The phone rings at 4:48 in the morning.
“Hi, it’s Prince,” says the wide-awake voice calling from a room several yards down the hallway of this London hotel. “Did I wake you up?”
Though it’s assumed that Prince does in fact sleep, no one on his summer European Nude Tour can pinpoint precisely when. Prince seems to relish the aura of night stalker; his vampire hours have been a part of his mad-genius myth ever since he was waging junior-high-school band battles on Minneapolis’s mostly black North Side.
“Anyone who was around back then knew what was happening,” Prince had said two days earlier, reminiscing. “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.”
For proof, he’d produced a crinkled dime-store notebook that he carries with him like Linus’s blanket. Empty when his tour started in May, the book is nearly full, with twenty-one new songs scripted in perfect grammar-school penmanship. He has also been laboring on the road over his movie musical Graffiti Bridge, which was supposed to be out this past summer and is now set for release in November. Overseeing the dubbing and editing of a film by way of dressing-room VCRs and hotel telephones, Prince said, has given him an idea. “One of these days,” he said, “I’m going to work on just one project, and take my time.”
Despite his all-hours intensity, the man still has his manners. He wouldn’t have called this late, Prince says apologetically, if he didn’t have some interesting news. He’d already provided some news earlier in the week, detailing, among other things, a late-night crisis of conscience a few years back that led him not only to shelve the infamous Black Album but also to try and change the way he wrote his songs — and led his life.
The crisis didn’t involve a leap or a loss of faith, Prince had said, but simply the realization that it was time to stop acting like such an angry soul. “I was an expert at cutting off people in my life and disappearing without a glance back, never to return,” he’d said. “Half the things people were writing about me were true.”
But what’s never been true, he felt, was what people have written about his music. Until, that is, just this minute. It seems that tonight a fresh batch of reviews of the soundtrack of Graffiti Bridge were faxed from Minneapolis to the hotel while Prince was performing one of his fifteen sold-out concerts in England.
What Prince has just read in the New York Times has astounded him. “They’re starting to get it,” he says from his phone in the Wellington Suite, which he has turned into a homey workplace with the addition of some bolts of sheer rainbow-colored cloth, film equipment, a stereo and tacked-up museum-shop posters of Billie Holiday and Judy Garland. “I don’t believe it,” he says again, “but they’re getting it!”
They, in this case, are members of the rock intelligentsia who have alternately canonized and defrocked Prince. In the past, he has derided his professional interpreters as “mamma jammas” and “skinny sidewinders.” Two days ago, it became obvious that his epithets, but not his feelings, had tempered concerning those who would judge him.
“There’s nothing a critic can tell me that I can learn from,” Prince had said earlier. “If they were musicians, maybe. But I hate reading about what some guy sitting at a desk thinks about me. You know, ‘He’s back, and he’s black,’ or ‘He’s back, and he’s bad.’ Whew! Now, on Graffiti Bridge, they’re saying I’m back and more traditional. Well, ‘Thieves in the Temple’ and ‘Tick, Tick, Bang’ don’t sound like nothing I’ve ever done before.”
But hadn’t he been cheered by the album’s almost uniformly rave notices? “That’s not what it’s about,” Prince had said. “No one’s mentioning the lyrics. Maybe I should have put in a lyric sheet.”
Now, in predawn London, he’s called to say he was wrong. “They’re starting to get it,” he says one last time, unbothered by the fact that the Times article trashes his lyrics. That’s okay, he says, because “they’re paying attention.” Sounding more amazed than pleased, Prince hangs up the phone and goes back to his dime-store notebook.