When you've been interviewing people for, oh, a hundred years or so, you build up quite a backlog of banter and chat. A lot of this stuff is inevitably ephemeral — the day will surely never come when anyone cares what Vanilla Ice ever had to say about anything. On the other hand, it is kind of interesting to look back on the vintage natterings of people who are still on the scene and still entertaining us, either with their work or with their dotty behavior.
We've been exhuming a ton of this stuff over the last several months — interviews from the vaults going back not only to the early '90s, but even beyond. Most of these ancient tapes are fun in one way or another; some are scary, which is even more fun. We're going to be posting these old interactions every Tuesday from now on, and if some of what you see seems a little silly at times, well, the past is filled with silly things. Much like the present.
We flew up to do Prince, in the interview sense, in October of 1999. His extravagantly stylish recording complex, Paisley Park, is located about half an hour outside of Minneapolis, in the totally glam-free municipality of Chanhassen. The first thing I noticed, upon walking into this deluxe facility with our producer and camera crew, was a strange, plaintive sound. Looking up toward a kind of gallery on the second floor, I saw a group of large cages, filled with birds. Doves, in fact. Crying. So this is what it sounds like, I thought, dopily.
Prince himself was standing outside a glassed-in control booth doing some kind of business involving papers and personnel. We had interacted before over the years, once in Berlin, during the world tour for his epochal Sign O' the Times album, when at least one actual German princess turned out to party with the great man after the show; and once in Paris, where he threw one of the most awesome post-concert bacchanals ever on a small island in the middle of the Seine. Prince is a sharp, funny guy who sometimes gives the impression of being in on an especially amusing joke of which no one else is aware. In Paisley Park, where he has legendarily spent countless hours of his creative life churning out tracks that are by now quite possibly beyond numbering, he seemed totally at ease.
We slipped into the control booth to listen to some new songs from his Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic album, whose release was about two weeks away.
It was to be the first major-label Prince album since his long, drawn-out and noisily acrimonious split with Warner Bros. three years earlier. Prince had been irked by the injustice of not owning any of the master recordings he'd made for Warner since 1978; and so, just to mess with executive heads, apparently, he had legally changed his name in 1993 to an unpronounceable symbol — a stunt only slightly less silly than the subsequent lemming-rush among the media to begin referring to him as "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince." (At MTV News, we continued to know him as Prince, on the theory that that was almost certainly still the name on his driver's license.)
Following his departure from Warner, Prince had decided to go the indie route, and would eventually begin releasing large amounts of his music via the Internet, by subscription. (His astonishingly prolific musical production may have been one factor in the decline of the enormous chart impact he'd enjoyed in the 1980s.) For the Rave album, though, he'd been lured back to the majors by Clive Davis, then head of Arista Records, the veteran hit-maker and comeback guru who just that summer had managed to reposition Carlos Santana, of all people, as a pop sensation with an album of celebrity duets. Could Davis work the same revivifying magic with Prince? Inasmuch as Prince is not the sort of artist to offer himself up to be "worked" with, the prospect seemed remote (and in fact, the album ultimately did little business). At Paisley Park that day, however, there was other business to attend to.
Our interview got off to a slightly awkward start when the producer asked Prince to please remove the shades he was wearing. This is standard TV procedure: Obscuring the eyes as they do, dark glasses have a distancing effect; they also reflect camera lights, which can be distracting. With the offhand politeness of someone turning down a second helping of broccoli, Prince declined to remove the problematic eyewear. The producer withdrew, reformulated her question, then returned to try again. No, no, Prince said, seeming more amused than usual — he would just be leaving the glasses right where they were, thanks. And so the interview began.
There were some obvious questions to ask — about a rumored collaboration with Madonna, for one thing; and of course the inevitable necessity of having to haul out his old '80s party anthem, "1999," for some sort of New Year's Eve performance two months hence. I remained fixated, however, on that symbol he was still using for a name. The damn thing was an affront to logic. If people had actually gone along with his insistence on being referred to by this emblem (which in conversation, of course, they didn't), it would have been impossible to refer to him at all. I was determined to pin him down on this. He proved to be slippery about it, though, as you'll see.
After our little talk, the evening became progressively more interesting. I took a quick spin with him in the slick purple roadster he had parked out back. Then Prince had the members of his current band — including god-like bassist Larry Graham, once a member of Sly and the Family Stone — summoned to the studio for a late-night jam. E-mails were also dispatched to local fan-club members, and soon they were pouring into the studio where Prince had set up his group. Over the next 90 minutes or so, he proceeded to demonstrate that he is, first, one of the most gifted performers of his generation, and second, quite likely the most imaginative loud-and-fast guitarist currently walking among us. That night, he was playing a beautiful white full-size hollow-body, and at one point he flipped it over to show me the signature on the back, inscribed by the man who'd given it to him. It was jazz star George Benson, an admirer, obviously. As who isn't?