Purple Hazy

In the past year, Prince has become a Jehovah's Witness, bitched about the record industry, canceled a national tour, and delayed the release of his new CD. But he doesn't want to talk about it.

Las Vegas. That's where the Artist Formerly Known as the Artist seems destined to play out the twilight of his career. Two shows a night on a thrust stage at Bally's or the MGM, posturing in front of plush purple curtains, flanked by the most beautiful girls in the world, grinding through greatest-hits medley after greatest-hits medley. "Party people beware!" the glossy program will read (just $25 with your second cocktail). "When this Sexy M.F. takes you down to Alphabet St. in his Little Red Corvette, you might feel the need to Gett Off!"

An exaggeration, U say? Consider Prince's concert at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on June 16. Backed by a forgettable band, the 43-year-old funkster delivered a groove-through-the-motions self-loveathon worthy of Wayne Newton--in the day. There were quick costume changes, flashy guitar solos (bite lip, toss head back in rapture), sexy dancers, gospel singers, sexy dancing gospel singers, and a verse or two from all the favorites: "Kiss," "Raspberry Beret," "Adore," "Why Don't You Call Me Anymore?," even a Gap-ad-ready version of "Delirious."

The show was supposed to begin at 8:00 p.m. Naturally, the doors to the arena were still bolted at 8:20. As the band rumbled through its final sound check, rumors started to circulate among the faithful. Prince, upset with the sound quality the night before, had fired the technical staff. Lenny Kravitz was in town, and the two were rehearsing. No, wait, it's Sheryl Crow. Prince, who suffers from a bad knee, was backstage getting a shot of cortisone. Prince was in a limo with funk bassist Larry Graham, praying. On and on it went, from the plausible to the absurd to the comic, like a thread in one of the countless online chat rooms dedicated to the color Purple.

There were a handful of teenagers in the audience, a smattering of twentysomething fans dressed to dance. But most of the crowd looked desperate to fend off middle age. Men in primary-color rayon, wrinkled linen, and scuffed Capezios. Women wobbling on chunky heels and wearing paisley-patterned skirts--an inch too high, two inches too snug. It was a Star Trek convention for over-the-hill hipsters. And sure enough, by the time Prince commenced pulling fans onto the stage to dance through two time-tested encores, the house was a-quakin'.

"Prince probably has the largest cult audience out there, outside of maybe Madonna or Bruce Springsteen. He can live on the fan base--and he is living on it," says Steve Perry, former editor of City Pages, who wrote extensively about Prince in the late Eighties and early Nineties. "That's what these many recent tours are about. There are no new records to push, no new music to tout. But there are people in cities all over that want to see him."

To be sure, the cultlike status is not undeserved. As Perry points out, "Prince was the preeminent artist of the 1980s, and he deserves a place in the pantheon with James Brown and Louis Armstrong." In his 1989 autobiography, Miles Davis--not known for handing out compliments--wrote that Prince could be the next generation's Duke Ellington. "But among those guys," Perry notes, "I can't think of anyone who suffered a more precipitous fall in a shorter period of time."

As far as Perry is concerned, Prince hit the wall after 1988's Lovesexy, a commercial disappointment backed by a wildly ambitious stadium tour that failed to connect. Those who worked closely with Prince in the post-Purple Rain heyday will tell you that the advent of rap in the mid-Eighties threw him into an artistic free fall. (Prince lampooned the gangsta pose brilliantly on the Black Album, recorded in 1987 and finally released in 1994. But for years after recording 1992's image, he tried and failed to cop the genre's self-aggrandizing swagger.) Still, while many rock critics were penning his obituary when Warner Bros. released The Hits/The B-Sides in 1993, Prince managed to stay on the radar through the mid-Nineties. There were scads of hit singles, along with more than a few deserving CDs--either bootlegged or, like The Gold Experience in 1995, released by a major label.

It was during this period, though, that the singer began obfuscating the work with self-conscious white noise. In 1993, a year after signing a blockbuster deal with Warner Bros., he announced he was retiring from studio recording. That same year he changed his name to image. Later he would refer to himself publicly as a "slave," indentured to a label that owned his master recordings. Though there were legitimate reasons for the beef, Prince, who'd always been skittish with the media, failed to clearly state his case. Meanwhile, in order to satisfy his contract, he had to come up with four more albums for Warner. One was made up of previously recorded material. The last, Chaos and Disorder, sounded as if it had been made in haste--or out of spite.

Freed from his Warner Bros. shackles, Prince negotiated independent, one-record deals with EMI in 1996 and Arista in 1999. When those CDs failed to hit it big, he blamed the labels. In 2000 he changed his name back to Prince, a gesture met mostly with indifference by fans and music writers alike. A new CD was purportedly in the works.

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