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Symbol of Ambiguity

Prince, an elusive figure by any name, still finds life sweet, but says, 'If I knew the things I know now before, I wouldn't be in the music industry.'

July 14, 1996|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — In the past, the few reporters who have gained access to Prince Rogers Nelson had to submit to measures more befitting the secrecy of a covert military operation.

He insisted that interviewers not use tape recorders or take notes. Lots of topics were declared off limits, and the location of the encounter was always subject to a last-minute change.

Now, though, the elusive star has at least relaxed the rules enough to allow a little scribbling. And as he enters a plush hotel suite in midtown Manhattan--after a security guard has inspected the joint--his poker face slowly cracks into a gentle, disarming smile.

"Nice to meet you," says the singer, his doe eyes warming. He sits on a sofa, looking a bit stiff in his impeccably tailored black suit as he waits to begin what he says will be his only U.S. interview in connection with his new "Chaos and Disorder" album.

"So, um, how much time we got?" he asks.

Like a lot of eccentrics, this diminutive icon, 38, turns out to be a rather shy, self-conscious fellow. His remarks during the interview are often painfully terse, sometimes willfully vague and on occasion petulant. But in general, he's polite and earnest.

And while he's predictably less than forthcoming on most personal matters, part of the reason he's here today is to announce his impending divorce.

No, he's not leaving Mayte, the dancer he married earlier this year and who is expecting their first child in the fall. Those subjects fall into the off-limits category anyway. This split is from Warner Bros., his record company for 18 years.

"Chaos and Disorder" will be his final effort for Warner Bros., he vows, without going into legal details. And despite his much publicized differences with the label, he claims to bear no real grudges.

"I was bitter before, but now I've washed my face," he says. "I can just move on. I'm free."


Tensions between artist and label first came to a boil in early 1994, when he decided to drop the name Prince and asked that people start identifying him by an unpronounceable symbol--thus disassociating himself, in a most burdensome way, from the guy who recorded some of the most popular and acclaimed albums of the '80s.

To further express his frustration, he stopped performing Prince-era material in concert and began appearing in public with the word "slave" written on his cheek. In 1994, he also released "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," a successful single that was distributed not by Warner Bros. but by the independent company Bellmark Records.

Bob Merlis, senior vice president of publicity at Warner Bros., confirms that "Chaos and Disorder" is expected to be the artist's final album of newly recorded material for the label--although the company may continue to dip into Prince's back catalog.

"Fulfilling the terms of his contract included delivering this new album and whatever the vault records will be," Merlis says. "So I think it's safe to say that he's in a position now to make a new deal with another record company. We've come to a point where we feel that if he's happier somewhere else, we don't have any beef with him."

At present, the artist hasn't determined what his next step will be--or at least doesn't wish to go on the record with it.

For all his maddening guardedness, the star--who has no plans to promote "Chaos and Disorder" with a tour, limiting his appearances to recent spots on David Letterman and "The Today Show"--seems genuinely torn about what his future will be beyond this album.

In one breath, he'll say, "If I knew the things I know now before, I wouldn't be in the music industry." In the next, he'll talk about his craft with such passion that it's impossible to imagine him working in any other field.

What's clear is that his experiences in the music industry have made him more sensitive to the travails and tantrums of other artists. He followed George Michael's legal war to free himself from Sony Music and has also been keeping track of the plight of the hip-hop trio TLC, which last year declared bankruptcy in an effort to get out of the low royalty rate written into its contract.

"TLC is a very talented group," he says. "Talent can't be bottled up or contained. . . . We gotta wake up to that. Why should somebody else be making $100 million when they're making $75,000? It will continue, too--that's the sad truth."

Prince's history with Warner dates back to the late '70s, when he was signed to the label while still a teenager. After achieving his commercial breakthrough with 1982's "1999" album, the androgynous, charismatic performer quickly became a pop sensation--many even considered him the foremost artist of his generation.

A one-man musical movement whose fiercely innovative blend of funk, rock and soul crossed racial and cultural boundaries, Prince reached his commercial peak with "Purple Rain," the 13 million-selling soundtrack album for the semiautobiographical film in which he starred.

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