[This story originally was printed Aug. 8, 1997. Scroll to the bottom to find a question and answer session with Prince, wherein he talks about changing his name and what people might say behind his back.]
Call him the artist formerly known as important.
The way Prince Rogers Nelson's career has been sliding in recent years, the singer probably isn't partying as if it were 1999 these days - he's wishing it was 1984 again.
That was the year he released the soundtrack to Purple Rain, which sold 13 million copies and transformed Prince from a pioneering R&B artist into a pop icon. The critics loved him, Tipper Gore loathed him, and everyone else couldn't get enough of this outlandish little dude with the oversized libido.
But by the dawn of the '90s, his Royal Badness had lost sovereignty. His unwatchable 1990 film, Graffiti Bridge, was his second silver-screen bomb in a row (after 1986's Under the Cherry Moon).His record sales began a slow descent into the land of has-beens - the 1996 album Chaos & Disorder sold an embarrassing 119,000 copies, according to SoundScan, less than one percent of what Purple Rain sold.
And he suddenly started acting stranger than he normally does. Mired in a contractual dispute with Warner Bros. Records, he appeared in public with "slave" written on his cheek, and refused to record "new" material for the label. Instead, he turned in leftover tracks from previous sessions.
"I really felt like a product, and then I started turning in work that reflected that . . . I was doing my best to fulfill my contract," he told interviewer Spike Lee earlier this year in Interview magazine.
But now that he's wriggled out of his much-disputed contract with Warner Bros., the Artist - as he's calling himself these days - is starting to resuscitate his career.
For starters, he's releasing records as fast as his muse can deliver them, which Warner Bros. refused to let him do, the singer claims. In November 1996, he put out the triple-CD Emancipation on his own NPG label. The set was hit-and-miss, ranging from brilliant funk-pop tunes such as "Jam of the Year" and "Get Yo Groove On" to hokey ballads, including "Dreaming About U" and "Curious Child."
But his Emancipation proclamation created a stir at record stores, selling a respectable 513,000 copies in the U.S., according to SoundScan (or 1.5 million copies according to Billboard, which counts each album of a multiple-CD set).
The 39-year-old Symbolman announced plans for five more albums at a New York press conference last month: Crystal Ball will be a four-CD collection of live material previously available only on bootleg albums; The Truth will be a single album of mostly acoustic songs. He gave no release dates for the albums, but said they'll be available only through his 1-800-NEW-FUNK toll-free number and his Web site (www.love4oneanother.com).
The Minneapolis-based singer also launched a rare U.S. concert tour - only his second since 1988. After warming up with a handful of shows in January, the singer kicked off a full-scale tour of outdoor amphitheaters July 23, and began announcing new shows only a week or two in advance to try to discourage scalpers.
The "Jam of the Year" tour - which stops Saturday at Coca-Cola Starplex - features a five-piece version of the New Power Generation: Morris Hayes (keyboards), Rhonda Smith (bass), Kirk Johnson (drums), Kathleen Dyson (guitar) and Mike Scott (guitar). The set list has been ranging from oldies, including "Raspberry Beret" and "Purple Rain," to tunes from Emancipation, such as his remake of Joan Osborne's "One of Us."
But when the concerts are over, the singer hasn't been heading straight to bed. He's performed several impromptu late-night post-show gigs in small nightclubs during the tour: At the Egypt club in Philadelphia, for example, he played a 35-minute set featuring the Staple Sisters' "I'll Take You There" and the Temptations' "The Way You Do The Things You Do." No word yet on if or where he'll moonlight in Dallas.
The enigmatic, media-shy Artist (should we start calling him "Art," perhaps?) is even doing a few interviews to promote himself these days.
Talking to Spike Lee in Interview, he discussed everything from his newfound vegetarianism ("We've got to get back to growing our own food . . . I'm ready to put a farmer on my payroll") to his marriage last year to his one-time dancer Mayte Garcia ("I am a firm believer in reincarnation . . . My soul has been in love with Mayte for thousands of years").
He also told the filmmaker why he doesn't publicly acknowledge the death of his infant son, who died in October 1996 of a rare skull defect one week after being born: "I have written a song that says, If you ever lose someone dear to you, never say the words,They're gone,' and they'll come back,' " he said.
The singer even spoke about the unpronounceable glyph he's used in lieu of a name since 1993.
"Everything has changed for me since I've changed my name. It's one thing to be called Prince, but it's better to actually be one," he said.
But a few moments later, he changed his tune, saying he wants people to call him by his "old" name.
"If there is a pronunciation to my name in the future, I hope it will be Prince. That's my dream. But until that day, I just go by this," he said, holding up a necklace of his "symbol."
In other words, just call him "the once and future Prince."
Just the fax
He simply refused all interview requests and cloaked everything he did in utmost secrecy. He agreed to answer questions from The Dallas Morning News. . . but only if he could respond in writing.
Three days after faxing him our questions, we got these answers:
Why have you been reluctant to talk with journalists over the years?
Because of their set agendas. I don't need psychoanalysis from a journalist nor criticism on my music from someone who is not a musician. That's why I don't do book reviews.
Why have you had such a hard time dealing with record companies?
Their system is not accustomed to artists who 1st
Why have you toured so infrequently in the last 10 years?
I was at the time unhappy. I was not in control of my immediate surroundings or of my work. I love 2
What is your most under-appreciated album?
Under-appreciated by whom? Surely not God. That is all that matters.
What do you think you'd be doing with your life if you hadn't become a musician?
I would have been involved in some form of art. I am sure that if I was a ditchdigger, I would be the best!
What's wrong with the name Prince?
Nothing. It is a beautiful name. On Earth it was my favorite. I think.
What do you think people say about you behind your back?
Behind my back they say: "What a great ass!"