One Long WTF: A Celebration of Prince, Music's Most Electrifying, Least Understood Star

Alexis Petridis
·20-min read
Photo credit: Robert Whitman
Photo credit: Robert Whitman

From Esquire

It is a freezing cold Saturday night in November 2015, and I am outside what looks like an industrial estate in a nondescript suburb of Minneapolis called Chanhassen. Through the chain link fence, I can see Paisley Park, Prince’s HQ since 1987. It is home to his recording studio, two full-sized concert venues — one vast, the other intimate and club-sized — and The Vault, the semi-mythic storage facility that houses the mind-boggling amount of music Prince has never deigned to release: by all accounts, it contains literally thousands of songs. It is also where he will die, six months from now, aged 57, collapsing from an overdose of fentanyl, an opioid painkiller 25–50 times more potent than heroin, in a lift in the building. His body lies in the lift for six hours before it is found.

But in November 2015, that’s an unimaginable future. Prince is alive, apparently in perfect health and behaving, well, exactly like one expects Prince to behave: according to some peculiar internal logic that presumably makes perfect sense to him, but seems totally baffling to everyone else. There are four other representatives of the European press standing on the grass verge, peering through the fence, and none of us has any idea what we’re doing here. We’ve been summoned because Prince has apparently “had a brainstorm in the middle of the night, two nights ago” and requested our presence.

Our employers agreed, so here we are, being ushered into Paisley Park itself, where things are about to get weirder. From the outside, Paisley Park looks kind of underwhelming and nothing like the mystical utopia he described in the song of the same name, where laughing children play on see-saws and “there aren’t any rules”; more like a branch of Ikea. But inside, it’s something else. Inside, Paisley Park looks insane. The symbol he changed his name to in 1993 (a merging of the male and female gender emblems) is everywhere; hanging from the ceiling, painted on speakers and mixing desks, set into the floor, illuminating rooms in the form of a neon sign. There are frankly hideous murals depicting the studio’s owner and his various illustrious collaborators. There is a room lit entirely by ultraviolet lights with glowing paintings of stars and planets on the walls.

The people showing us around are nice enough: a little odd, slightly cult-like in their devotion to Prince — at one point someone shows me a battered ping-pong bat apparently belonging to the great man as if he’s revealing a holy relic — but I suppose that’s inevitable. One thing that everyone who’s worked with Prince over the years agrees on is that doing so requires a kind of total subservience to his whims and his will, an ability to live your life according to the aforementioned peculiar internal logic: you will get called into the studio when you least expect it and you will drop everything and turn up immediately. One member of his greatest backing band, The Revolution, got the call in the middle of a party to celebrate his wedding. He ended up recording a new song with his new wife sleeping on a couch in the studio.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives

Furthermore, you work for Prince in the full knowledge he doesn’t actually need you. He can do everything himself and he can do it better than you — write songs, play any instrument, produce, sing in a voice that sweeps effortlessly from a baritone to a piercing falsetto, dance — something he isn’t above making you aware of if he’s in a bad mood. That’s a working environment that’s bound to have some kind of psychological impact.

And no one seems inclined to tell us what we’re doing here, at least until Prince himself shows up, while we’re sitting in the smaller of Paisley Park’s two venues. He looks incredible in every sense of the phrase. Far younger than his 57 years, wearing clothes that would make anyone who wasn’t Prince look like an idiot: skinny white flared trousers and matching top, and enormous platform-soled flip-flops with white socks. I get a good look at the latter, because we somehow end up sitting at his feet, while he perches behind a keyboard and answers our questions through a microphone: if anyone asks a question he doesn’t like, he plays the theme from The Twilight Zone and shakes his head.

He tells us he’s asked us here because he’s going to do a European tour — just him, solo, playing the piano — although none of the dates have actually been confirmed yet. He talks about how much he hates the music industry, about songwriting, about the controversial activist Rachel Dolezal — or, as he puts it, “that lady who said she was black even though she was white” — and about his keyboard. “You know what’s really cool about this?” he says, at one point. Then he presses a button, the intro to “Sign o’ the Times” starts playing and Prince looks me square in the eye: “you wanna do this?”

I’m suddenly beset by a weird combination of total panic and utter confusion. The week was proceeding completely normally until 24 hours ago. And now, it’s Saturday night and I’m in Minneapolis, in Paisley Park, sitting at Prince’s feet and he’s apparently suggesting I sing “Sign o’ the Times” to him, something I have no more intention of doing than stripping off all my clothes and turning cartwheels around the room. How did this happen? How does a man cause newspapers across Europe to suddenly drop everything and fly journalists around the world at their own expense, without telling them why, literally decades after he last released an album that anyone other than total Prince nuts thinks is a classic?

I look at Prince and vigorously shake my head. Prince shrugs and turns the music off. The tour we’re ostensibly there to write about never takes place: Prince dies four shows into its North American leg.

How did it happen? Not just the interview, the sudden dash to Minneapolis and the impromptu rendition of “Sign o’ the Times”, but how did any of it happen: the almost inhuman degree of polymath talent; the sudden, vertiginous rise to fame in the early Eighties; the peerless, epochal run of albums that begins with 1980’s Dirty Mind and ends, depending on your perspective, with 1988’s Lovesexy or 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls or the 1992 album that doesn’t have a title, just a picture of the symbol he’d change his name to the following year. The unstoppable torrent of music-making that means the Paisley Park vault apparently contains dozens of completed albums the public has never heard; the weird decline that left a man who could reasonably claim to be the world’s biggest pop star in the mid-Eighties releasing albums that failed to make the charts at all; the later years, with their constant suggestions of an immense creative renaissance that never quite comes; the sad, lonely demise?

Prince remains the most mysterious major figure in pop history, a man who somehow contrived to be both globally famous for nearly 35 years and almost completely unknown. No other artist has simultaneously been so visible — in the last 15 years of his life alone, he released 24 albums, went on 12 tours, was nominated for 14 Grammys, appeared on chat shows and in sitcoms and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — and so elusive. Mystery is supposed to be something that pop stars could no longer possess in the age of the internet, the camera phone and the constant surveillance of social media, but Prince somehow maintained it, and — more incredible still — has continued to maintain it since his passing.

There are shelves full of books about Prince, some of them incredibly detailed, but there’s always a hole at the centre where Prince himself should be, perhaps because the people who are supposed to have known him best — his lovers, his bandmates — didn’t really seem to know him at all. I once spent an afternoon with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman — aka Wendy & Lisa — his most celebrated musical collaborators, his trusted consiglieres throughout his Eighties imperial phase. They talked about how their partnership was “a three-way love affair”, they were insightful about the music they made together, but even they seemed bewildered by his behaviour, his willingness to cut those who thought they were closest to him out of his life irrevocably.

“He’s the contrarian of all contrarians and it has to do with his musical prowess, his ego, his creative part,” Wendy’s twin sister Susannah told Duane Tudahl, the author of Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984, the exhaustive study of Prince’s mid-Eighties studio recordings. “‘Don’t expect me to be anything like you or anyone else. I am always different and will always be. You cannot count on me to be anything other than contrary, so you just can’t figure me out’. It was unbelievably frustrating. There was so much of it that it would be like, ‘Can you just fucking stop it?’… He’d disappear and you couldn’t get your hands on him. He’d be slippery.” Susannah Melvoin, it’s worth noting, was engaged to Prince at the height of his 1980s fame.

Even before he starts acting weird in public — changing his name; walking around with “Slave” written on his face in protest at the terms of his recording contract; giving an interview to Oprah Winfrey where he and his first wife, Mayte Garcia, talk excitedly about their new family and show her the playroom they’ve built, despite the fact their son, Amir, has died a month beforehand, killed by a rare genetic disorder six days after his birth — his career is one long “WTF?”.

In 1978, he releases his debut album, For You, on which he plays 27 instruments. He is 20 years old and completely unknown. His record label, Warner Bros, which has taken a chance on him based on a demo tape, appoints Tommy Vicari, an experienced studio hand who’s worked with Barbra Streisand and Prince’s idol Joni Mitchell, as executive producer. But Prince, by his own manager’s account, treats Vicari “like shit”, refusing to listen to any advice he doesn’t agree with: the album goes three times over budget. Who does this?

Photo credit: Jurgen Reisch
Photo credit: Jurgen Reisch

Twenty months later, he makes his first television appearance, miming to his breakthrough hit “I Wanna Be Your Lover” on American Bandstand, the oldest and most prestigious pop show in the US. But Prince refuses to answer avuncular host Dick Clark’s questions with anything other than monosyllables or a mute, quizzical stare, turning a supremely confident performance into some of the most excruciating television imaginable at a stroke. Again: who does this?

It’s impossible to read about his approach to work in the mid-1980s without feeling a mounting sense of disbelief. During The Purple Rain Tour of 1984–’85, he travels with his long-suffering sound engineer Susan Rogers who makes sure a studio is booked in every city he visits. He plays shows that sometimes last three hours, then leaves the venue for the studio and records all night. He heads to the airport in the morning and flies to the next gig, sleeping on the plane. If he has to travel by bus, there’s a mini recording studio installed on it. He isn’t rushing to record a new album by the way — he’s already completed Purple Rain’s follow-up, Around the World in a Day.

For some reason, he just can’t stop, so he makes music for his protégés — in 1984 alone, he records and releases albums for Sheila E, The Time and Apollonia 6 — or tapes new songs that go unreleased until after his death, when they’re revealed to be of a frankly astounding quality: the dozens of extra tracks that appear on the deluxe editions of Purple Rain, 1999 and Sign o’ the Times are as good as the original albums, and those albums themselves are the greatest records of their era. No one else works like this, with such startling results. It defies explication.

Or perhaps not. Like the rest of his life, Prince’s childhood is clouded in mystery and myth and rumour. There’s talk that his father physically abused him, bolstered by “Papa”, a harrowing track from his 1994 album Come, that seems to slip between autobiography and fantasy: it isn’t entirely clear if Prince is in character or singing as himself when he performs the impossibly bleak line “Don’t abuse children, or else they turn out like me”. There’s talk of an older half-brother whom Prince idolised and from whom he could have stolen some of his outrageous schtick: Alfred, a sharp-dressed James Brown fan with a Little Richard pompadour, who may or may not have been a pimp and who may or may not have ended up in a mental institution. And there’s Prince’s story that he was born with epilepsy, but miraculously cured after a childhood visitation from angels.

But one fact from his childhood seems key to his later life; the moment, if you like, when Prince Rogers Nelson starts to become Prince. It happens when he’s 12 years old, two years after his parents, both jazz musicians, split up and Prince elects to move in with his dad in order to escape a stepfather with whom he doesn’t get along. One version of the story has his father kicking him out of his home when he finds him in bed with a girl — which, bearing in mind who he’ll become, seems very Prince — but, whatever the reason, the relationship between father and son snaps, apparently irrevocably.

A decade later, at the height of his Purple Rain-era success, Prince drives a Rolling Stone writer to a phone booth opposite the McDonald’s on Minneapolis’ Plymouth Avenue, and explains to them what happened next: “I begged him to take me back after he kicked me out. He said no, so I called my sister and asked her to ask him. So she did, and afterward told me that all I had to do was call him back, tell him I was sorry, and he’d take me back. So I did, and he still said no. I sat crying at that phone booth for two hours. That,” he added, “was the last time I cried.”

Under the circumstances, he has no choice but to become completely self-reliant. He’s naturally musically talented. He’d already written his first song — with the remarkably Prince-esque title of “Funk Machine” — aged seven, banging about on a piano his father told him not to touch. He manages to convince his friend André Cymone’s mother to let him move into her basement and he works at playing until he can bedazzle his fellow pupils on the instruments in the school’s music room when the teacher leaves. A fellow student, who grows up to be producer Jimmy Jam, can remember Prince “ripping through those keyboards”, playing drums so well that Jam, a drummer himself, feels like giving up when he hears him. The truth is Prince doesn’t have any other options: one day in the Cymone family basement, he looks though the Yellow Pages, wondering what job he can do, and comes up with no answer. “So I decided I was going to push as hard as I could to be a musician, and to win at it.”

It doesn’t take an expert in psychology to work out how all this might explain a lot about Prince. It certainly seems to spur the relentlessness of his drive and ambition. By 1979, he’s already famous, at least in the US: the success of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” propels his eponymous second album to sales of one million. But it isn’t enough. He’s just one of a number of successful post-disco soul artists. So he adopts a new approach, one that seems linked to a rhetorical question he asks while bemoaning the state of modern music when I’m sitting at his feet in Paisley Park decades later: “When was the last time you were scared by anything?”

Photo credit: B. Bahr
Photo credit: B. Bahr

Plenty of artists have sung about sex, but Prince decides to push it further than anyone else has previously, to the point where what he’s singing sounds not seductive, but disturbing, where romance goes out of the window in favour of revealing desires in all their messy, sleazy confusion; where playing or even owning one of his albums feels like something illicit and transgressive, something you do in secret, particularly if your parents are around.

Dirty Mind arrives in 1980 with a sleeve featuring Prince wearing stockings, a pair of briefs and a raincoat. It features a song about incest, “Sister”, and another about deflowering a virgin en route to her wedding, “Head”. Even when the lyrics aren’t filthy, Dirty Mind sounds filthy: raw and stripped-back, pitched somewhere between funk and new wave rock, the vocals sung in a falsetto that feels like it’s permanently on the verge of turning into a scream. The plan works, aided by the fact that the music he’s now making is flatly brilliant. Within two years, he’s famous enough to demand his record label allow him to make a film, Purple Rain, despite having no discernible acting talent.

Fortuitously, his ascendancy to superstardom coincides with one of the worst periods in pop history: 1984–’87, a nadir of over-produced, over-inflated, soulless gloss, when the post-punk excitement and innovation of the early 1980s has faded, when hair metal and power ballads reign. This is the backdrop against which Prince releases Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade and Sign o’ the Times, and it only serves to make their contents seem more incredible. They leap from funk to psychedelia to soul to pop to hard rock, as if to demonstrate that Prince can bend whatever genre he chooses to his will. They’ve inspired boundless numbers of copyists over the years, artists who latch on to one aspect of what Prince did, but none of them is really like Prince, because Prince did it all. The albums are the sound of someone who’s winning at music.

Less lovably, the incident in his childhood also explains what Lisa Coleman called his ability to “prune his humanity”: to refuse to listen, to treat people in a cavalier way, to ultimately end up dying without anyone feeling they really got to know him. It’s what dents his career. After a while, most of his protégés leave, sick of not having any input into their own records and of Prince’s famously parsimonious attitude to money. He fires The Revolution in 1986, severing his ties with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman in the process; now, the only people who might answer him back are gone. He repurposes The Revolution’s final, unreleased album Dream Factory as Sign o’ the Times. It’s the zenith of his creative career, a wildly eclectic hour and 20 minutes of music without a second that feels dull or unnecessary.

Tellingly, he never makes an album that good again. He becomes embroiled in arguments with his record company, which leads to the whole “Slave” protest thing. Worse, a man who, for nine years, has put out only masterpieces starts releasing deliberately sub-par albums in order to taunt his label and get out of his contract. When he does, the music comes out in an unceasing torrent, but his sense of quality control is gone. In the 1990s and 2000s, you have to pick through Prince’s albums to find the gems — a state of affairs that was once unthinkable. Occasionally, you’re rewarded with something genuinely amazing, where inspiration has evidently struck in the way it once did whenever he walked into a studio. Listen to “Black Sweat” from 2006’s 3121, or the fabulous, discofied “Chelsea Rodgers” from the following year’s Planet Earth, an album that can’t help but be cheapened a little by Prince’s curious decision to give it away free in the UK with The Mail on Sunday.

Then again, Prince keeps intermittently doing things that remind you that he’s the one, uncontested, no-further-questions genius that 1980s pop produced. His halftime appearance at the Super Bowl XLI in 2007, comprising 12 rain-sodden minutes of tight choreography, pyrotechnic guitar solos and unexpected cover versions on a stage shaped like his famous symbol, renders every other Super Bowl show null and void. There’s his 21-night stand at London’s O2 Arena the same year, where his set changed every night, occasionally appearing to be improvised on the spot. The Hit and Run Tour in 2014, where he turned up at venues around London and Manchester, without prior warning, and tore through incredible, unpredictable shows. And if you’ve never seen it, go on YouTube and search for his appearance at George Harrison’s posthumous Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2004, where he performs on an all-star version of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and plays a solo so extraordinary that you can see other musicians onstage literally laughing in disbelief. Forget the patchy albums and the weird behaviour and the wrongheaded decisions of his later years: that’s your guy.

I saw him later that night in Paisley Park, after he’d drawn the interview to a close. Prince had taken to hosting “secret” shows in the building’s club-sized venue that locals paid $40 to attend, with no guarantee that the man himself would appear. I sat on a table with a mother and daughter who’d already turned up on three occasions and never caught a glimpse of him, unless you counted the moment when they saw him cycling around the car park outside, which I suppose was a sight worth seeing in itself. But that night, Prince showed.

He sat at his piano and played “Raspberry Beret”, “Starfish and Coffee” and “Girls & Boys” and he sounded amazing. He called a backing band on stage and they performed an improvised cover of Billy Cobham’s 1973 jazz-fusion instrumental “Stratus”. The mother and daughter were in raptures and who could blame them? My tolerance for improvised jazz-fusion is low at the best of times, but this was utterly gripping: Prince was playing out of his skin. Then he invited the audience to come and watch the new James Bond film with him and vanished before they could take him up on the offer.

No one I’ve interviewed has provoked so much interest from other people as Prince. They all ask the same thing — what was he like? — but beyond the fact that he was softly spoken, guarded, and dryly funny, the night I spent in Paisley Park left me with no clue. He kept his mystery intact, and that was the point. Even his death was mysterious, and that happened in the full glare of the world’s media. The pills that killed him were hooky — black-market tablets that looked like, and were labelled as, vicodin but contained the fatal fentanyl. A full police investigation, that resulted in a raid on his local branch of Walgreens, couldn’t find out how or where he’d got them. The case was closed with no charges made.

Prince went out the way he lived and the way his music worked: with questions unanswered, with nobody quite getting to the bottom of what he did, or why, or how. That’s his other legacy, besides the music, and it’s obviously what he wanted. He won at that, too.

Photo credit: Esquire
Photo credit: Esquire

This article is taken from the March/April issue of Esquire, on-sale now. For a hit of style, culture and advice from the experts, subscribe now.

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