Portrait of the Artist as a Native Son
By Martin Keller
Note: This story originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of Minnesota Monthly.
The fog lifting out of the Minnesota River Valley in Chanhassen casts an enchanting veil over the faceless industrial lots and strip malls along Highway 5. Hoarfrost generously flocks every tree and signpost. At this moment, all the familiar suburban fixtures seem almost as wondrously strange as Paisley Park, the $10 million pyramid-roofed complex in their midst.
lt’s a couple of weeks before Christmas, and the huge film and audio recording center is uncharacteristically quiet. Most of the office staff is adjourned; only the occasional blast of a guitar lick or rhythm track can be heard from one of the studios, where the “house” band rehearses for upcoming television appearances in New York and a promised world tour later in the new year. A preppy-looking young man named Adam, employed as a personal attendant to the man Paisley Park staffers and others now call simply “The Artist,” shows a visitor around the huge space’s two recording studios, 12,000-square-foot soundstage, phalanx of offices, and various mini-shops for wardrobe design, carpentry, and the like. A confluence of creativity and commerce, Paisley Park’s scale matches the dreams and ambitions of its legendary builder: the man known at his birth in South Minneapolis 38 years ago as Prince Rogers Nelson.
In November, almost a month ago to the day, Paisley Park was buzzing like a Schwarzenegger premiere in Hollywood. MTV, BET, VH-1, and others were on hand to broadcast via world satellite a live mini-concert celebrating The Artist’s release from his contract with Warner Brothers Records—a release following a series of legal and financial disputes that had been played out in the media like a bad movie-star divorce. His separation party included his first-ever international press conference and featured the debut of his new three-record set—titled appropriately enough, Emancipation—on his own label, New Power Generation Records (NPG). EMI Capitol is distributing the discs worldwide, although The Artist is reportedly footing the bill for producing, packaging, and marketing this and all subsequent recordings (as well as those of any other artists he signs).
In sheer size if nothing else, Emancipation is the mother of all albums by Prince or his nameless successor. It flouts conventional music business wisdom about releasing only single albums, and is wildly out of step with the output of other superstars, many of whom take three or more years to make a single album. (The Artist’s insistence on such matters as this mega-supply-and-release strategy was one of many problems he had with Warner Brothers.) Although the new album contains filler comparable to that included in The Beatles’ legendary double White Album, it’s jam-packed with what The Artist would call “bombs” (hot stuff).
“I worked long and hard on Emancipation,” The Artist says with pride, sitting in a small studio strewn with pieces of paper and recording logs, evidence of a recent working spree. Wearing what looks like a Versace outfit—black lace pants, a loose charcoal-colored vest over a pumpkin-colored ribbed turtleneck sweater, and shoes of a matching autumnal color—he talks openly in a soft baritone.
“I worked a year on this record, and I’ve never worked a year on anything,” he says as if he can’t quite believe it himself. That’s quite a statement, considering that in his career he’s made three feature films (Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, and Graffiti Bridge) and a concert film (Sign o’ the Times), written soundtracks for the first Batman flick and Spike Lee’s Girl 6, written and contributed music to The Joffrey Ballet’s Billboards and released nearly a record a year since his self-produced first album For You, which he composed, played all the instruments on and produced when he was barely 18.
The land of 10,000 lakes clearly has never seen the likes of such a native son. No other Minnesotan has embodied such an array of contradictions. The Artist’s music has consistently explored the polarities of light and dark, male and female, straight and gay, the yin and yang of relationships. While flaunting a libido that would put Casanova to shame, he obsessively embraces the old-fashioned work ethic common to locals of Scandinavian and German stock. Nobody in the pop pantheon has put in the marathon hours he regularly does recording rehearsing, making videos, running a website, touring, and perfecting all the myriad component parts that constitute the life of a pop star in the late ’90s.
Until recently the Grammy- and Oscar-winning recording star was also one of the state’s most reclusive public persons. The Howard Hughes of rock, he worked in seclusion, stockpiling more than 1,000 songs of all sorts, in addition to those that filled his 20 albums for Warner Brothers Records over the past two decades and those he’s written for The Time, Mavis Staples, Sheila E, and many other pop figures.
Asked by this writer during the November press event why, after years of being notoriously gun-shy about doing any press whatsoever, he is suddenly doing so much now, he answered, “I’ve gotta new record to sell.”
But you’ve always had records to sell, he was reminded.
“Yeah,” he said laughing, “but I didn’t own those!”
Although he has forsaken his given name, The Artist remains true to his home state, and is fervent about his place here. Like any true Minnesotan’s, his regional self-awareness has a weather-conscious aspect. “Sometimes It Snows in April,” a mournful ballad recorded in the mid-’80s, is just one of the many meteorologically attuned musical references he’s made over the years about the loon state. There’s another in Emancipation‘s “White Mansion,” and a bodacious slam/jam against the Star Tribune’s gossip columnist CJ, called “Billy Jack Bitch” on his 1995 album The Gold Experience.
But the way he described his deep feelings for his hometown on the night of his emancipation bash, you’d think he was running for public office: “I think God puts you in the place you’re supposed to be. Flying back from a concert tour from around the world and you look down over the land and all the beautiful lakes and it just feels like home, that this is where I belong.”
Leaning back in his chair in the studio, he expands on this topic. “I’m as much a part of the city where I grew up as I am anything. I was very lucky to be born here because I saw both sides of the racial issue, the oppression and the equality. I got the best of all worlds here. I saw what happens here, and it’s not like what happens in, say, Atlanta. I used to be part of a busing program that took me through Kenwood every day to John Hay Elementary School and then Lincoln Junior High. You can check it out in the song ‘The Sacrifice of Victor.’ That runs down the whole scene here.”
Reminded that musically, at least, Minneapolis was also one of the most conservative radio markets in the country (many of the local stations refused to play his early hits because they sounded “too Black”), he laughs. “Yeah, it was about six months late for things to get here. But you know the old KQ after midnight, that was the bomb station. I’d stay up all night listening to it. That’s where I discovered Carlos Santana, Maria Muldaur, and Joni Mitchell. Was I influenced by that? Sure I was. Back then I always tried to play like Carlos, or Boz Scaggs.”
His hypersexual imagery, layered with lyrics about God and salvation, and merged with rock, funk, gospel, pop, and rhythm and blues, became the musician’s trademark. His thermodynamic live show was a combination of Little Richard, James Brown, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, and even a bit of Joni Mitchell thrown in. “You can say all you want about me and my bands over the years,” he says, “but you have to admit, we attracted the most diverse crowds to our concerts—Blacks, whites, and people of all ages. We broke down a lot of barriers.”
Prince single-handedly put the Twin Cities’ music scene on the world map in the summer of 1984, when Purple Rain, his double-jab film and soundtrack album, made him a household name. But as the ’80s gave way to the ’90s, grunge rock from Seattle and gangsta rap from L.A. stole the popular music spotlight, and his record sales slumped.
But a funny thing happened while the boys in the ‘hood were car-jacking the charts and Kurt Cobain was sinking deeper into misery. Lightning struck the purple tower and a new man emerged, shedding his cloak of silence and most of his rock star’s code of ego.
Marking that place in what he now describes as a journey to a greater spiritual awakening, he fell in love with Mayte Garcia, a beautiful 23-year-old Puerto Rican singer/dancer in his stage show. He discarded his given name for a kind of Egyptian ankh (Ƭ̵̬̊), intimating that he and his beloved had lived before in ancient Egypt. Like the pyramids, he claims, Emancipation is constructed on a harmonious model, with each disc playing for exactly 60 minutes and imparting what he hopes is a mystical blueprint for greater conscious awareness and spiritual growth.
“I’m no saint here, and I’ve made some mistakes,” The Artist says in reviewing his career. Operating four nightclubs called Glam Slam was one of them, he admits, adding that he now owns just one in Miami, which is for sale. “I owned the clubs so I could have places to play,” he explains, “but I’ve got this place, too,” he says of the Park. “After awhile you realize you’re selling people stuff that’s killing them-alcohol. Same thing with cigarettes. After awhile I figured maybe I don’t want to be part of that. That’s when you start to realize that you’re part of a bigger picture and the things you do have serious consequences.”
In what is perhaps the understatement of his career, The Artist now admits, “Maybe I’ve pushed a little too harsh with sexuality. But if you listen to my music, it is always coming from a love-based place. I never talk about killin’ nobody and forcing yourself on anyone against their will.”
Along with the salacious R&B vamp he’s penned, The Artist has also written some of the most moving songs about faith ever written in the commercial genre, including “The Cross,” “A Man Called Jesus” (written for Mavis Staples), “The Holy River,” which is on hit CD, and others.
Insisting that he no longer wants to manipulate people or be manipulated by things like the music business, he lands on the phrase “karmic debt.” He reflects on the cause-and-effect spirituality associated with the East, and how his own actions may have had an ill-intended effect until he was free to manage the process himself.
“It got to the point a few years ago in my life where I really had to ask myself, Who am I? and, What was my music for? Who really was my boss and where did the money go at Warner Brothers? Was music just for selling? And why did I have to have some marketing person tell me I can’t release a song like “Anastasia” [from his Lovesexy album] because it won’t play on the radio? It got to the point where I realized I was an autonomous person on this earth and that I didn’t need a lot of vendors to help me get my music out. I wanted a clear and free channel to my audience for what I do.”
The Married Man
The Artist attributes much of his recent transformation to his wife. “Mayte has made it easier to talk to God,” he says of one aspect of their relationship. Radiating the change the relationship has fostered in him, he says it has made him “a clearer man, a happier man … I haven’t had a sad day since we met.” After rumors they would wed in Paris last year on Valentine’s Day, they in fact married that day at a church in The Artist’s old South Minneapolis neighborhood, not far from the now-vanished Central High School that he attended with record producer Jimmy Jam (aka James Harris III), and not far from one of the earliest clubs he ever played, the Nacirema (American spelled backwards).
Mayte became pregnant last year, but the birth and alleged death last October of the child, who reportedly suffered severe birth defects, has been shrouded in secrecy. The purported loss is not likely to spell the end of parenthood for The Artist, however, who says he’s always liked the idea of being a father and enjoys talking with children. “We’re going to have all kinds of kids running around here someday,” he told reporters recently.
As The Artist’s personal life has changed, so too has his public one. At first, it wasn’t entirely clear what Minnesota’s most famous homeboy was driving at when he wore the word “slave” painted on his cheek for live performances during his Warner Bros. dispute. He says today the enslavement was as much to himself as to the wheels of commerce. The Gold Experience, his second-to-last album for Warner Brothers, explored the cleansing of his own personal captivity to false values, and heralded, he says today, the arrival of “the dawn.” This oblique catchphrase had been appearing in the credits of his records since the mid-’80s, though he admits even he never fully understood what it meant: “I just knew I had to write it back then. Today I see that this is what it’s all about, the dawn is here, a time of greater consciousness and spiritual understanding.”
Whether The Artist can impart that cosmically driven message, given the responsibility he now shoulders for every corner of his artistic and business life, doesn’t appear to be a burdensome issue for him. “Now that I’m free to record and release my work as I see fit, I feel brand new,” he says. “Emancipation seems like my first record. For once, I own I own my work, lock, stock, and biscuits! Never again will I go back to the narrow-minded approach of the business I was trapped in before.” Nor, apparently, is he interested in pursuing a rock-star persona. “The rock star thing is dead,” he says adamantly. “I mean I still have bodyguards for my own personal safety but that whole deal is over for me. I’m not that anymore, that rock star trip. I did it. It’s finished.”
Responding to an observation that his current thinking seems reminiscent of John Lennon when he went into semi-retirement with Yoko Ono to raise their son and bake bread, he says: “Now lots of people say, Oh yeah, Lennon lost his edge when he came out of that whole domestic scene and started to record again. Man, what does that mean, lost his edge? It usually means some kind of dysfunction of some sort,” he laughs, getting amped up. “The guy goes through whatever it is that makes him angry or alone or upset and comes out being able to manage it at a personal level and what happen to his music? They say it’s ‘become domesticated.’ Hey, I hope they’ll say that about my music. I want my music to become domesticated.”
Rising to his feet to make a point, he pace excitedly to the soundboard and leans on it. “John Lennon would have never written the beautiful music he wrote at the end of his life if he hadn’t gone through what he did with Yoko and himself. He would have never written ‘lmagine.’ And ‘Imagine,’ thank God, is going ro be around in 2,000 years, but a song like ‘I Am The Walrus’ isn’t. You know why? Because John wasn’t the walrus, he was John. ‘Imagine’ is a song about truth and the truth will always win out in the end. If John had never climbed up that ladder in that art gallery to see what Yoko had written there when he first met her, his life would have been completely different. What he found was the word ‘Yes,’ and to me that defined the beginning and the ending of their lives together as people and artists. To me that one little word says it all.”