"I’m no different to anyone," Prince humbly told NME in 1996. The world begs to differ. Throughout his storied career, the late icon bucked trends, overhauled tradition, reinvented fashion and never let public opinion get in the way of his flamboyant talent – all while writing, playing and performing some of the most indelible anthems in the pop canon. He was a force of nature in purple and paisley, and his life was like a series of grand adventures, experiments, missteps and the occasional (OK, frequent) detour into full-on eccentricity. These moments helped make Prince who he was, and his music what it will always be. Here are 12 of Prince's wildest moments, both onstage and off.
The Eighties were just weeks old when Prince took the stage of American Bandstand for the first time, but the artist took command and pointed the way for the decade to come. Fey and coy, the 21-year-old relative unknown lies to Dick Clark by saying he's only 19, then tells Clark he turned down numerous major-label record deals because, simply, "they wouldn't let me produce myself." It's not a boast, just a statement of intent. Then, when asked how many instruments he plays, Prince gazes at his shoes for a moment before answering, "Thousands." Paired with striking lip-synched performances of "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?" – in which Prince prances in gold lamé pants, André Cymone goes full Rick James and Dez Dickerson taps into his inner Sid Vicious – his multi-racial, multi-styled band left disco in the dust and paved the way for pop's future.
Being the opening act for one of the biggest bands in the world can never be an easy gig, but Prince had particularly rough encounter with Rolling Stones fans in October of 1981. On a bill that also featured George Thorogood and the J. Geils Band as well as headliners the Stones, Prince was not only the least recognizable artist on the stage of the L.A. Coliseum, he was the only black, funky and ultra-glamorous one. When he appeared in a trench coat and black bikini briefs, the intolerant crowd began hurling homophobic slurs and pelting him with food and bottles – clearly forgetting that Mick Jagger himself was once known for androgynous antics. Distraught, Prince wanted to ditch the second opening date, but he was talked back into it; a replay of the night before ensued. Prince didn't let this public misunderstanding – or any other – slow him down in his quest for pop domination. As he was quoted as saying in a 2006 Guardian article, "The only person who knows anything about my music … is me."
Michael Jackson was Prince's chief rival in the Eighties, and James Brown once had some less than flattering things to say about Prince's performance, which he said copied Brown's. Yet the three formed a jaw-dropping alliance in 1983, when Brown invited first Jackson and then Prince onstage at Hollywood's Beverly Theater to jam with him. "Prince, you gotta do something!" the Godfather of Funk commands, and Prince – already royalty himself – takes a guitar and obliges. While Brown looks on, grinning, Prince busts into a scratchy, gloriously fractured, Hendrix-meets-Catfish Collins workout. Then Prince strips his torso bare and proceeds to out-Godfather the Godfather with his acrobatic footwork and raw sex appeal. If ever the torch was passed, consciously or not, it was at this moment.
As the story goes, Tipper Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985 after she caught her 11-year-old daughter listening to Prince's racy "Darling Nikki." From there, the future Second Lady used the PMRC to pressure the record industry to censor itself, mostly be using its "Filthy 15" list as a weapon of shame. The plan backfired, of course – what self-respecting kid in the Eighties wouldn't want to track down every song on that list? – and Prince had the unique honor of placing two selections among the ranks. Not only did "Darling Nikki" take the top spot, his composition "Sugar Walls" for Sheena Easton took number two, thanks to its poetic metaphor for female genitalia. (His former protégé Vanity clocked in at number four with "Strap on Robbie Baby.") Prince even beat out metal heavyweights such as Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate and Venom. Later in life, the religious Prince decried the pleasures of the flesh, telling NME, "I know those paths of excess, drugs, sex and alcohol – all those experiences can be funky, they can be very funky, but they’re just paths, a diversion, not the answer."
Prince's eccentricities, like those of many pop stars, became magnified as his fame and wealth increased. At least Prince's quirks were occasionally whimsical, if not downright otherworldly. In a 1985 interview with Rolling Stone, he led a tour through Minneapolis, dropping such revealing tidbits as the fact that he hasn't cried since he was a teen. But the most arresting moment of the tour is when one of his guest bedrooms is revealed to be an ad hoc butterfly sanctuary. In the middle of the room, goes the article, a smiling, yellow lawn gnome sits. It's covered in "a swarm of butterflies," one of which "is flying out of a heart-shaped hole in the gnome's chest." As if to nonchalantly shrug off such a magical sight, Prince remarks, "A friend gave that to me, and I put it in the living room. But some people said it scared them, so I took it out and put it in here."
Getting semi-naked onstage was nothing new to Prince by the time the Nineties rolled around. He'd already spent an entire decade virtually shirtless. But he outdid himself at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1991. After coming out in a porous yellow jumpsuit to perform a seven-minute version of his Diamonds and Pearls hit "Gett Off," he twirls around to reveal the cutaway in his suit, which displays his bare ass in all its glory. At the same moment, he sings, "Let me show you, baby, I'm a talented boy." Then again, it makes sense that Prince would let his cheek flag fly on nation television; in an interview with NME five years later, he said, "I find freedom sexy. I find freedom so sexy I can’t even explain it to you." And after all, this is the same man who sang in "Controversy," "People call me rude/I wish we were all nude."
"People think I'm a crazy fool for writing 'slave' on my face," Prince told Rolling Stone in 1996. "But if I can't do what I want to do, what am I?" It's an existential question for an existential time in Prince's life. After numerous tussles with his label, Warner Bros. – including, ironically, a fight over the release of his song "My Name Is Prince" as the first single from 1992's Love Symbol Album – Prince appeared in public with the word "slave" elegantly penned on his cheek. Then he declared that the mysterious symbol that had adorned the cover of Love Symbol Album would, in fact, become his new name. These gestures were a radical demonstration of emancipation from a corporate overlord that Prince found untenable. And in a grungy decade that was embracing anti-corporate sentiment, they created a furor. "When you stop a man from dreaming," he continued in Rolling Stone, "he becomes a slave. That's where I was. I don't own Prince's music. If you don't own your masters, your master owns you." He reverted to "Prince" in 2000, but by then, his name change had become the stuff of pop-culture legend.
Two marriages, dalliances with numerous collaborators over the years – Prince sang songs about sex, lust and love from a well-informed perspective. So why did he need to take out ads in a handful of American and international newspapers in 1993, featuring a bleary photo of himself along with the modest request, "Eligible bachelor seeks the most beautiful girl in the world to spend the holidays with"? As reported by Reuters, a former associate of Prince said the star "was probably looking for a woman to inspire his creative side, with maybe a bit of romance on the side."
"I do feel like a punk, because no one believes in God anymore," Prince once told NME. Five years later, he converted to the Jehovah's Witness faith after long discussions with Sly and the Family Stone alum Larry Graham – a rebellious move for the artist formerly known as a hyper-sexed playboy. But Prince had long expressed his spirituality, although it took an unexpected turn in 2001 when Graham took Prince door-to-door to preach. As a Jewish family in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, recounted to the Minneapolis–St. Paul Star-Tribune, they answered a knock on their door – on Yom Kippur, no less – to see the two musicians standing there. "Then they start in on this Jehovah's Witnesses stuff,'' recalled a family member. ''I said, 'You know what? You've walked into a Jewish household, and this is not something I'm interested in.' [Prince] says, 'Can I just finish?'"
After so much friction between Prince and the music industry, things seemed to settle down a bit in the Aughts. The fight flared up again in 2007, when the British tabloid The Daily Mail announced it was partnering with Prince to give away CD of his new album, Planet Earth, inside copies of the paper – to two million readers. Even odder: The giveaway would happen nearly a month before the album's official release date. In the Mail's promotional article regarding the giveaway, Prince explains he made the move as a way of "spreading my music and my word to as many people as possible. It's direct marketing, which proves I don't have to be in the speculation business of the record industry, which is going through tumultuous times right now." That tumult spilled over when Prince's label Columbia, who hadn't been informed of the giveaway, retaliated by yanking the release of Planet Earth in the U.K.
As Prince said in a 2008 New Yorker profile, he decided to try a different method of defusing a stalker situation than slapping on a restraining order. "There was this woman. She used to come to Paisley Park and just sit outside on the swings," he remembered. "So I went out there one day and I was, like, 'Hey, all my friends in there say you're a stalker. And that I should call the police. But I don't want to do that, so why don't you tell me what you want to happen. Why are you here? How do you want this to end?' And she didn't really have an answer for that. In the end, all she wanted was to be seen, for me to look at her. And she left and didn't come back." Keep in mind, he also once told the NME, "People fascinate me. They're amazing! Life fascinates me! And I'm no more fascinated by my own life than by anyone else's." In the end, Prince's philosophical approach to this particular stalker seems to have done the trick.
There's no denying Prince was a visionary when it came to almost everything … except the Internet. A pioneer in songwriting, recording, fashion and performing, he never quite got the hang of cyberspace. In 2010, after many failed attempts to engage social media, he told The Mirror, "The Internet's completely over. … The Internet's like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can't be good for you." Prince's retreat from what little online life he had in the first place also resulted in a dearth of streaming music, thanks to his exclusive deal with Jay Z's subscription-only Tidal. Luckily, Prince's lack of Internet savvy was just another reason to love him.