A Final Visit With Prince

May 5, 2016

On: Conspiracies, Spirituality, Foregiveness and much more….
-SD

It is, in theory, a mundane sight, nothing 2 get excited about: just a 55-year-old man in his suburban Minneapolis workplace, scrolling through a Windows Media Player library on a clunky Dell computer.

An equally ordinary multi-line phone sits beside it, near a lit candle, bottled water and some expensive-looking lotion. A huge old Xerox machine looms over the desk; a window at the far end of the room looks out onto barren trees and an empty, snow-lined highway. It’s early evening on Saturday, January 25th, 2014, in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

The office is on the second floor of the 65,000-square-foot Paisley Park compound. The little guy sitting at the keyboard owns it all, had it all built back in the Eighties. And Prince being Prince, it’s fascinating to watch him do just about anything. The more ordinary the activity – clicking a mouse, say – the weirder it feels.

Prince has a large Afro, and he’s dressed in dark, diaphanous layers, with a vest over a flowing long-sleeved shirt, form-fitting grayish-black slacks, and sneakers with high Lucite heels that light up with every step. He’s wearing obvious makeup – foundation, eyeliner, probably more. His thin, precision-trimmed mustache extends just past his lips in a semicircle.

On characteristically short notice, Prince invited me here to report what we intend to be his seventh Rolling Stone cover story. I spend seven hours at Paisley Park, and he sits for two lengthy, thoughtful, amiable interviews.

I was told not to curse or to ask about the past; though I eventually violate both rules, he invites me to join him on the road later. In the end, however, he won’t sit for a photo shoot, instead offering us pre-prepared, heavily retouched pictures. The whole thing falls through. I hold on to my reporting, assuming, all too correctly, that we will save the material for our next Prince cover.

That night, Prince doesn’t look his age – doesn’t look any particular age, really. He’s very thin, but not fragile – a strict vegan who, by his own account, sometimes doesn’t eat at all (“I have gone long periods with no food, and also water – people have to remind me to drink water because I always forget to do that”). He doesn’t sleep enough, either, and he avoids sex: One of the most deliriously sensual performers who ever lived – the one who sang “Jack U Off” and “Gett Off” and “Do Me, Baby” – insists he’s celibate.

His reasons are both religious and “energy”-related (“The hunger turns into something else,” he says), though he maintains close relationships with several young female singer-songwriters. He is, at this stage in his life, a kind of cheerful musical monk. “I am music,” he says. Playing it is his greatest and perhaps only pleasure. But he’s been an ascetic even on that front as of late, recording less than ever, waiting four years between albums. It’ll stand as the longest break of his career. pagebreak

Prince famously liberated himself from his record deal with Warner Bros. in 1996, and it apparently took him years to realize that his freedom extended to not releasing music. “I write more than I record now, and I also play live a lot more than I record,” he says. “I used to record something every day. I always tease that I have to go to studio rehab.

“I’m a very in-the-moment person,” he continues. “I do what feels good in the moment. … I’m not on a schedule, and I don’t have any sort of contractual ties. I don’t know in history if there’s been any musicians that have been self-sufficient like that, not beholden. I have giant bills, large payrolls, so I do have to do tours. … But there’s no need to record anymore.”

He makes a direct connection between fasting, celibacy and his abstention from recording. “After four days, you don’t want food anymore. … It’s like this thing that says, ‘Feed me, feed me.’ When it realizes it’s not going to get fed, it goes away. … It’s the same with music. I had to see what it’s like to stop making albums. And then you go, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I don’t feel the need to do that anymore.'”

Prince brings me up to the office to play tracks from Plectrum-Electrum, the album that would finally break his recording fast. He chose from 100 or so songs laid down in one of the downstairs studios with his recently formed backing band, 3rdEyeGirl – the hardest-rocking ensemble he ever assembled. “All recorded live, no punch-ins,” he says. “You just do it till you get the take you like.” (The album doesn’t come out for another eight months, by which time it’s accompanied by a more traditional Prince LP called Art Official Age.)

Prince and I meet for the first time a few minutes earlier, as he emerges from a rehearsal space with the young women of the band. Hannah Welton, the drummer, a bubbly 23-year-old who looks like Carrie Underwood and plays like John Bonham, introduces herself brightly: “Hi, I’m Hannah!” Prince laughs, not unkindly, and imitates her, chirping “Hi, I’m Prince” in a high voice, as he reaches out a firm, businesslike handshake. His actual speaking voice is deep, soft and calming, like a DJ on a smooth-jazz station.

As we walk along, he shows no sign of reported double-hip-replacement- surgery – no limp, no cane, no apparent discomfort. His brown eyes are alert, and his wit is quick – looking back, it’s nearly impossible to square his affect with posthumous rumors of an opioid addiction.

He claims not to feel the passage of time, and says mortality doesn’t enter his thoughts: “I don’t think about ‘gone.'” To the contrary, he is immersed in the moment, invested in a creative future that he believes will be long and bright. The pause between albums seems to have been healthy for him, as is the youthful, enthusiastic, near-worshipful presence of the 3rdEyeGirl members. For the first time in years, he’s been opening up Paisley Park to local fans for spontaneous events. There’s talk of staging one of these shows on the night of my visit, though it evaporates with no notice.

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