THE BLURT BOOK EXCERPT: New Prince Biography

Taken
from
Prince: Chaos,
Disorder and Revolution (published by
Backbeat Books), this exclusive excerpt joins Prince on the eve of his
Purple
Rain ascent.

 

BY JASON DRAPER

 

Chapter 5: Baby I’m a Star

 

In 1983 Prince was still, as The Time’s Jimmy Jam put it, “at the
point where he wasn’t yet a superstar, but was right at the point of doing it.”
What Jam and everybody else wondered was: “What’s your next move gonna be?” As
it turned out, Prince’s next move was to do what David Bowie did with Ziggy
Stardust
: write himself into fame.

 

Prince was (and is) an
avid film fanatic, so it’s no surprise that he had long courted the idea of
making a motion picture of his own. The man who stamped his dominance over the
recording process with the words “Produced, Arranged, Composed, and Performed
by Prince” would naturally have wanted to exert a similar authority over the
other main avenue of popular entertainment. He would also have noticed how
Sylvester Stallone had turned himself into a superstar with Rocky in
1976. Six years later, when Prince first began to consider making a movie, the Rocky franchise was into its third installment.

 

According to drummer Bobby
Z, Prince was “fascinated with the camera,” and had already started taping
rehearsals and concerts and filming short skits. He had begun to come up with
the basic concept for Purple Rain as far back as the Dirty Mind period.
During his Controversy tour, Prince had started to film his shows for something
called The Second Coming, which would intersperse concert footage with
dramatic elements. In the end the project was scrapped, but he returned to much
the same concept for the Sign “O” The Times concert movie a few years
later.

 

By the time the second leg
of the Triple Threat tour in support of 1999 began in February 1983,
Prince had taken to carrying around a purple notebook in which he wrote down
ideas for the semi-autobiographical movie that was beginning to form in his
mind: Purple Rain. He wasn’t yet a superstar, but did have some
leverage. He had told his managers at Cavallo Ruffalo & Fargnoli that if
they wanted to hold onto him beyond the imminent expiration of his contract
they had better get him a movie deal with Warner Bros. “I want to star in the
movie,” he told Bob Cavallo. “I want my name above the title and I want it to
be at a major studio.”

 

Unfortunately for Cavallo,
Warner Bros. Pictures wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of pumping heaps of
money into the pipe-dream project of a mid-level singer with only a handful of
hits to his name. If he wasn’t able to carry on making hit records, the company
reasoned, he wouldn’t be able to attract the sort of crowds a major motion
picture needs to make its money back.

 

“There was no precedent
for this,” tour manager Alan Leeds recalled.
“Rock’n’roll stars with a couple of hit albums did not make major movies. Let
alone somebody from the black community having the gumption to do it in the
mainstream.” Before it was to agree to such a deal, Warners needed proof that
Prince was the star that the movie was supposed to turn him into.

 

Thankfully, Prince still
had the full backing of the head of Warner Bros.’ music division, Mo Ostin.
Although no distribution deal had been secured, Ostin put up $4 million of the
label’s money to get the ball rolling. Having been given at least something of
a green light, Cavallo and his colleagues went out in search of a screenwriter.
They soon found 46-year-old William Blinn, who had won an Emmy award for his
work on the Roots television show and was an executive producer of Fame,
which had just completed its second series.

 

By the time Blinn was
introduced to Prince, the movie concept had formed into something that centered
on the incestuous Minneapolis music scene and
recalled Prince’s early struggle for success in bands such as Champagne. Blinn found Prince less than
willing to communicate at first, making his attempts at writing a treatment
(for what was then known as Dreams) rather difficult. “Casual
conversation is not what he’s good at,” Blinn later said. “He’s an enigma. He
wants to communicate but he doesn’t want you to get too close.” After gathering
together “12 to 14 pages” of ideas Blinn flew out to Minneapolis to watch the March 15 Triple
Threat show. Later that night he went to Prince’s house, where it became clear
to Blinn that the singer was on “an honest quest to figure himself out. He
saved all the money on shrinks and put it in the movie.”

 

He very nearly didn’t get
the chance. After the Triple Threat tour came to an end, in May, Blinn moved
out to Minneapolis to start work on the project – only for Prince to start
canceling meetings or walking out of them. Blinn came close to withdrawing from
the project altogether when the singer left a meeting at a cinema after 20 minutes.

 

“You’ve got a rock’n’roll
crazy on your hands,” Blinn told Steve Fargnoli. “I know he’s very gifted, but
frankly, life’s too short.” With that Blinn got on a plane back to Los Angeles.

 

Whether or not Prince
realized that he was to blame for Blinn’s departure or simply didn’t want to
see his dreams crumble is unclear, but the singer quickly called his
screenwriter to apologize for his behavior (which he blamed on stress). Blinn
returned to Minneapolis
to give the project another chance, at which point Prince played him some of
the songs he had already written for the movie on his car stereo. “Behind the
strange combination of shyness and creativity,” Blinn realized, “he is very,
very bright, quite gifted, and quite professional…not always what you find in
the rock world.” Dreams was finally becoming a reality.

 

While Blinn worked on the
script, Prince carried on writing new songs and rehearsing them with a new
line-up of his backing band, now known as The Revolution. Wendy Melvoin
replaced Dez Dickerson, who had left to pursue his own music career after
informing Prince that he was no longer happy with the theatrical direction in
which the music seemed to be headed.

 

Another new addition was
Alan Leeds. Having joined the Prince entourage as manager of the Triple Threat
tour, Leeds was given the job of overseeing
the various projects Prince was currently involved in, which now included much
more than just writing and recording music. Prince & The Revolution, The
Time, and Vanity 6 were all busy rehearsing in a warehouse in St
Louis Park, Minneapolis.
They also took acting classes three days per week for three months under the
tuition of drama coach Don Amendolins.

 

Although each musician’s
screen role would essentially be an extension of his or her own personality,
some seemed more cut out for acting than others. According to Amendolins,
Morris Day had “natural abilities” that the others lacked; Denise Matthews
(Vanity) was “lazy”; and Prince was “very, very good. He’d flip right out of
his persona and be whatever character he had to be.” Perhaps surprisingly, he
also seemed to take direction better than the rest. An even tougher job fell to
choreographer John Command, who had the job of condensing years of dancing
training into a few short months.

 

***

 

Everything seemed to be on
the up. Prince had first served notice of this most famous of backing bands on
the cover of 1999, on which the words “anD thE rEVOLUtioN” are printed
backward within the “i” of his own name. He debuted the now formally named
Revolution – which would later become almost as famous as Prince himself – at
Minneapolis’s First Avenue, the club that would become the focal point of what
was now called Purple Rain, on August 3, 1983, during a benefit concert
for the Minneapolis Dance Theater Company, raising $23,000 in the process.

 

The show marked the live
debut of guitarist Wendy Melvoin alongside longstanding Prince sidemen Bobby Z
Rivkin (drums), Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman (keyboards), and relative newcomer
Mark Brown (bass). Such was Prince’s faith in this new group that he recorded
the entire concert with a mobile truck, which yielded no-fuss backing tracks
for “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and “Purple Rain.”

 

While the music was going
from strength to strength, and Prince was happy with his most talented band
yet, problems beset the film. William Blinn’s Fame television show was
picked up for a third season, so he decided to quit work on Purple Rain,
leaving Minneapolis for good after handing in his first script draft on May 23.
It took Cavallo Ruffalo & Fargnoli until September – just two months before
shooting was due to commence – before they found a new writer-director. The man
in question was Albert Magnoli, who came on the recommendation of director
James Foley, but whose previous experience as a director was limited to a 1979
short entitled Jazz.

 

Although Magnoli wasn’t
interested in rewriting Blinn’s script, he had an auspicious first meeting with
Prince’s management team. “Cavallo asked me what kind of story it would be if I
was to make a film with Prince,” he recalled. “I just started telling him a
story off the top of my head, and in that ten minutes I had outlined the
concept of Purple Rain.” Even more promising was Prince’s initial
reaction to Magnoli. “We sat down, I pitched him the concept, and the first
words out of his mouth were: ‘You’ve only known me for ten minutes, yet you
tell me basically my story. How is that possible?'”

 

Magnoli’s arrival might
have helped, but the project still refused to run smoothly. Prince’s current
side-projects, The Time and Vanity 6, were supposed to be playing his rivals in
Purple Rain, but as both groups were essentially Prince puppets, they
were becoming reluctant to co-operate. In April, Prince had fired the two main
musical talents in The Time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, while keyboardist Monte
Moir had left of his own accord after the sacking, leaving only singer Morris
Day. Replacements for Moir, Jam, and Lewis were all found in the shape of
bassist Jerry Hubbard and keyboardists Mark Cardenez and Paul Peterson. But The
Time didn’t have much longer to run, as Morris Day made it clear that as soon
as Purple Rain was finished, so was he. Not only had Prince undermined
his power within the band, he had also begun making it more obvious to the
public that the Jamie Starr/Starr Company credits were actually pseudonyms.

 

“When people came to
realize how big a role he played in some of these projects,” Alan Leeds
recalled, “they started to lose a little respect.” By the time a third Time album
Ice Cream Castle, named for a Joni Mitchell lyric – was released on
Independence Day 1984, the group had ceased to exist, despite the fact that,
ironically, they had been allowed to play their own instruments this time
around. (Undeterred, Prince had already started to assemble a new group out of
the wreckage: The Family.)

 

Vanity’s role in the new
project was also problematic. Hurt by the relationships Prince continued to
have with other women, Matthews became addicted to drink and drugs (“I did [drugs]
on the sly,” she recalled, “but nobody tried to stop me”) and embarked on
affairs of her own. “She was a competitive pistol,” according to Alan Leeds,
and “wasn’t about to let Prince’s desire for control sentence her to the
confines of her room.” For his part, Prince – whose preference tends to be for
more demure ladyfriends – quickly became weary of her attitude. Nonetheless, he
had her written into the Purple Rain script and began to work on a
successor to Vanity 6. Then in August 1983, during pre-production of the
movie, she left the project, possibly over yet another pay dispute. Depending
on who you believe, she either quit or was sacked.

 

Still looking to cling
onto her fame, Matthews retained the name Vanity and recorded two solo albums, Wild
Animal
and Skin on Skin, while also starring in a handful of movies.
All the while her drink-and-drugs lifestyle continued to spiral out of control.
When she started dating the notorious rock lunatic Nikki Sixx a few years
later, his equally wild Mötley Crüe bandmate Tommy Lee was moved to remark:
“There’s something really crazy about Vanity.” Describing their first meeting
in his autobiography, Sixx himself recalled: “She opened the door naked with
her eyes going around in her head. Somehow I had a feeling we might just hit it
off.”

 

By the time she reached
her thirties, having smoked crack cocaine for years, Vanity found herself
temporarily deaf and blind. She suffered kidney failure (having already lost
one kidney), internal bleeding, and a stroke, and spent three days on a
life-support machine. After miraculously surviving this ordeal, she renounced
her Vanity days and became a born-again Christian. She now runs a ministry in Freemont, California.

 

Meanwhile, back in Minneapolis, Prince and
director Albert Magnoli needed to find a replacement for Vanity as quickly as
possible. After auditioning close to 1,000 women in Los
Angeles and New York,
Prince settled on 22-year-old Patricia Kotero. Despite turning up to audition
in her “baggiest sweats,” as she later put it, she was practically the mirror
image of Vanity, proving that in Prince’s world, no one was indispensable.
According to Magnoli, she was also “very sweet and tremendously accessible,”
which to Prince no doubt meant that she was malleable enough to fit the role.
“Do you believe in God?” Prince reportedly asked her at the audition, and then:
“Are you hungry?” Kotero answered “yes” to both. She was quickly rechristened
Apollonia and given the job of leading Susan Moonsie and Brenda Bennett in the
renamed Apollonia 6.

 

Kotero found Prince
difficult to work with. “There was a side of him that was just a tyrant,” she
later claimed, noting that he made her keep the fact that she was married
secret so that fans might believe they were romantically involved. It has also
been rumored that Prince demanded she eat and drink only candy and herbal tea –
just like him. “He wanted to make everyone clones of himself,” she said.

 

As Prince soon discovered,
however, Kotero might have had the look, but she wasn’t the greatest of
singers. With little option but to forge ahead, he soon began to take songs
away from the Apollonia 6 album, either to record himself (“17 Days,”
“Take Me With U”), repurpose for another imminent side project by Sheila E.
(“The Glamorous Life”), or hold onto until a suitable act came along (“Manic
Monday,” which he donated to The Bangles after meeting Susanna Hoffs in 1985).
All that remained for Kotero to sing was a sequence of lightweight pop tunes,
such as “Sex Shooter” and “Blue Limousine.”

 

***

 

Purple Rain began shooting on November 1, 1983, giving the cast a few weeks to
complete the outdoor scenes before the bitter cold of a Minneapolis winter crept in at the end of the
month. Not all of them were finished in time, however, so some members of the
cast and crew were flown out to Los Angeles as
indoor shooting continued in Minneapolis.
Mo Ostin’s $4 million was beginning to run out, leaving the whole team in
desperate need of major financial backing if the project was going to be seen
through to the end.

 

Bob Cavallo and Steve
Fargnoli went back to Warner Bros. Pictures, and this time were able to
convince the company of Purple Rain‘s worth – just as cast and crew were
celebrating at the movie’s wrap party in Minneapolis at Bloomington’s Holiday Inn
on December 22. Although a few scenes had to be re-shot in Los Angeles on December 27, post-production
on Purple Rain could now begin in preparation for its theatrical
release.

 

A perfectly orchestrated
promotional campaign meant that when Purple Rain opened on July 27, 1984
it brought in $7.3 million in just three days. It went on to make around $70
million in total – reportedly more than ten times the cost of production.
According to Albert Magnoli, the movie’s excellent opening weekend meant that its
distribution needed to be stepped up several gears. Having initially planned to
show the movie in 200 theaters, Warner Bros. now decided to present it on over
900 screens across the USA.
Following the word-of-mouth success of the Controversy and Triple Threat tours
and the May 1984 single “When Doves Cry,” the release of the Purple Rain soundtrack
album raised anticipation for the new movie to fever pitch. The summer of 1984
was set to be Prince’s season. Anyone who hadn’t yet seen him live clamored to
get a look at Prince in action; those who already had were eager to relive the
excitement.

 

In the two decades since
its release, the Purple Rain movie has become dated on a number of
levels. That it helped define the 80s is without question, but in so perfectly
capturing the zeitgeist it also came to exemplify so many of the decade’s worst
cliches. There’s the big hair, the new romantic clothes, the obligatory
topless-woman scene, in which the hapless Apollonia is asked if she wants to
“purify” herself in Lake
Minnetonka; there’s also
an awkward moment where Jerome Benton throws a stereotypically loudmouthed
ex-lover of Morris Day’s into a dumpster. (When challenged by MTV about the
movie’s alleged sexism, Prince admitted: “Sometimes, for the sake of humor, we
may have gone overboard.”) Even the editing techniques that once helped tie the
visual experience of Purple Rain to the fast pace of MTV aren’t quite so
dazzling as they once were.

 

As an insight into
Prince’s psyche, however, Purple Rain is indispensable. The Battle of the Bands trials surrounding rival acts The
Revolution, The Time, and Apollonia 6 are based on Prince’s early days as a
struggling musician in Minneapolis, during which
time he played in Champagne
on the same club circuit as Flyte Time. The scenes work not just as dramatic
construct but also as a tribute to Prince’s hometown and the people who helped
him in his early days.

 

Most of the characters and
musical acts in the film – The Revolution, The Time, Apollonia 6, and even
First Avenue club owner Billy Sparks – use their real names, and are
essentially extensions of themselves. Prince plays The Kid, a
semiautobiographical construction with an almost magical air. He seems to have
the ability to appear and disappear at will, whether on side streets, on his
purple motorcycle, or in scenes such as the one in which he seems to vanish
when Apollonia turns to compliment him on a performance.

 

In 1996, Prince told Oprah
Winfrey that the most autobiographical part of the film was “probably the scene
with me looking at my mother, crying.” Although Albert Magnoli later suggested
that the part where The Kid’s father warns him never to get married was based
on something Prince once told him, the singer himself was adamant, in a 1985
interview with Rolling Stone, that “[the] stuff about my dad was part of
Al Magnoli’s story. We used parts of my past and present to make the story pop
more, but it was a story.”

 

Even so, the career of the
father in Purple Rain – an abusive failed musician named Francis L. – seems
to echo that of Prince’s real father, John L. Nelson. Prince has never spoken
about exactly what went on behind closed doors in his family. But given that
his parents divorced when he was young, and that he then became estranged from
his father for lengthy periods (and even made overt references to child abuse
on record), it would seem that his was not a particularly happy childhood. That
the specter of physical abuse lingers in The Kid’s relationship with Apollonia
– and that he even envisions his own suicide after his father attempts to take
his own life – suggests that Prince was playing out something of an Oedipal
nightmare on the big screen.

 

The New York Post review
of Purple Rain noted that, in The Kid’s world, “women are there to be
worshipped, beaten, or humiliated.” Most other reviews of the movie, however,
were content simply to revel in the “affirmation of [Prince’s] versatility and
substance” (Miami Herald); his “taste for androgynous appeal” (Philadelphia
Daily News
); or the fact that the movie “reeks of unadorned sex” (Detroit
Free Press
). Perhaps the lack of armchair psychology in these reviews is a
reflection of the two-dimensional nature of the movie, in which Wendy and Lisa
are simply the girls of The Revolution; Morris Day – a “full-fledged young
comedian” in the eyes of noted critic Pauline Kael – relaxes into a pimp
persona; and Apollonia serves as the eye candy.

 

Albert Magnoli might have
tried hard to invest some feeling and motivation into the characters, but the
parts audiences tend to remember are the performances. Purple Rain might
not have aged all too well, but the musical segments remain as incredible as
they ever were, particularly those by Prince himself. He manages to wring every
drop of emotion out of a character who, elsewhere in the movie, seems moody,
inarticulate, and self-obsessed.

 

One interesting aspect of Purple
Rain
is that, although Prince’s parents were both black, The Kid’s mother
is played by Greek actress Olga Kartalos (one of only two professional actors
in the movie, the other being Clarence Williams III, who played Francis L.).
This was in part another example of Prince’s efforts to blur the truth of the
story, but it might also say something about the light-skinned singer’s
attempts to appeal to a mixed mass audience. Having tasted mainstream success
with “Little Red Corvette,” Prince was keen to follow up with something simple
and bombastic and cross right over – just like Bob Seger, whom Prince kept
crossing paths with on his 1999 tour.

 

And so Prince wrote
“Purple Rain,” a guitar-led anthem that builds from a simple chordal opening to
a huge crescendo with strings, almost five minutes of guitar soloing, and
Prince’s most impassioned vocal performance to date. The song became an instant
lighters-in-the-air classic and helped the accompanying album sell 13 million
copies in the US
alone.

 

The Purple Rain soundtrack
album still stands as Prince’s biggest-selling record. After knocking Bruce
Springsteen’s Born in the USA off the top of the Billboard 200,
it remained at Number One for 24 weeks. It served as further evidence, as Bob
Cavallo put it, of the fact that Prince was “vitally interested in music, but
also in success.” Perhaps the most obvious example of Prince’s ability to meld
creativity with commerciality was the leadoff single, the ethereal pop
masterpiece “When Doves Cry.” The opening guitar riff roots the song in rock,
but the overlapping vocals, complex drum-machine patterns, and complete lack of
bassline came from somewhere else entirely. (It was all too much for Warners.
According to vice president Marylou Badeaux, the label’s initial response was:
“What kind of fucking record is this, with a bunch of strange sounds?”)

 

The rest of Purple Rain served as the best evidence yet of the power of Prince and his arsenal of
strange sounds. The opening “Let’s Go Crazy” is perfectly pitched, beginning –
as does the movie – with church organ and the words “Dearly beloved, we are
gathered here today …” before launching into an uninhibited dance track. Its
promises of a mixture of sexual freedom and salvation carry the message that,
if you follow Prince, you’ll be free to do whatever you chose.

 

The album also contains
one of Prince’s most heartbreaking ballads, “The Beautiful Ones.” Written for
Susannah Melvoin, twin sister of guitarist Wendy -whom Prince had met in May
1983, while she was still in another relationship – it builds around gentle
synths and slow drum patterns to the coy question: “If we get married, would
that be cool?” Having concluded that you always lose the beautiful ones, Prince
lets go for a moment of pure passion, screaming relentlessly to his unrequited
love.

 

The pacing of the album is
exemplary, with each of the ballads offset by uptempo dance tracks. “The
Beautiful Ones” is followed by “Computer Blue,” a track constructed out of
driving drum loops and dolphin-like squalls of guitar. The emotional intensity
builds on “Darling Nikki,” with its stop-start synths and backward messages
that God is coming, and “When Doves Cry,” before peaking on the final three
tracks – “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and “Purple Rain” – all of which
segue into one another, as recorded at the First Avenue benefit show.

 

While most of Purple
Rain
seemed to replace the crude sexuality of old with a more subtle sensuality,
one song in particular landed Prince in hot water. Prince had already written
songs about oral sex and incest (“Head” and “Sister,” both included on Dirty
Mind
), and even declared his intention to “fuck the taste out of your
mouth” on 1999‘s “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” But when Tipper Gore
(the wife of future Vice President Al Gore) heard “Darling Nikki” – in which
the “sex fiend” title character “masturbat[es] with a magazine” – playing in
her daughter’s bedroom she was suitably encouraged to form the Parents’ Music Resource
Center. Gore’s
organization led a crusade to clean up popular music, one of the results of
which was the introduction of Parental Advisory stickers. It also drew up a
list of the “Filthy Fifteen” – the most offensive records of the time. “Darling
Nikki” headed the list, with the Prince-penned “Sugar Walls” at Number Two,
suggesting that the PMRC had been far too outraged to dig any deeper into
Prince’s back catalog.

 

***

 

From Prince: Chaos, Disorder and Revolution, (c) 2011 by Jason Draper. Published by Backbeat Books, an imprint of
Hal Leonard. ISBN: 978-0-87930-961-9. $19.99. Reprinted with permission. www.backbeatbooks.com

 

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