It was rather early in his rise to fame, can’t pinpoint exactly, sometime in between the releases of his third album Dirty Mind in October 1980 and Controversy a year later. I was the staff writer for Prince’s publicity firm, The Howard Bloom Organization, a pioneering indie music PR shop whose head/namesake was a brilliant if also obsessive master at fostering public personae in the music biz.
Howard worked very closely with me on the bio that accompanied the release of Dirty Mind. He’d done an extensive, in-depth interview with Prince that I used, and that bio set the image for the artist and the outline of his life story, details of which would later be utilized in the movie Purple Rain.
We also used the stories from his youth and teens that led to his signing with Warner Bros. Records as a 19-year-old musical wunderkind to send out what were called “canned features” to African-American weekly newspapers across the country. They readily ran such material on Black musical artists.
I’d been blown away by Dirty Mind. As someone who grew up on both rock and R&B, his music was all-but custom tailored for my tastes – to cite James Brown, Jimi, Cream, Motown and Stax, Miles and many more only scratches the surface of all he had absorbed. The shows I saw him perform during that time – December 1981 (see setlist here) and March 1982 at The Ritz in New York City (now Webster Hall) and The Palladium (now a New York University dorm and gym) a few blocks away with The Time in December ’82 – were stunning. I recall how at the first show it seemed to me so daring and provocative that he took the stage in just a trench coat and briefs. In so many ways, he was pushing a ream of envelopes.
At some point we’d used up the stories and quotes we had for canned features. So Howard arranged for me to meet Prince when he was in town at his hotel suite and interview him. It was but a few years later that I came to realize that I was one of the few people to ever talk with the famously private and guarded artist in depth.
Listen to Prince perform “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad”…
I’ll say right here that I no longer have that 90-minute interview (more on that below), just my memory of our encounter and general wisps of what we discussed (it was some 35 years ago). But that doesn’t mean the impression he made on me wasn’t profound indeed.
First off, he was friendly, gracious and talkative. Yet at the same time, as easygoing as the vibe was between us, he was very directed and focused. I felt like we really connected, being only five years apart in age and sharing so many musical loves and references. As well, his Minnesota youth and mine in upstate New York placed the feet in both our lives in a similar middle America.
He was much like many young musicians I had known growing up and now encountered in “the biz” in New York… but also and quite obviously one of the smartest and keenest motherfuckers I’ve ever met. His intelligence wasn’t just bright but utterly incandescent.
There’s something quite profound one feels in the presence of true genius. I’d felt it a few years earlier when I’d interviewed David Bowie.
What we discussed was his growing up in a musical home as well as what became a broken family. We also talked about the bands of his teen years. One big impression from his time with both his parents (they separated when he was 10) and later living with the family of his friend and neighbor Andre Cymone (née Anderson) was the importance of the basement as a place where young ‘uns could have their own space: to listen to music, to make music, to cut loose, experiment, dream, be free from the looming presence of adults. And become who they could be.
Prince took that to the max. I’ve always seen Paisley Park as the teenager’s basement in fullest adult fruition.
The impression I later felt was that for all his openness and willingness to talk about himself and his life, it seemed clear that Prince had spent much time thinking about and developing his persona, almost as much as his ingeniously constructed and synthesized music. The other one was – and in no way do I say this to speak ill of the dead – that he was also one truly odd bird, an eccentric of the highest order.
It was one of Prince’s big charms that he was so unlike anyone and pretty much everyone else. Almost like, dare I say it, some brother from another planet. His eccentricity was a hallmark of his life. Nothing he did from then on, as well as his über-prodigious output and stellar creative and career achievements, surprised me in the least.
Of course I transcribed the talk and wrote up a bunch of canned features the PR firm sent out. A few years later my fellow entertainment journalist friend Merle Ginsberg (now a star fashion writer) said she had a rock magazine assignment (can’t recall which one, maybe Circus or Hit Parader) to do a story on Prince but couldn’t get an interview. I loaned her the 90-minute cassette of my talk with him; “Use whatever you want!” When I later tried to get it back from Merle she eventually confessed rather guiltily that she’d somehow lost it.
I was a bit miffed but let it slide. A few years later when Purple Rain propelled Prince to stardom I realized that I could well have parlayed that 90-minute talk into a knock-off rock star biography book. At the same time, the potentially exploitative nature of such a venture seemed a bit low class. And simply not my path in life.
It feels to me now like somehow, after Prince opened up so much to me, I also came to respect his zealous sense of privacy. As I write this on the morning of the day after his death, and the news emerges that he had some kind of opiate appetite that required a “save shot” last week, it seems he had more secrets than we suspected.
Odd as I know it sounds to some, my very light personal brand of nostalgia is really OK with not having that interview, even as fascinating as it would be to read and share it right now (maybe Howard – who retired from PR to make his mark as a, well, “deep thinker” – has his files stored somewhere and the transcript is in there). After being so deep into Prince’s music as a somewhat early adopter, I later would merely dip in from time to time with what he was up to. Every time I did, his musical brilliance awed me.
And that’s what I choose to savor rather than the details of his life, his (yes) fascinating oddness, the intrigue of how his public and private lives rubbed up against the world we live in. That and simply the afterglow of spending an hour-and-a-half in the company of such an amazing human being, a true force of nature.
I’m so sad to see him go, feel blessed to have met Prince. Like Bowie, and John Lennon, and other utterly brilliant creative forces of the era I have lived in, he changed the world.