The Artist you better not call Prince

After nearly two decades as rock royalty, his inner flame still burns hot purple -- rain or shine.

By David Rubien
Published September 27, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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So here it is, 1999, and what's the dude who used to go by his real name, Prince, up to?

Well, for one thing, he's keeping up his hissy fit against Warner Bros., the label he broke free from three years ago after 17 years of spinning out the hits. Because Warner Bros. owns the tune "1999" -- as it does all of the former Prince music recorded under contract -- the purple wonder has gone and rerecorded a whole bunch of new versions of the song, from hip-hop "1999" to Latino "1999," and made them available through his retail arm. Warner Bros. still may have its own plans for the song; in the meantime it has just released a disc of previously unreleased Prince material called "The Vault -- Old Friends 4 Sale," which the ex-Prince has dissed on his Web site thus: "An anonymous in4mer who just recently heard a testing pressing 4 the upcoming "PRINCE" release (aptly titled) 'Old Friends 4 Sale' said this recording sounds like a CONtractual obligation ... nothing more or less."

Ah, the hissy fit. It seems the Prince who dare not speak his name can't let go of what he has already let go of.

And how else is the purple wonder preparing for the millennium? Why, by suing his fans. Not just the fans who buy his music. But the fans who love him so much they actually took the time to create Web site shrines to his greatness. The little litigator has accused these devotees of infringing his copyright by using that nifty symbol he now goes by. But here's a catch: He not only gave them permission years ago to use the symbol, he e-mailed it to them and said, "Here, please use it."

The Artist -- his default name these days -- is acting a bit fevered in this, the year of his storied prognostication. You'd think he'd be partying all the time. After all, he's rich, he had a huge success with "Emancipation" -- the triple-CD tour de force he made to celebrate his divorce from Warner Bros. -- he seems happily married and all his Olympian music-making gifts appear intact. This spawn of Jimi and Joni, of James Brown and Gershwin, of the Beatles and Al Green, of Ellington, Dylan, Aretha -- you name it, he's synthesized them all into soundscapes unprecedented in their scope and grandeur -- could hardly be better positioned to exit 1999 with a bang. From now on he gets the glory and owns his masters. And on top of all that, he has a really cute ass.

So whence the peevishness? Well, there have been setbacks. He and his wife, Mayte, lost their kid, for one thing. Two years ago their 1-week-old son died of a rare skeletal disorder called Pfeiffer Syndrome Type 2. The Artist has never discussed the death publicly.

Beyond that, there's the problem with the limelight: It has dimmed, even while his own inner flame hasn't. The limelight's flicker is fickle, of course, and it's remarkable that the Artist has basked in it for as long as he has. Who would have thought, back in 1982 when the 24-year-old Prince cut "1999," that he'd actually still be working when the big year came to pass? Much less that he'd have made hits virtually the entire time? This accomplishment alone gains him admission to the exclusive club occupied by the likes of Elvis and the Stones.

But where in the '80s Prince could do no wrong, the '90s have been fraught. First he was attacked for selling out by incorporating rap into his music. Then there was the name change to the unpronounceable glyph. Next came the disgruntlement with Warner Bros. -- which had just lavished a $100 million contract on him. Record sales declined a bit, and that alone was enough to sour the taste makers who once considered the Artist their darling. Then, once free from his contract, he released so much product -- 10 discs of material in the past three years alone -- that no one but the die-hard fan could possibly keep up.

To the Artist, though, the '90s have meant one thing: freedom. Were he to make a movie about his life in the decade, it probably wouldn't be all that different from his hit film "Purple Rain": talented, sensitive rocker gets in trouble with the money men, focuses, trusts, finds redemption through his art. Ah, "Purple Rain," -- the 1984 record that ended up selling 13 million copies, the movie that, on a budget of $7 million, made $60 million. Anyone seeking a map of the Artist's formative psyche should rush out and rent this little flick. It's all in there: troubles in love, troubles with ego, control issues with his band-mates -- and, perhaps most revealingly, troubles with his father.

In the film, Prince's dad, a tortured pianist played by Clarence Williams III, beats his wife, beats Prince and ultimately shoots himself. Prince, in a rough patch with his girlfriend Apollonia, smacks her around a few times, then in horror realizes what he's become.

Ten years after the film, in Prince's song "Papa" from the album "Come," a furious father beats his 4-year-old and locks him in a closet.

As the door closes, baby starts 2 cry

"Please don't lock me up again without a reason why!"

Papa just went outside and pointed a shotgun up in the sky

He said -- "How come I don't love my woman?"

Then he took aim and died

A few verses later, Prince warns, "Don't abuse children or else they turn out like me ..."

While it's unclear whether Prince as a boy was truly abused, we do know that his father never committed suicide. John Nelson was a jazz pianist, and named his son, born June 7, 1958, in Minneapolis, after his group, the Prince Rogers Trio

Prince Rogers Nelson's mother, a singer named Mattie Shaw, divorced John Nelson and married Hayward Baker, who is most famously credited with rocking the 12-year-old Prince's world by taking him to see a James Brown concert. But Prince's relationships with both of his dads were conflicted, and he drifted around until he was taken in by an altogether different family.

In junior high and high school, Prince, already a whiz at piano, guitar, drums and who knows how many other instruments, played in bands with cohorts who would stick with him for much of his career, including Andre Cymone, Terry Lewis, Morris Day and Jellybean Johnson -- a crew that would develop the preening disco-funk style that came to be known as the Minneapolis sound.

Disco reigned in 1977, the year Prince, then 18, summoned the chutzpah to convince Warner Bros. to sign a contract guaranteeing him complete control over the music. Warner Bros. proved prescient, because the hits started coming quickly -- "Soft and Wet" from Prince's 1978 debut "For You" cracked the R&B Top 20, and the follow-up LP, "Prince," did better, with a No. 11 hit in "I Wanna Be Your Lover." Another song from that album, "I Feel for You," began the long tradition of other artists' getting hits with Prince tunes (including the Bangles, Sinead O'Connor, Madonna, Kenny Rogers, Patti LaBelle, Joe Cocker), when Chaka Khan took it to No. 3 in 1984.

Playing all the instruments on these records, Prince proved he could make catchy dance hits single-handedly, but the music lacked depth. On his next two, "Dirty Mind" and "Controversy," he evolved from lover boy to sex toy, and started tricking up the music as well. When he unveiled the double album "1999" in '82, his artistry opened up on a number of fronts. One, the falsetto that dominated his singing turned out to be just one facet of a mighty vocal arsenal. Then he showed he was as adept at writing ballads as dance tunes. In the album's biggest hit, "Little Red Corvette," he displayed vulnerability, even insecurity.

Throw in a little pathos, and -- boom -- you have arena rock On "Purple Rain" Prince let it be known he could get down on his knees and make his guitar cry with the best of them. The soundtrack album dominated the pop charts, becoming one of the biggest sellers of the '80s, so huge that Prince must have known he would never top it. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly Online, the Artist discussed his feelings about the record:

"In some ways, it was more detrimental than good. People's perception of me changed after that, and it pigeonholed me. I saw kids coming to concerts who screamed just because that's where the audience screamed in the movie. That's why I did "Around the World in a Day," to totally change that. I wanted not to be pigeonholed."

That was never something Prince would have to worry about. "Around the World in a Day" -- all introverted and mannered where "Purple Rain" was extroverted and bombastic -- taught his fans never to expect the expected. Prince's entire career has been a case of evolution and experimentation, trusting his song-craft to create music people wanted to hear. And they did, because no matter how bizarrely florid or strangely dense the music got -- and "Around the World's" follow-up, "Parade" (the soundtrack to the much-maligned movie "Under the Cherry Moon") was pretty out there -- he always slipped in a hit or two, like "Kiss."

In this he was like the Beatles. But he even one-upped the Beatles, because he understood the funk. Imagine if "Rubber Soul" actually had soul, and was three times as long to boot? Then you would have something approximating "Sign 'O' the Times," Prince's '80s masterpiece. For this 1987 double album, Prince took all the rock 'n' roll moves he had cultivated on his previous four albums and wrapped them in his R&B roots. He put more slink in his bass playing, aired out his grooves, ladled on the background vocals, cranked up the horn arrangements and took the music's dance quotient into the stratosphere. Mainly, his singing told the story -- he finally let loose the full power of his voice, and what an awesomely versatile instrument it proved to be. His singing on the ballad "Adore" -- as passionate a profession of love as has ever been penned -- is breathtaking, with harmonies (his own voice overdubbed) as gorgeous as a deep South gospel choir.

Interestingly, "Sign" found Prince in his one-man-band shoes, the first case of this since he introduced a band, the Revolution, on "Purple Rain." And so continued a dialectic that would energize him throughout his career: albums made solo, followed by collaboration. His greatest band, the early '90s version of the New Power Generation, showed up first on 1991's "Diamonds and Pearls," which, even though it went double platinum on the strength of the hit "Cream," got assaulted because he added rap to the mix. The cries that arose must have reminded Prince of the time Dylan went electric. But as a legitimate R&B genre, rap was fair game to Prince, just another ingredient to be used in his elaborate concoctions. And on some tunes, like "Love 2 the 9's" on the follow-up "Symbol" album, it served his sexual purposes well, creating friction between sentiment and thrust.

These two discs, plus the preceding "Graffiti Bridge," constituted a period of deep experimentation for Prince, almost a public wood-shedding. It was as though he was trying to see how many tricks he could pull out of his magic bag -- strange, spooky, bent blues on "The Question of You," uber P-Funk on "We Can Funk" (co-written and performed with George Clinton), orgasmo guitar pop on "Cream," grand canyon grooves on "Sexy M.F." His best tunes were like flowers, starting with the seed of melody, then blossoming into all manner of orchestration and filigree. The worst collapsed under their own weight like supernovas.

Bottom line for Warner Bros., Prince moved product, and in September of '92 he signed the richest recording contract in history, one that promised funding for his own Paisley Park production company. Soon, though, he began to act like his pact was Faustian.

In June of '93, on his 35th birthday, Prince announced he was changing his name to that odd symbol, an act that could not have pleased the record label honchos. After all, here he was, perhaps the world's most singular example of nomenclaturial determinism, chucking one of his prime assets for a typographical squiggle that couldn't be spoken and that few publications could print. The glyph, appropriately enough, turned out to be a modified version of the ancient symbol for soapstone, a material used in alchemy.

Perhaps it was a reaction to the name change, perhaps not, but Warner Bros. pulled the plug on Paisley Park, saying Prince's -- whoops, the Artist's -- side projects weren't profitable enough. A tug of war ensued. The Artist, growing ever more prolific, wanted to get his music out faster. Warner Bros. said no, the fans can't handle more than one album a year. The Artist scoffs at this attitude. "I used to ride my bike to the record store and I bought every single James Brown put out," he told Addicted to Noise. "He'd have a new single every three months. No one said James Brown was too prolific. I wasn't mad if James Brown put out 'Lickin' Stick.'"

For his part, the Artist convinced the label to let him release a single independently. "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" ended up at No. 3. "I wrote that song the day after some suit at Warners told me I no longer 'had it,'" the Artist years later told the Netherlands publication Nieuwe Revu.

The conflict roiled further when Warners wouldn't release "The Gold Experience" on the Artist's timetable. He started showing up in public with "slave" written on his cheek. "It was the worst period of my life," he told the British newspaper the Sun. "I was being made physically ill by what was going on." Soon enough, though, thanks to some powerhouse legal help, the Artist wriggled free of his contract. The deal was, Warner Bros. would release two records of material already in the can. The first, "Chaos and Disorder," came out in early '96; the second, "The Vault -- Old Friends 4 Sale," recently hit the stores.

So now the Artist was free, beholden to no corporation. And he promised something truly audacious: a self-financed three-hour-long 36-song triple CD of mostly original material. It was called "Emancipation," and it fulfilled his promise beyond anyone's wildest expectations, selling more than 2 million copies. All the Artist's standard themes were accounted for: dance, music, sex, romance -- plus dreams, marriage, procreation, e-mailing, race, slavery -- and all of it seemed galvanized by liberation and matrimonial love. He dipped into the bottomless well of inspiration that has always been available to him, but this time he focused, creating arrangements neatly tailored to each song's profile. "Emancipation" was the Artist's '90s "Sign 'O' the Times," and as on the earlier landmark, he did it all by himself.

How can one man come up with so much music? The Artist addressed the question in one of his hometown newspapers when Emancipation came out: "I am music. I feel music. When I walk around, I hear brand new things. You're almost cursed. You're not even its maker, you're just there to bring it forth. You know, Can't I go to sleep? No. You can't. But, OK, now you can. And you go to sleep, and you don't hear it, and then you're lonely. No one wants to be on Earth alone."

The Artist had promised his fans product, and there was still more to come. In a novel marketing concept, he announced that he would make available a five-CD set of "previously bootlegged" and unreleased material by mail order only through his Web site or by calling (800) NEW-FUNK -- once 80,000 pre-orders came in. Unfortunately, he proved less than adept as a businessman, and this sales pitch ended up buying him a whole lot of disgruntled fans. The Internet chat venues became wailing walls for people who paid for "Crystal Ball" but never received it, or only received three of the promised five CDs, or who called the phone number to get information about their order only to be told there wasn't any. Anyone who successfully acquired the set, though, couldn't really complain: It had enough deep grooves, crucial jams and sheer fun to keep a fan occupied for years. One of the discs, "The Truth," featured the Artist alone on acoustic guitar, playing funky folk and pulling it off with total conviction. It's a treasure.

But no sooner had the Artist ironed out the glitches in his retail arm than he picked up another bargeful of bad will last February by threatening to sue any Web sites that A) sold Prince bootlegs, B) used images of him and C) used the supposedly copyrighted symbol that stood for his name. No one could argue with point A: Bootlegs are illegal, period, and the Artist is one of the most heavily bootlegged musicians in the world. On point B, the Artist may have had legal standing, but he was flying in the face of Internet tradition. There are thousands of Web sites devoted to celebrities, they all use photographs and 99 percent of the time the celebrities accept the sites as free publicity.

On point C, though, the Artist was just plain whack. As many of the lawsuit-threatened fans screamed to the high heavens, the Artist had given them the glyph and urged them to use it. In fact, discussing his name change with the Knight-Ridder news service in '97 he said, "A computer font of my name is available for those who wish to respect my choice."

It's unclear how Prince thought he could make a legal claim to a symbol he'd distributed for use with no apparent restrictions. Indeed, when he tried to sue the fanzine and Web site Uptown, a highly respected 8-year-old English-language publication from Sweden dedicated to his works, Uptown countersued, claiming, among other things, that the Artist was attempting to stifle free speech. On July 29, the parties settled, Uptown agreeing to only one demand: that it no longer publish discographies of Prince bootlegs. It would still be permitted to use the glyph, not that it has any intention of doing so: "We used the Symbol as a sign of respect, at Prince's request, but then Prince sued us for using it," said one of Uptown's editors in a press release.

Most likely, if you tallied the number of people offended by the Artist through his Internet adventures it would constitute a minuscule percentage of his fan base. But in the electronic age, bad news spreads fast, and bad will lingers. The Artist may not care that he's no longer a pop-culture darling, but he needs to care about his fans.

What the fans have to look forward to is the Artist's first album of brand-new material in over a year: "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic," due in November. Their appetite has been whet by the bluesy, jazzy "Vault," which, while pretending to be nothing more than an outtake package, still has the master's dance-inducing touch on three or four of the cuts. The Artist's hype for the forthcoming "Rave" has been typically eccentric. At first he said the disc would be produced by an outsider, "someone the Artist worked with extensively in the '80s." Well, that would be a first. But now the producer has been revealed, and it will be ... Prince! Not "the Artist," mind you, but the good old-fashioned name his mommy and daddy gave him.

Ach, it's all so confusing. What the Artist needs to do now is let the music do the talking. As he said in "Housequake" many years ago: "Shut up already, damn!"

David Rubien

David Rubien is a writer in San Francisco.

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