By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
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 , 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 . 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.
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."
Tillotson surmises that she got the green light because she has never written about Prince, and because promoters at the Xcel Center needed some publicity in the Strib. "I guess I'm fresh kill," the columnist jokes.
Before the Q&A commenced, Prince's publicist, Stephanie Elmer, told those in attendance that no advance copies of The Rainbow Children were available, then reminded reporters to limit their inquiries to topics broadly defined in the press release. Tillotson asked if Prince would entertain questions about his religion. No, Elmer replied. No personal questions. What if he brought it up himself? No follow-up questions. Violators would be removed.
Prince entered. Cleanly shaven, feathered hair falling shoulder length, he wore a velvety red shirt with sheer sleeves, red pants, matching red boots, and a thick chain with a diamond-emblazoned "NPG" (New Power Generation) hanging on the end. "The first person to wish me a happy birthday gets dropped in the alligator moat," he deadpanned, then sat down to testify for 90 minutes.
"He said some things that I didn't have time or the space to address in my column," Tillotson reports. "But I was pleasantly surprised by how lucid and relatively frank and congenial he was. I was expecting him to be more aloof or oblique."
Prince lambasted the music industry: "It's like the jazz series that Ken Burns did. It showed people like Miles Davis, and it made $50 million. How much of that do you think went back into the subject of the series?" He riffed on religion: "Psalms is a beautiful book. It's like a piece of music. There are very clear roles [sic] in the Bible about male and female roles in society." He even got political, poking fun at President Bush and charging that property taxes in Chanhassen are out of line.
Every now and then he would reassert that the purpose of this gathering was to "put the focus back on the music." Then he'd go off on another tangent. When he was allowed to speak without interruption, he'd become impassioned. When someone dared to risk a follow-up question or ask something he didn't want to hear, Prince would withdraw, often offering only a barely audible "no comment." When quizzed about the new CD--what it sounded like, what the songs were about, whether his new religious beliefs played a role in the studio--he allowed only that The Rainbow Children would come packaged with self-explanatory lyrics. Then he'd return to his love of God and hatred of the record industry: "Twenty-first-century women do not want to live by a role. They want to say to men, 'Let's switch our roles.' But things don't work that way. You have to know your role and make it work. It's the same thing with the music industry. You have to find the good roles that work and go with them."
"It's funny," City Pages' Maerz says. "We ended up talking about all of the things we were warned he didn't want to talk about."
Erin Anderson, a Prince fan since hearing the CD, was intrigued by Prince's newfound faith and puzzled by his gender-related comments. This was, after all, the man who penned "If I Was Your Girlfriend." So after the press conference, while Prince was shaking hands with reporters as they left, she hung back. Last in line, she asked if they could sit down sometime and discuss religion. They talked for the next 30 minutes.
"Little did I know that the conversation would be a nightmare," she says, allowing only that the exchange, which took place off the record, revolved around gender. "I was still sort of expecting something really different to come out of his mouth. I was thinking, 'I'm going to hear some really great and really unusual things. And it's going to make me feel better about what he was saying in the press conference.' That didn't happen. I felt like I was being interrogated. At times he was listening to me, but for the most part I felt like he wanted to hear himself speak."
Since the press conference, Anderson has seriously considered taking her Prince CDs to the trash bin. "I haven't really been able to listen to his stuff," she laments. "It's like watching a train wreck. He's working himself into eventual obscurity."
Maerz used her disillusionment to fuel a column. "How can someone who so revolutionized gender roles in the early Eighties with his androgynous style and ambiguous sexual orientation suddenly insist that we should all adhere to 'traditional' values?" she wrote in the June 13 issue of City Pages.
The artist was not amused. The day after Maerz's piece was published, Stephanie Elmer called to inform her that Prince had requested an audience. Maerz, who didn't receive the message until evening, wondered if they could schedule something the next day. No way. Tonight it would have to be, 9:00 p.m. sharp. Unable to pass up a rare opportunity for a one-on-one interview, Maerz agreed.
At Paisley Park she was escorted to a small conference room, where she had to wait only a few minutes. Prince arrived, they exchanged niceties, then sat side by side on a couch. When she began to write in her notebook, Maerz says, Prince informed her that their discussion would be off the record. No tape recorder. No notes. She went along with Prince's demand. The 30-minute conversation, she reports, went from friendly to confrontational, then ended abruptly. "It became clear to me that the only reason he invited me out there was so he could have the last word," she observes in retrospect. "It was a total power trip."
Alan Leeds, who worked as Prince's tour manager for seven years and ran the now-defunct Paisley Park Records from 1989 to 1992, still remembers a late-night chat he had with his wife several years ago. "I remember saying, 'You know where this is going to end up? This is going to end up with Prince playing on Sundays in a purple church in Chanhassen,'" Leeds recounts. "People will be dressed in ruffled shirts, looking like it's the Eighties, watching him preach and play 'Purple Rain.'"
The prediction seems particularly prescient given the way things went down at Paisley Park during "Prince: A Celebration." Some 2,000 fans, most of them paying members of npgmusicclub.com, had congregated to take in nightly concerts featuring the likes of Nikka Costa, Common, Erykah Badu, and the Time, and spend their days sampling The Rainbow Children. According to online dispatches filed by enthusiasts who paid $70 for a chance to glimpse their idol on his turf, Prince was unusually relaxed, practically ubiquitous. He appeared frequently on Paisley's stage and sporadically attended daily listening parties, where reverent attendees sat in prayerlike circles, took in the new CD, then dutifully discussed its content, which is said to be heavily influenced by the singer's religious convictions. ("Today, the unimaginable happened. I got to sit in a room and talk about God and music with Prince. I talked with Prince, he listened, and answered me," reads one message posted on www.prince.org. "I somehow knew the day would come but was not expecting it today.")
Funk bassist and Jehovah's Witness Larry Graham, whom Prince credits for bringing him into the fold, was on hand to help spread the good word. Prince fan and filmmaker Kevin Smith was recruited to document the moment. That in itself was a delicious bit of irony: Smith directed the 1999 movie Dogma, a send-up of organized religion in which God comes to earth as a woman. "Maybe we're almost there," Alan Leeds sums up with a chuckle. "Maybe Paisley Park is the church."
For the time being, the gospel according to Prince combines a conservative, religious ideology with an ambitious critique of the music industry. The book is neither complete nor consistent. It is, nevertheless, a revelatory read.
According to the Encyclopedia of World Religions, Jehovah's Witnesses, who maintain a complete separation from all secular governments and want little or nothing to do with other religious denominations, are here to pave the way for God's Kingdom, which they believe will emerge after Armageddon, an apocalyptic event prophesied in the book of Revelations (and, come to think of it, Prince's break-out hit "1999"). Jehovah's Witnesses meet in churches called Kingdom Halls, are baptized by immersion, insist upon a high moral code in personal conduct, disapprove of divorce except on grounds of adultery, and, based on their reading of the Bible, oppose blood transfusions.
As Pioneer Press music columnist Jim Walsh pointed out in a June 15 column, Prince has been on a spiritual quest since the beginning. From "Controversy" to "God" (the B-side to "Purple Rain") to "The Cross" and beyond, Prince has publicly struggled with larger questions of faith. In the past, though, his spiritually oriented art has been abstract, mixed with metaphors that suggest a theology of liberation, one without barriers--sexual or otherwise. For Pulse's Erin Anderson, who attended a conservative Lutheran church when she was young, Prince's early music was an inspiration. "He was someone who helped me break away from the way I was brought up. He was someone who pushed the boundaries of just about everything," says Anderson. "Listening to him now is like listening to a big brother tell you that everything he said when you were growing up was a lie."
Besides alienating progressives of both genders, Prince's evangelical leanings have altered his live performances. Even though insiders at Paisley Park say Prince is still capable of swearing up a storm behind the scenes, cleanliness is next to godliness onstage. "We want to put on shows that even little kids can listen to," the singer said at the June press conference. And sure enough, the Xcel Energy shows were family-friendly. To get things going, the man who spent much of the Eighties baring his libido gave a mock sermon in which he chastised a woman in the front row for wearing a miniskirt. Then it was off to the new power gospel hour, for a takeoff on "You Are My Sunshine." There was no raunchy talk about "Head," no "Cream" spilled on the stage, no "Darling Nikki" masturbating with a magazine. In fact, very few classics were played in their entirety. In part this was due to the medley-driven nature of the program. But, as Anderson observes, there aren't a whole lot of Prince tunes that would get a G rating without being butchered.
More than one journalist has wondered in print whether Prince will be going door to door with other Jehovah's Witnesses, spreading the good news. It's hard to imagine, though. Not because of the artist's reclusive nature, but because Prince's attention is divided between God's way and another, more secular crusade: his fight against the very industry that helped make him a millionaire.
The artist-to-consumer site at www.npgmusicclub.com was launched on February 13. The stated goal is to cut out the recording industry as middle man, so Prince can produce what he wants, when he wants, and reap the benefits directly (Prince has said The Rainbow Children will first be made available on the site). Besides promoting Prince's music, past and present, the site touts other entirely independent ventures, such as Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records. "You know she's the real thing," Prince said of DiFranco in Gotham. "Ani said blow up MTV, kill CNN and NBC. She's like Morpheus in The Matrix. She stays outside and that gives her power. She's an inspiration. The Music Club is an energy. We start the motion with music, but it moves to politics, to anywhere you want."
Scot Fisher, DiFranco's personal manager and president of Righteous Babe Records, is thrilled. "Every place you turn, there are fewer independent record stores, fewer promoters, fewer independent journalists who are willing to take a stand," says Fisher. "The stranglehold the majors have on the industry could be loosened if people like Prince go into it."
Indeed, few music critics would argue about Prince's view of the record industry. As Request editor Jim Meyer puts it, "The music business is a cesspool." Greedy and shortsighted, it's run by number crunchers more interested in the bottom line than in promoting good work or finding fresh talent. For the past several years, hungry conglomerates have essentially taken to throwing things at the wall to see what will stick. If an artist hits the charts out of the gate, great. If not, move on to next. Contracts are typically structured so that when a band succeeds, labels reap a lion's share of the benefits. Bands that fail commercially are typically left out in the cold, often indebted to the labels for everything from tour costs to studio expenses. Even established artists can get bitten. (While this piece was in the works, Prince had an assistant fax City Pages a story about the Dixie Chicks, who are being sued by Sony Music Entertainment. In a story about the band on 60 Minutes II this past fall, Dan Rather estimated the Chicks had generated at least $200 million in album sales, while band member Emily Robison complained that she had less than a million dollars in the bank. "Tell me where this money goes," she said to Rather. When the Dixie Chicks tried to leave the label this month, Sony sued and filed an injunction to prevent the band from signing with anyone else.)
Prince also believes artists should be allowed to retain ownership of their master recordings, something major labels have traditionally been loath to give up. "The people in the business take those rights and tell you that you can have them back in another 15 years, and that's just retarded," he said to reporters in June. "Then they just want to resell things over and over again."
"I think Prince is right about his critique of the music business, in the most important respects," says writer Steve Perry. "It's a very difficult thing for artists to deal with. It's quick burn. It's less than ever oriented toward cultivating artists and helping them come to their prime. What if a Van Morrison emerged today? He'd get one or two records to break through, and if he didn't, he'd be discarded."
But unlike DiFranco, Prince does not have larger philosophical differences with the record business. His complaints are all about the fine print. He wants to own his masters, he wants put out records as often as he likes without outside control, he wants an above-average percentage, and he wants the right to sell material on his own Web site. If he gets that, he'll sign on the dotted line. In 1999, after wiping "Slave" from his face, Prince got EMI to manufacture and distribute the three-CD set Emancipation. Two years later he signed a recording, licensing, and distribution deal to produce one CD for Arista Records, reportedly worth $5 million. There are already rumblings that Prince is shopping for a label to distribute The Rainbow Children after it debuts online.
"Sugar daddy once, sugar daddy again," opines his former associate, Alan Leeds. "Based on the kinds of deals he's made lately, he seems more money-driven today than he was when I was working with him. I mean, Arista steps up with a deal, and he runs like a thief to get it. He wasn't broke. Now, I defend his right to do that. I defend his right to change his mind. But I don't think he understands how that stuff affects the credibility of what he says."
According to Leeds, the origin of Prince's love-hate relationship with the music industry dates back to a mammoth deal negotiated with Warner Bros. in September 1992. Initially touted by Prince's personal staff as a $100 million, six-album agreement, the contract was one of the largest recording and music-publishing deals in history. The Los Angeles Times reported that the entertainer was guaranteed an estimated $10 million advance per album, plus a 25 percent royalty on every record sold. Warner Bros. also reportedly agreed to pay some $20 million to restructure Paisley Park Records, set up an office for Prince on a studio lot in Burbank, and give him a vice president's title. "Eat your hearts out, Michael Jackson and Madonna," read the lead paragraph in the L.A. paper's story. According to Leeds, those were exactly the words Prince was craving.
"He wanted the headline of a $100 million deal. Janet [Jackson] and Madonna had had headlines for the biggest recording contracts in the industry, and he wanted to outdo those. And what he was willing to sacrifice in the negotiation of that deal was, in my opinion, downright wack."
Leeds won't go into specifics, but the L.A. Times would later report that the contract was predicated on performance, both personal and at Paisley Park Records. "If Warner fails to turn a profit on the new co-ventures with Prince by 1995, the speculation is that the firm reserves the right to retrieve its losses from money generated by Prince's personal record sales," the paper reported. It also seems clear that when he inked the deal, Prince knew he would not retain ownership of his masters.
In late 1992 the first album under the new deal was released. To this day, Prince blames the label's marketing strategy for 's tepid sales. Bob Merlis, a former vice president at Warner Bros., handled Prince's media relations for years. He says Prince's continued insistence that Warner Bros. somehow consciously sabotaged his success defies logic. "Look, I don't blame the guy for being disappointed. We were disappointed," Merlis says. "But whose fault was it? The company who had just paid top dollar to get the guy? I think the label put in a good-faith effort to market the stuff. Would it have done better on another label with another approach? No. I don't think so."
In February 1994 Warner Bros. concluded that Paisley Park Records was a losing proposition and ended its joint business venture with Prince, who had since changed his name. The split did not affect the label's separate contract with the singer, but the would-be studio mogul was relegated back to pop-star status. "Paisley never really broke an artist, and Warner Bros. hoped that as a producer Prince would be able to do that," Leeds explains. "They said, 'We've supported you and we've never ever said no to something you wanted to do. So when are you going to come with something that will help subsidize that?' My feeling was, that was a generous attitude to have."
Just three years after signing his blockbuster deal, Prince was taking potshots at the recording industry, branding himself a "slave" in videos and personal appearances. ("I told him one time, 'You're the only slave that owns the plantation,'" Leeds says now.) The way Prince saw it, not only did Warner Bros. own his masters, which were suddenly very important to him, but they weren't selling records. There is no indication that he ever thought the tepid record sales had anything to do with the quality of his music, or lack thereof. The past would repeat itself when neither Emancipation nor Arista's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic produced a memorable hit or a palpable buzz. In the later instance, Prince again chose to scapegoat the label. "You just come to an impasse and have to do your own thing," Prince explained in his June press conference, then followed up with a jab: "But I'm not mad at these guys. I mean, what else is [Arista founder] Clive Davis gonna do? He can't sing."
Counters Merlis: "If he had a string of hits, we wouldn't be having this conversation." In fact, Prince himself has said that if he had stayed with Warner Bros., he probably could have renegotiated his contract and reacquired his masters.
"He wanted his cake and wanted to eat it too," Perry says. "He wanted the headlines for being the highest-paid performer in popular music, but he didn't want to deal any longer with the red tape and protocols of major record labels. And you can't have it both ways."
Like nearly everyone else quoted in this article, Perry still pines for the day when Prince will return to form. On those increasingly rare occasions when he appears in small venues or at Paisley Park to give his all in a late-night, last-minute gig, it's still the stuff of legend: Prince lying on the stage, playing the blues on his guitar for 20 minutes. Prince working up a funk for hours, drumming the bass like a rhythm guitar. No medleys. No sermons. Just a good chance that he'll finally beg the crowd to "Shut up already! Damn!"
As far as Alan Leeds is concerned, Prince ought to take that trademark plea to heart. "As a songwriter, Prince will forever be able to write a hit song," says Leeds. "He's brilliant--way more brilliant than people will ever know, because of the mask, the imagery he is so obsessed with. If the guy would just stop caring what people think. If he would just put on a sweater and blue jeans, go on a theater tour without a band, sit at a piano, and just play. Man. It would triple his fan base. It would blow people away."