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.
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