Wednesday 29 January 2020

Last tango in Paris - Barry Egan on his Prince interview

Barry Egan was the only Irish journalist to interview Prince in person. This is his exclusive tale

CONSUMMATE SHOWMAN: Prince. Photo: Reuters
CONSUMMATE SHOWMAN: Prince. Photo: Reuters
Fans leave flowers and purple balloons at a memorial outside Paisley Park, the singer Prince’s home in Minneapolis. Photo: Reuters
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Where were you when you heard Prince had died? I was in the kitchen. My wife having read a text from a friend, rushed in with the bad news: "Prince Charles is dead!"

Aoife's mother Mary, also in the kitchen, replied in this developing kitchen-sink drama:

"And on the Queen's 90th birthday, too!" Whatever about Chaz of Clarence House, Prince of Paisley Park in Minneapolis lived a life of unknowability.

He didn't cultivate mystique so much as become it. None so peculiar as he, Prince was the psychedelic Howard Hughes of the music industry.

One mid-1980s' tale of Prince's Xanadu, Paisley Park, related that in either of his two guest bedrooms was a two-foot statue of a smiling, yellow gnome - "covered by a swarm of butterflies. One of the monarchs is flying out of a heart-shaped hole in the gnome's chest".

Another story had him changing a rented house's decor thus: 'the front gate to the Prince sign; the master bedroom to a hair salon. . . the streaming blue waters that led to the front door to purple water.'

He was a Dionysian Yoda who through his music was (as The New York Times described Prince upon his death last Thursday at 57 years of age) a "unifier of dualities: racial, sexual, musical, cultural".

He sang about darling Nikki enjoying her magazine (she wasn't reading it), raspberry berets, doves crying, little red corvettes, partying like it's 1999, and you not having to watch Dynasty to have an attitude.

He had a golden age that probably ended with the Diamonds & Pearls album in 1991.

His ego having banjaxed the quality control machine, he released a lot of duff albums afterwards. Onstage, however, Prince was still the greatest showman since James Brown or Charlie Chaplin.

Prince's destiny was written in the stars from the moment musician John L Nelson met jazz singer Mattie Della Shaw in Minneapolis and joined the Prince Rogers jazz trio, married and had a son on June 7, 1958. Their marriage ended in 1965. But out of that broken home, Prince learned something peculiarly artistic from his jazzman daddy.

"I can be upstairs at the piano, and Rande [his cook] can come in," Prince once remembered.

"Her footsteps will be in a different time, and it's real weird when you hear something that's a totally different rhythm than what you're playing. A lot of times that's mistaken for conceit or not having a heart. But it's not. And my dad's the same way, and that's why it was so hard for him to live with anybody. I didn't realise that until recently. When he was working or thinking, he had a private pulse going constantly inside him."

Prince also noted that he inherited his wildness, he said, from his mother.

"Once my mother remarried," he explained to Rock, "it was during the time period in my life where she had to teach me about the birds and the bees. And I've never asked her about this, but I think there was some sort of plan to initiate me heavy and quick.

"I was given Playboy magazine, and there was erotic literature laying around. It was very easily picked up. It was pretty heavy at the time. I think it really affected my sexuality a great deal," said Prince who would go on to write and sing lyrics like "Look here, Marsha, I'm not saying this just 2 be nasty/I sincerely wanna f**k" on 1982's Let's Pretend We're Married. Or - avert your eyes now if you're of a sensitive nature - 1980's Head: "U said but I'm just a virgin, And I'm on my way 2 be wed, But U're such a hunk, So full of spunk, I'll give you head."

There were other rawer emotions at play. His childhood wasn't privileged. As a kid, Prince used to go to McDonald's in Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis. "I didn't have any money, so I'd just stand outside there and smell stuff. Poverty makes people angry, brings out their worst side. I was very bitter when I was young."

In June of 2011 (prior to what the Sunday Independent's LIFE magazine called The Royal Visit to Ireland, meaning Prince's show at Malahide Castle), I was standing outside a suite in Paris for nearly five hours. Prince might have been prodigiously talented but he was also prodigiously unpunctual. The night before, promoter John Reynolds had sent me a text saying to be at Dublin Airport the next morning at 7am for a flight to Paris. It was on. Only it wasn't on.

Once I arrived at the prearranged meeting place with Prince - the Bristol Hotel on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore - at the prearranged time of 1pm, there was no sign of Prince. I was told he would be there at 2pm. Hours passed. Then at 5.15pm, he swept in - all 5ft 2in of him - Garbo in high heels. Prince was wearing an outfit that Liberace might have rejected as being a bit over the top for the 5.15pm in summer: a gold chain, black toreador pants; a top that can only be described as a black blouse; black suede boots, something velvet around his neck - plus sunglasses.

"I just got out of bed," Prince said. He high-fived me and asked me was I the Irish guy. I mistakenly tried to out-cool Prince back by asking him if he was the American guy.

Despite this unforgivable faux pas, we withdrew to his sprawling suite with his female backing band (Shelby Johnson, Liv Warfield and singer/guitarist Andy Allo) to do the oddest interview I've ever done. I was allowed no paper or pen. Or tape-recorder. My mobile phone had to be left outside.

I ask him did he make a decision to mix up the gender roles: wearing bikini bottoms and fishnet stockings on stage, singing If I Was Your Girlfriend? He raises his eyebrow and ignores the question. My heart stops.

I ask him if he thinks it's ironic what has happened to the music industry since he took his "slave" stance about his record deal with Warners in 1994. "There's no point in looking back," he says, looking at me like I had a taping device in my jumper, then smiling majestically at me. This is getting more and more surreal.

Bono said you were too clever to be a slave, I say to Prince who smiles again, this time, even more majestically, if such a thing were possible.

"Bono is a friend," Prince says, "But this is 2011."

He stops. That is it. My heart is starting to go funny again. In 1977, at the age of 19, Prince signed a three-album deal. He also got complete artistic control of the records.

It was incredible that a teenager would be given complete control by a record company. I say to him he obviously had huge self-belief. What were you like back then? A prodigy?

"Do you want a free autobiography?" he laughs in my face. "I was all about the music. I am always all about the music."

What was it like back then? "It was smaller. There was music coming out of everywhere, coming out of the ghetto."

Artists like Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone, I say, destroyed their creativity through excess. I ask Prince did he make a conscious decision over the years to protect his creativity.

"My music is my muse. There is no point in talking about the personal with those people. What matters is they made great music. It's all to do with music."

How have you stayed ahead of the game?

"I don't see it as a race," he says. "It is not a race."

But you have been ahead of the game, I tell him. (On 1987's tour de force Sign o' the Times, Prince sang: "In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name/By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same.") You were singing about Aids years before anyone else.

"This is 2011. Can we talk about 2011?"

Hmmmmm. What makes you laugh, Prince?

"People are always asking me what I think of Sinead O'Connor's song Nothing Compares 2 U," he laughs (the joke is: he wrote it).

I tell Andy, who is sitting next to Prince, that she has surreally standy-uppy hair just like Sideshow Bob in The Simpsons.

"Thank you, future hubby," she replies. "I like your hair, too."

"Who are The Simpsons?" Prince sniffs. A cartoon with Bart and Homer and Marge.

"We're talking about cartoons here," Prince laughs, almost put out that Andy's hair is stealing, however briefly, his limelight.

"She's great," he then says of Andy.

"Soon I'll be backing her up!" he whoops. "There is no reason why her record shouldn't sell 20 million copies."

I switch the attention wisely back to Prince. I ask him how he knows when a song is finally finished. He says it isn't ever really finished.

I ask him what instruments work well together. "Violin and accordions."

What about bagpipes? I say taking the absolute mick but they seem to like the idea.

A bursting-with-laughter Andy chips in with: "A bagpipe would be good." Prince retorts with: "Some." Andy: "Some?" Prince: "Girl! - it's some bagpipes! Not a bagpipe!"

When you are not thinking about bagpipes, Prince, what shows do you go to?

"I rarely go to shows at all," he says. "I saw Bruce Springsteen. He was brilliant. He is one of the acts who doesn't phone it in. Usually when I go to shows, I take half of the crowd with me to the parking lot when I leave. That didn't happen with Bruce. He has something special."

Prince adds that he has had some big names join him on stage over the years and he has had to "turn off their microphones and politely get them off stage. They can't do it. I have great musicians and singers - like these girls - around me onstage. It is like telepathy.

"That was one thing about Michael Jackson. He was one of the greatest performers but he never had a great band around him. Miles Davis had a great band around him. I have the same thing going on with my band. Playing with this band brings me great joy".

You have been doing this for 30 years. They say that familiarity breeds contempt. But it never happened with you, why? (I am really sucking up to him now! It was, in hindsight our last tango in Paris.)

"Because we never play the same set of songs the same way," he explains. "We have 400 or 500 songs we can call on every night. We don't have a set. We have a loose outline . . . Stevie Wonder once told me he was like a DJ. He has a great feel for what the audience wants to hear. I think we have that, too. It is a joy."

What do you think of the music industry now?

"There have been lessons learned, that's for sure. I like what Morrissey said about how, isn't it funny how all their acts go to number one? They go on the cover of Rolling Stone after one release. It took me four albums. The record companies, they have become like carjackers."

What's the biggest misconception about you? "That I get tired of playing the old songs. They're my songs. I like playing them."

Is there any song you wish you had written?"People Pleaser. Also Nothing Compares 2 U," he joked.

Do you like Van Morrison? "I liked one of his songs I heard when I was younger. It had guitars in it. It was in a band?"

I was furiously trying to impress my idol now. So I spouted out that on Van's I Forgot That Love Existed, he sings: "If my heart could do my thinking and my head begin to feel, I would look upon the world anew and know what's truly real."

"Really? That sounds interesting."

Have you read any Irish poetry? Yeats? Oscar Wilde?

"There is still time."

Sadly, for Prince, there is no more time. It's hard to believe he is dead. It all seems like a bad dream. To quote 1999: "I was dreamin' when I wrote this, so sue me if I go 2 fast..."

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