This is from Chapter Nine, S-L-A-V-E, of my new book, Prince: Purple Reign.
Prince as ever seemed to take a perverse delight in confusing the public, even when it was obviously in fun. Interviewed on the cable TV show The Sunday Show, in March 1995, Prince appeared in a hat, his face completely hidden behind an ornately bejewelled scarf. He had agreed to be interviewed, the presenter Veronica Webb explained, on two conditions: that he would not speak or show his face. Instead Mayte Garcia, seated next to him, would be his ‘interpreter’. It was a bizarre spectacle that was highly amusing but, frustratingly, maddeningly short on explanations as to why he no longer wished to be called Prince – or even show his face on what was his first TV interview for ten years.
Webb began by asking: ‘Now what’s the reason to give an interview and not speak?’
Prince held up a newspaper, with the headline, which she read out:
‘Prince is dead – Long live rock’s tiny sex symbol.’
He nodded. She went on: ‘So Prince has nothing to say, and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince is for ever in silence, which I suppose is golden. But don’t you think you’re blowing your chance for people to understand what your case is, why you won’t speak?’
Prince whispered something to Mayte. She passed it on: ‘He never blows chances.’
Veronica Webb: ‘Well, there you go. That’s incredible confidence, but how do you expect people to be sympathetic to what’s going on with you if they can’t understand your situation?’
More whispering. Mayte: ‘Next question.’
And so it went. Eventually, in less spangled contexts, Prince would be more serious. ‘Once Warner’s refused to sell me my masters, I was faced with a problem,’ he told USA Today. ‘But “pro” is the prefix of problem, so I decided to do something about it.’
In an in-depth interview with Details, when asked what was wrong with being on Warner’s, he laid it all on the line at last. ‘I like to go with my intuition. Something hits me and I need to get the track down before I can move on. It’s like there’s another person inside me, talking to me, and I’m learning to listen to that voice.’
He added: ‘It’s a way of cutting the chaos off, cutting off the outside voices. I heard “Prince is crazy” so much that it had an effect on me. So one day I said, “Let me just check out.” Here [at Paisley Park] there is solitude, silence – I like to stay in this controlled environment. People say I’m out of touch, but I’ll do 25 or 30 more albums – I’m gonna catch up with Sinatra – so you tell me who’s out of touch. One thing I ain’t gonna run out of is music.’
He still had a hard time convincing anyone, though, that he was anybody’s ‘slave’. If Prince had been a figure of fun to a certain degree at the height of his fame, just as Elvis, The Beatles and David Bowie had before him, by the mid-nineties it was open season on Prince. Who did he think he was? What was it he was supposed to be achieving? What was his name again?
There were exceptions, of course. New Prince music that was simply too good, too undeniable, for anyone to care who it was supposed to be by. When he released a new single, in 1994, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’, it became Prince’s first and only No. 1 single in the UK, and a huge hit around the world. A lush, almost too-delicate-to-touch ballad written for the new love of Prince’s life, Mayte (pronounced my-tie) Garcia, twenty years old and the star dancer in Prince’s latest live show. It showed once again just how incredibly talented Prince was – and, even more importantly to him, how he could still have massive hit records even without a name. The ads for the single still maintained the façade that ‘Prince’ was no more, The Artist pictured lounging in a chair with a hat pulled down over his face, and Garcia standing sylph-like next to his chair.
When he turned up at the 1995 BRIT awards to receive the award for Best International Male Artist he did so with the word S-L-A-V-E stencilled on the right of his face. There to promote his latest album, The Gold Experience, though we didn’t know it then his last that would reach the Top 10 in Britain or America for nearly a decade, Prince stood at the podium in yellow suit and black shades, and viewed the audience thoughtfully. When he spoke, he did so only in coded messages. ‘Prince … the best?’ He cocked his head quizzically. ‘The Gold Experience … In concert, perfectly free … On record – slave.’ He smiled then became serious again. ‘Get wild. Come. Peace. Thank you.’ Then a quick wave and he was gone, to screams.
When Blur went up to receive one of the four awards they received that night, their drummer, Dave Rowntree, had taken a felt-tip pin and drawn the word D-A-V-E on his face. Prince looked on from his table stony-faced. But many industry insiders present made it clear they found the joke hilarious. Prince, though, held firm. Two years later when he returned to the BRITS to perform live, he no longer had ‘slave’ on his face but he was still insisting he be known only as The Artist. But by then people had given up even trying to understand what the hell was going on there.
For Prince, though, it wasn’t the viewing audience back home he was aiming his message to, but the bigwigs in the room. As he explained to the Icon magazine writer Touré, ‘Imagine yourself sitting in a room with the biggest of the big in the recording industry, and you have “Slave” written on your face. That changes the entire conversation. They said, “It makes it real hard to talk to you with that on your face.” I said, “Why?” And it got real quiet. Adding that language into the conversation worked perfectly. It changed the dynamic.’
The trouble was the folks back home were watching on TV and did have an opinion, and not always a very flattering one. In fact, a great many black Americans found nothing funny at all about the sight of one of their leading black entertainers walking around with the word ‘slave’ on his face. Prince’s lawyer at the time, and the man who would eventually help Prince get out of his Warner’s contract, L. Londell McMillan, talked in 1998 about how he himself was deeply offended by the word ‘slave’ being on anybody’s face, let alone someone with such a huge profile as Prince.
‘The reference is traumatic to African-Americans,’ he explained in an interview with Q magazine in 1998. ‘In one of my first conversations with him I said, “Take the ‘Slave’ off your face.” He said, “Get me free of this contract and I will.” It became clear that he was a desperate man.’