DENVER – The e-mail arrived at 3 p.m. Monday, marked urgent: “Can you fly out to Denver tonight and cover Prince’s show? You can have time with each of the girls [in his band 3rdEyeGirl] and there is a chance Prince will talk.”
This is how Prince rolls. Last-minute, vague promises, no guarantees. Neither punctuality, nor sleep, is a priority. Having covered Prince since Day 1 of his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career, I’ve been through more false alarms with him than a self-installed security system.
This time would be very different. There is a new cast of characters around Prince — both on- and offstage — and a sense of freshness and newfound freedom. The arrogance and attitude that have long permeated Prince’s world are gone, replaced by the hunger, excitement and enthusiasm of youth.
• • •
We landed in Denver at 9:30 p.m., about an hour after the start of his first of two sold-out shows Monday at the Ogden Theatre. Waiting was a hired driver who’d chauffeured Prince and his girlfriend on Sunday, the first night of the Mile High gigs. He said the Minnesota music legend didn’t talk much. After performing two 90-minute concerts, Prince and his entourage went to a 2:15 a.m. private screening of “Iron Man 3” but he left early with his girlfriend.
Our black SUV maneuvered through a dark alley and pulled up to a black brick building — the Ogden’s stage entrance. Prince’s first show had ended. My time with 3rdEyeGirl had come. The blonde, brunette and almost-redhead lit up the all-black dressing room with smiles, giddy energy and a single sequined teardrop glued under each of their eyes.
Prince had hired auburn-haired Ida Nielsen, from Denmark, in 2010 to play bass in his larger NPG band. He didn’t remember how he’d learned about her. He had also forgotten how or why he found drummer Hannah Ford Welton, a vivacious blonde from Louisville, in a YouTube video on the Internet. And the two women discovered dark-haired guitarist Donna Grantis, from Toronto, on the Web.
All three have been living in Chanhassen and rehearsing at Prince’s Paisley Park complex since November. Since they made their stage debut in January at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, they’ve done 34 concerts, with a performance scheduled on Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards (7 p.m. on KSTP, Ch. 5) and two shows Saturday at the 3,200-capacity Myth nightclub in Maplewood.
Rehearsals have been rigorous — typically eight- to 10-hour days, learning the 60-plus songs they’ve played on tour.
“Usually on days off we go to Mall of America,” Grantis said. “Sometimes we go to the Dakota.”
“Sometimes we do girly things,” Nielsen interjected.
And they often play ping-pong with Prince. “He’s fantastic; he’s scary good,” said Ford Welton.
Prince’s manager stuck her head through the doorway: “You go on in five minutes.” Interview over. As I left the dressing room area, Prince walked in, all burgeoning Afro and black jacket with shoulder pads. After an unnecessary introduction, he extended his hand and said with a smile, “Of course I know Jon Bream.”
• • •
Our first introduction was in 1977, in a San Francisco-area studio where he was recording his debut album for Warner Bros. Actually, he stayed behind a glass partition, monotonously tapping a drumstick on a cymbal and declining to shake hands.
A year later, though, when he was debuting his new band for Warners executives in a Minneapolis theater, we sat together for a 90-minute interview at the Lake Harriet house where he was rehearsing. Afterward, the shy 20-year-old told me that was the longest he’d ever talked to anyone in his life. In 1980, there was an interview on the telephone before his Orpheum Theatre gig and, a year later, an invite to a tête-à-tête at Met Center that — surprise — turned out to be a dressing-room scene in a movie that he never finished.
After the explosion of “Purple Rain” in ’84 and the publication of an unauthorized book I wrote about Prince, he became leery of the hometown journalist. In the ensuing years, he had me escorted out of the downtown Minneapolis club he owned, and burned one of my reviews on TV’s “Arsenio Hall” show. Communication came through intermediaries, if at all.
That never deterred me. In 1996, a Best Buy official unwittingly invited me to a company-only listening party at Paisley Park to preview Prince’s triple-disc “Emancipation.” When the rock star asked the gathering for questions, no one responded, so he said, “Jon Bream, certainly you have questions.” He answered my innocuous query and added, “We should bury the hatchet and get together and talk.”
Once again, Prince wasn’t exactly prompt. The chat would come 17 years later in Denver.
• • •
Onstage at the Ogden, he and 3rdEyeGirl tore into the most rip-roaringly ferocious four-song opening Prince has probably ever put together. Plowing through an hour and a half of old favorites and new jams, he seemed refreshed and buoyed by the excitement of working with a new band put together from scratch, something he hasn’t done in years.
The music was loud, the band rocking, the guitar fireworks plentiful.
Afterward the fans in the 1,000-capacity venue were stoked.
“He was awesome,” said Tas Frashure, 45, of Boulder, who was seeing Prince in concert for the first time. “He’s so talented. Like Jimi Hendrix.”
Her friend Marni Blake was impressed, too, but said: “For $277, I should get an orgasm.”
• • •
Life on the rock ’n’ roll road is hurry up and wait. But there is no after-party quite like a Prince after-party. On this night, it was scheduled to be a band-only, no-performance affair. And of course it started late — 2:30 a.m., a good 90 minutes after the concert ended — and without Prince. He was still at his hotel, editing a video for the new single “Fix Ur Life Up.”
As I chatted with Prince’s girlfriend, two 3rdEyeGirl husbands and the trio’s stylist, his manager approached, holding out her cellphone. “Prince wants to talk to you.”
“What did you think of the show?” he asked.
“It’s the most exciting Prince show I’ve seen since probably the Sign o’ the Times Tour in 1987,” I opined.
We chatted for about 10 minutes. He promised to arrive at the after-party in 20 minutes.
An hour later he entered Lannie’s Clock Tower Cabaret, a downtown burlesque club. The Purple One was in turquoise, with glittery gold boots, a rhinestone-encrusted cane and a gold bib necklace. His round sunglasses were folded on the necklace and a two-finger ring featuring a giant eye (turquoise, of course) covered his right hand. His fluffy Afro obscured any earrings but not the guyliner and makeup he’s worn for years.
He reiterated his longstanding rule that interviewers not use tape recorders or notebooks, explaining that he wants to have a conversation in which he looks at the other people.
Prince didn’t want to entertain questions about Minnesota’s new same-sex marriage law or Bob Dylan (though he said they once passed backstage at First Avenue in the late 1980s and acknowledged each other with a nod). He was intent on promoting his new band, 3rdEyeGirl, and his club tour coming to Maplewood on Saturday.
“I’ve never been to the Myth,” said the Minnesotan whose life is littered with myth. “That was Julia’s idea” — his new manager Julia Ramadan, 23.
He extolled the value of having young people in his world because they bring new ideas. He said Ramadan recently told him: “When it comes to your life story, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.”
He beamed. “That would make a good song lyric,” he said.
He didn’t want to talk about things from the past. “You don’t talk about Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan,” presidents when Prince had his hits in the 1970s and 1980s. However, he did drop the names of many past associates — Andre Cymone, Bobby Z, members of the Time, Paul Peterson, Mark Brown — in the course of a free-wheeling conversation.
Sometimes Prince set the agenda. He went into an extended commentary about young stars such as Justin Bieber lip-syncing in concert. He implored music critics to tell the truth about the lip syncers.
Throughout the chat, he muttered “whatever” with the tone of a teenager when he didn’t want to pursue a topic and dropped the phrase “real time” whenever he got enthusiastic. Sometimes he slapped me on the knee to underscore a point.
At times he paused to listen to the music of Jimi Hendrix playing in the background. Even though he relishes new ideas from his bandmates, he wants them to know about important music of the past, such as Sly Stone, whose bassist, Larry Graham, is now Prince’s mentor (“he taught me the Bible”) and probably his closest friend. He lives near Prince in Chanhassen.
Prince said he plans to attend Graham’s shows May 27-28 at the Dakota in Minneapolis. Will he sit in? “I’ll play with him if he asks me,” he said, sounding momentarily modest.
• • •
The interviewee didn’t hesitate to challenge the interviewer. He brought up a story last fall in which I wondered whether his Afro, which seemed to be coming and going, was a wig.
“This is real time. Where’s all your hair?” he said, looking at my balding head. We all laughed.
He wasn’t afraid to own up to aging as he approaches his 55th birthday on June 7. He volunteered that he uses a TelePrompTer for lyrics (“I have 3,000 songs”) and pointed out that earlier at the Ogden he’d vamped extra long at the beginning of one tune because he couldn’t remember the opening lyric.
Not once at the after-party did Prince pay attention to his girlfriend, a tall Californian in black with long, soft curls. In fact, other than occasionally calling over one of the 3rdEyeGirls to ask a question, he focused on the conversation.
“Where’s the food?” he asked at 5 a.m. Flatbread pizzas were placed on a table in front of him. He grabbed a fork and a cloth napkin and picked at a piece.
His playful mood continued as he watched about 12 people from his organization dancing in a circle like a bunch of grade-schoolers to the sounds of James Brown and Sly Stone.
“Did you take notes, or dance, during the show?” he asked.
“Both,” I answered.
“I’ve never seen you dance,” said Prince, who likes to size up a musician by how she or he picks up their instrument. “Go up there and dance with them.”
“I don’t have my dancing shoes on,” I countered. “I’ll wear them to the Myth.”
The conversation continued on everything from 3rdEyeGirl’s forthcoming album — soon to be released on Kobalt, a new artist-friendly worldwide music service — to Prince’s idea that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson should help pick his teammates the way basketball superstar Kobe Bryant gets to do with the Lakers.
Suddenly he announced: “Time to go.”
The DJs stopped the music, I said my goodbyes.
It was 6:20 a.m. Outside my driver was waiting — and so was the bright sunshine.