Veteran journalist Carol Cooper was, like just about everyone else, unable to score an interview with Prince in 1983 when his soon-to-be-considered classic album 1999 was released. So she did the next best thing, concocting a cerebral and witty sit down with the young man who was yet to be a major pop star, yet seemed calmly confident that he would be soon. “I’m fond of it,” she says of her work from long ago, first printed in The Face in June of 1983, “But somehow despite the clear disclaimers, people insist on thinking I actually spoke with him...Literary devices fly over people’s heads sometimes.” We trust you will enjoy this look back at how one journalist cleverly deciphered the nascent purple phenomenon, just before it sprang to global notice.
The thing to bear in mind is that Prince does not do interviews. He certainly didn’t do this one, nor any of a dozen others when tabloids and magazines were dangling cover stories as bait.
In the States this aversion to the press has reached astonishing proportions with the 1999 tour. His management now supports a P.R. firm solely to explain to frustrated paparazzi why they can’t have interviews, and to warn photographers that their equipment might be confiscated if caught snapping during a show.
It’s an odd sort of standoff for an aspiring pop star, but his cheek is an appealing reversal of the trend that has kept many Black artists in a state of abject, often futile, supplication for media attention. I suppose we must expect an eventual backlash against such a brazen twenty-four-year-old Black genius. This self-styled Wilhelm Reich of the sepia set not only has a lion in his pocket, but a tiger by the tail.
Most critics got off to a weak start with His Royal Badness (a moniker Minneapolis scribes have hung on their local hero) by being slow to catch on. Only America’s Black teen mags were with Prince at the beginning when he was the first “colored” seventeen-year-old to land a six figure contract with Warner Bros.—a contract with the unheard-of rider that no outside producer would be forcibly attached to his projects.
His first management team—Owen Husney, Gary Levenson and studio owner Chris Moon—were instrumental in landing this contract. But according to the New York Rocker’s Tim Carr, Prince soon felt his talent would be better served by California hot-shots Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fergnolis. This firm took the P.R. strategies developed by the Minnesotan team to soft sell Prince onto what might be called a higher plane.
Husney told Billboard’s Nelson George that he, Prince and Andre Cymone used to sit up all night in the early days discussing the whole shtick that finally came to fruition with Dirty Mind: the suggestive visuals, the cultivated mystique, the comprehensive publicity kits, and the careful control of ancillary rights. Prince was co-writing songs with Chris Moon at the time (of which the classic “Soft and Wet” from the For You debut album is one) and writing demos for other artists, a habit that accounts for the ease with which the Time and Vanity 6 have been grafted into Prince’s proven formula and current stage show.
After the second LP—titled simply Prince—had established an equivocal image but unequivocal sales figures, our boy left Husney and the cozy ghetto exclusivity of the Black teen slicks far behind by giving Dirty Mind to Cavallo & Co. with the single injunction: “Sell me!” Storming the rock press with the renegade allure of incest, oral sex, and soul-rock fusion, Dirty Mind did indeed cultivate the critical attention of the nuevo wavo crowd, and gave the properly hyped interviewers their first—and possibly last—taste of an audience with the vocally reticent rude boy.
Prince told Musician’s Pablo “Yoruba” Guzman that he scorned many of the punk/new wave efforts Dirty Mind was being compared to because these fellow refugees from the enervating decline of white rock and beige disco “can’t sing.” A background of high school bands that specialized in Sly Stone covers had convinced the young Prince that what power pop, acid rock, heavy metal and all their latter day derivations needed was a studied infusion of funk and old fashioned sweet soul crooning.
If white rockers couldn’t do it, Prince was more than ready to fill the gap. He told Andy Schwartz, editor of the New York Rocker, that he learned arranging and production techniques by using two cassette tape recorders; singing cross harmonies into them and playing them back, alternately playing and recording as he strummed along, building layer upon layer of sound. As a studio neophyte he took five months to finish the first album in L.A.: Dirty Mind took only twelve days in Minneapolis for the basics and a week and a half for the mix.
There is reason to believe that some of the tracks on 1999 date from the time of Dirty Mind or even earlier. Prince described to Schwartz the way he wrote at sixteen: “I was writing things that a cat with ten albums would have out, like seven-minute laments that were, y’know, gone. I wrote like I was rich, had been everywhere, and been with every woman in the world. But I liked that, I always liked fantasy and fiction . . .”
So maybe his royal badness will excuse our own exercise in fantasy in the following “interview.” I was dreaming when I wrote this, so forgive me if it goes astray… In my dream the ectoplasmic Prince was ever so kind and forthcoming. His lips, his eyes, his hair were burning—very much like his pictures; the Edwardian tart, the Prince of Uptown, USA.
Carol Cooper: Do you believe that white people understand what you are doing?
Prince: No, of course they don’t. How many Black people understand? White people are very good at categorizing things—and if you tell them anything they’ll remember it, write books about it. But understand? You have to live a life to understand it. Tourists just pass through.
At the beginning, when California based slicks like Soul Teen and Right On! were examining and stroking this boy in the proper context (as just one of many talented and shrewdly outrageous Black pop contenders) there was no hint as to how far into the mainstream his increasingly bizarre self-hype would take him. When the pop soul of For You and Prince was derailed into the randy rock of Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999, Right On! ran an illuminating series of colour pin-ups clocking the visual transformation from ’79 to ’82.
The indulgent, tongue-in-cheek copy that helped wedge this growing incongruity between the glossy smiles of Stephanie Mills and Richard “Dimples” Fields bore no resemblance to the credulous awe of the white rock press. The difference in perspective stems from the American cultural apartheid which neither white nor Black media likes to approach head on.
For the white media the real possibility of Prince attaining a large white audience and its added bonus of high visibility is merely a momentary titillation, a diversion. For the Black media, Prince is yet another in a long line of brilliant young turks getting ready to break his back against institutionalized white indifference. “Is He the Prince of Darkness?” read the blurb above the Right On! photo essay, as if to render all his abrasively ambiguous posturing into a statement on how the Black man must exaggerate and contort his image (as allegory for much of the gratuitous absurdity of being Black in America) just to be heard.
From what he tells us, Prince’s early life was surprisingly insular for one of nine or so half-brothers and sisters. Left alone for vast stretches of time after the departure of his father, an itinerant jazz musician, the prepubescent loner would spend hours at his dad’s abandoned piano or amuse himself with whatever reading matter came to hand—a dollop of speculative fiction, a dip into his mother’s personal stash of dime store pulp porn novels. His father’s surname was Nelson and his stage name was Prince Rogers. Prince claims his father actually christened him Prince Rogers Nelson.
What should be remembered about Minneapolis, Minnesota, (but what is unlikely to ever show up in any official demographic studies) is that the area became a magnet for ambitious young Black males in the ’50s and ’60s seeking space, calm, and equal opportunity. The result was a remarkably high incidence of multi-racial families developing in an atmosphere of relative financial stability. Meaning that the Black population of Minneapolis is possessed of several characteristics distinct from the ghettoized norm. They haven’t eradicated the dark-skinned genotype, just amplified it with yet another strain. Another genetic mood.
A part of this mood was a motivation towards upward mobility, and like many matriarchs of a nascent Black middle class, Prince’s mother was unhappy with her son’s increasing obsession with music. She tried sending our boy to various boarding schools as a cure, but that, coupled with an increasing dislike of a current stepfather forced Prince to migrate. He spent much of his early to middle teens gypsying about between the homes of various friends and relations, not all of them limited to the Midwestern outback of Minneapolis.
It was during a sojourn with an older sister in New York that Prince claims to have been initiated into the forbidden joys of incest, the details of which he revealed to the world on Dirty Mind with the cut “Sister” (and evidently felt compelled to discuss with subsequent bedfellows who contribute to a growing Gotham rumor mill). By the time “I Wanna Be Your Lover” had our favourite mestizo waif finishing off his second year at the top of the soul charts, Prince already had the material and the experience to launch himself out of the small Greenwich Village jazz halls into massive rock areas and beyond.
Carol Cooper: Are you at all afraid of alienating your Black audiences with the radical change in your music?
Prince: They knew it was coming. “I’m Yours” off the first album was a straight-up rock jam…
Possibly your best. The guitar solo near the end is exquisite; that dream dimension where Hendrix, Van Halen, and Jeff Beck meet.
Prince: And the second album had “Bambi,” which was also written in such a way as not to give the impression that I was a dilettante. So many Black bands in the early ’70s diddled with the rock guitar just to prove they could. They had no real conviction, but none of my rock jams are contrived that way. Yes, I expect to lose some of the Black audience with the new tunes. But in general my fans are pretty loyal and broadminded. And while Blacks may not get into the Edwardian drag, or the hair, or the fact that the new stuff demands longer, more “grooveless” and atonal solos, there will still be elements they will appreciate.
If the live concert’s primary function is group therapy, then Prince’s stage show starts exactly where it must: at the infantile traumas of sensation, bodily function; working its way to, and culminating in, raging adolescence. Although the recent date at Radio City Music Hall in New York was criminally short and high priced (the Prince entourage makes more use of beefy house security than any anti-authoritarian rabble rouser I can remember; I expect to see the T-shirts pop up among the hoi-polloi any day now: “Prince Jacked U Off at Radio City”) it was also a superb example of conscious, old school showmanship.
On a dark stage intermittently punctured by the glare of a riot flare beaming out of the drum kit, the supersonic throb of the overture to “Controversy” sounds like nothing so much as the chant of the witch’s guard from The Wizard of Oz (“The only one, the Old One”). Prince, ever the coy boy Satanist, rises in silhouette to a backstage platform like a demon on the express elevator from Hell.
He seems to have written new arrangements for this set as everything is not only faster but versions of “Sexuality,” “Let’s Work,” “Dirty Mind,” and “Little Red Corvette” are instrumented to emphasize their ’60s rock ’n’ roll underpinning rather than the technopop drone heard on vinyl. The light show and the band’s sexually and racially integrated choreography is full of pointed comparisons and humor. During the instrumental break in “Let’s Work” the Prince front line strike a classic Rolling Stones tableau, with Dez and Prince doing a back-to-back Ron Wood and Keith Richards impersonation, their bassist more Wyman than Wyman. “Little Red Corvette,” gloriously lurid in billowing red smoke, becomes the soundtrack of Cat People as Prince mimes a Bowie-esque salute before immersing himself in the hallucinogenic hydraulics that burble and shuffle behind his vocals. Erection, copulation, and consummation to the subliminal tempii of Endless Love.
Sitting at a keyboard brought center stage, Prince throws the synthesizer into acoustic mode and slows down the pace with a blast from the past. “I’m Still Waiting,” that wistful teen plea for a love too long delayed, gives way to a fierce new blues “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore.” Innocence has been scorched by rejection, and Prince camps it up in mock macho effortlessly sliding from Little Richard falsetto to Rick James baritone. Moving towards the audience he preens before them as the lover of the song. “Does he have an ass like mine?” he sneers. “What’s the matter baby, don’t you want to play with my tootsie-roll?” The audience is in raptures, reliving all those puppy-love scenarios of false bravado. The segue into “Lady Cab Driver” is totally apropos and totally unexpected; the psychodrama completed with our stricken hero being whisked from the throes of self-realization by deus-ex-machina in the form of a taxi cab.
Having spent most of this year touring up and down the U.S. by bus, Prince has polished his moves and his professional attitude. In a recording industry recession where tour support is often harder to get than a three year contract, Prince has a relationship with his company, Warner Brothers, which is the source of great envy and speculation. Thus far they have deferred to him on every level of how to steer his career, and in return Prince is stubbornly determined to make his wilfully idiosyncratic, specially underpriced, two-record 1999 LP (reduced to a single album in the U.K.) go gold in the U.S., something even exposure on the notorious video channel MTV has, as of this writing, yet to deliver.
No Black artist outside of Stevie Wonder’s deal with Motown has been allowed to do whatever he likes; so at least half the critical excitement over Prince is to see how long his good fortune will last. A master of indirection, Prince continues to send out conflicting signals without coming off as weak minded or insecure. “Party Up” was anti-draft, a conceptual anagram for “Don’t Join Up.” “Sexuality” is not about enslaving oneself to the flesh as much as it is about freeing oneself from anti-life authoritarianism. “D.M.S.R.” pegs the hypocrites that tell you what’s good or bad for you based on what they’re selling this week—teaching people to be afraid of their own bodies so they can be manipulated that much more easily.
Prince declares that if modern society has divided everything into either Sex or Death symbology then he will define himself in terms of Sex. And unlike George Clinton, Rick James, or Kid Creole, who also wield sex and romance as tools and metaphors, Prince has not lost himself in cynicism, not abandoned the chance for original solutions by subscribing to the pimp’s excuse that “you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.” When Prince leans toward misogyny on tunes like “Something in the Water” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” one can hear him consider and reconsider the options. The outcome of the war between the sexes is in no way a foregone conclusion for Prince, nor has he bothered to take sides.
A line like “screw the masses” on “D.M.S.R.” is meant to distress the armchair revolutionaries, for totalitarian government impresses Prince about as much as any police state. If you ask him to suggest a better alternative he might refer you to a line in “Ronnie Talk to Russia” where another ostensibly counter-revolutionary statement—“…don’t feed guerrillas”—is merely a reminder that when you are trying to live it doesn’t really matter if the people doing the killing are of a right or left persuasion. Feed people, not guerrillas; wage food diplomacy not revolution.
Carol Cooper: What is all this talk about a “new breed” coming out of the Controversy album?
Prince: The “New Breed”? It’s no doctrine, no rhetoric. We’re not sloganeers the way politicians are. I always laugh when people complain that my “message” lyrics aren’t specific. Where has all the “specificity” of Mao or Marx, Franklin or Jefferson, or even Plato and Aristotle gotten us? True philosophy need be no more specific than “live and let live.” The New Breed are people who know how to do that.
On “All the Critics Love U in New York” on the new album, you recite a litany of backhanded swipes at music critics. What’s that all about?
Prince: A little vindictiveness I guess, but not a lot. It was part experiment and part joke, but people didn’t seem to get it. I remember the critic from Rolling Stone tagged it along with “D.M.S.R.” as obvious filler, when I thought they were two of the best tunes, so you figure it. But if you’re asking for a general statement, I guess I’m saying that the media fucks with you, with your image. They’re concept groupies. Interviewers are another species of tourist. Mental vampires. I think Zappa once wrote a line like “I won’t do any more publicity balling for you.” That’s sort of how I feel.
Prince proteges the Time and Vanity 6 have of late taken up their benefactor’s on and off again affair with the press, and at present, only Morris Day of the Time remains sanguine about bolstering his onstage persona with comments (more playful and flippant with each encounter) to the scribes and Pharisees. The Time, with their modified zoot suits and two-tone shoes are like a scaled down model of the early Savannah Band. But their style is less about degenerated America than about bad boys who’ve found a constructive use, temporarily, for their time. Due to circumstances they’d really like to control some day, they’ve become white collar gangsters-in-training; a sort of street elite of Uptown USA. Given to puns and mock braggadocio, Day’s primary emphasis is always about being pressed for time. And paired with Prince’s time-tied apocalyptic warnings, the Time also offer a thematic indirection that echoes one of Stevie Wonder’s recent mysticisms…“We are the children of your night.”
Day might quip “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die—but not us.” The three girls who form Vanity 6 are somewhat more problematic as a viable female faction of the Princely avant garde. None of the three play instruments on stage, and the songs on their debut LP for the most part require no extraordinary singing ability. For visuals they vacillate between Vampirella’s cartoon menace, and lingerie-clad coffee table porn. Susan and Vanity develop more stage presence every time I see them (Brenda, the oldest, had hers down from the beginning) but they as yet seem unclear on whether they’re aiming for Annabella style prurience, camp comedy, or the deeper implications of a Joanna Russ style Female Man.
As a freeze frame triple fracture of Prince’s own feminine projections they are intriguing: Vanity, a creamy sort of Black Barbarella sandwiched between a sweet, underage brown vixen and a tall, butch blond who talks like the Black Boston ghetto. Vanity is meant to combine the other two with an extra kink or two of her own thrown in for good measure. It will be interesting to see where the second album takes them, as the Time were not taken seriously either until their second time around.
The point is, has been, and always will be to fly in the face of convention, and if the Time, Prince, and Vanity 6 are able to sustain the work pace they’ve set for themselves, the changes and growth are bound to be a more accurate reflection of America’s current state of mind than any other set of pop-culture artifacts.
Carol Cooper: Tell me about the line “Purple love and war/That’s all you’re headed for/But don’t show it.” That seems to be the pivotal statement on “All The Critics Love U.”
Prince: Oh, now you’re getting close. All is fair in love and war. Royal purple, red and blue, the colour of yin and yang when they become one. People are still not serious on a mass level about the war against racism and poverty, they’re also not ready for my kind of love. So yes, I’m making love and war in ways that society is not sympathetic to at the moment, so that’s why it’d be unwise to show it. The war of Armageddon is coming whether we’re prepared for it or not, and in “Free” I talk a little more about the freedom of choice between good and evil. No government gave you that, God did. But governments don’t want you to remember that—which is why they put conscientious objectors in jail. But in the war that’s coming there’ll be no way to abstain. Whatever you do you’ll have to be behind one flag or another. My flag is freedom, purple, unconditional love.
But you would have to admit with all the sex-related disease around, from herpes to AIDS, that it would discourage people from following your advice into free, polymorphous sex.
Prince: All these things are prophesy. I wouldn’t tell anybody not to take precautions . . .
Your philosophy doesn’t mention any.
Prince: You can look at it two ways. Either other aspects of the wrong way people are using their environment is making people sick, or these diseases are just what they call them—the Wrath of God. All I say is that you shouldn’t repress your sexual feelings just because somebody official told you to. In many places in the world today you’re not supposed to fuck just like you’re not supposed to think. Part of thinking for yourself is avoiding people who are going to give you diseases—mental or physical.