By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
This past May Gotham magazine reported that Prince had become a Jehovah's Witness. In subsequent public appearances, he would speak out about his views on the subordinate role of women in society and vow to erase profanity from his lyrics and onstage vocabulary.
Two weeks ago Prince abruptly announced that he was canceling his summer tour, which had started after the two Xcel Energy Center concerts and was to have included 16 North American cities. The industry buzz was that the move was a calculated business decision. Warner Bros. flacks had just announced that the company was preparing a second compilation of Prince's greatest hits. Prince responded by firing off a press release noting that because Warner owns all the master recordings he made while under contract, he stood to make "virtually no money" from the venture. His road show, the thinking went, would have functioned as a gratis promotional tour for the CD.
Though he didn't come out and say that's why he was pulling the plug, Prince did commission Susan Blond, Inc., a New York-based public relations firm, to direct the media to his official Web site, www.npgmusicclub.com, where a chat room has been set up for fans to express their outrage. "Warner Bros., by you doing this, it only shows that you have no integrity, ethics, or dignity to what was once a part of you," wrote one fan. "You just want to cash in on my brother because you know that he is the real deal." Numerous other notes, similar in tone, are posted on the site.
Meanwhile, on the "unauthorized, unofficial, independent fan site" www.prince.org, the faithful are wavering. "Whether he wants to admit it or not, Prince has been well compensated for those hits," one post reads. "I know this is easy for me to say, but I wish Prince would just get over it and focus on what he can do now that he's free."
Rather than sort out the mixed messages, Prince posts vague messages on his Web site's home page. Last month he staged a press conference at which he offered rambling monologues and failed to respond to follow-up questions. When City Pages requested an interview for this story, an assistant asked for a faxed set of questions. Ultimately, Prince decided not to comment.
At the height of his career, similar behavior was written off as the quirkiness of an enigma--another reason to listen to the music. But back then Prince had a record company PR machine to pick up his slack, and new music to push. Now the spat with Warner Bros., the religious coming out, the canceled tour, and a delayed CD constitute the sum total of his output.
"Simply put, people have stopped talking about the music," observes Jon Bream, the Star Tribune music critic who has documented Prince's every move since watching him record For You in 1977. "His personality and his personal life have become larger than his music. That always spells trouble."
"I just want to put the focus back on the music." So proclaimed Prince during a June 7 press conference. Yet, like almost everything he has done as of late, the event will be remembered for everything but the music.
A notice faxed to media outlets a mere 24 hours earlier announced that the press conference would kick off "Prince: A Celebration," a weeklong birthday bash at Paisley Park studios in Chanhassen that would culminate with two concerts at the Xcel Energy Center. Prince would entertain questions about the week, the Xcel shows, his online music club, and his yet-to-be released CD, The Rainbow Children. One representative per media organization would be given access. Recording equipment would be confiscated at the door.
According to those in attendance, only one national reporter showed up, a stringer from Newsweek. The rest of the 20 or so writers included City Pages music editor Melissa Maerz, Pulse music editor Erin Anderson, and Molly Priesmeyer, associate editor for Request magazine. Bream, with whom Prince has waged a bizarre, one-sided feud for years, was informed that he would not be welcome. Colleague Cheryl Johnson, who pens a Star Tribune gossip column under the nom de guerre C.J.--and who was immortalized in song as "Billy Jack Bitch" by Prince--was likewise banned. Kristin Tillotson, the paper's culture columnist, was the sole Star Tribune staffer allowed entry. Jim Walsh, music critic at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, chose not to attend. ("I honestly don't have anything to ask him right now," he explains.)
"It's classic. Like he does in all things, he tries to control things--who is there, what is asked," says Bream, adding that Prince's "people" informed him a few weeks later that Tillotson would be the only Star Tribune staffer granted media credentials for a June 28 concert in Milwaukee. "I mean, think about it: He has a press conference to talk about this week and ostensibly to promote two big shows, and then he doesn't allow any recording equipment. What's that all about?"
Cracks Johnson: "I'm this nobody out here. Why not ignore me? It's true, though: If I was at the press conference, I would've toyed with him a little bit. And hey, it gives me something to write about. Getting evicted or turned down is more interesting than getting access."