WHY THE ‘PURPLE RAIN’ MOTORCYCLE WAS THE PERFECT PRINCE RIDE This small-scale custom bike fit him perfectly.
One of the most enduring images of Prince is the Purple Rain album cover and movie poster showing him astride a purple motorcycle. With billowing smoke, dramatic backlighting and heroic upward angle, Prince and his tricked-out ride make for a truly indelible image.
Surely Prince’s badass bike was some monstrous Harley, right? While that was probably the perception of many fans, Prince actually rode a motorcycle as diminutive as the musical icon himself. The bike was actually a customized Honda CM400A twin-cylinder starter bike that was notable for its low seat height and its automatic two-speed transmission that absolved His Purpleness of having to squeeze a clutch lever.
He kitted out the bike with a classic ’70s Vetter Windjammer fairing and a seat with pink velour inserts. Most motorcyclists would be dismissive of such a small-scaled machine, but Prince’s ride fit the five-foot-two pop god perfectly.
In 1983 Prince hired LA sound technician, Susan Rogers, one of the few women in the industry, to move to Minneapolis and help upgrade his home recording studio as he began work on the album and the movie Purple Rain. Susan, a trained recording technician with no sound engineering experience became the engineer of Purple Rain, Parade, Sign o’ the Times, and all that Prince recorded for the next four years. A high school drop-out and self-taught sound engineer and technician, Rogers was initially unprepared for the demands of her new boss. But as an avowed Prince fan, she fully committed herself to his relentless work ethic and singular creativity, helping to shepherd several seminal albums into existence and making her one of Prince’s closest collaborators throughout a period of unparalleled output and global acclaim.
Rogers went on to record, mix and/or produce artists such as the Jacksons, Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, but nowadays she focuses on the academic side of things, with a doctorate in psychology from McGill University and as director of the Berklee Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory, where her research focuses on auditory memory, psychoacoustics and the perception of musical signals.
Learning Prince’s Value System
There was a little bedroom across from the master bedroom in his home that had a tape machine and a console in it, and that’s where he did some of the Purple Rain album. Then there was a rehearsal space – just a warehouse, really – where he would set up with the band, and all the mics on the stage would feed a splitter snake, and then the output of the splitter snake fed a monitor-mix console, and then it also fed an API recording console. The outputs of that I wired up to a tape machine so we could record rehearsals.
[Between] the console and where the band played, there was no isolation. It was all right there, so to monitor I just had to listen to headphones or stick my head right in front of the loudspeaker to try and hear it… And you couldn’t hear it anyway, because the band was just so loud. We would record the basic track with the band onstage, he’d keep the girls around, like Wendy and Lisa, to do backing vocals, and then he and I stayed up the whole rest of the night and finished the song, and printed it to two-track.
With him, it was typically anywhere between 16 and 24 [hours]. 16 would be a fairly short session, but we frequently did 24 hours. That was fairly common. That was how long it took, because he never wanted to come back to a song. If he started it, he wanted to do all the overdubs and mixing as we went, and then print it and then it would be done. Then we’d sleep for a few hours and then start another song.
It was kind of easy and invigorating, because I was a Prince fan! I was just so excited to be there, and with every song – with one exception – with every song, I was always thinking, “This may be the greatest thing he’s ever done! This is the greatest. Wait ’til people hear this! This is great!” Just one after the other after the other, they were all so amazing. You take that clear ether of youth, and you couple that with a little bit of training and preparation, and then you take that energy and you put it in an environment where people say, “Here’s a lot of money. Go ahead and make a movie. Make a record. Do whatever you want, and there doesn’t have to be a producer in the room. It can be just you, artist, and your engineer, because we trust you.” It’s just so invigorating.
Prince didn’t… Well, I say this knowing what we know about how he died: At the time, he did not do drugs, not at all, because he wouldn’t have been able to stay up if he had done drugs. He was just healthy and young and strong, and every once in a while he would have a cup of coffee. But we didn’t want to make him coffee, because then we’d be up for another 24 hours!
Also a lot of sugar, one hears.
Well, he kind of went through phases, but yeah, he had a sweet tooth. He lived on Doritos and cake.
He ate like a little kid at the time when I was with him.
When you showed up there in Minneapolis, you had done how many recording sessions?
I had done very few, and only basically as an assistant engineer. He hired me as his technician. He asked his management, “Find me someone from New York or LA,” because the locals weren’t as fluent in pro audio techniques, the local Minneapolis folk, so he wanted someone from the industry, and I’d been in the industry five years now. At this point I was working for Crosby, Stills & Nash, their studio in Hollywood. I heard through the professional grapevine that Prince was looking for a technician and I just jumped on it, because I knew he liked working with women, he was my favorite artist in the world and I wanted that job so badly. I was qualified for it, so his management hired me. They interviewed me and hired me, so I had done practically no sessions.
The first thing I did was I pulled out an old console and then installed a new one. I repaired his tape machine. There was some stuff with his outboard gear that I fixed, and just basically got the studio up and running so he could continue recording on the Purple Rain record. He just put me in the engineers seat at that point, because he didn’t like to work with too many people. If you knew how the gear worked he assumed you knew how to run it, so be the engineer. That was really a dream come true.
Did you have a moment of, “Oh shit, this is what we’re doing”?
Hell yeah. I remember the very first… I finally had finished setting up everything and he gave me instructions to put up a vocal mic. The vocal mic… At that time it wasn’t that rare, but now it’s extremely rare, it was Tube U47, the Neumann. They’re very expensive now, so beautiful. I put up the tube mic to do a vocal and hung it on the boom stand over the console the way he said he wanted it. I kept thinking, “Oh, no. The engineer’s going to walk in any minute and catch me. I’m going to be in so much trouble and I’m going to have to tell this engineer, ‘Prince told me to do it. I had to.’” He told me to get a sound on the mic, I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I’m going to be fired now, this engineer is going to tell on me.”
It was my boss who was telling me to do it, so I did. I got a sound and he came in and finally I asked him, “Who’s going to record it?” He said, “You.” I said, “OK, fair enough chief, off we go.” That’s how it began. I had the dawning realization after a while that, “He doesn’t know that I’m not an engineer.” Then a second dawning was, “He knows and he doesn’t care.” I felt very fortunate every single day I was with him.
How do you find that unorthodox way of setting things up and running recording sessions contributed to the way his art translated onto record?
It’s really important. I think that’s a really important question. People have asked me, or they’ve prefaced questions by saying, “Prince was known to be a perfectionist.” I always have to correct them. He was not a perfectionist. He wouldn’t have had that output if he’s been a perfectionist. What he was was a virtuoso player and a genius with melody, a genius with rhythm, a genius at writing songs. It just poured out of him – he couldn’t wait on perfection. The important thing was to have the sound serve the ideas, not the other way around. Working quickly was fine with him and only a beginning engineer would have no bad habits to break. Only a beginner would be willing to go that fast.
There were people who were instrumental in helping you to figure out which way he would have liked the rule book to be chucked. As in, people that would be working with him that showed you the ropes and gave you a little bit of a hand.
That was Jesse Johnson from The Time. Prince went out to Los Angeles to work on the Purple Rain movie logistics and he let Jesse and me use the studio. Jesse had some tracks he wanted to record and Jesse was instrumental to me keeping my job. He taught me, “Here’s how Prince likes the kick drum sound. Here’s how he likes the snare to sound. Hi-hat always has to be on the left. Rhythm guitar has to sound like this, electric guitar has to sound like that.” He showed me on the console, “This is Prince’s sound.” We had a lot of conversations, he helped teach me Prince’s value system.
What would that be?
What we need music to do. When you’re mixing a record, you need to understand something about where you want your listener’s attention to go. You need to – subconsciously, I suppose – understand how you want people to move to this music. How would they dance to it? The answer to those questions determines, is the bass louder than the kick drum, or is the kick drum louder than the bass? Is the focus on the two and four, or is the focus on the one and three in this song? Should the vocal be up, should the vocal be down in the track? Where do we want people’s attention to go, because what do we want them to feel when they hear this? That’s the value system that is always in place for every artist, and Jesse helped me to transition from the LA sound that I knew into this Minneapolis sound. That was really just the Prince sound that he was crafting for himself: “This is who we are – there’s an ‘us’ and we sound like this.”
Prince’s Alter Egos
The Time is Prince. Prince wrote all those songs and performed all the instruments on the record. (He’d have Jesse [Johnson] do a guitar solo.) Prince would sing a guide vocal and then Morris [Day] would come in and just copy Prince’s lead. The Time is just another one of Prince’s musical personalities. Music is an expression of life, but it’s not 100% of an artist’s output. Music is only a part of Prince’s life, and Prince music was only a part of the music of Prince’s life. There was the Time music, there was Sheila E. and there was Vanity 6. They were his musical alter egos. The Time was just another version of Prince. The public didn’t know at the time, because Prince didn’t want it know. He didn’t want it know that it was him.
He’s the first artist as far as I know to ever do that. Who does that, create your own competition so that you can get the record-buying public to think that coming out of this town – Minneapolis, Minnesota – is a scene, not just one genius guy? He created the Time to be his competition, and then he wrote this movie to play them as the competition, and the prize they were fighting for was Vanity 6, which is another one of Prince’s alter egos.
It’s not a balanced ego, I don’t suppose – everyone’s missing something – but it’s a multifaceted ego. He was very masculine and he was feminine in ways that a masculine man is. He had a feminine sensibility, he was very street and he was very sophisticated. He had an artistic streak that a lot of people didn’t give him credit for. One of the movies he loved was David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Stuff like that. He was a really extraordinary, extraordinary human being.
Prince’s Typical Tour Day
He was fiendishly attracted to making music. If he was awake and not eating or sleeping – which he did very little of – and not on the phone having a business meeting, he had an instrument in his hand. Let me give you a typical day on tour. In a big, big tour – it’s probably still the same way today, a big arena tour – you have soundcheck. Usually soundcheck, after you’ve got it dialed in, takes 20, 30 minutes tops. That’s what bands do. They soundcheck for 20 or 30 minutes, then they have the dinner break, then there’s doors and then there’s the opening act and then the headliner takes the stage. The headliner plays – it can be 45 minutes if they’re really cheap – but it can be hour and a half, two hours. If they’re really giving you your money’s worth, they’ll play for two and a half hours. Then that’s the end of it. Then they go out and they party. Prince would have a four hour soundcheck, just for the fun of it, to play new songs, just to have some fun. We would soundcheck from two in the afternoon until 6 PM. He’d leave the stage from six to 6:30. The opening act would do their 30 minute soundcheck. There would be the dinner break. There would be doors. When he would hit the stage, it would be about nine o’clock, because the opening act was 8:30 to 9:00. Prince would hit the stage at 9:00 and he’d play until 11:30 – two and a half hour set.
The last song would be “Purple Rain.” He’d leave the band doing the coda on stage. He come down off the stage. Get into a little van. The van would take him to his hotel. He would shower and change and do one of two things: We would either go into a recording studio and work all night, or we would play an afterparty. There was a little truck, a small truck, that had a second set of instruments, and I knew what we were doing ahead of time. I’d either meet him at the studio or I’d meet him at the small club. At one in the morning, he’d come in. I have to go, of course, because I have to set stuff up. I have to go directly from the gig to the studio, or to the club. Either mix front of house at the club, or record with him all night long until the next day, until the sun was well up and it was time to get on a plane, or the bus to go to the next city, and do it all over again. This was on the road, because after playing all day he still didn’t have enough. He wants to be with people, but he was socially awkward. He didn’t want to just be with people and talk. His way of being with people was to play. He just wanted to be playing. Sometimes we had records to do, and he had songs in his head that were coming so fast he had to have access to a studio to record them. We would do that on tour. That was on tour. If we were home, it was: Wake up in the morning – if it was morning – or wake up after a few hours of sleep. (Four hours was a full night for him.) Wake up after his customary four hours of sleep. Make a few phone calls. Have his hair done, or whatever it was he was going to do. After being up for a few hours, I would get the call telling me to meet him at the studio. Sometimes he would tell me what to set up for him. Sometimes I’d find a note. Other times, if there was no note I’d just have everything set up. It might be acoustic drums, it might be drum machines or whatever. It would be set up and he’d come in and we’d start to work. 20, 24 hours later, we’d be done. He’d go to bed. I’d make his cassette copy. I’d sleep my customary three hours. The phone would ring, I’d pick up the phone and his voice would go, “Ready?” “Yeah.” Then it would go all over again.
Other employees and I, we would call it our tour of duty. It was my tour of duty, and I was with him over four years. It was going on our fifth year together, and I was exhausted, still exhilarated, but I had done as much as I possibly could. That was a long run with him, because I was by his side for all those years. Whether we were doing a movie or we were on tour, I was his employee, so if he was awake, he was making music, I was right there. I was quite exhausted by the end of it. I needed to have a proper life, but it was good while it lasted.
Prince and Sex
He was bold. He was bold artistically. He, like any artist, wanted to be loved. He wanted people to like him. He wanted people to like his music. There was an ongoing rivalry with Michael Jackson. This was sad, because it was perceived by the general public that Michael was the good guy, he was the safe guy. He was the guy that you could send out on a date with your 15-year-old daughter, and she’d be safe. You’d let him babysit your children. Michael was the good guy. Prince was perceived as being somehow threatening. I remember, somebody said to me once, he was an assistant engineer at Sunset Sound and he was talking about Bruce Springsteen and Prince. He said, “I like Bruce Springsteen better.” The guy said, “I get the feeling that if I met Bruce, he’d sit down and he’d have a beer with me. I have a feeling that if I met Prince he’d steal my girlfriend.” There were these perceptions about Prince… That there was always a bacchanal and that he was this sexual predator. He was the opposite. The truth was, he was a working man who went to work every day, and that’s basically all he did. He dated, but it was usually women that he was around, like Vanity and Susannah Melvoin and Jill Jones and Sheila E. He was just a working man. He also was sober as a judge, so your kids would have been really safe with Prince.
In the United States there were certainly stereotypes about African American artists, and Prince was singing about sex. One of the things that was lost on some people – not on his fans, but on a lot of people – they didn’t really get that when Prince was singing songs about sex, he was giving power to women. “Do Me, Baby” is the archetype example of this. “Do Me, Baby” was just a B side of a single. “Do Me, Baby” was him saying to the woman, “You do me. You be the guy. You be the aggressor. You do me.” He’s saying how much he loves it when she has all the power. All of those songs are about – it’s brilliant, by the way – all those songs are about us. He never, ever took a predatory stance in his seduction. It was never about, “I am going to conquer you, my prey.” He always approached women as equals. I think that’s one of the reasons that women loved him so much. We trusted him. We felt safe with him. We felt empowered. We felt equal. He gave us that, and he always did. He was always consistent with that. That’s who he was.
The Making Of “If I Was Your Girlfriend”
You can hear those BOSS pedals. You can hear that slow flanger on the drums, and you can hear the snare is, on this one, just completely dry. I had switched to a new compressor around that time. I started using the 1176 on the snare, and he was letting me play around a little bit more, but you hear the obvious distortion on the vocal as well, and that was an accident.
Do you feel bad about that accident?
Well, yeah, it was bad. The presets at this console at Sunset Sound weren’t continuous. It was discrete knobs in 10 dB steps, and I accidentally had it set to 10 dB too hot. Prince liked to do his vocals completely alone in the control room. He didn’t want anyone else there, so I would set up the signal path for him and patch, put a piece of tape on the patch cord. Then he needed to move to get himself to the next track if he was going to do backing vocals, arm the track that he needed in to record, and then I would go wait in the next room while he did the vocal. So I didn’t hear it as it was going down, but you hear that API preamp is clipping at the top. I thought he was going to be furious when he heard it back, not in headphones, but in the speakers, and he liked it.
He used to say, “We don’t sound like those other people. We don’t sound like Michael Jackson. We don’t spend all that kind of money. We go fast. We make mistakes.” He was okay with it. I was kind of mortified, but you hear the high pitch on the voice that was done back in those days by varispeeding the tape machine.
Is that on purpose?
Oh, yeah, yeah. You varispeed the machine to get the timbre that you want. You can go the other direction, too, like you can get a bass to sound really, really fat if you would speed up the tape machine and then play it in a different key, and then set it back to the standard speed, and then you’d have that low tone and it would be great. You could do the same thing. You can slow the track way, way down, sing a vocal, and then when you bring the speed back up to where it’s supposed to be, you get that high, thin voice that he liked. He put on a character. He became kind of a character in timbre in order to say something that he really meant.
He was dating Susannah Melvoin at the time. They were in a really close relationship at this time, and she has a twin sister, Wendy Melvoin, and twins are really, really close. I think Prince may have… It’s always conjecture, but I’m supposing that he’s trying to say, “I wish I could have the relationship with you that you have with your sister. I wish we could be that tight.”
It was a bad choice to release it as a single. Prince… I had talked earlier about audiences, and he was trying at this point, on the Sign ‘O’ The Times album, to win back some black radio. He needed more black radio airplay, and he did the song “Sign ‘O’ The Times,” he did “Adore” on this record, and he was trying to win back his core audience. He did some things on this record that would have been appealing to that audience, but some things would have turned that audience off. Most African Americans in the city, in the United States, wouldn’t necessarily think it was cool for a guy to say, “For you, naked I will dance a ballet.” Not cool.
Maybe in certain communities of different populations, maybe in New York or whatever, but for most people, not cool. It was kind of a mixed bag I think for him, but he was an artist to his core, so he did what he thought was cool and hoped it would be cool for others.
In 1983 Prince hired LA sound technician, Susan Rogers, one of the few women in the industry, to move to Minneapolis and help upgrade his home recording studio as he began work on the album and the movie Purple Rain. Susan, a trained recording technician with no sound engineering experience became the engineer of Purple Rain, Parade, Sign o’ the Times, and all that Prince recorded for the next four years. For those four years, and almost every year after, Prince recorded at least a song a day and they worked together for 24 hours, 36 hours, 96 hours at a stretch, layering and perfecting his music and his hot funky sound. Yesterday we interviewed Susan, who is now a Professor at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, for our upcoming NPR series, The Keepers — about activist archivists, rogue librarians, collectors, curators and historians. It was Susan who started Prince’s massive archive during her time with the legendary artist who died a year today. Here is small smattering of the stories she told that will be heard on The Keepers and our podcast. We thank you Susan. We thank you Prince.
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.”