The Prince Episode with Author Arthur Lizie

by Corey O'Flanagan

The author of Prince On Prince: Interviews And Encounters offers insights on his life and music, including his strategic mystique and the pushback he got for courting a mainstream audience.

Prince was famously averse to interviews, but the ones he gave tell quite a story when given context. In Arthur Lizie's book Prince On Prince: Interviews And Encounters, he assembled interviews from throughout Prince's career and, crucially, writes an explainer before each. Like Dylan, Prince would often toy with interviewers, which only adds to the mystique. Lizie serves as a guide so we can understand how these conversations really relate to his life and music.

We used our time with Lizie to unearth some stories we'd never heard about Prince, like how his Super Bowl performance of "Best Of You" was retaliation of sorts for Foo Fighters covering his song "Darling Nikki," which Prince didn't appreciate. We also discuss some key Prince songs, including "Controversy" and "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World." The full transcript is below.


What Made Prince Unique

He was one of those few people who could do it all. He wrote his own songs, played multiple instruments, sang, was a producer, ran his own company... he just did everything. I consider him a musical genius.

From early on, he was doing everything. When he was in school and up through high school, he did play out live and had band members, but he was interested in controlling everything from early on. I think one of the interesting things is, he did all that and he was able to get that control with his first album,1 but he never really appeared to be a prima donna because he backed it up. He knew what he wanted, and he was able to get it done.


How The Book Varies From A Traditional Biography

At the core of it are the artist's words and ideas in first person, in real time. So we go from the late '70s to the mid-2010s. We get what the artist is thinking about the world and about himself.

The second interesting thing, sort of the next layer, is with the interviewers and how the interviewer's relationship with him changes over time from sort of an incredulous who does this guy think he is? to oh yeah, we know who he is, to maybe we'll never know - who knows who he actually is? So we get to see that trajectory, too - the perceptions of him in the spotlight. And then that next layer is me choosing and guiding the narrative and picking out critical points in his career. So it's a different layering of a biography than one might usually get.


Prince's Elusiveness

It is initially his personality, and it evolves into part of his persona. He will strategically come out of the shell, especially later on when he needs to correct the narrative or to sell something. He will open up a bit, but he's very selective about what he opens up about.

This is Songfacts, but he didn't talk about his songs very much. He shied away from talking about the creative process and typically let the songs speak for themselves, which is a little frustrating in reading interviews, but at the same time, I respect that so much in an artist, to simply let their work speak for itself, because that's why you ideally create things. Let the audience explore them and figure them out in their own ways.

One of the things I got from this is even more of an appreciation that he had for the fans... well, that's maybe not 100% true - there's some internet issues that happen with the fans, but in terms of the music itself, he put it out there and let the fans make meaning as they will.


The Song "Controversy"

Musically, I certainly hear Talking Heads, and I hear some Bowie in there, and stuff that he came around to later - Kraftwerk-type stuff, there's definitely that. There's the on-the-one funk, but there's also a different type of feel to the whole thing.

As with a lot of his songs, musically it does come out from simply sitting down and jamming, even if it's on his own, and then coming up with ideas. Lyrically it's pretty interesting because it's one of the first times when he starts to comment upon himself. We build up to this point in the book where people are saying all these different things about him and he's saying different things about himself - some of them true, some false - and he brings that all together in "Controversy," where he's commenting on the world at large but also commenting on what people are thinking about him and capitalizing on all of that at the same time. And then mixing in the Lord's Prayer at the end as a total curve ball.


Cover Songs

He was never a fan of other artists covering his music. The big battle there was with Foo Fighters doing a cover of "Darling Nikki." He wasn't very happy about that, and his performance at the 2007 Super Bowl of Foo Fighters' "Best Of You" was his showing them up, taking one of their songs for them taking one of his songs. He was protective of his music.


Super Bowl Performance

The whole Super Bowl thing is fascinating. To start off the week he had to do a press conference, which is what the artists are always expected to do. So he got up, basically said one word, and then he did a couple of songs.2 So his press conference was that same thing: letting the music do the talking rather than going up there and explaining things.

But the actual performance itself, in the rain, just the magnificent stage setup, the symbol, the marching band, he was able to show off all his chops there.


"Nothing Compares 2 U"

It was actually a song for The Family, one of his offshoot bands, and it appears on The Family's one album. It wasn't a major hit at that time, but it did get some airplay. Then Sinead O'Connor used it and it became wildly, wildly popular. Prince made some nice change off it but seemed to resent the fact that she had that huge hit with it. When he came out with his first Greatest Hits collection, he put a live studio version of it on there with Rosie Gaines. I prefer that version.

After he died, one of his original versions was released on the Originals album, which is an album of Prince songs that other artists have covered in their demo or original versions. Then this past week, a Sinead O'Connor documentary came out and the Prince estate refused them permission to use the song, and that becomes part of the narrative in the documentary itself, that the Prince estate is still at war with Sinead O'Connor.

The estate typically tries to go by what they think he would've done, but I don't know if he would've approved of all of these releases that have come out of demos and outtakes and all that type of thing. But I'm glad the stuff's coming out.


"The Most Beautiful Girl In The World"

It comes at an odd time. I'm not gonna get into the weeds about the battles with Warner Brothers and if he's on the label at this time or not, but I think it's most interesting that it comes out as an independent single. It was his first #1 in England, so it becomes this huge smash, and it's him showing that he can do it on his own - he doesn't need this major-label support. He can go out there and find the resources, and he's able to be hugely successful on what is a catchy song but not among his best songs.


Pushback From Black Fans

The pushback he got, I think it started during the Purple Rain era and it moved on after that. Some of the band members were complaining that he was catering to white audiences, and from about 1988 to 1993, he didn't tour the United States at all. He was mostly playing in Europe primarily to white audiences.

So there was some of this perception that he had gotten away from his roots. It was frustrating for me because that's when I really wanted to see him, so I wasn't able to see him during all that time until he came back around on The Symbol tour in 1993. But that's one of the undercurrents: his relationship with his Black audiences and with the Black press. I don't think it was that he was selling out, but that he had his eye more on the mainstream rather than having the back of Black audiences and his Black fans.

There was a conscious decision early on to try to appeal to new wave and punk audiences - so white audiences. I'm just south of Boston, and WBCN was the big white station - what we now might call alternative music - but they started putting Prince in their rotation, which was unusual to have a Black artist in their rotation. That doesn't come about without some type of promotion from the label to try to consciously go after those different audiences.


Compiling Interviews When Prince Rarely Gave Them

I think it makes him more of an interesting subject because there's the allure of mystery. If he's not saying what's happening, then what is actually happening? We don't necessarily know.

Actually, we come to find out that basically what he was doing during that time was working, and he didn't have the time or interest to do things other than work. He was either in the studio or on the road, sometimes both at the same time.

This isn't unprecedented. This is my second book in this Interviews And Encounters series. The first one is Neil Young, and he did the same thing for an even longer period of time, where from about '73 to the early '80s, it was just a handful of interviews. He went off the grid also.

They both did it for some similar reasons. They both experienced levels of stardom and success that would be hard to deal with, and I guess one of the ways to deal with it is to simply shut off those areas of your life that you can't control, and an interview is something that you can't necessarily control. You are at the behest of the interviewer, and then after that you're at the behest of how it's written up and then how it's contextualized. So one of the ways you can gain some control is to simply stop playing the game.


The Prince Mystique

During the Purple Rain tour, he releases another album, and then we get another album on the heels of that, and another album, then a double album. So he was interested in working and he was interested in talking to people through his music. So there's the mystique of not talking to interviewers, but also he was trying to just simply talk directly to the fans with his music.


Peak Prince

The moments when he's in the spotlight the most are the moments when he's releasing the best music. I think there's a definite correlation there. If we talk about him wearing out his welcome, I think the first time that hits is with Graffiti Bridge, which followed seven or eight years of some of the best albums ever created. Graffiti Bridge is a mishmash of stuff that's great and stuff that I never need to hear again.

That really started to put people off, because at that same time he wasn't touring and instead putting out a movie. I tried to see the movie when it came out and it wasn't playing around me. So that dropped him off a bit and he had to rethink what he was doing.

He pivots a bit at that point toward rap and hip-hop and that type of stuff, and makes a string of really, really good albums at that point. He's back in the spotlight, he starts touring again. And he's consistently producing quality material till about 2010. Musicology in 2004; 3121 in 2007, and he tours with that. After that he produces a lot of good music but he keeps his profile high by touring, because at that point in the industry, that's where the money is. It's not releasing music that people are going to steal on Napster. The money's in touring, and he was great at that.


Staying In Minneapolis

One of his famous lines is that he stayed there because the weather keeps the bad people out. He felt at home there. He lived in LA for a while and lived in Toronto for a little bit, periodically lived in Spain and other places with second and third and fourth houses, but he always felt comfortable there. The weather didn't bother him - just put on a big parka and you're all set.

November 27, 2022

Get Prince On Prince: Interviews And Encounters at Chicago Review Press

Further Reading:
Prince Songfacts entries
Fact or Fiction: Prince
Prince Timeline

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Footnotes:

  • 1] Prince held out for a record deal that gave him complete creative control, unheard of for a new, unproven artist. (back)
  • 2] At the press conference, Prince came out with his guitar and said, "Contrary to rumor, I'd like to take a few questions." Instead of answering the first question, he struck up the band and started playing, turning the press conference into a concert. (back)

More Songfacts Podcast

Comments: 1

  • Boz Rags from Ohio UsaThe supposed beef between Prince and Foo Fighters mentioned above isn't entirely accurate, and he wasn't opposed to recording or performing covers. He released versions of "Betcha By Golly Wow" and "What If God Was One of Us," and often played Joni Mitchell, Radiohead and Led Zeppelin tunes in concert. bit.ly/3FCYZJj
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