Prince’s Biographer on the Last Time He Talked to the Artist
In the new book This Thing Called Life, journalist Neal Karlen tells the story not just of Prince’s life, but of a rare, decades-long friendship between a writer and an iconic artist. Karlen knew Prince growing up in Minneapolis and was his only confidant in the press for more than a decade at the height of his fame, a partnership that yielded three Rolling Stone cover stories. In this chapter from the book, entitled “Last Call,” Karlen looks back on the last time he ever talked to Prince. This Thing Called Life is out October 6th.
“Hi, it’s Prince,” said the unmistakable voice on the other end of the line.
But I was mistaken.
Someone who sounded a hell of a lot like Prince — alive for another three and a half weeks — was on the other end, no doubt. Yet it wasn’t quite him: A smidgen of something I couldn’t put a name to was missing from the person and voice I’d come to know over the last thirty-one years.
Someone who sounded astonishingly like Prince was on the other end of the line. But something was undefinably, ineffably off, missing, in the timbre of that voice. This fellow sounded like an excellent simulation of the musician, like the Prince impersonator I once saw in a Las Vegas celebrity lookalike “Legends” show. The voice on the phone was nearly a pitch-perfect soundalike, a Prince robocall, talking the way you start talking back to before you realize there’s nobody there.
I’ve got nerves that jangle easily, and now, for no specific reason, they were jangling hard. Knock it off, I chastised, reminding myself I hadn’t talked to him in ten months, and during all that time hadn’t had to deduce instantly, the way I usually did, which of the hues in Prince’s profoundly compartmentalized box of emotions he was feeling at that moment. He sounded uncharacteristically flat, as if he was a smushed drawing utensil that needed a spin through a pencil sharpener.
Nah, I was crazy, I thought. I always thought there was trouble when there was none; my major in life had long been worrying over nothing. Paranoia runs deep.
I mumbled nothingisms, not following our usual script for greeting each other.
“It’s Prince,” he repeated, sounding annoyed.
“Prince who?” I finally asked back, returning his “It’s Prince” in the telephone shtick we’d been replaying with each other for more than a generation.
“The Prince,” he responded in 2016, his annoyance alchemizing more toward the tone of animated bonhomie I’d grown accustomed to when he was in a good mood.
Our telephone shtick had begun in 1985, when Prince, bringing his impatience up to its usual Formula One speed, had called my folks’ house in Minneapolis to find out if my plane had landed yet from New York for our first might-be-if-he-liked-me interview, for an if-he-did-he’d-talk Rolling Stone cover story. When he announced himself to my mother the first time, demanding to know if I’d arrived yet, she said, unimpressed: “Prince who?”
“The Prince,” he’d responded.
When I got home to Minneapolis a few hours later, she told me “the Prince” had called, a moniker she used, without a hint of disingenuousness, for the rest of her life: “Say hello to the Prince!”
Back then, he hadn’t spoken to the press in three years, had vowed never to speak publicly again, and in the meantime, had become via Purple Rain the biggest rock star on the planet. I didn’t know that this interview wasn’t a lock, but rather an audition. I’d falsely figured I’d already landed the story of him finally talking on the recommendation of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman of his band the Revolution. I’d interviewed Wendy and Lisa several weeks before for their own Rolling Stone cover.
Check that, I learned a generation later. Ultimately the critical “Why don’t you talk to him?” came from Susannah Melvoin, Wendy’s identical twin sister and lead singer with “Saint” Paul Peterson of the Prince-tutored band the Family — and Prince’s girlfriend for years. According to most of Prince’s folklorists, Susannah was also his fiancée, which is actually truth, not fable. She was also a woman who took no shit, and his last opportunity to be with a woman who could keep him tethered to planet Earth.
Among the songs Prince is known or believed to have written about or for Susannah are “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “The Beautiful Ones,” “Forever in My Life,” “If I Were Your Girlfriend,” and the almost mythical “Wally,” a lost love ballad to Susannah that Prince had had erased after recording what engineer Susan Rogers had said was an indescribably brilliant song.
The original deal had been that Prince, still living under his vow never to speak to the press again, would let Wendy and Lisa speak for him — and that he’d pose with them for Rolling Stone’s cover. By recommending to Susannah Melvoin (and perhaps positing the idea with Prince himself) that the Little Big Man talk to me, Wendy and Lisa did the unthinkably generous: They gave up their own cover story.
True, they would make it the following year. But they didn’t know that, and once you give up the cover of any major magazine, it’s always doubtful that the wheel will come around again. People in rock and roll just don’t give up being on the cover of Rolling Stone.
But Lisa and Wendy did. They talked to Susannah, who talked to Prince, and in 1985, after watching me putz around his assorted bands’ rehearsal space and test-driving me for conversation and karma while playing Ping-Pong and showing me around the place for a couple days, he agreed to give talking on the record one last try.
“Um, how are you?” I asked Prince over the phone in 2016, thirty-one years later. We’d been on for about a minute, but I remained so lost in my reverie of fretting about why he was calling me during daylight hours that I hadn’t homed in specifically on what he’d been talking about.
“I’m tired,” I heard him say numbly, after a long pause. “I feel like sleeping all the time.”
I hadn’t paid much attention to Prince’s career, to be honest, in the last decade. And he didn’t seem to mind that I no longer seemed to know which of his new albums he was talking about, where he’d been on his last tour, or that I never, ever came to Paisley Park for one of his three-in-the-morning, announced-at-the-last-second shows that famously finished near dawn with him serving pancakes to the gathered and devoted.
I sat down on my bed, as Prince related why he’d called: He’d just heard something he’d thought I’d find funny on a Netflix rerun of the sitcom The Office, his favorite television show of the moment.
“He always loved his sitcoms,” André Cymone (né André Simon Anderson) said in 2018. Cymone, Prince’s high school best friend and musical coconspirator, had his family take Prince under their roof in the mid-1970s. To my mind, André had been brutally betrayed by the purple guy, and was still, I believed, the last actual friend — in most traditional senses of the word — that Prince ever had.
“There is a lot about Prince that people don’t understand,” Cymone said when we first talked after Prince died. “He was extremely into Americana. Happy Days, he watched Happy Days religiously,” André went on, beginning to enumerate Prince’s favorite television shows. “The Jeffersons. And he watched Welcome Back Kotter religiously. And I’m not kidding — Barnaby Jones, he just loved Barnaby Jones.”
Ah, that ancient show from the seventies, featuring the even more ancient Buddy Ebsen as the old-coot private eye; Ebsen had played Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies — another sitcom Prince loved (he watched the Hillbillies in reruns; he thought Elly May Clampett, Jed’s blonde daughter, was hot).
“You know,” said Cymone. “I used to get on his case for watching that stuff. I’d say, ‘You’re never going to make it wasting all your time watching those television shows.’ And he would laugh and say, ‘But you gotta hear what they’re saying!’”
“Watching those shows was his thing, literally,” Cymone said. “A lot of people don’t know that, but obviously when you live with someone, you know their habits. And watching those shows was one of his main habits.”
Prince had so many habits one wouldn’t think possible, contradictions that simply didn’t make sense. Just as one suspected he was barely a resident of reality, he’d come out with a perfect impression of Fonzie saying “Eyyyy, Mr. C!” to Tom Bosley on Happy Days.
Just as one would be given reason to suspect that Prince suffered from savant syndrome and was cognitively impaired, he would come out with a line from “Big Blonde,” arguably Dorothy Parker’s best short story. Or somebody might be of the correct opinion that Prince had just read the front page of that day’s New York Times — and he would then say something so ignorant about the illuminati running the universe that the best one could do was simply shake one’s head.
Everything, it seemed to me, depended on who and where he was that day, what he felt and needed that hour, and what one might provide that second. I was not his shrink, his rabbi, or his confessor. And I most certainly wasn’t a Prince Whisperer. I knew what I knew; I had an idea of the extent of what I didn’t know, and I had no idea of what I had no idea about.
Even though I was introduced as “Prince’s friend” so many times in the old days that for my own sanity I had to drop as conspicuously as possible out of his life, I never said once while he was alive that we were in fact friends.
And so, the last time Prince and I ever talked — fittingly on the phone — was so he could relate a scene he’d just seen on The Office, a sitcom about life in a workaday Scranton, Pennsylvania, paper-selling company that ran for almost a decade on network television, and was, for years, one of Netflix’s most popular warhorses.
In the particular episode Prince was calling about, it seemed, Creed Bratton, the ancient lunatic of the cast, had used my forever all-time-favorite Prince jive pronoun from back in the day when we were both young and thought everything would work out all right for both of us in this thing called life. He’d used the jive pronoun so often, and I’d always laughed so hard when he did that it became my off-and-on nickname in the private patois we developed from the first moment we began talking: “mamma jamma.”
I always suspected he had a similar secret language with everybody he had any kind of relationship with: It’s an easy way to co-opt somebody’s unquestioning loyalty, and Prince was a master of exerting personal power. He knew how to drive colleagues like slaves, but he also knew when and how to make them feel special with a nickname, or even private language.
John F. Kennedy understood. No one co-opted Ben Bradlee, the former marine and tough future executive editor of the Washington Post, who had the courage to oversee and run with the Watergate story that destroyed Richard Nixon. Except Kennedy, who nicknamed and alone called Bradlee “Benjy” while he was president, and Ben was the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek. For the rest of his life JFK had one of the least corruptible icons of journalism safely in his pocket.
Prince had read Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, the classic sixteenth-century meditation on deviously getting and keeping power. And no matter which spirituality he actually officially followed at the moment, he forever religiously practiced Machiavelli’s dictum that “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”
And so, if Prince was expert at making peers feel like shit — which he did automatically if he was paying you a salary — he was also adept at making you feel special. For me, that meant in the old days his use of “mamma jamma” — the word Prince had used obsessively when we first met to try unsuccessfully to break his habit of saying “motherfucker.”
“Mamma jamma” — the jive, Ebonics, or African American English vernacular pronoun was the word he chose when still in the first blush of his “Purple Rain” above-the-law rock star fame. At the time, he thought it might be a good commercial idea to clean up his language, if not necessarily his lyrics.
“Mamma jamma.” He’d known since the day we met that the mellifluous sound of his long-retired use of the jive term was my all-time favorite expression in his profoundly catholic vocabulary. Unfortunately nostalgia was not a place Prince visited too often anymore, and now, in the spring of 2016, the fact that I hadn’t heard him say “mamma jamma” in several years seemed another indication to me that something was wrong.
Ach, I told myself again, everything’s fine. I looked at the clock: One in the afternoon. Well, that was wrong. Or, as we say in Minneapolis, different.
After all, I was his middle-of-the-night-angst guy, I thought. And though I could and would talk to him about sitcoms or the Minnesota Vikings, romance, raising a family, or suicide, it was usually between three and six in the morning.
I was not his middle-of-the-afternoon talk-trash-about-television-and-sports guy. For decades he’d called in the dead of night, politely inquiring after saying hello, “Did I wake you up?” — as if he might have caught me in the middle of a brief nap or doing the crossword.
I assumed for some reason his middle-of-the-day guys were perhaps his BNs, Prince-talk (at least with me) for “Big Negroes,” an abbreviation he’d borrowed from Homicide, one of his favorite television shows, created by David Simon, who later invented The Wire, his favorite show of all time.
“BN, BG,” the quite-brilliant cops-and-robbers show delineated, was Baltimore police shorthand for the only details most white mugging victims tended to remember when quizzed for descriptions of African American assailants: “Big Negro, Big Gun.”
In our private language “BN” came to mean Prince’s hired muscle. He privately called his bodyguards or other pumped-up members of his entourage “my BNs,” and he seemed tickled when I presumptuously adopted the term to refer to the men who kept the little fellow safe by radiating menace at thirty feet.
So if he wasn’t calling his BNs right now, where were his morning women — why wasn’t he calling or talking to one of them right now, in the light of day? When Prince’s parents were alive, he’d bring his special lady friend — or friends — of the moment to both of his folks’ houses to say hello at daybreak. Why wasn’t he talking to those people in those compartments at this time of day?
Calling anybody at any time of day or night wasn’t just another Machiavellian tool of power and intimidation for Prince. Fellow Twin City native F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up, his chilling 1940 account of his own unraveling, of the “real dark night of the soul [when] it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” For Prince three o’clock in the morning wasn’t meant for existential shivers. It was a normal working hour, day after day, night after night.
He was proud that his lifelong vampire’s schedule was prime time not for self-torture or mental disintegration, but to continue his day labors that resulted in the release, during his lifetime, of thirty-nine studio albums and four soundtracks that sold one hundred million units, and won a gazillion Grammys, one Academy Award, and, perhaps most astonishingly, the veritable ownership of his own color (by which, of course, I mean purple, not black).
When did he sleep? Late morning, early afternoon, a few hours at most, those who seemed to know seemed to say. Yet it had always been an open question, as far back as junior high school. “Anyone who was around back then knew what was happening,” he told me. “I was working. When they were sleeping, I was jamming. When they woke up, I had another groove. I’m as insane that way now as I was back then.”
In 1985, the first time we’d talked on the record, Prince even acted out, in self-mockery, his own death, saying he’d mostly likely die during the witching hours of exhaustion extremis. Stretching out on a recording console, limbs awkwardly splayed like a body ready to be chalked by the coroner, he crossed his eyes and stuck his arm out.
That’s all this was, these heebie-jeebies I was feeling, I tried in vain to reassure myself less than a month before he died. On this, our final exchange of words, maybe Prince was verbalizing one facet of his multifacets, maybe it was a cartoon version of … something real he was trying to express, he did that, too. Something that I unconsciously buried, at least for the duration of that call, intimations that what I was hearing was perhaps the death rattle of a rock star on the verge of a drug-induced overdose, which still haunts me.
I felt better after he complied with my request to do one of his best impressions, one of many. I asked him for his impersonation of Stanley Hudson, the curmudgeonly middle-aged African American, a former Black Panther who grudgingly put up with the subtle and not-so-subtle foibles and unknowing racism of his fellow paper sellers in The Office. So he did several spot-on Stanley impressions for my benefit, including my favorite, his furious, shouting Stanley, the one he said reminded him most of his father.
Prince threw in one of his magnificent, animated Don King imitations, and I felt better. He finally said keep in touch, and my last thought as we hung up was that I wished I’d asked him to do Fonzie from Happy Days!
I loved his Fonzie.
“Next time,” I thought. “Eyyyy.”
There never would be a next time. And the out-of-time oddness of that last call nagged at me periodically for days. But lots of things bother me off and on for days, always had. For whatever reasons he liked me, it wasn’t for my preternatural calmness. As potatoes went with Prince, this was pretty small, I reassured myself.
And yet, others across the city had felt weirdness emanating, too. Prince had uncharacteristically gotten back in touch with several people from his past over the last year of his life, and he’d mentioned in our last conversation how he’d been reaching out, though I didn’t even wonder if he was trying to signal an end or a beginning. I’m nostalgic for times I wasn’t even alive for; I get nostalgic for other people’s nostalgia.
Yet suddenly, events became even more worrisome. A week after I talked to Prince, his plane made an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois, after a concert in Atlanta: Secretly, he was to be revived from an opioid overdose that was covered up as a touch of the flu. He was down to 112 pounds from the 130 he’d weighed several years earlier.
But even when news broke of the weirdness in Moline, no one from his old days could get to him. André, his old best friend and among those old pals he’d gotten back in touch with in the last year, tried texting Prince a dozen times, falsely telling him he was homeless, needed a place to stay, asking if he could hang out at Paisley Park for a few days until he got on his feet. (André was fine, as were his wife, children, house, and career.)
And then there was Alan Leeds, who over the years had served Prince in every role from production manager during the filming of Purple Rain to road manager on his most grandiose world tours to president of Paisley Park Records to confidante above all others. Disturbed by the reports of the Moline incident, he called Paisley Park and wasn’t able to get through either to Prince — or the truth.
“I called someone I knew, and they assured me he was okay,” Leeds remembered. “But even though I knew them, they sounded like a press release. I could tell something was wrong.”
What could Alan, among the best business and personal allies Prince ever had, do?
And so, Prince died.
He’d shown me where, in 1985, when Paisley Park was just another unnamed, featureless field in the middle of nowhere, adjacent to the Twin Cities. It was the Drivepastland of Flyoverland, and for reasons my know-nothing twenty-six-year-old self never understood, my Spidey sense spooked me the second he showed me the field and told me of his dream of what he would soon build there.
Soon enough Paisley Park was indeed built, a 65,000-square-foot, $10 million creative production center and temperature-controlled storage facility encompassing a capacious layout of studios, soundstages, and practice spaces. Paisley Park also provided a Supermanworthy Fortress of Solitude for its creator. Staring at the empty field where he would die in another century, he defined the concept of “Paisley Park,” presciently, spookily, as a “place in your heart where you can go to be alone.”
I don’t believe in visions, but it was a hell of a coincidence what popped into my mind all those years before when he showed me that field. I flashed suddenly on Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, dying unloved, tended to by a barely caring nurse in “Xanadu,” Kane’s equivalent to Paisley Park, his stately pleasure dome built to shut out the world forever knocking for him. In the end, I guess, Prince got what he wanted: Like Charles Foster Kane in the film, he was left alone to die, without even his version of “Rosebud,” Kane’s remembrance of a more innocent time.
If “the Big Sleep” was the slang moniker Raymond Chandler used for death, then Prince’s yearning to be by himself was “the Big Alone.” For the musician the need to be by himself proved a road map straight to Chandler’s destination.
Kirk Johnson, then fifty-one, was one of the few inside the Prince bubble when he died, and virtually his only contemporary. Aware to whatever extent one wishes to believe he was aware of what was going on with his boss, Johnson at least gets credit for taking action when his boss was so obviously ailing.
Johnson is the one who demanded the plane make an emergency landing on the way back to Minneapolis from Prince’s show after he’d overdosed on board in front of singer and protégé Judith Hill, who later told investigators that among Prince’s final words before nodding off were “I’m tired. I think God is calling me home.”
Johnson carried Prince off of his private plane during the emergency stop, and watched as paramedics at the Moline airport gave Prince naloxone, the come-back-to-life antidote for opioid overdoses. The first hit didn’t work; they shot him up again, and Prince opened his eyes.
“Are you all right?” paramedics asked Prince. He didn’t answer.
“He’s fine,” Johnson said, on behalf of his boss.
Later Prince scolded Johnson for having him revived.
Johnson didn’t give up. He’d helped procure the services of a local doctor to try to manage Prince’s addiction, while a Los Angeles drug rehab the rock star had been referred to by a San Francisco–based business associate made preparations to send a representative to Paisley Park and Prince, stat.
But not stat enough. Of all the horrific details to emerge from the morning of April 21, 2016, the most sickening and revelatory was the transcript of the 911 call made to the Carver County police from Paisley Park by Andrew Kornfeld, the premed son of Dr. Howard Kornfeld, the putative drug-rehab genius from Mill Valley, California. The father would get to Minneapolis just as soon as he could; in the meantime his son, who was still fulfilling his requirements to get into medical school, would have to do.
Though the world-famous Hazelden drug and alcohol rehabilitation center — and its on-site emergency room — was only a gallon of gas away, Andrew Kornfeld had taken the red-eye all the way from the Coast. Illegally armed with naloxone and Dr. Daddy’s blessing, Andrew was ready to sit in for the moment while his father took care of business in California and prepared to set his watch two hours ahead, to Central Daylight Savings Time — Prince time.
Dispatcher: 911, where is your emergency?
Andrew Kornfeld: Hi there, um, what’s the address here? Yea, we need an ambulance right now.
Kornfeld: We have someone who is unconscious.
D: OK, what’s the address?
Kornfeld: Um, we’re at Prince’s house.
D: OK, does anybody know the address? Is there any mail around that you could look at?
Kornfeld: Yeah, yeah, OK, hold on.
D: OK, your cellphone’s not going to tell me where you’re at, so I need you to find me an address.
Kornfeld: Yea, we have, um, yea, we have, um, so, yea, um, the person is dead here.
D: OK, get me the address please.
Kornfeld: OK, OK, I’m working on it.
D: Concentrate on that.
Kornfeld: And the people are just distraught.
D: I understand they are distraught, but —
Kornfeld: I’m working on it, I’m working on it.
D: OK, do we know how the person died?
Kornfeld: I don’t know, I don’t know.
Kornfeld: Um, so we’re, we’re in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and we are at the home of Prince.
D: You’re in Minneapolis?
Kornfeld: Yea, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
D: You’re sure you are in Minneapolis?
Kornfeld: That’s correct.
D: OK, have you found an address yet?
Kornfeld: Yea, um, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry I need, I need the address here?
Unidentified Female: 7801.
Unidentified Male: 7801.
D: 7801 what?
Kornfeld: Paisley Park, we are at Paisley Park.
D: You’re at Paisley Park, OK, that’s in Chanhassen. Are you with the person who’s — ?
Kornfeld: Yes, it’s Prince.
Kornfeld: The person.
I had heard Prince called many, many things during his lifetime, on a spectrum from Mozart reborn to Satan revisited. But rarely, at least in the decades I knew him, had he been called this: just a person.
From This Thing Called Life by Neal Karlen. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.