Purple Pain: revisit an interview with Prince at Paisley Park

Issue No.2, March 1997, Volume 3: Where did it all go wrong for The Artist Formerly Known As Slave? Ask Ekow Eshun. He visited Prince at Paisley Park, and thinks he might have the answer. Kind of.

Two months after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police and the protests that followed, we visit the city of Minneapolis to speak to the individuals and collectives calling for action, lobbying for change and rebuilding the city brick by brick with the goal of a positive and inclusive future. Dive into a day of stories that look at the activism, music and culture bursting forth from the city.

In early autumn 1996, Face Contributing Editor Ekow Eshun interviewed Prince at his Paisley Park complex outside Minneapolis. As was then the norm for a towering talent recently emerged from a calamitous battle with his record label, poised to release a three-hour album and using an unpronounceable symbol as a name, Ekow could only write down, not record, Prince’s answers. Little did the writer know that, behind the scenes, things were stranger, and infinitely sadder, still. Read below Ekow’s piece, a masterfully drawn portrait of an artist doing his best to hide his true reality. That Purple Pain headline was only the start of it.

Editor’s note: at the time of this interview, Prince was going by his Love Symbol” appellation: a mash-up of the traditional gender symbols, and also a tool in his battle with Warner Bros. After hours of searching we couldn’t find a keyboard shortcut. So in this reprint he’s known as Prince. Apologies for any offence, fans.

What do you dream about? Do you have nightmares? My dreams have changed. I don’t have nightmares. Demons to me are when you can’t figure something out and then you run to vice to sort yourself out: recording too much, women, a glass of wine – because you’re looking for love. 

What do your friends say about you? (Pauses to think) Er… most of my friends are in this building and I can’t say what they say. I can only say what some people have said in the past. In the past, a lot of them said I was a maniac, a workaholic. But I take that as a compliment. Coltrane played sax 12 hours a day on the horn. Can you imagine a spirit that would drive a body that hard? I wanna play 15 hours at a time!

Do you regret anything you’ve said or done? No, because I think it’s all part of the experience of growing. And it’s gotten me to this place. You take one thing out of that and the structure falls. 

The last time I see Prince, he grips my hand in both of his and looks into my eyes. A moment passes. I hope what you write will be the truth,” he finally says. What does that mean, I ask. The truth,” he repeats. As it is, not as you see it.” We say goodbye a final time, his words turning round inside my head. It feels as though he has vouchsafed to me the custody of a shared intimacy and, initially, I am elated at this. But I am also mystified. Because the truth is that the interview I had just done with Prince was not intimate. 

We had talked in an upstairs meeting-room at Paisley Park, Prince, relaxed, good-humoured, dressed in a cashmere camel coat and purple suit. Myself, struggling to scribble down all his words as they came, because he’d barred the use of a tape recorder. For two days around the launch of his new album, the three-hour-long Emancipation, Prince was doing a continuous series of such interviews. 

Every half hour another member of the international press would be shown into the room with him. And for each, he was relaxed and good-humoured. He would spin through a similar set of topics: how he felt Emancipation was his most complete record to date, how marriage to his former backing dancer Mayte Garcia had made him happier than ever, how love was better than hate. Hardly the stuff of revelation. Particularly because at a press conference a few days prior to the interviews he’d covered virtually identical ground. Frustrated at how each of his answers returned, inexorably, to those same subjects, I got up to leave a few minutes before the end of my allotted time. 

It was as I left that he gripped my hand and spoke of the truth”. What did he mean? My thoughts went back to the launch party for Emancipation at Paisley Park two days previously. Prince was on stage at 2am, in the cavernous rehearsal space at the centre of the complex, performing songs from the new album beside classics like Purple Rain. As the show concludes, he shouts from the stage, November 19th… [the release date of Emancipation] Don’t let us down, y’all,” as if it matters to us in the audience as much as it does to him how well the album does. Thinking about this, I realise that, for Prince, there really is only one truth. And the notion that I might have a point of view about our meeting that is different to his is as strange as the idea that the audience at his party may not share the same excitement about Emancipation as its creator. Anything less than fealty smacks of betrayal. 

We need to love ourselves more. I don’t want to write on my face every day. I became a slave to that mentality and that will do you in.”

What would you change about yourself? There’s nothing to change. What people perceive as arrogance is the same thing we’ve been talking about – just using what God gave me. People will say Emancipation is sprawling and all over the place. That’s fine – I play a lot of styles. This is not arrogance: this is the truth. Because anything you do all day long, you’re going to master after a while. 

Some might say you take yourself too seriously. I do take myself too seriously. I consider taking myself too seriously” to be a compliment. But I laugh a lot also. I have an amazing sense of humour. 

What is the truth when it comes to Prince? In 1977, Prince Nelson Rodgers (born Prince Rodger Nelson) signed a $1 million three-album deal with Warner Bros. The sum was, at that time, a record-breaking figure for a new artist, but more audaciously, the unknown had won the freedom to single-handedly write, perform and produce every one of his songs. For the 20 years since then, he has been a fixture in the record industry. So much so that today, as a compromise between the unwieldy acronym TAFKAP and the soundless Prince, he refers to himself as The Artist, as though who he is now needs to be defined by what he does.

But what does he do now? And more to the point, what is it that he might be doing wrong, since that which he is has seemed progressively less interesting to his public over the last few years? Emancipation entered the UK album charts at 18, falling to 63 in its third week, and then disappeared altogether. Given that this follows the meagre worldwide sales of 100, 000 for his previous album Chaos and Disorder, the record with which he kissed goodbye to Warners, it has, after all, been too easy in the past few years to forget that what he does best is to make music. Instead, there has been the ill-judged (in public-relations terms anyway) dispute with Warners. It began with Prince signing a contract worth $100 million in 1992 and then deciding he wanted to put out a greater volume of releases than his record label was prepared to promote. To publicise his cause he wore the name slave” on his cheek, changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph, and for the first time in many years began doing interviews, which revealed little more than he expected everyone to feel as much pain at his circumstances as he did. 

Amid all of this, it was almost difficult to remember why anyone should care about Prince in the first place. Difficult to remember why, for a decade, there was no more vital force in music than him. Let us not forget, then, that he was born, and has remained, in Minneapolis, in the northern midwest of America, one of the country’s whitest states where during his first years as a star, radio stations refused to play his music even as it climbed the Billboard charts. This is an artist who has thrived on contradiction. On perversity. And created transgression, something… inspirational. 

I first began to listen to music as an adolescent, back when I knew very little about sexual freedom. His songs were like a dream of an impossible place where you could say anything, be anyone, do everything. He was black and living in Minneapolis, and I was black and living in suburban north London, and I felt an empathy with that urge for release. Black self-images were at the time, and still are, in honesty, rigorously policed. When Thriller-era Michael Jackson straightened his nose and hair, he sparked impassioned debate among my friends, prefiguring all the later questions that would come about his racial awareness. Prince, who at the time claimed to be half white, was held to be a creature of even more dubious pedigree: a crossover artist who spoke more to white audiences than black ones. It was the mid-Eighties, and hip hop and smoothed-out soul seemed more authentic than the rococo histrionics of 1999. And yet I loved his music for the warmth, openness and frank horniness in its articulation of desire. I loved Head even though no one had ever given me head, and I could only imagine what Darling Nicki really did when she started to grind”. Those songs made me feel alive, when, in the blankness of the suburbs and the wearisome predictability of small, everyday racism, there was enough to make me wonder why I was living. 

The date today is February 4, 1997. It is almost four months since I interviewed Prince at Paisley Park, and I am wondering why meeting him has not, in any way, changed my life. Perhaps it’s naive to assume that something meaningful can be exchanged in the space of a brief meeting. But I have met enough famous and talented people to know that connection comes from venturing into a private, vulnerable space beyond the boundaries of public scrutiny; and that has nothing to do with time, merely inclination.

For all the ease of his manner, the way he stretches back in his chair and laughs loudly at points during our interview, there is little real openness with Prince. Talking to him is like staring into a reflecting pool, my questions returned to me with elegant responses that ultimately reveal little but the pool’s own unbroken surface.

You seem like a happier, more fulfilled man at the moment. (Nods) I see a day when one of us will walk up to another with no malice, because we know that negativity will bring us less than love. I hope my life will represent emancipation and the soul. I hope I’ve brought as many people to the light as I can. 

What do you get hurt by? (Pauses for thought) We need to love ourselves more. I didn’t want to write on my face every day. After a while I became a slave to that mentality and that will do you in. l was tripping about something that was easily fixed all the time. In the end, I want to have a huge body of work. My children will be able to pull finished songs out of the vault. It won’t be like The Beatles, going into a studio to record a track with John’s vocals – that won’t happen to me. 

Do you find It difficult to trust people? Yes. You get burned so many times. By tax consultants, lawyers, managers. But the only way out is to think of those people not as enemies. Once I figured out love would get me out of this, I realised they loved me too. Everybody comes to earth for different reasons, and once you figure that out you can see a lot more clearly.

I have no reason to doubt Prince’s sincerity. Love and clarity, he says, have taken him to a new level of understanding and self-awareness. Yet there was something I was aware of as I visited Paisley Park. And it’s something that months later I still can’t get out of my head. And it makes me wonder whether I really got anywhere near the truth about Prince.

On Valentine’s Day, 1996, Prince and Mayte were married in a Methodist church in Minneapolis. It was, he says, a small wedding. There was a big empty section in the church. And Mayte said she was glad it was empty because it left room for the angels.” Prince saw her for the first time in Frankfurt after one of his shows: I said, That’s my future wife.’” She became a dancer in his live shows and he came to believe, through a latticework of coincidences (he was christened Prince – her childhood name was Princess) that they were destined for each other. I feel like she was either my sister or we were the same person or something in another life. There’s a closeness that you know is right and don’t argue with.”

On October 13 last year, Prince and Mayte had a baby son. By November the child was seriously ill, rumoured to be dying, if not dead. Reports, unconfirmed because the singer refused to comment on the baby’s condition, suggested that their child was suffering from craniosynostosis, or Clover Leaf Syndrome, a rare condition that results on distortion of the skull and possible brain damage. All of this occurred at the time Emancipation was released. Indeed, some newspaper reports claim the child died a week after being born – even before the release of the album.

When the international press gathered at Paisley Park for the release of Emancipation, Prince refused, understandably, to talk about his child. On the Oprah Winfrey show, his first major TV interview, recorded to publicise the album, he would only say, Our family exists. It’s all good. Never mind what you hear.” In honour of Prince’s and Mayte’s marriage, the once neutral interior walls of Paisley Park have been painted a cerulean blue with white clouds so that the building’s inside now resembles a summer sky. I always wanted to make this place more colourful, more alive.” Upstairs, the building’s two doves, Divinity and Majesty, coo in their gilded cage, overlooking the marble-floored atrium. And Paisley Park now also boasts a playroom with velvet walls and cuddly toys for the future children that the couple will have. But the playroom is currently empty. And as I sit here writing, I remember Prince insisting to me, and everyone else who asked him, that he was happier and more fulfilled now than ever. This at a time when he was perhaps going through one of the most profound tragedies an adult can experience. It fills me with sadness to think of that empty playroom, just as I feel sorrow to think of a man smiling while he is suffering. Perhaps he felt there was no choice but to maintain his commitment to a record that, after all, his livelihood depends upon. Emancipation is the record that Prince claims expresses who he is more fully than any previous album. Yet I find listening to it an unsatisfying experience. It is too polished, too pristine, stripped clean of the filth and the funk that characterised his earlier work. In the same way that I found talking to him frustrating, it is equally disappointing to listen to his latest work, because where there was once honesty, abandon, exposure, there is now surface and silence in place of a beating, vital heart. Later this month, Prince releases a new single, Holy River, which may help bolster the unspectacular response to Emancipation.

Emancipation, self-financed (it is released on his own NPG records) and EMI-distributed, was a critical record. It was the album supposed to mark Prince’s creative rebirth. But with rebirth, there also comes death. And while this album gestures towards a new life – an artist more concerned with sensuality than overt sexuality, with the sacred increasingly over the profane – it remains unresolved, unfocused. A child in limbo somewhere between life and death.

The last time I see Paisley Park, the building seems to shimmer, and then vanish before my eyes. A harsh sleet is falling across the midwest, and as I draw away in a car, I look back to see the white walls of the studio blur in the snow, dissolving beyond reach while I watch. For a long time Paisley Park was, like its creator, part of another world of forbidden fantasy fulfilled., that only occasionally intersected with this one. But on the day that I leave, the snow is falling, the white walls are fading, and even though I know now that it is all real, I am less sure than ever what is true and what is merely illusion.


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