Satyr or shy boy? Shaman or skilled manipulator? The contradictions within rock’s most controversial superstar dominate his dazzling new movie — and, it seems, the artist himself
By Kurt Loder
PRINCE HAS COME. IT IS A WARM summer morning in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, and a black-clad rider on a purple Honda has just pulled up to a nondescript modern warehouse on Flying Cloud Drive. Inside, a photographer is waiting. He has flown in from Toronto with an assistant and most of the contents of his studio to photograph Prince for the cover of this magazine. A standard rock-star shoot, he figures, scoping out the concert-size rehearsal stage, the costume room, the banks of musical equipment.
When Prince walks in, the first thing the photographer notices is how small he is: he seems slight even in his five-inch stiletto-heel boots. He is wearing a dramatic black hat, a skintight black shirt open to the navel and tight black trousers ringed with ruffles from the knees down. He is carefully unshaven — only his cheekbones have been scraped smooth, then caked with makeup — for that stylish New Wave-wino look. He seems to be saying something: Hi? He speaks so softly that the photographer actually has to lean down to within several inches of his face to hear him. He is making it quietly clear that, while he has agreed to pose for the cover, he will not pose for any photos for the magazine’s inside pages. To be completely frank, he really doesn’t even want to do the cover, but. … The photographer presses ahead, flourishing concepts and assetting his magazine’s insistence on a white backdrop for the photo. Ach! Prince had his heart set on hot pink. The session gets off to an uneasy start.
It is decided to wheel in the purple Honda, a perfect prop. The motorcycle is a central visual ornament of Purple Rain, Prince’s custom-tailored movie debut — a picture with so much prerelease “top spin,” as they say in Hollywood, that the media, anticipating a major sleeper, have been abasing themselves for weeks in the hope of wangling interviews with the recalcitrant star. But Prince does not do interviews anymore. He is, however, full of advice about camera angles and poses, and the photographer fights back a gathering urge to whack him with a light meter. Quickly, he snaps off some preliminary test shots with a Polaroid. Prince seems to approve of the results, then slips away while the photographer makes some final lighting adjustments. An assistant appears and carefully confiscates the seven Polaroids. When Prince returns, he seems restless and even more remote. He’s decided he doesn’t like the original setup, so they do another Polaroid, a full-length shot. Prince disappears again. The photographer hears the sound of drums and cymbals being bashed in another room. Then silence. After half an hour, the assistant reappears and announces that he’s just driven his employer home. Prince, he says, is extremely sensitive: “He actually gets physically ill at having his picture taken.”
On his way out, the photographer can’t help but hurl a silent curse at the warehouse walls. They are lined with photographs — blowups, big ones. All studies of the same smooth, unsmiling features, the same inscrutable sensuality and unfathomable flamboyance. All of them dominated by those liquid, Keane-kid eyes. All of them pictures of Prince.
JUST WHO IS THIS SELF-ENVELOPED STAR? HOW IS IT THAT he’s outselling both Bruce Springsteen and the mighty Jacksons in the record racks? What sort of monumental chutzpah must it take to step away from rock videos and make a feature-length movie — one based on the hopes and deepest fears of your own brief life? How accurate is the portrait so exuberantly painted by Purple Rain? How much painful truth remains hidden beneath its often dazzling exterior?
The picture one acquires of this twenty-six-year-old wonderkid from scanning his songs and canvassing his colleagues and acquaintances is murky and uncertain — which is the way he wants it. As Owen Husney, his first manager, once advised him, “Controversy is press.” And Prince, for all his vaunted reclusiveness, has certainly been controversial. Husney started the mystique ball rolling in 1977, trimming two years off his protégé’s age and obscuring his full name. But Prince — Prince Rogers Nelson, actually, born in Minneapolis on June 7th, 1958 — had his own ways of getting attention. Raised in an overwhelmingly white environment, he became as adept at playing hard, guitar-based rock & roll as he was at funkier black styles. (In early interviews, he also emphasized a multiracial background — half-Italian father, mixed-blood mother — even though, by most reports, both his parents are light-skinned blacks.) And then there was his frankly lubricious sexuality, relatively subtle at first, but later leading him to perform in heavy makeup, bikini briefs and thigh-hugging leg warmers, singing songs with such single-entendre titles as “Head.”
These ploys got him noticed, all right. But to most of the record-buying public — even as he began spinning off such provocative satellite groups from his hometown as the Time (led by his favorite foil, Morris Day) and the all-girl Vanity 6- Prince was, and remains, essentially a mystery. In fact, about the only thing on which his friends — and even his foes — agree is that Prince appears to be the genuine article: a musical genius. And not since the Fifties, when that accolade was applied to Ray Charles, has the term seemed so attractively apt.
Signed by Warner Bros. Records in 1977 on the basis of an astonishing one-man-band demo tape, Prince was awarded what is said to be the most lucrative contract ever offered by the company to an unknown artist (“Well over a million dollars,” claims Husney) and was granted near-total creative leeway in the recording studio. He wrote all the music, played practically every instrument, produced all nine tracks and delivered an album, For You, that kicked off with an ethereal, gospel-drenched mélange of a cappella voices (all Prince’s), concluded with a screaming rock-guitar feature, touched down in between on a carnal classic called “Soft and Wet” and was dedicated to “God.” But For You was not a commercial triumph: six years after its release, that first Prince LP has yet to sell 400,000 copies and remains his least-known album.
He’s been riding a rocket to the top ever since, however. His next three records — Prince, the groundbreaking Dirty Mind and the even more successful Controversy — all went gold (sales of 500,000 copies). And then, late in 1982, came the dazzling 1999, a double-record set that has sold nearly 3 million copies and is still on the pop charts more than ninety weeks after its release. The album fairly bristled with hits — the title track, “Delirious,” the masterfully metaphorical “Little Red Corvette.” In the view of Warner Bros., it marked the long-awaited point at which Prince’s seamless fusion of white rock & roll and black dance-funk became commercially undeniable; and it was seen as setting the stage for Prince’s next album to create the kind of cultural explosion that traditionally heralds the arrival of a true superstar.
But there was one unknown and slightly troubling factor in this commercial equation: along with his sixth album, to be titled Purple Rain, Prince would deliver a feature-length movie of the same name. Filming had begun in Minneapolis last November 1st, and details of the project were not such as to excite keen anticipation among music-biz moneymen. The director, Albert Magnoli, had never been in charge of a feature before. The cast, including all five members of Prince’s band in key roles, had, with only two exceptions, no acting experience. The tight budget ($7 million) and rushed shooting schedule (seven weeks) did not augur well for stellar production values. And, of course, who ever heard of making a movie in Minneapolis? In the winter, yet? In addition, the script was said to be … autobiographical?
WILLIAM BLINN KNEW NOTHING ABOUT PRINCE, REALLY, when he was approached roughly two years ago about writing the script for a very vaguely conceived movie in which the singer would star. But Blinn, a mild, middle-aged man who’d written such Emmy-winning tube fare as Brian’s Song and a Roots segment, had reason to be interested in the task, proffered by Prince’s management company, Cavallo, Ruffalo and Fargnoli. At the time, Blinn was executive producer of the Fame series, and there was some doubt as to whether it would be renewed for a third season. A screenplay would be a handy diversion. What did the managers have in mind, exactly?
That was unclear. Prince had been jotting down ideas in a purple notebook for some time, and one night out on the road, he told Steve Fargnoli: this is great and all, but there must be something else. He wanted to do a movie. Unfortunately, Fargnoli knew little about the moviemaking business. With his partners, Bob Cavallo and Joe Buffalo, he managed music acts, including such major attractions as Weather Report and Earth, Wind and Fire. But Prince was the one. they all knew it. Prince could do anything: why not a movie? Fargnoli shopped the pitch around to some major studios — got a black kid here who most ticket-buying citizens have never heard of who wants to make a movie about himself with some friends in Minneapolis — and got a lot of laughs. But he was unfazed. The managers would finance the film themselves. But they needed a script.
Blinn first met with Prince and Fargnoli at an Italian restaurant in Hollywood. He immediately knew there’d be strange days ahead. “I never met anyone in the world who ordered spaghetti with tomato sauce and orange juice to drink,” he recalls. “He’s definitely got his own drummer going.” As they talked about the movie, Blinn found that Prince was “not conversationally accessible. He’s not purposefully face-to-the-wall, but casual conversation is not what he’s good at. It was as if I asked someone what they wanted for dinner, and they said they weren’t sure, but they’d like it to have some tomatoes in it, and some beef, and some onions. And I’d say, ‘I think we’re talking about beef stew here.’”
During a meeting at Prince’s home — a purple but otherwise unremarkable two-story affair situated on a lake in a well-to-do suburb several miles southwest of Minneapolis — Blinn realized that an important part of the story Prince was trying to formulate concerned his father, John L. Nelson, a piano player who had led a Minneapolis jazz trio in the Fifties under the name Prince Rogers. Nelson had separated from his wife, a singer, when Prince was seven, leaving a piano behind for his son to learn to play. The father, who reportedly still lived in Minneapolis, obviously remained a troubling figure.
“He was semicommunicative about his dad,” says Blinn. “He played me some of his father’s music on the piano, and when he played, and when he talked about his father’s life, you could tell that his father is very key in what he’s about. It was as if he were sorting out his own mystery — an honest quest to figure himself out. He saved all the money on shrinks and put it in the movie.”
Blinn began pounding out a script called Dreams, a dark story in which the parents of the Kid — the character to be played by Prince — were both dead, the mother dispatched by the father, who in turn killed himself. Prince’s Minneapolis music scene was in there, too, and so was the beautiful Vanity, lead crumpet with Vanity 6. Born in Ontario of Scottish and Eurasian parents (her original name was Denise Matthews), Vanity had been a model and sometime nudie actress who, under the name D.D. Winters, appeared in such Canadian-made films of the early Eighties as Terror Train and Tanya’s Island. Vanity was also Prince’s girlfriend — or one of them — and in Dreams, she was to play the stabilizing influence in the Kid’s otherwise chaotic life.
Blinn’s story was beginning to sound very much like Prince’s life. Following his parents’ breakup, Prince had been bounced from mother to father to an aunt and finally, at age thirteen, of his own volition, into the home of Mrs. Bernadette Anderson, the mother of his best (and at the time, she says, only) friend. Prince and André Anderson had both attended a local Seventh-Day Adventist church as young children, and they shared a consuming interest in music. It was with André (and a young drummer named Morris Day) that Prince organized his first band. Grand Central. “Music is obviously a cloak and a shield and a whole bunch of things for him,” says Blinn. “It’s a womb.”
Halfway through the second draft of Dreams, Prince told Blinn he wanted the word purple in the title. “At first, I thought it was a kind of strange request,” Blinn says. “But he really identifies with purple. There’s a whole dark, passionate, foreboding quality to the color and to what he does. Yet there’s a certain royalty to it, too.”
After finishing a second draft of the script, Blinn got word that Fame had been renewed for a third season, and so he returned to television-land, leaving the Prince management team with a script of sorts, but no director. After seeing a film called Reckless, they approached its young director, James Foley, and asked if he’d be interested in Purple Rain. He wasn’t, but he recommended his friend, Al Magnoli, who had edited Reckless.
At first, the thirty-one-year-old Magnoli wasn’t interested. Nevertheless, he agreed to meet with Bob Cavallo for breakfast one morning. Cavallo asked him what he thought the Prince team should do. Magnoli tried to be helpful. “I said, "This is what I would do’ — and right there I told him the entire story. It just came out. I knew they had this character Prince, the script had introduced me to this other character, Morris, and I knew that there was a girl in the middle. So it was like: where do you go with this? And I said Prince should do this, and Morris should do this, and Vanity should be this kind of girl and not this other thing in the script. And then the mother and father — and all of a sudden the world was shaped. And within ten minutes, I had convinced myself that this would be an extremely exciting film to make.”
Cavallo liked what he heard, and Magnoli felt the stirrings of a buzz. He agreed to fly to Minneapolis. “The minute I met Prince, I realized that I hadn’t gone far enough. That because of the nature of this person, I could go much further into the private sort of area. We had dinner, and he let me speak for about twenty-five minutes, and I began working off what was emanating from him. And I got very involved with the parents at that point: the father became a musician, the mother became sort of a woman wandering the streets, things like that. I was just basically watching the person in front of me, just feeling what that was all about. And at the end, he said okay, let’s take a ride. So we took a ride, and he looked at me and he said, 'I don’t get it. This is the first time I’ve met you, but you’ve told me more about what I’ve experienced than anybody in my life.’”
Magnoli told Prince that if he was willing to reveal the emotional truths of this material, of the character that they would create, then the movie could be made. Prince agreed, so Magnoli went to Minneapolis for a month and hung out with the people who would populate the film: Prince and his band (now to be called the Revolution), Morris Day and his group, the Time, the women in Vanity 6. Then he locked himself in a room for three weeks and completely rewrote Blinn’s script.
In the completed Purple Rain, the Kid is an up-and-coming attraction at the First Avenue & 7th Street Entry Club, where he revels in his burgeoning musical powers despite the derision of the club’s manager and the petty humiliations inflicted by a hilariously snide headliner played (to near perfection) by Morris Day. Offstage, though, the Kid is miserable, plagued by his parents’ incessant domestic rows, increasingly alienated from his own band members (whose musical offerings he ignores) and awkward and inarticulate in his pursuit of a beautiful new—arrival on the scene called Apollonia (the part originally intended for Vanity). When Apollonia announces her intention of joining a girl group being assembled by Day — for the express purpose of dislodging the Kid from his slot at the club — the Kid, like his bitterly abusive father, lashes out at the woman he loves. Meanwhile, Morris Day and Billy, the club manager, keep up a steady assault on the Kid’s fragile ego, chorusing just the sort of criticisms that have been directed at Prince himself over the years. (“Nobody digs your music but your—self,” says Billy. “Ya long-haired faggot!” screams Day.) Following an explosive encounter with his father, the Kid redeems himself with Apollonia and blows away all professional competition at a climactic concert at the club. It’s not a happily-ever-after ending, exactly, but when Prince and his band dig into the luminous title tune at the end, a definite feeling of uplift is imparted.
“We are now in an era where films should in a sense have something uplifting going on,” says Magnoli. “We’ve gotten away from the antihero of the Sixties and early Seventies, where films ended sort of with a thought and a dismal aspect, like: Okay, we’re in the gutter. We wanted to say: Life’s a bitch, but wow, if you can just get it together. …”
PATTY KOTERO — OR PATTY APOLLONIA KOTERO, AS she currently calls herself — is kneeling on the floor of her immaculately tidy West Hollywood apartment, picking through a pile of tape cassettes. David Bowie, Eddie Murphy, Thomas Dolby — ah, there it is. She reaches up toward a small stack of stereo equipment arrayed against the wall, and suddenly the room is filled with the sound of cool, autumnal piano chords. It is “Father’s Song,” a haunting instrumental piece composed by Prince’s father and performed by Prince. In Minneapolis, during the hectic shooting of Purple Rain, Patty had trouble getting to sleep each night. At five o'clock one morning, she remembers, Prince appeared at her door.
“He said, 'I’ve got something for you.’ I said, 'Yeah?’” She pops her eyes in mock suspicion. “He said, 'You’ve been having trouble sleeping. Here.’ And he gave me this tape. It’s better than a glass of milk and honey.”
As the tape plays, Patty’s gaze drifts upward and fixes on a large, framed promotional portrait of Prince that’s propped atop the stereo. It’s enough to give one the feeling of having wandered into a private prayer grotto, a tiny temple to the Great Man.
Until last summer, Kotero was just another young L. A. photo model. Then, across the country, in Minneapolis one day, a woman named Vanity walked away from her projected part in Purple Rain. No one will say why she left — rumors range around money, ego and a faded relationship with the film’s diminutive star — but it was Patty who was chosen as her replacement. A casting call had gone out for a woman who met certain requirements, some of them physical. Through her agent, Patty obtained an audition and quickly hied herself out to Minneapolis. Although her own personality is sweeter and considerably more wholesome than that projected by Vanity, the two women are obviously interchangeable within the cartoon context of the character, Vanity/Apollonia is a walking Penthouse wet dream of billowing breasts and plushly upholstered contours, her sultry face, framed by gleaming cascades of raven hair, a frank invitation to frolic.
One criticism of Purple Rain is that it’s insufferably sexist. All of the young women in the picture are inexplicably addicted to décolleté and in many cases wear nothing but the skimpiest lingerie. In one scene, Apollonia is subjected to considerable humiliation in the course of a skinny-dipping interlude at a lake, and in another sequence, Morris Day has a troublesome girlfriend chucked into a trash dumpster by his fawning aide, Jerome.
Though Prince’s female fantasies obviously run in the direction of impossibly pliant sex cookies, in Purple Rain, this attitude toward women is condemned through the character of Day, for whom the women in Apollonia 6 (nee Vanity 6) are simply “the bitches,” assumed to be sexually available after taking a few slugs from his silver hip flask. Since it was actually Prince who invented and produced Vanity 6, the film indicates that he is at least aware of his own worst concept of women.
There are also two women in Prince’s band, and while they too tend to hang out of their dresses a lot (and Prince has concocted an oblique lesbian aura around their relationship), their main purpose is musical. Keyboardist Lisa Coleman and guitarist Wendy Melvoin are lifelong friends, the daughters of two veteran L.A. sessionmen (their fathers both played keyboards on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”). Lisa is a classically trained pianist, and Wendy is a longtime jazz student who first attracted Prince’s attention when she peeled off an elaborate jazz chord in his presence after a show one night and later won her funk wings during an extended jam with the man on James Brown’s “Body Heat.”
“The idea of integration is important to Prince,” says Lisa. “To me and the rest of the band, too. It’s just good fate that it’s worked out as well as it has — you know, the perfect couple of black people, the perfect couple of white people, couple of girls, couple of Jews. Whatever. He’s chosen the people in his band because of their musical abilities, but it does help to have two female musicians who are competent.”
In the past, Prince has used his band largely to flesh out onstage the music he wrote, played and produced on his own in the studio. Like the Kid in Purple Rain, though, Prince is now allowing other musicians to contribute to his music. Five of the nine songs on the new album were recorded by the full band, and Lisa and Wendy even get cowriting credit — the ultimate rarity, even though it’s noted only in the film credits, not on the LP — for “Computer Blue.”
“He loves those people,” says Apollonia, “He cares for them, and they care for him.” She crosses the room to a small couch. In her black slacks and plain white top she seems prettier, her face softer, than in the movie. But her dark beauty — both her parents were born in Mexico, but she describes herself as “a Latin-German Jew” — and extravagant figure would seem to suit Prince just fine. Has she also replaced Vanity in the little guy’s affections?
“I don’t kiss and tell,” she says with practiced coyness. “He loves his women, but music comes first. He is married to his music. You can’t compete with it.”
With music, Prince seems to find his most perfect union. Apollonia remembers seeing him in the studio, her oblivious mentor, lost in sound. “It looks like he’s in there in his own spaceship, his own capsule, just taking off, and the sky’s the limit.” She clasps a hand to her heart. “I still pinch myself every morning and say my prayers at night, and thank the good Lord someone’s breathing in my direction.”
RELIGIOUS IMPULSES IN ROCK usually have taken the form either of woozy Easternalia or grating fundamentalist harangues. The musicians in Prince’s orbit share an unlabored, though still deeply felt faith in God. Prince himself has dedicated all six of his albums to the Deity; and out on the road, before each show, he joins hands with his musicians in prayer. There’s an instrumental “love theme” in Purple Rain that’s simply titled “God” (it’s not on the LP), and the album itself is rife with messianic overtones, from the opening sermon of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the suggestively titled “I Would Die 4 U,” in which Prince sings, “I’m not a human/I am a dove/I am your conscious/I am love.” When the album appeared, Bill Aiken, a production staffer at MTV in New York, noticed a snippet of backward dialogue tacked onto the end of the song “Darling Nikki” — the record’s most brazenly salacious track. Reversing it on tape, Aiken discovered a message from Prince: “Hello. How are you? I’m fine. Because I know the Lord is coming soon, coming soon.”
The strange dichotomy between Prince’s compulsive carnality and his spiritual yearnings apparently isn’t puzzling to those who’ve gotten close to him. “He’s a man apart in many ways,” says William Blinn. “But his whole sexual attitude is positive. It’s: This is good, this represents growth, life.”
Not everyone, however, is convinced that Prince is cognizant of his own contradictions. One New York actress who auditioned for the Apollonia role in Purple Rain (and who asked that her name not be used — a common request in the Prince orbit) expressed shock at the things she was asked to do. “I turned it down,” she says. “It was way too pornographic for me. I mean, they had stuff in the script that I wouldn’t even let my boyfriend do to me in my own bedroom.”
Prince looked the actress up during a subsequent visit to Manhattan, and she found him alternately brilliant and pathetic. “He’s got a lot of hang-ups,” she says. “He means well, and he’s genuinely talented, but he’s got a lot of problems. He’s really hung up on God, for one thing. I think he thinks he’s related to God in some way.”
One day, the woman says, she coerced Prince into accompanying her to the American Museum of Natural History to see a celebrated exhibition called Ancestors. “The show of the century,” she says. “All these Neanderthal skulls, and how we evolved from apes and stuff, right? And he just wouldn’t believe any of it. I said, 'Come on, you don’t believe in that Adam and Eve crap, do you?’ He just blankly stared back at me.
"There is a real dichotomy between his sexual hang-ups and God and the Bible,” the woman concludes. “I mean, he’s not leading a godly life. At least I don’t pretend to lead one. But that is the most important thing in his life, God.”
EVEN WITH GOD ON HIS SIDE, though, Prince seems a strangely solitary figure. In his pursuit of the success his talents so richly justify, he has ruptured a succession of once-important personal relationships. Bassist André Anderson, his closest boyhood friend, was the first to leave Prince’s band, followed by guitarist Dez Dickerson. Prince fired bassist Terry Lewis and keyboardist Jimmy Jam from the Time, and keyboardist Monte Moir soon left of his own accord to join them. Recently it’s been rumored that Morris Day — whose wild comic persona is more immediately charismatic than Prince’s own — may be leaving the Time. (Inquisitive observers are told it’s not true, but Day, for some reason, cannot be produced to confirm that contention.)
“I maintain we came out better in the end, for all we went through,” says former Minneapolis studio owner Chris Moon, who started Prince off by giving the sixteen-year-old prodigy the keys to Moon Sound studio and getting a manager for him. On the other hand, Moon adds, “Prince may have come out worse off than us. He’s gotta be one very lonely guy. I mean, he’s left a long trail of broken hearts and broken egos behind him.”
Unencumbered by his problematic past, Prince rises higher and higher in the pop-cultural firmament. Who’s to say the trade-off hasn’t made him happy? For the Purple Rain premiére at L.A.’s Chinese Theatre last month, he personally summoned a swarm of the superstars who are now his peers to come and pay homage. And another time, after both Prince and Michael Jackson joined James Brown for jams onstage at L.A.’s Beverly Theatre, the Godfather of Soul was heard to exclaim, “Look out, Michael!” This is what’s called arriving. Whether or not that big limo in the sky he’s pursued for so long has turned out to be otherwise empty is a matter for Prince to ponder in the splendid isolation to which he’s now entitled.
“It’s hard to have that much power and have close friends,” William Blinn reflects. “It’s tough for him. But if he does not have close friends, then neither do I feel that his solitude is threatening or harmful to him. Some people … well, you know, the four-in-the-morning phone call: "I’m alone, what do I do?’ I think Prince is perfectly capable of handling it. He might make that phone call, and he might be alone. But he knows what to do.”