When I watched Prince work, I was always reminded of great auteurs who had done it all, like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. But when we filmed him creating and directing the opening to his Lovesexy tour in London in the summer of 1988, it was Mozart who came to mind. Prince arrived onstage in a replica of his Thunderbird convertible on a hydraulic lift to “Escape,” then would slink across the stage to “Erotic City, “ and would meet Sheilah E and the dancer known as Cat center stage for some shenanigans. It was just three people dancing on a stage but it was outrageously funky, entertaining and erotic. His command and control of every element and aspect of the show was consummate. Songwriting. Music. Sound. Production design. Lighting. Choreography. As I watched him put it all together and tweak it to his perfection, I thought, Ah, this is what it must have been like when Mozart directed one of his operas. Prince was the Mozart of pop, funk, rock and soul.
I would never have had the chance to meet Prince if he hadn’t admired my script for the 1987 documentary, Elvis ’56. As a result I was hired as the writer of what was to be an authorized documentary about his musical life and times. As such I got to watch him launch the tour at Wembley--an amazing spectacle. There was much controversy swirling around him after the episode of the Black Album and the naked cover of Lovesexy. As Eric Clapton put it when we filmed him, “You either love him or hate him, there’s no in-between”--and Clapton was an unabashed fan. Lots of people were always buzzing around the show--George Clinton, Paul McCartney, Sting—but the real fun was the after-hours jams in clubs. That was where you saw who Prince really was—a devout musician who loved to melt your face with his guitar. You could see how he had taken all of his influences—Miles Davis, Elvis, Little Richard, James Brown, Sly, Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Hendrix, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Mavis Staples, Frank Zappa, countless others--and made them a part of his palette. He could be any one of them, all of them at once, or none of them at all. He inhabited a world of incredible music that revolved around him like planets around the sun. He lived for it.
Prince was outlandishly talented but make no mistake, he could be a very strange little cat. Sometimes I would think he must have been beamed down from another world. I always sensed his troubled youth in the part of his personality that was so shy and standoffish. Conversation with him could be strained and uneasy. He could be vulnerable in his art but kept his private life very private. He was paranoid but he also understood the power of mystique. It was Randy Newman, another fan, who remarked to us, “He doesn’t appear to be a friendly fella because he’s so remote but there’s great humor in his stuff so you know he couldn’t be a bad guy.” His manager at the time, Bob Cavallo, told me that when Prince was nominated for Purple Rain, he was hoping it would be the night that America would get to see that Prince was just a regular guy and really connect with him, but then Prince showed up in his purple sequined hood and that was that. Prince Rogers Nelson was anything but a regular guy.
Of course he was vain. I never saw him without those platform shoes except for once when I saw him playing basketball and I couldn’t believe my eyes at how tiny he was without them. They must have been six or seven inches high, and when I heard he needed hip replacement surgery a few years ago, I knew it had to be those shoes.
The world of entertainment is chockablock with divas and control freaks like Barbara Streisand and Diana Ross but I’d never met anyone as obsessed with it as Prince. I began to understand it more when I went through the recently built Paisley Park, his multi-million dollar high-tech creative play land. With its recording studios and sound stages it was his own private MGM, complete with a costume department where he designed his own clothes. Nobody could ever tell him what to do, but there was a Howard Hughes component to it. I had the same feeling when I went through Graceland after Elvis died—of someone who lived entirely and profoundly in his own world.
At the finale of the Lovesexy shows, where Prince would get the massive crowds to shout back at him that God is alive, he would suddenly disappear. His worshipful fans never knew about the chute that he went down, into the packing crate with wheels that would be rolled quickly out to the limousine. I thought of it when I heard that he died, how he would be gone—poof!—in a matter of minutes while his fans were still showering the stage with love, and somehow it seemed a metaphor for many things about him.
Prince was one of the most stellar and unique musical personalities of the era. He’s left the building but the love remains.