerned that he has reversed two words and rendered the lip-synch imperfect. Even here, he is simply incapable of just walking through it.
And that's what it always comes back to. There is only the music. Look at him, putting more into a sound check than most performers put into their biggest shows. Laugh at his ideas, his clothes, his name. But look at what he is doing: He's 15 years into this career, a time when most stars are kicking back, going through the motions. But he is still rethinking the rules of performance, the idea of how music is released, the basic concepts about how we consume and listen to music, still challenging himself and his audience like an avant-garde artist, not a platinum-selling pop star. And we still haven't talked about his plans for simulcasts and listening booths in his Glam Slam clubs in Minneapolis, L.A., and Miami, or about the 1-800-NEW-FUNK collection of other artists he's working with for NPG Records, or his thoughts on music and on-line and CD-ROM systems, or the two new magazines he's started....
Of course, from where it stands, Warner Bros.' objections to his ambitious (some would say foolish) plans make conventional business sense: Would the increase in new music, coming from so many media, create a glut and cut into the sales of all the releases? Is it financially feasible? But these kinds of questions seem to be the furthest thing from 's mind. And okay, maybe the unpronounceable name is a little silly, and let's not forget--he retired from performances once before, back in 1985, and how long did that last? But there's no arguing with the effort, the seriousness, the intensity with which he is approaching this new era in his life.
"There's no reason for me to be playing around now," says , laughing. "Now we're just doing things for the funk of it."