My new book, Prince: Purple Reign is published tomorrow, but available right now via Amazon. Here is an exclusive extract from Chapter One.
Purple is the most special of all the major colours, the one that appears the least frequently in nature. A synthesis of red and blue – male and female, fire and water, yin and yang – purple is always the colour that attracts the most attention.
In China, purple represents the harmony of the universe, spiritual awareness, a red purple symbolising fame and great fortune. In Japan, purple symbolises privilege and wealth – aristocracy. In Europe and America, for centuries the colour purple has been associated with vanity, extravagance, and individualism, with magic and mystery. In parapsychology, people with purple auras are said to have a love of ritual and ceremony.
Now since 1984, purple has become the colour symbolising the greatest musician of his generation, Prince, an artist for whom all of the above meanings would apply… 100 million records sold; seven Grammy awards; an Oscar; a multitude of BRITS, MTV and American Music Awards. A musical innovator on a par with David Bowie; a guitarist to rival Jimi Hendrix; a better dancer than James Brown; and a singer with more than one voice and many more ways than one of expressing it. Prince achieved more in his four-decade career than other artists achieve in a lifetime.
And then there were the women… A renowned lover of women who married and divorced twice, Prince was also linked with some of the most beautiful, glamourous and in many cases famous women on the planet, including Madonna, Kim Basinger, Carmen Electra, Nona Gaye (Marvin Gaye’s daughter), Twin Peaks’ star Sherilyn Fenn, Playboy centerfold Devin DeVasquez, and almost all of the women he worked with professionally… Sheena Easton, Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs, former backing singer Vanity, Apollonia who played Prince’s love interest in the movie Purple Rain, Sheila E, another protégé. Even his two wives, Mayte Garcia, a former dancer, and Manuela Testolini, who worked for his charitable foundation, Love4OneAnother, were involved in Prince’s work first.
His greatest love, though, as he was never shy of reminding us, was for God. Born into a family of Seventh Day Adventists, testifying was something he grew up doing, first in church, then later and for the rest of his life through his music. When, in later life, Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness, it surprised everyone except those who’d known him since he was a boy. Prince could be playful, full of fun, but he took his God and his music – one and the same to him – very seriously.
All wrapped up in the most stunning and provocative fashions ever seen on any music star, Lady Ga Ga eat your heart out. Prince’s look was as vari-focussed as his music, raunchy yet androgynous; struttingly male yet teasingly feminine: silk, ruffles, pinks, lavish purples and red, topped off with beads, crucifixes, bippity-boppity hats, huge frilly cuffs and bared nipples – thongs!
Music, love, spirituality, sex, fame, God, clothes… This was the Prince his millions of fans around the world had come to know and love over the years. Yet at the time he died suddenly, tragically on April 21, 2016, it seemed like the best of Prince’s life and career was already over. His last worldwide hit single, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’, had been in 1994, his last multi-million selling album, a Very Best Of compilation from 2001.
Friends say he had money worries, personal issues, his last stage appearances – the ‘Piano & A Microphone tour’, in which he performed alone in mid-size theatres – a far cry from the days when he filled London’s 20,000-capacity O2 arena for 21 nights, with a full-scale show that featured over a dozen different musicians, singers and dancers – weirdly truncated performances attended by the ghosts of his and his audience’s shared, mixed-up, funked-out, purple pasts.
Then came the next day, as news of his passing rolled across the media landscapes of the world like a great tsunami of tears. First disbelief then shock, then grief, then wonder – then celebration and commemoration. In an era where social media gobbles up all the biggest stories and turns them into feather-light tweets, and a year when we have already seen so many celebrity deaths we have lost count (David Bowie, Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood, Harper Lee, Johan Cryuff, Alan Rickman, on and on…) news of Prince’s death eclipsed them all. Not since the deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon has one star’s passing had such a huge global impact.
This wasn’t just the weeping and wailing of indiscriminate fandom, as with Michael Jackson, this was about a major cultural event. This wasn’t just about somebody’s music. Not just somebody’s death. This was about all of our lives, whatever the colour. Lives lit purple. The one thing – after music, sex and God – Purple never tired of.
Did he ever really know, though, how deeply loved he was by his fans, by his followers, by the people that just adored the very idea of him? Prince, for all his shocking bravado, was also a deeply insecure person. As one former friend commented in the days after his death, “’It’s like he was afraid of the fame but then when it was gone he’d miss it and crave it.”
One minute up the next minute down. It was this basic humanity this perceived frailty that lay at the heart of his popularity. Prince didn’t parade his victories like modern rappers; he hid behind masks, retreated from the press. The beautiful women in Prince’s stage show and videos were not treated like hos, but as goddesses. Could anyone but Prince have written something as genuinely soulful and touching as ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’?
At a time when Michael Jackson was busy proclaiming himself to be the King of Pop, Prince smiled that secret smile and said: “I don’t want to be king of anything. My name is Prince and I’m a normal person.” Then he abandoned his own name and insisted he simply become known by a symbol – the ‘love symbol’ as it became known. Inspired by a lengthy contract dispute with his record label, even after Prince was freed from his contarct with Warner Bros he incorporated the symbol into his iconography: microphones in the same shape, even his purple guitar.
Prince’s so-called ‘love symbol’ was in reality a pop representation of The Ankh, or the Crux Ansata – two interlaced triangles making a circle surmounting the Tau Cross (the type of cross which follows the shape of the letter ‘T’). The Ankh is an Egyptian symbol of great antiquity and it portrays the resurrection of the spirit out of its encasement of matter, otherwise expressed as the triumph of life over death, of spirit over matter, of good over evil. The message of love Prince was sending then, long before his death, was that of eternity, or heaven, of a life beyond death.
And you can hear that message in every significant musical work he created. As Prince sang on one of his best-known hits, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, life was the ‘electric word’ and it meant forever. ‘But I’m here to tell you there’s something else,’ he sang in the same song, ‘The afterworld…’
Unlike Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Michael Jackson — the other giants of 80s music – Prince was the only one that never relied on producers and regular co-writers to help conceive his art. As soon as he became famous he didn’t flee his home and make a run for New York or LA. He stayed where he was and built his palace of dreams – Paisley Park – where he could still breathe the same air he’d grown up on.
There were no rules for Prince, no maps for him to follow drawn by other people. Just the steps up that ladder, he so famously preached about, that he chose for himself. He was, as the American writer Bob Lefsetz pointed out in the days following Prince’s death, ‘about the power of music. Especially when made by someone who seemed beholden to the sound as opposed to the adulation, to the music as opposed to the money, to the song as opposed to the stardom.’
And that’s what this book is about. The life, yes, the death, of course, but mainly that ‘something else’ Prince sang about and believed in – which he helped us to believe in, perhaps even more now he’s gone.