A Su­per­hero in a Hu­man’s Body

Prince’s Bi­og­ra­pher on the Su­per­star’s Strug­gles

Newsweek - - Content - BY DAVID CHIU @new­beats

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).

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