Prince Talks: The Silence Is Broken
John Nelson turns sixty-nine today, and all the semiretired piano man wants for his birthday is to shoot some pool with his firstborn son. “He’s real handy with a cue,” says Prince, laughing, as he threads his old white T-Bird through his old black neighborhood toward his old man’s house. “He’s so cool. The man knows what time it is.”
Hard time is how life has traditionally been clocked in North Minneapolis; this is the place ‘Time’ forgot twelve years ago when the magazine’s cover trumpeted “The Good Life in Minnesota,” alongside a picture of Governor Wendell Anderson holding up a walleye. Though tame and middle-class by Watts and Roxbury standards, the North Side offers some of the few mean streets in town.
The old sights bring out more Babbitt than Badass in Prince as he leads a leisurely tour down the main streets of his inner-city Gopher Prairie. He cruises slowly, respectfully: stopping completely at red lights, flicking on his turn signal even when no one’s at an intersection. Gone is the wary Kung Fu Grasshopper voice with which Prince whispers when meeting strangers or accepting Academy Awards. Cruising peacefully with the window down, he’s proof in a paisley jump suit that you can always go home again, especially if you never really left town.
100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Prince
Tooling through the neighborhood, Prince speaks matter-of-factly of why he toyed with early interviewers about his father and mother, their divorce and his adolescent wanderings between the homes of his parents, friends and relatives. “I used to tease a lot of journalists early on,” he says, “because I wanted them to concentrate on the music and not so much on me coming from a broken home. I really didn’t think that was important. What was important was what came out of my system that particular day. I don’t live in the past. I don’t play my old records for that reason. I make a statement, then move on to the next.”
The early facts, for the neo-Freudians: John Nelson, leader of the Prince Rogers jazz trio, knew Mattie Shaw from North Side community dances. A singer sixteen years John’s junior, Mattie bore traces of Billie Holiday in her pipes and more than a trace of Indian and Caucasian in her blood. She joined the Prince Rogers trio, sang for a few years around town, married John Nelson and dropped out of the group. She nicknamed her husband after the band; the son who came in 1958 got the nickname on his birth certificate. At home and on the street, the kid was “Skipper.” Mattie and John broke up ten years later, and Prince began his domestic shuttle.
“There’s where my mom lives,” he says nonchalantly, nodding toward a neatly trimmed house and lawn. “My parents live very close by each other, but they don’t talk. My mom’s the wild side of me; she’s like that all the time. My dad’s real serene; it takes the music to get him going. My father and me, we’re one and the same.” A wry laugh. “He’s a little sick, just like I am.”
Most of North Minneapolis has gone outside this Saturday afternoon to feel summer, that two-week season, locals joke, between winter and road construction. During this scenic tour through the neighborhood, the memories start popping faster. The T-Bird turns left at a wooden two-story church whose steps are lined with bridesmaids in bonnets and ushers in tuxedos hurling rice up at a beaming couple framed in the door. “That was the church I went to growing up,” says Prince. “I wonder who’s getting married.” A fat little kid waves, and Prince waves back.
“Just all kinds of things here,” he goes on, turning right. “There was a school right there, John Hay. That’s where I went to elementary school,” he says, pointing out a field of black tar sprouting a handful of bent metal basketball rims. “And that’s where my cousin lives. I used to play there every day when I was twelve, on these streets, football up and down this block. That’s his father out there on the lawn.”
These lawns are where Prince the adolescent would also amuse his friends with expert imitations of pro wrestlers Mad Dog Vachon and the Crusher. To amuse himself, he learned to play a couple dozen instruments. At thirteen, he formed Grand Central, his first band, with some high-school friends. Grand Central often traveled to local hotels and gyms to band-battle with their black competition: Cohesion, from the derided “bourgeois” South Side, and Flyte Tyme, which, with the addition of Morris Day, would later evolve into the Time.
Prince is fiddling with the tape deck inside the T-Bird. On low volume comes his unreleased “Old Friends 4 Sale,” an arrow-to-the-heart rock ballad about trust and loss. Unlike “Positively 4th Street” – which Bob Dylan reputedly named after a nearby Minneapolis block – the lyrics are sad, not bitter. “I don’t know too much about Dylan,” says Prince, “but I respect him a lot. ‘All along the Watchtower’ is my favorite of his. I heard it first from Jimi Hendrix.”
“Old Friends 4 Sale” ends, and on comes “Strange Relationships,” an as-yet-unreleased dance tune. “Is it too much?” asks Prince about playing his own songs in his own car. “Not long ago I was riding around L.A. with [a well-known rock star], and all he did was play his own stuff over and over. If it gets too much, just tell me.”
He turns onto Plymouth, the North Side’s main strip. When Martin Luther King got shot, it was Plymouth Avenue that burned. “We used to go to that McDonald’s there,” he says. “I didn’t have any money, so I’d just stand outside there and smell stuff. Poverty makes people angry, brings out their worst side. I was very bitter when I was young. I was insecure and I’d attack anybody. I couldn’t keep a girlfriend for two weeks. We’d argue about anything.”
Across the street from McDonald’s, Prince spies a smaller landmark. He points to a vacant corner phone booth and remembers a teenage fight with a strict and unforgiving father. “That’s where I called my dad and begged him to take me back after he kicked me out,” he begins softly. “He said no, so I called my sister and asked her to ask him. So she did, and afterward told me that all I had to do was call him back, tell him I was sorry, and he’d take me back. So I did, and he still said no. I sat crying at that phone booth for two hours. That’s the last time I cried.”
In the years between that phone booth breakdown and today’s pool game came forgiveness. Says Prince, “Once I made it, got my first record contract, got my name on a piece of paper and a little money in my pocket, I was able to forgive. Once I was eating every day, I became a much nicer person.” But it took many more years for the son to understand what a jazzman father needed to survive. Prince figured it out when he moved into his purple house.