A Superhero in a Human’s Body
Prince’s Biographer on the Superstar’s Struggles
In a Rolling Stone Interview published In 1985, Prince told writer Neal Karlen about a pivotal moment in his life: the time his father kicked him out of the house. From a pay phone, Prince pleaded with his dad to take him back: “He still said no. I sat crying at that phone booth for two hours. That’s the last time I cried.” It made for a terrific origin story: a sobbing kid—then known by his nickname Skipper—emerges from a phone booth to become Prince the star. Except it wasn’t true. As Karlen later learned, Prince’s father had never kicked him out.
Karlen says, “Ken Kesey had that line: ‘The trouble with superheroes is what to do between phone booths.’ I think that Prince had that problem.”
That revelation is just one of many about the star in Karlen’s newly published book This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey On + Off the Record (St. Martin’s Press). A former Newsweek editor, the Minneapolis-based Karlen is one of the few journalists who had access to the notoriously private and eccentric musician, penning three cover stories about him for Rolling Stone between
1985 and 1990. In his book, Karlen draws from his recollections, notes and tapes, to paint an illuminating and intimate portrait of a supremely talented and complex artist. “He was a contradiction—more than any person I’ve known,” Karlen says.
In this interview, edited for length and clarity, the author talks about his friendship with Prince over the years and the various facets of the enigmatic star’s life.
Why did you want to write about Prince again?
There’s been so many books. But what was missing was the guy. I had a scene in the book where someone came up to me at a coffee shop where I was writing and said: “Sorry, why do we need another book?” I went home, took a shower and burst into tears. I said: “Prince, what do you want me to say?” Thank God, I didn’t hear a voice speaking back to me. I remembered a letter he sent to me. He said: “Thanx 4 telling the truth!” Then I thought: “That I can do.”
Why do you think he trusted you so much?
I thought about that so many times. I don’t know if it was because I was from Minneapolis. We both loved professional wrestling, boxing, pop culture and sitcoms. He did this great Fonzie imitation. On our last phone call, he did [an impression of] Stanley Hudson from The Office. That and The Wire were his favorite shows.
Why did he spread so many misconceptions about himself?
He said, “I used to tease journalists, because I wanted them to focus on the music I was making and not the fact that I came from a broken home.” He was broken by his father, but it also made it possible for him to become what he became. He got the talent in his genes somehow, but also that drive to go to the top.
A good portion of the book deals with Prince’s relationship with his father.
It was truly love-hate. His father was an incredible narcissist—his son had the career he wanted. He thought he was the genius. I think his father is the defining thing in Prince’s life. And after his father died, he had the famous purple house that he gave to his dad leveled. That’s what he would do: he sort of annulled the past. He had his marriage to Mayte Garcia not just divorced, but annulled. When he was 25, he said: “I used to be an expert at cutting people off and never looking back.” And he was that way his entire life.
Is it true that Prince taught himself to play the piano when his stepfather locked him in a room with one for six months?
It happened, but Prince locked the door. His stepfather didn’t lock him in. Prince locked out the world. It was a slight twist of a fact: he turned the story completely around. He wanted to obfuscate the truth. He just wanted the music to stand out from his life story.
The word “prison” pops up throughout the book.
The first question I ever asked him on the record, “So why are you talking now?” after three years [without an interview]. There’s so many reasons he could have given me, and he said: “I don’t want my fans to think I live in a prison.” I remember
on that first trip, he showed me the land where Paisley Park was going to be built; it was just a field then. And I asked, “What does Paisley Park mean?” He said: “It’s a place where you can go to be alone.” I’m not a believer in premonitions, but I got this shiver up my back. I thought: “He’s gonna die there alone.”
Another revelation in your book is that in the ’90s Prince commissioned you to draft a manifesto about changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and that the document was supposed to accompany a will.
Only his manager and myself knew that he was changing his name to that. He was very fed up with the music business. It looked like rap and hip-hop had totally passed him by. He wasn’t on the cutting edge anymore. He really felt like he was done for.
He paid me to write a magazine article for him. I interviewed him about why he was changing his name to a glyph. He said it was going to be buried in a time capsule with his will and the Love Symbol album. I never saw the will. He said the time capsule was buried on the grounds of Paisley Park. The estate has sold off little parcels of land already. I think they’ll be [breaking] ground on Paisley Park condos in 30 years, and it’ll come up.
You write that Prince’s love of the color purple came from the classic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson.
Harold was this little boy who could draw himself out of whatever reality he’s in with this purple crayon. He’d be sleeping in his bed and if he wanted to run away from home, he’d draw a window and climb down that. That was his favorite book
You describe two big things that broke Prince down. The first was the death of his one-week-old son Amiir in 1996, followed by his wife Mayte’s miscarriage. The second was the physical pain Prince was in after years of performing.
“It looked like rap and hip-hop had totally passed him by. He wasn’t on the cutting edge anymore. He really felt like he was done for.”
Losing those two children destroyed him...and that he couldn’t dance and wouldn’t be able to play the piano or guitar much longer. His arms hurt. On our last phone call, he said: “I’m tired.” In 31 years, that was the only time I ever heard him say “I’m tired.” It’s heartbreaking what happened. But the thing is, it wasn’t at the end of his life. He’d been in pain from Purple Rain on. Yes, the death [was from] fentanyl, but I think those other things really are what killed him. He would just not stop [performing]. He played for so long.
You write about a time in 1998 when you were recovering at home from a leg injury and Prince visited. You saw him taking the Percocet you’d been prescribed.
It broke my heart. We never discussed it again. I don’t know if that was the reason [for his visit]. I didn’t feel like: “Oh, he came over just to snarf drugs.” I think it was just a sign of how much pain he was in. He wasn’t getting high. He really was a human—he was a superhero in a human’s body, unfortunately. Oscar Wilde had that saying: “Each man kills the thing he loves.” I think it was reversed with Prince, and actually Muhammad Ali, his hero of all time, where what they both loved killed them.
When Prince called you unexpectedly a few weeks before he died in 2016, did you have an idea that something was wrong?
I did. I tried to call him out after that— to no avail—by calling his archenemy, Minneapolis Star-tribune gossip columnist C.J., [to do an interview]. I had never talked about Prince. This was like two or three weeks before he died. I wanted him to call me: “Why are you doing this?” Everyone was trying their own ways at intervention. Alan Leeds, who ran Paisley Park Records, tried to get through and he couldn’t. His former band mate André Cymone was texting him: “I’m homeless. Can I come and stay at Paisley Park for a few days?”—and Andre was happily married with kids. Everyone was trying, but they couldn’t penetrate that circle. There was no one to say “no” to him.
What do you want readers to come away with?
That there was an actual human being there. It was a tragic story, and yet one of victory at the end. He was able to express himself. I think he was a true genius but it was torturous—he couldn’t turn his brain off: “I have 16 things going on in my head at once.” And it was a burden. That’s why I started with an epigraph from Albert Einstein: “It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.”
BEFORE THE RAIN In 1971, a then 13-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson posed for a Minneapolis public school portrait.
DEARLY BELOVED Clockwise from top: Onstage during his mid-’80s commerical peak; with then-wife Mayte Garcia in 1999; and an aerial photo of his Minnesota studio and sanctuary, Paisley Park, taken on the day he died in 2016.
this thing called life: prince’s odyssey on+off the record (St. Martin’s Press, October).