I knew him for six years before he looked me in the eye.
Yes, Prince was very shy. Until he got onstage. Or until you got to know him.
If you got to know him, he was smart, articulate, aware, spiritual, observant, clever, joyful, silly, sweet, generous, thoughtful, impulsive, complicated, spontaneous and cuttingly funny.
If you saw him onstage — either with one of his superbly drilled bands or on his recent solo piano tour — you witnessed arguably the most dazzling and well-rounded talent of the past 40 years.
Prince had all of the trappings of self-indulgent rock stardom — custom-made look-at-me outfits, purple limousines and motorcycles, a squad of bodyguards, dishes emblazoned with his glyph, phone calls to his employees in the middle of the night, and on and on.
Having covered him since 1977, when he was recording his one-man-band debut for Warner Bros., I got to see him up close and personal, witnessing the great (concert after concert), the bad (on Arsenio Hall’s TV talk show he burned a review I wrote about one of his albums) and the ugly (events where he was expected to perform but didn’t).
Summoned to Denver
Perhaps one incident typifies how Prince rolled.
In May 2013, I was trying to set up a telephone interview with 3rdEyeGirl, Prince’s new backup band. On the day of my deadline, Prince’s publicist e-mailed at 3 p.m. She asked whether I could be in Denver that night for an interview with the band — and “maybe Prince will talk to you.”
Not even Prince can charter a private plane on two hours’ notice, so I flew commercial, arriving between Prince and 3rdEyeGirls’ two concerts that night. After the second show, I went to a club with his band to wait for Prince. He called his manager — Prince didn’t have a cellphone — and asked to talk to me. He wanted my review of the show.
It was a normal conversation. No airs, no arrogance. And no indication that whatever I said might lead to an interview.
Prince finally showed up at 4 a.m. We talked till 6:20 a.m. His rules, of course: No tape recorder, no notebook. Just conversation. Look each other in the eye.
Another journalist there wasn’t a music critic, so Prince asked me to explain Sly & the Family Stone. He approved of my discussion of the cultural and musical significance of Sly, but said, “You left something out. That’s how I learned how to play bass.”
Indeed, Prince taught himself how to play bass guitar by listening to Family Stone bassist Larry Graham, who would later move to Minnesota and became a close friend and a spiritual mentor.
The public perceived that Prince had a contentious relationship with the Minnesota music critic who covered him the most. I became an insider in the early years, interviewing him in 1978 for 90 minutes with no one else in the room. (“I’ve never talked this much in my life,” he said at the end of the session, his giant Afro hid under a floppy newsboy cap.) There were invites backstage, the “Purple Rain” premiere and party in Hollywood, and various private events.
But when I gave Prince a copy of my unauthorized 1984 biography (“Prince: Inside the Purple Reign”) during rehearsals for his Purple Rain concert tour, he went crazy. He didn’t have control of his own story. And he was a control freak.
I was persona non grata during the 1990s after some honest but negative reviews of his albums and the “Graffiti Bridge” movie.
However, at a 1996 listening party for his “Emancipation” album at Paisley Park, he said in front of 75 folks: “Jon, you and I should bury the hatchet. We need to talk.”
That talk didn’t come until Denver 16 years later.
He certainly read what I wrote about him, though. At one point that night he turned to me and said, “This is no wig,” referring to a piece in which I had speculated that he was wearing an Afro wig. “And Jon Bream, what happened to all your hair?”
We burst into laughter.
The Prince of Chanhassen
After forming his backup trio 3rdEyeGirl in the fall of 2012, the Minnesota music monarch’s demeanor changed. He became the refreshed Prince of Chanhassen. Gone was the intensely aloof, mysterious rock star of old. He seemed mature, acting like a 50-something adult, not a petulant celeb. He championed his collaborators, treating them as equals, not puppets or playthings.
He began opening Paisley Park more frequently to the public (and journalists).
He even threw a spontaneous private party and concert in October when the Minnesota Lynx won the WNBA championship — and he attended the clinching game.
Last Saturday, Prince welcomed fans to Paisley Park once again for a dance party with a DJ. The Internet had lit up the day before with stories of his private plane making an emergency landing in the wee hours after two concerts in Atlanta. He wanted to reassure fans that he was alive and well.
I watched as he played “Chopsticks” on his brand-new purple piano, showed off a metallic purple guitar and spoke briefly — words that seem sadly ironic in retrospect: “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.”
The last time I saw him was Tuesday night, when Prince and a few members of his band attended a concert by soul/jazz singer Lizz Wright at the Dakota Jazz Club. He was a fan of music as well as a music-maker.
For a change, he stayed for the entire show — even the encore — then made his exit through the kitchen door, strutting with that unmistakable Prince attitude, his gold embossed cane slung over his shoulder, his Afro disappearing into the night.