Paisley Park was smaller than I imagined. In the Eighties, it must have seemed futuristic, but now in 1999, from the outside, it seemed like a car dealership. I’d interviewed hundreds of stars in my time, but Prince was the Holy Grail of music journalism, the one to boast about. As a courtesy to Arista Records head Clive Davis, who himself was boasting about signing Prince, the artist had agreed to talk to the media to promote his then-new album, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. It was his first major-label release since he left Warner Bros. in a famously acrimonious dispute over the ownership of his master tapes, and I was about to come face-to-face with my musical hero.
I never usually got nervous before interviews, but I was such a rabid fan that when I stepped into Paisley Park to visit with Prince for a Yahoo.com piece, my stomach churned like a cement mixer. Also, Prince was notoriously unpredictable when it came to the press. Interviews were rare, and those he granted could be cryptic, monosyllabic or vague. I desperately wanted a connection, wanted my Prince experience to be a good one. One of my concerns was what to actually call him. At the time, he was only going by an unpronounceable symbol. No one seemed to offer any cogent advice on the matter.
The inside was much as I imagined. Custom velvet furniture. I recall heart shapes on the cushions and his famous male/female symbol on the wall. There were video cassettes of awards shows and a pair of caged doves.
Although I’d seen him up close in concert many times, I was curious how he’d really look in person. As I was pondering this, Prince appeared in the doorway. And he looked just like Prince. Makeup, high heels and a black-felt tunic-type top. (I remember being surprised by a loose thread dangling from the latter garment – everything about the man was otherwise so immaculate.) He briefly introduced himself and departed for the conference room. Another journalist and a photographer were set to speak to him before me, and I hoped they would give me the heads-up as to his mood.
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The photographer, an attractive woman, was dismissed after only five minutes. She left the meeting in tears. Earlier, she’d shown me her portfolio. In many of the shots, she was nude. That was her thing. She wanted to take photos of herself nude next to Prince (I assumed by some kind of time-delay mechanism), but Prince wasn’t having it.
Next up was a journalist from Entertainment Weekly. She lasted about 25 minutes. From what I heard from Prince’s publicist, the Purple One wasn’t too happy with her either. She asked him a slew of superficial, celeb-type questions. One was, “Do you go to the movies? Don’t people recognize you?” I was the next and last journalist for the day. I hoped I wouldn’t darken his mood further.
Prince didn’t allow any of his interviews to be recorded. Trusted not to have a recording device secretly stowed in my bag, I was handed a yellow legal notepad and pen. We were in a large conference room. In the room with Prince was his musical and spiritual mentor, funk bassist Larry Graham of Graham Central Station, and his publicist, Lois. I had a slew of questions in my head. I wanted to talk about all the great songs, how he wrote them, the inspiration. I wanted to know what the early tours were like. My first question was a softball one to get things moving. I asked him about signing with Arista Records. I expected something short and complimentary about the arrangement. But what I got was an esoteric artsy ramble that, as I scribbled furiously, I barely followed. I attempted to steer the conversation back to his older records but clearly Prince, who I was addressing as “you,” had an agenda that had nothing to do with my agenda. I nodded, feigning interest and scribbled, not taking anything in, realizing that my one chance to interview Prince was turning into a disaster. The quotes were nebulous and obviously made sense to Prince but not to me – and I doubted to my readers. There was no vibe, no connection. I remember thinking at the time that yes, Prince was shy, guarded and a little eccentric, but he was also someone who clearly didn’t get out and socialize much, otherwise he’d loosen up and have a conversation with me.
Desperate to turn the interview around, I decided to ask hardcore music questions about the new album, which surely he’d want to discuss. One of the songs (“Prettyman”), I told him, sounded like it was written for the Time. His eyes sparkled; he looked over at Larry Graham and smiled, confessing that it was written with Morris Day in mind. I asked him about the drum programming on another song, telling him it reminded me a little of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” There was another glint. From there I was able to maneuver onto the subject of inspiration. Did he feel compelled to create even when he was unhappy and going through his legal issues with Warner? I referenced the darkness of 1996’s Chaos and Disorder. What he created, he said, reflected the mood he was feeling at the time.
Our musical discussion seemed to invigorate him. As we chatted after the formal interview, he was jumping around the room, doing impressions. I didn’t want it to end.
“I loved the Madhouse records,” I told him, referring to his fusion project that had released two instrumental albums in 1987.
“Those things were done really quickly. They were fun.”
We were out of the conference room, walking down the hallway. “I’m a big fan of Clare Fischer’s string arrangements. Do you decide together how to arrange them or just give him the music and let him do his thing?”
He smiled, eyebrows raised. “I trust him to to his thing. We’ll discuss what the song needs.” he said. “You wanna hang out for band practice?”
And that’s how I ended up onstage with Prince at Paisley Park. He was to my left, standing behind an electric piano, a red Nord Lead synthesizer and an electronic drum pad. To my right was Larry Graham on bass and the rest of the band behind them. Prince counted them in, and the funk came thundering through the speakers. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I seem to remember Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” instrumental being triggered by the drummer. Next they launched into a slew of soul classics by James Brown and the Staple Singers, Prince’s fingers dancing nimbly on the electric piano.
“Know these?” he asked me over his shoulder.
“Of course,” I said, and named each song.
“Tell me what this is, then,” he challenged. His right hand played the distinctive introduction to Funkadelic’s “Knee Deep” on the Nord, hitting the drum pad in between. I told him, and he nodded with approval.
I made a request for one of my favorite lesser-known songs, “And God Created Woman.”
“We haven’t learned that one,” he replied.
He asked his publicist if she had any requests. “I only know show tunes,” she said. The band played a few.
“Do you have perfect pitch?” I asked him.
“No, but I have pretty good relative pitch.”
“Do you think you’ve improved as a musician in recent years, or do you get to a point where you plateau? How do you keep getting better? When I asked Jimmy Jam, he told me that staying in the studio had made him a worse musician than when he was in the Time.”
“What do you think?” he said. “When Jimmy Jam was in the Time, he was as skinny as you! When you stay in the studio eatin’ all day, you ain’t gonna get better.”
Night was falling, and I had a plane to catch. I didn’t want to leave. I was with Prince and could ask him any random question that popped into my head. It was pure fantasy.
When the article ran, Prince mentioned it on his website, calling it “enjoyable.” Then he wrote, “Jeff, anytime you want to come back to Paisley Park to play name that tune, let me know.”
I wish I’d taken him up on the offer.