Sweet madness of a Prince ‘interview’: no pens, no past tense, no Irish

When the late singer was heading for Ireland in 2011 he agreed to talk to Brian Boyd. It wasn’t a run-of-the-mill encounter

The remarkable musician and performer Prince has died at the age of 57. Here are three of his greatest hits.

 

An email from Prince: “Brian, I need to talk to you to explain something confidentially. Come and see me in Paris next week and hear some real music. We’ll make history.”

This is how the singer, who died on Thursday, at the age of 57, went about setting up an interview with me five years ago. He was on his way here to play a show at Malahide Castle, and what he had to tell me was so confidential that I couldn’t bring any recording device – not even a pen and a paper – to the interview. None of the questions could be in the past tense, and if I asked a question he didn’t like he would press a button on his phone that played the theme from The Twilight Zone.

Paris was a blast: the show, at Stade de France, was superb. And Prince had a “big secret” that he wanted to share. But he disappeared into the night, his Cuban heels clicking away on a cobblestone street, his bell-bottomed trousers blowing in the breeze.

Another famous American had just been in Dublin, and Prince had noted the way President Obama had wooed the crowds by using the cúpla focal. He sent another email the next morning: “Speaking Irish, no – I speak the universal language of music. I’ll leave the Irish language to the experts.”

There were further dispatches at odd times of the day and night: “I will see you in Malahide, can you tell Dublin to bring their dancing shoes. It’s going to get real funky.”

He seemed preoccupied about what would happen to any leftovers from the food and drink that had been provided for the band and crew at Malahide Castle. He wanted it be delivered that night to “a local food centre for the homeless or less fortunate”.

That was the “interview”. And that was Prince in all his sweet madness.

Prince and Ireland

He had a troubled relationship with Ireland. When he played Páirc Uí Chaoimh, in Cork, on July 7th, 1990, the country was still in the grips of Italia ’90 delirium. Halfway through his set the crowd broke into a sustained “Olé, olé, olé”. Prince was furious that a chant associated with a soccer team was being sung in his honour. “Whose gig is this?” he bellowed. “What’s all this ‘Olé, olé, olé’ s**t? This town needs an enema.”

Two weeks before a sold-out show at Croke Park, planned for June 16th, 2008, Prince pulled out for no apparent reason. The concert’s promoter, MCD Productions, had sought assurances that he would show up; Prince told his agent to tell Denis Desmond, MCD’s owner, not to worry – using the memorable phrase “Tell that cat to chill.”

Sinéad O’Connor may have taken a previously obscure song Prince had written for one of his side projects and made Nothing Compares 2 U a global hit – “I bought a house out of it,” Prince boasted once about his songwriting royalties from O’Connor’s cover – but when the two of them met it ended in a fist fight, according to the Irish singer.

“Prince summoned me to his house,” O’Connor said. “He said he didn’t like me saying bad words in interviews. That’s a foolish thing to do to an Irish woman. So I told him to f*** off. We had a punch-up. He got quite violent. I had to escape out of his house at 5am. He packed a bigger punch than me.”

The music

Biography is futile when it comes to Prince. One in-depth book came to the frustrated conclusion that his life had become “so much concerned with rumour, counter-rumour, carefully confected legend, fallings out, gagging clauses and plain nonsense”.

He released 38 studio albums over a 37-year recording career – from For You, in 1978, to HITnRUN, in 2015 – but he had done enough by the 1980s alone to be placed alongside Miles Davis and Brian Wilson in the pantheon of greats.

Writing about the music is the easy part. The fate of Prince Rogers Nelson was sealed at the age of 10, when his father brought him to a James Brown concert. A musical prodigy from a Minnesota jazz family, Prince went on to make music that was a collision of pop Motown and raw-edged soul and funk – and became a rare critical and commercial success. His record label tried to push him into the crossover territory of Madonna and Michael Jackson, but Prince was creatively uncompromising.

It wasn’t enough for him to write, sing and play on his songs: he insisted on arranging and producing them, too.

He was professionally truculent and the music industry’s greatest fear: a star with a mind of his own. He was in a position to dictate terms: in 1984 he equalled a long-standing Beatles record by having an album, a single and a film at the top of the charts at the same time, with Purple Rain and When Doves Cry.

Although friendly with Jackson – he and his contemporary had fought MTV’s refusal to play black artists in the channel’s early years – he was the bad-boy Rolling Stone to Jackson’s Beatle.

Parental guidance The mother of a young girl aghast at hearing her sing along to the Prince song

Darling Nikki – “I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess you could say she was a sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby / Masturbating with a magazine / She said how’d you like to waste some time / And I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind” – decided to act on her concerns about his lyrics.

The mother’s name was Tipper Gore, and she was the wife of the senator and future US vice-president Al Gore. She and other concerned mothers and fathers set up the Parents Music Resource Center, which was behind the introduction of Parental Advisory: Explicit Content stickers on music albums with adult lyrics. Prince was thrilled by this backhanded accolade; to this day, albums with Parental Advisory stickers still far outsell those without.

If Purple Rain made him, Sign ‘Othe Times, released three years later, became a strong contender for the title of greatest album of all time. Drawing as much from Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Going On as from the best of Rick James and Sly Stone, it is still influential today, on artists from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Justin Bieber.

The symbol

Perversely, Prince’s record label, Warner Bros, wanted him to slow down his output. In its eyes, to properly monetise a new album from a big name, the label needed time to prepare a marketing campaign. It asked Prince to adhere to the standard three-year cycle for an album and tour.

For a man who said he wrote a song a day, and had a compulsion to record every note he came up with, this didn’t sit well.

The breaking point came when Prince wanted to release an album under the name of his female alter-ego, Camille. It’s often underappreciated just how well he wrote for the female voice, with acts such as Sheena Easton, The Bangles, Apollonia, Wendy & Lisa, and Sheila E all interpreting his songs with ease.

It was Camille not being allowed to release an album that led Prince to brand himself a slave and replace his name with an unpronounceable squiggle that, tellingly, was a combination of the symbols for male and female.

That a wealthy and influential black American was scrawling “Slave” on his face over a dispute with a record label – and at a time when Prince, highly unusually, had a seat on the board of Warner Bros, with his own suite of offices – provoked his first backlash.

But the contradictions, the inconsistencies, the fitful nature of his releases and tours, and a self-mythologising that was even more extravagant than that of another Minnesota musician, Bob Dylan, were of a “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” nature. Many people touched by genius don’t play well with other people. Prince had something in common with Orson Welles: both were obsessed with retaining full creative control of their work.

The music aside, Prince was one of the great cultural innovators: decades ago he was trying to bypass traditional music distribution by releasing albums via the internet on his own NPG label. He was among the first major artists to give away an album with a newspaper: the Mail on Sunday distributed three million copies of his album Planet Earth in July 2007, paying him a reported fee of $500,000. Prince had recognised before most others that the deal would help sell tickets for what turned out to be his spectacularly successful 21-night residency at the O2 arena in London the following month.

And although it’s now common for videos, music and photographs to be removed from YouTube and other websites for licensing reasons, Prince was the first to jealously guard his intellectual copyright. A decade ago he had his lawyers remove innocuous YouTube clips in which one of his songs was playing on a radio in the background; he also ordered Prince fan websites and tribute pages to remove “photographs, images, lyrics, album covers and anything linked to his likeness”, up to and including fans posting pictures of the Prince tattoos on their bodies and “Prince-inspired licence plates on cars”. His cease-and-desist letter was accompanied by the message “I love you all, but don’t you ever mess with me no more.”

Jehovah’s Witness

The singer became a Jehovah’s Witness at the end of the 1990s. He was so devout that he began to censor his lyrics when he sang live and even edited “biblically inaccurate” references in his songs.

Reports emerged of people answering a knock at their door to be greeted by a small man, dressed in a satin suit and wearing stacked heels, asking, “Would you like to talk about Jesus?”

It is also said that, in a Hollywood nightclub once, he was so upset by the gyrations of its lap dancers that he asked them how much they were being paid for their night’s work and offered to double it if they stopped performing.

Sometimes he would open his set with 12 minutes of free-form jazz celebrating the Jehovah’s Witness faith – and get into shouting matches with fans who just wanted him to play Purple Rain.

His friend and sometime manager Robin Lee posted a message on Facebook on Friday saying, “I fear that due to his religious beliefs he may have refused medical treatment that could have extended his life.” Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions for religious reasons.

But ask any good musician about their influences and they will name Prince within seconds, not minutes. At a time when popular music has been reduced to television shows such as The Voice, where musical growth is measured in Instagram followers and songs sound like speeded-up nursery rhymes, the refractory, revolutionary genius that was Prince will cast a long shadow.

“If you weren’t Prince, who would you like to be?” I asked him during our email exchange. “The first song I ever learnt to play when I was aged 7 was Batman,” he replied. Makes sense.

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