"Good Evening, this is your pilot, Prince, speaking" comes out of the loudspeakers, all softness and breath, full of welcome. It's a flight you may not have taken before. Brace yourself, he ought to say. This is "International Lover," something the globe-conquering Prince claims to be, and this is his live act, which takes place on a grand, two-tiered stage hung with gigantic Venetian blinds.
In high-heeled boots, a flouncy ruffled blouse and a purple quasi-Edwardian suit, Prince begins to climb to the higher level, taking long strides that end in a hip-locking sway, a Rita Hayworth sort of walk. "You are flying aboard the Seduction 747," he rasps. "To activate the flow of excitement, extinguish all clothing materials."
Standing alone on the upper riser, Prince simply points a finger, and — you imagine this happens every time Prince extends his long index finger— a brass bed materializes. Stripping off his jacket, his shirt, unbuckling his belt so that a long strap hangs between his legs, Prince climbs onto the mattress and begins to undulate over the bed. "We are now making our final approach to satisfaction. Please bring your lips, your arms, your hips into the up and locked position for landing," he says, panting, and lets out a piercing scream that seems to announce the sudden fall from the sky of the flight of Seduction 747 — and Prince and the bed disappear.
All cocky, teasing talk about sex, that's Prince. Forget Mr. Look So Good; meet the original Mr. Big Stuff. He's afraid of nothing onstage: ready to take on all the desires of a stadium full of his lusty fans, ready to marry funky black dance music and punky white rock music after their stormy separation through the Seventies, ready to sell his Sex Can Save Us message to anybody who'll give his falsetto a listen. Nor does anything scare him when he's at home alone, composing.
Out comes a paean to incest called "Sister," a song called "Head" about a bride who meets Prince on her way to be wed and says, "I must confess, I wanna get undressed and go to bed," and a song called "Jack U Off." He even advised the president, "Ronnie Talk to Russia." So bold that half of his material is radio-censored, Prince is wailing, "Guess I should have closed my eyes when you drove me to the place where your horses run free/Cuz I felt a little ill when I saw all the pictures of the jockeys that were there before me" (in "Little Red Corvette"), while Lionel Richie is everywhere on the radio with "Truly, I love you truly."
His music, a technofunk and rock blend that many have started to call "the Minneapolis sound" because of the way the Minnesota native's influence is spreading, is the freshest thing around. So Kraftwerk made The Man Machine? This is the Man Sex Machine. He usually plays every instrument on his albums, even sings his own backup most of the time. His upper register can give you goose flesh when he's singing gospel-style, and he can turn around and hiccup his way through rockabilly like a perfect descendant of Elvis. There just don't seem to be any bounds to Prince's nerve or talent — each album is better than the last (he's made five), each stage show more outrageous.
A tour begun in November of last year had grossed almost $7 million before the end of March. Prince's new double album, 1999, has sold almost 750,000 copies, with its hottest single, "Little Red Corvette," closing in on the Top Twenty on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. And two groups he helped form made the black chart's Top Ten this winter: Vanity 6, a coquettish trio that performs in lingerie and whose "Nasty Girls" was a disco smash, and the Time, the tightest, funkiest live band in America.
Prince, just twenty-two, is the father of it all. But just try checking out the lineage. There isn't just a private side to Prince, there's an almost mysterious aspect. While the art of self-promotion has never been alien to rock & roll, it seems only to frustrate Prince. He was fairly outspoken until last fall, when, after his first interview to promote 1999, he walked out of the room and announced that he would never talk to the press again. "He's afraid he might say something wrong or say too much," says a former aide-de-camp.
When he did talk, he often contradicted himself. Rumors started to spread, and now his silence feeds them. Is Prince his real name? Is he black or white, straight or gay (questions he himself raised on his 1981 hit-cum-Lord's Prayer recitation, "Controversy")? Is he the Jamie Starr who produced albums by the Time and Vanity 6? Is he a shy little Prince or a despotic king?
"Prince controls the whole scene in Minneapolis," says a local musician who has worked with him. Others who've lived with him or worked alongside him say he loves to surround himself with an air of mystery, to create false identities to tangle the clues that lead to him. Cutting off all but a few close friends, Prince tends to hole up at his huge home, with its modern basement-studio, on a lake twenty miles west of Minneapolis. One member of his band says he's had just one personal conversation with Prince in all the years he's known him. "He's a real 'to himself' kind of person," says Morris Day, the Time's frontman and a longtime friend.
"He doesn't like to talk," says Vanity, the awesomely beautiful leader of Vanity 6, who accompanied Prince to the Grammys in February.
"Sir Highness," says another friend, "has a way of secluding himself."
Prince, the Pauper
Piece together Prince's story from his own partial accounts, and you come up with sort of a musical Wild Child, an untamed loner who raised himself and taught himself how to survive among the wolves. Patch together the history told by the people close to him, and you get a version like this:
The first notes of the Minneapolis sound were heard in a big brick house in North Minneapolis, an aging, primarily black section of town that draws outsiders only to the Terrace Theater, a movie house designed to look like a suburban backyard patio, and the Riverview Supper Club, the nightspot a black act turns to after it has polished its performance on the local chitlin circuit. North Minneapolis is a poor area by local standards, but a family with not too much money can still afford the rent on a whole house. It was there that Bernadette Anderson, who was already raising six kids of her own by herself, decided to take in a doe-eyed kid named Prince, a pal of her youngest son, André.
The thirteen-year-old Prince had landed on the Anderson doorstep after having been passed from his stepfather and mother's home to his dad's apartment to his aunt's house. "I was constantly running from family to family," Prince has said. "It was nice on one hand, because I always had a new family, but I didn't like being shuffled around. I was bitter for a while, but I adjusted."
His father, John Nelson, was a musician himself — a piano player in a jazz band by night, a worker at Honeywell, the electronics company, by day. Nelson is black and Italian; his ex-wife, says Prince of his mother, "is a mixture of a bunch of things." Onstage, the father was called Prince Rogers, and that is what he named his son, Prince Rogers Nelson.
John Nelson moved out of the family home when Prince was seven. But he left behind his piano, and it became the first instrument Prince learned to play. The songs he practiced were TV themes — Batman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. "My first drum set was a box full of newspapers," he has said, explaining how he came to play a whole range of instruments. "At thirteen, I went to live with my aunt. She didn't have room for a piano, so my father bought me an electric guitar, and I learned how to play." But the aunt wasn't keen on the noise, and she threw him out. It was then that Prince turned up at André's.
Hardly into their teens, Prince and André (who uses the surname Cymone) had already formed their first group. Prince recalled, "I got my first band. I wanted to hear more instruments, so I started Champagne, a twelve-piece band. Only four of us played. Eight were faking. André and I played saxophone. I also played piano. I wrote all the music. The songs were all instrumentals. No one ever sang. When I got into high school, I started to write lyrics. I'd write the really, really vulgar stuff."
André, on the other hand, claims the first band had Prince playing lead guitar, André himself on bass guitar, his sister Linda on keyboards and the Time's Morris Day on drums. The group was called Grand Central, later renamed Champagne. The musicians all wore suede-cloth suits with their zodiac signs sewn on the back (Prince, born on June 7th, 1960, had Gemini, the twins, on his). For a time, they were managed by Morris' mother, which didn't make Prince very happy. "She wasn't fast enough for Prince," says Mrs. Anderson. "He wanted her to get them a contract right away."
The band practiced in André's basement, where Prince had established a bedroom of his own. "It sounded like a lot of noise," says Bernadette Anderson. "But after the first couple of years, I realized the seriousness of it. They were good kids. Girls were crazy about them."
André — whose father had played bass in the Prince Rogers Band — says that although the family was poor, Prince "dug the atmosphere. It was freedom for him." There wasn't enough money to buy records, but there was a family friend — a reclusive black millionaire, says one source — who gave the kids the money to go to a local studio to record a few songs. The studio they picked was called Moon Sound.
Moon Sound was an eight-track studio that charged about thirty-five dollars an hour back in 1976, when Prince and André and the rest of Champagne walked in the door. The owner, Chris Moon, was a lyricist looking for a collaborator. "Prince always used to show up at the studio with a chocolate shake in his hand, sipping out of a straw," Moon remembers. "He looked pretty tame. Then he'd pick up an instrument and that was it. It was all over."
Prince soon agreed to work with Moon, and the studio owner handed the seventeen-year-old a set of keys to the studio. "He'd stay the weekend, sleep on the studio floor," Moon says. "I wrote down directions on how to operate the equipment, so he'd just follow the little chart — you know, press this button to record and this button to play back. That's when he learned to operate studio equipment. Pretty soon, I could sit back and do the listening."
One person who heard Prince's early recordings was Owen Husney, who became his first manager. Husney put together an expensive package that included a demo tape of three twelve-minute songs on which Prince sang and played all the instruments, and he went off to L.A. to make a pitch to the record companies. Three labels — CBS, Warner Bros, and A&M — eventually made offers. Prince finally signed with Warner Bros., where, says an executive, they "were taken with the simplicity of his music and a future that looked wide open," and where he was offered a firm three-LP contract, unheard of for a new artist.
Lenny Waronker, then head of A&R and now president of the label, was impressed enough to allow Prince to act as producer of his debut album. "I met him when we first signed him," Waronker recalls. "[Producer] Russ Titelman and I took him into the studio one day, much to his chagrin. So we said, 'Play the drums,' and he played the drums and put a bass part on, a guitar part. And we just said, 'Yeah, fine, that's good enough.'"
Sales of the first Prince album, For You, released in 1978, weren't so hot, but the fact that the kid was a one-man band — and his own producer — got a lot of attention. Then, in 1979, the single "I Wanna Be Your Lover" from his eponymous second LP went to Number One on the soul charts. But the age of innocence was almost over. Prince was back in Minneapolis putting together a new band, a straggly mix of blacks and whites, all recruited locally. His old friend André Cymone was among them, playing bass.
"There was a lot of pressure from my ex-buddies in other bands not to have white members in the band," Prince has said. "But I always wanted a band that was black and white. Half the musicians I knew only listened to one type of music. That wasn't good enough for me."
The band, with its double keyboards, learned to reproduce the music Prince had been creating alone in the studio. The synthesizers, often playing horn lines, are a hallmark of the Minneapolis sound. The guitar signature is edgy rock, but the beat reins in any long guitar solos. "Around here, if it's not synthesizers, it's nothing," says a local Minneapolis musician. "This is a keyboard town. It's simplicity. If you listen to a lot of Prince or the Time, it's simple. It's direct and straight to the point. And it feels so good."
With a band to spread the word on the road, Prince was ready, in 1980, to unleash Dirty Mind, his bawdy third album. 1999 wasn't very far away.
Black Lace Bikini Underwear
Prince does not dress like your average rock star. Not for him the futuristic, stretchy costumes of the Commodores, or the raggedy jeans of the Bruce Springsteen types. He wears bright eye makeup, and his hair seems a cross between Little Richard and neorockabilly styles. He dresses in his own rococo street-kid fashion. Last year, when Prince won an award from a Minneapolis weekly newspaper for Minnesota Musician of the year, he showed up in his most formal clothes — black trench coat and white go-go boots (his acceptance speech: "When do they give the award for the best ass?").
And he's been known to perform in nothing but boots and a pair of bikini underpants. It's quite an act — that lean, almost nude body singing no-holds-barred lyrics. "How come you don't call me?" he wails in gospel falsetto in one song. "Don't you wanna play with my tootsie roll?" And he entreats his audiences into the singalong to "Head" — "I'll give you head, love you till you're dead."
It's sexy, sure — girls screech whenever he tosses black lace bikini underwear into the audience — but it's also very funny. Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye and Richard "Dimples" Fields are all out of the same school of seduction, but Prince seems to have been off studying with Mae West, learning high camp and low-rent vamping. He's developed a great sense of humor, even if he takes his sex-is-liberation politics very seriously. And from the giddy "Gotta Stop Messin' About" to "Let's Work," nobody has so well expressed the exhilarating freedom of adolescent sexual energy since Michael Jackson yelped "I Want You Back."
"Prince has brought a boldness out of black entertainers again," says Alexander (O'Neill — there's a penchant for first names only in this crowd), a Minneapolis singer who fronted an early version of the Time. "Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard —they always dressed bizarre. Now Prince is doing it in a new era. He's making a lot of entertainers wake up to things. You're making a statement in life. It's all about being your own self. Like Prince says, 'It's all about being free.'"
Why so much sex? someone asked him once. "My songs are more about love than they are about sex," he answered. "I don't consider myself a great poet, or interpreter à la Moses. I just know I'm here to say what's on my mind, and I'm in a position where I can do that. It would be foolish for me to make up stories about going to Paris, knocking off the queen and things of that nature."
Prince was just seventeen when he co-wrote, with studio owner Chris Moon, the single from his first LP, a song called "Soft and Wet." Already, they had considered the commercial potential of an innocent sexuality. "That was the original concept," says Moon, "and it's stayed true to that. I had a conversation with him on the phone about a year ago, and I said, 'I see you're still staying with the "Soft and Wet" theme. But you're making it a little more blatant. What is this I hear about "Head"?' And he goes, 'Yeah, well, I decided to make it a little more straightforward so that everyone would get it.'"
Everyone does seem to be getting it these days, including Prince's dad. "When I first played the Dirty Mind album for him," Prince has said of his father, "he said,'You're swearing on the record. Why do you have to do that?' And I said, 'Because I swear.'"
Prince, apparently, is not a character played out in the music. "His persona is Prince, onstage and offstage," says his friend and personal manager, Steve Fargnoli. "He's just as outspoken and outrageous offstage, in his business dealings." But he is shy, Fargnoli adds, and he says what he has to say about his politics and music on his records, not in conversation. And soon, he'll be saying it all in a movie: Prince has written the film treatment and most of the score for a musical that he'll also act in. "He is demanding of himself and of everyone who works around him," says Fargnoli. "You always have to be on your toes. He doesn't play by the rules."
The rules he plays by, instead, are his rules. He comes on strong. Is he — with his androgynous look, his royal name and his sex-mad lyrics — scarier to white audiences than Mr. T? Album-oriented radio is certainly skittish about playing Prince, saying that funk doesn't cut it with their heavymetal-loving listeners. On the other hand, his videos are popular with MTV viewers. Prince's audience actually seems to be as integrated as that of the old soul stars (Prince's management company estimates his concert audiences to be forty percent white). People who like, say, James Brown have found Prince, and they like the way he uses elements of rock & roll while keeping an R&B backbone in the music.
And although armchair sociologists might suggest that a really outrageous performer has a better chance of succeeding in conservative times like these and may cite Little Richard's reign in the Fifties as an example, neither Little Richard nor Prince would have made a dent in the music market without talent. Prince, whose refusal to speak to the press has made him less visible than other musicians, probably is popular in spite of, not because of, his image. After all, he has a following of people caught up in the visceral charge of his music, not an audience of voyeurs.
He can count among his fans John Cougar, who was so impressed on hearing Prince's "Little Red Corvette" that he started touting Prince to his own concert audiences. Before 20,000 fans in Tulsa, he ran backstage to get his cassette deck, then played a tape of Prince's hit single into his microphone. For the LP Cougar is producing for Mitch Ryder, the first 45 is likely to be Ryder's recording of Prince's "When You Were Mine." And Cougar has — unsuccessfully, so far — been trying to get a message to Prince: would he sing on Cougar's new album?
What Time Is It?
Joni Mitchell songs blare out of the PA between the sets of Prince's road show, at his request. Vanity 6, three women in lacy camisoles, open the concert. "I love lingerie," explains Vanity, the leader of the group. "I used to sneak into my mother's closet and try to wear her lingerie to school." She picked her nickname because "a girl's best friend is her pride," she says. Like her cohorts, Brenda and Susan, Vanity gave a demo tape of her songs to Prince a year ago. "He said there were a couple other girls whose minds seemed to run alongside mine," she says. Prince then arranged to bring Vanity, a twenty-two-year-old former model from Toronto, to Minneapolis to meet the other two, flying Brenda in from Boston. Soon, the three were writing songs like "Drive Me Wild" and "Nasty Girls," in which Vanity coos, "I can't control it/I need seven inches or more."
It all seems a figment of Prince's imagination, a living fantasy. "Prince and I happen to think alike," says Vanity. On their record, Vanity 6 is backed by the Time; onstage, they're followed by the Time (who, in turn, are followed by Prince). At one point in the Time's set, frontman Morris Day, a terrific dancer, calls out his valet. The valet —who often follows Morris' own dance steps like a shadow — brings out a table, sets it with a white cloth and a vase of flowers, and uncorks a bottle of champagne. Morris, meanwhile, in his trademark two-tone Stacy Adams shoes, waltzes with a girl chosen from the audience. This sort of classy deportment was the starting point for the Time, as organized by Morris. "The image was cool. That's the key word," he says. "That's what we built the Time around. Cool is an attitude, a self-respect thing."
Morris didn't exactly put the group together — all but guitarist Jesse Johnson had been playing around Minneapolis in a band called Flyte Tyme (known familiarly as the Tyme even then). But it is Morris who has led the band to the point where it now often steals the show from the scantily clad Vanity 6 and even from Prince. Morris, the former drummer, has stayed closer to traditional R&B but, by injecting his good humor, has developed one of the best live acts in the country.
Prince, says Morris, helped the band get its Warner Bros. contract in 1981. Asked why the Time shares the same teenage-sex themes as Prince, Morris says, "Sex is present in everybody's life. I don't think anybody owns the rights to that." Asked if Prince influenced their sound, Morris says what Vanity says: "We believe in the same things." Asked about Jamie Starr, an icy tension descends.
Although Morris Day and one Jamie Starr are credited as producers on the Time's first record, there is reason to believe that the record was, in fact, produced by Prince. One source very close to the situation says that not only is all the material written by Prince (mysteriously, there are no writing credits on the LP), but that the instruments are played by Prince and the voice is Prince's doubled with Morris Day's. This insider claims that the record — a more commercial, more straightforward R&B album — is a project Prince offered Warner Bros. because his own bolder stuff wasn't selling impressively. So, goes this theory, Prince set the Time in motion — and created a pseudonym, Jamie Starr, for his new project.
Prince did tell a reporter in an early interview with the Minnesota Daily, when he was just seventeen, that someday he would make jazz recordings under an alias. (In that same interview, Prince claimed not to be averse to choreography, but he drew the line at spins — "I get nauseated.") So the idea of working with a fictitious name had occurred to him at the beginning of his career.
And although Morris says that he and the band wrote the songs on their first LP, The Time, a call to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), with whom the songs are registered, casts some doubt. The composer of the hits "Get It Up" and "Cool" is Prince Rogers Nelson (with Dez Dickerson on "Cool"), says an ASCAP spokesman. Prince's manager says that the fact that Prince's name is registered for the Time's record is "a filing mistake."
"Let me clear up a few rumors while I have the chance," Prince told the Los Angeles Times. "One, my real name is Prince. Two, I'm not gay. And three, I'm not Jamie Starr."
"Jamie Starr is an engineer, the coproducer of our record. Of course he's real," says Morris Day, whose band now outplays whoever it was on the first Time record.
But if there is a Jamie Starr, why can't he be reached? Manager Steve Fargnoli says it's because he's "in and out of Minneapolis," because he's "a reclusive maniac" (like Prince) and because "it could be months before I see him," Can he be reached by phone? "No."
Well, you wouldn't need to call him over to Prince's home studio if he's already there. "Prince is Jamie Starr", says former Warner Bros. artist and fellow Minneapolitan Sue Ann (Carwell), who has been a friend of Prince's for years — ever since he wrote and produced her first demo tape. Others who are close to Prince also say that he is Jamie Starr, but they refuse to be quoted in print. But, says one, "everybody knows who's the main man behind everything."
"We could be this Generation's Yardbirds," Prince's guitarist Dez Dickerson boasted to a reporter about the way everybody was splintering off Prince's musical family tree and making solo records.
Dickerson himself wrote "He's So Dull" for Vanity 6 and has done some solo recording. André Cymone, since leaving Prince's band a year and a half ago, has signed a CBS contract and released an LP, Livin' in the New Wave, on which he plays all the instruments and produces himself. Alexander has released a twelve-inch dance record, "Do You Dare." Sue Ann, who had a hit in "Rock Me" a few years ago, has finished a new album, Inside Out. And the Time's bassist, Terry Lewis, and keyboardist, Jimmy Jam, recently wrote and produced a couple of songs for the all-girl group Klymaxx.
"Minneapolis is a mini-Motown", says Alexander, summing it up. "We'll have a hell of a lot to do with the musical direction of the Eighties."
But Minneapolis offers a kind of calm within the music industry, and they all stay on there, honing their acts. And while they're working, they're left alone. There's no chasing limousines there. There aren't any limousines carrying celebrities to the nightspots.
So nobody made a big deal of it when Prince walked into First Avenue, a club in downtown Minneapolis last summer, a rock club where images of Grand Master Flash, the Human League, the Clash and others flash in montage on the walls. What's new? somebody asked Prince. Sheepishly, he held up a test pressing of 1999 that he had tucked under his arm. Later on, he asked the DJ to throw his new song, "Delirious," on the turntable. And then, with his hottest record filling up the enormous room, Prince took Vanity out onto the middle of the dance floor to give his own record the ultimate test. They wiggled around, they strutted, they dipped. And Prince looked happy. It had a good beat. It was easy to dance to.