Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 429 from August 30, 1984. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
Prince has come. It is a warm summer morning in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, and a black-clad rider on a purple Honda has just pulled up to a nondescript modern warehouse on Flying Cloud Drive. Inside, a photographer is waiting. He has flown in from Toronto with an assistant and most of the contents of his studio to photograph Prince for the cover of this magazine. A standard rock-star shoot, he figures, scoping out the concert-size rehearsal stage, the costume room, the banks of musical equipment.
When Prince walks in, the first thing the photographer notices is how small he is: he seems slight even in his five-inch stiletto-heel boots. He is wearing a dramatic black hat, a skintight black shirt open to the navel and tight black trousers ringed with ruffles from the knees down. He is carefully unshaven — only his cheekbones have been scraped smooth, then caked with makeup — for that stylish New Wave-wino look. He seems to be saying something: Hi? He speaks so softly that the photographer actually has to lean down to within several inches of his face to hear him. He is making it quietly clear that, while he has agreed to pose for the cover, he will not pose for any photos for the magazine’s inside pages. To be completely frank, he really doesn’t even want to do the cover, but…. The photographer presses ahead, flourishing concepts and asserting his magazine’s insistence on a white backdrop for the photo. Ach! Prince had his heart set on hot pink. The session gets off to an uneasy start.
It is decided to wheel in the purple Honda, a perfect prop. The motorcycle is a central visual ornament of Purple Rain, Prince’s custom-tailored movie debut — a picture with so much prerelease “top spin,” as they say in Hollywood, that the media, anticipating a major sleeper, have been abasing themselves for weeks in the hope of wangling interviews with the recalcitrant star. But Prince does not do interviews anymore. He is, however, full of advice about camera angles and poses, and the photographer fights back a gathering urge to whack him with a light meter. Quickly, he snaps off some preliminary test shots with a Polaroid. Prince seems to approve of the results, then slips away while the photographer makes some final lighting adjustments. An assistant appears and carefully confiscates the seven Polaroids. When Prince returns, he seems restless and even more remote. He’s decided he doesn’t like the original setup, so they do another Polaroid, a full-length shot. Prince disappears again. The photographer hears the sound of drums and cymbals being bashed in another room. Then silence. After half an hour, the assistant reappears and announces that he’s just driven his employer home. Prince, he says, is extremely sensitive: “He actually gets physically ill at having his picture taken.”
On his way out, the photographer can’t help but hurl a silent curse at the warehouse walls. They are lined with photographs — blowups, big ones. All studies of the same smooth, unsmiling features, the same inscrutable sensuality and unfathomable flamboyance. All of them dominated by those liquid, Keane-kid eyes. All of them pictures of Prince.
Just who is this self-enveloped star? How is it that he’s outselling both Bruce Springsteen and the mighty Jacksons in the record racks? What sort of monumental chutzpah must it take to step away from rock videos and make a feature-length movie — one based on the hopes and deepest fears of your own brief life? How accurate is the portrait so exuberantly painted by Purple Rain? How much painful truth remains hidden beneath its often dazzling exterior?
The picture one acquires of this twenty-six-year-old wonderkid from scanning his songs and canvassing his colleagues and acquaintances is murky and uncertain — which is the way he wants it. As Owen Husney, his first manager, once advised him, “Controversy is press.” And Prince, for all his vaunted reclusiveness, has certainly been controversial. Husney started the mystique ball rolling in 1977, trimming two years off his protégé’s age and obscuring his full name. But Prince — Prince Rogers Nelson, actually, born in Minneapolis on June 7th, 1958 — had his own ways of getting attention. Raised in an overwhelmingly white environment, he became as adept at playing hard, guitar-based rock & roll as he was at funkier black styles. (In early interviews, he also emphasized a multiracial background — half-Italian father, mixed-blood mother — even though, by most reports, both his parents are light-skinned blacks.) And then there was his frankly lubricious sexuality, relatively subtle at first, but later leading him to perform in heavy makeup, bikini briefs and thigh-hugging leg warmers, singing songs with such single-entendre titles as “Head.”
These ploys got him noticed, all right. But to most of the record-buying public — even as he began spinning off such provocative satellite groups from his hometown as the Time (led by his favorite foil, Morris Day) and the all-girl Vanity 6 — Prince was, and remains, essentially a mystery. In fact, about the only thing on which his friends — and even his foes — agree is that Prince appears to be the genuine article: a musical genius. And not since the Fifties, when that accolade was applied to Ray Charles, has the term seemed so attractively apt.
Signed by Warner Bros. Records in 1977 on the basis of an astonishing one-man-band demo tape, Prince was awarded what is said to be the most lucrative contract ever offered by the company to an unknown artist (“Well over a million dollars,” claims Husney) and was granted near-total creative leeway in the recording studio. He wrote all the music, played practically every instrument, produced all nine tracks and delivered an album, For You, that kicked off with an ethereal, gospel-drenched mé lange of a cappella voices (all Prince’s), concluded with a screaming rock-guitar feature, touched down in between on a carnal classic called “Soft and Wet” and was dedicated to “God.” But For You was not a commercial triumph: six years after its release, that first Prince LP has yet to sell 400,000 copies and remains his least-known album.
He’s been riding a rocket to the top ever since, however, his next three records — Prince, the groundbreaking Dirty Mind and the even more successful Controversy — all went gold (sales of 500,000 copies). And then, late in 1982, came the dazzling 1999, a double-record set that has sold nearly 3 million copies and is still on the pop charts more than ninety weeks after its release. The album fairly bristled with hits — the title track, “Delirious,” the masterfully metaphorical “Little Red Corvette.” In the view of Warner Bros., it marked the long-awaited point at which Prince’s seamless fusion of white rock & roll and black dance-funk became commercially undeniable; and it was seen as setting the stage for Prince’s next album to create the kind of cultural explosion that traditionally heralds the arrival of a true superstar.
But there was one unknown and slightly troubling factor in this commercial equation: along with his sixth album, to be titled Purple Rain, Prince would deliver a feature-length movie of the same name. Filming had begun in Minneapolis last November 1st, and details of the project were not such as to excite keen anticipation among music-biz moneymen. The director, Albert Magnoli, had never been in charge of a feature before. The cast, including all five members of Prince’s band in key roles, had, with only two exceptions, no acting experience. The tight budget ($7 million) and rushed shooting schedule (seven weeks) did not augur well for stellar production values. And, of course, who ever heard of making a movie in Minneapolis? In the winter, yet? In addition, the script was said to be…autobiographical?