That Prince died alone in his elevator after overdosing on painkillers he would never cop to using, much less abusing, has always struck me as a tragedy. After reading Neal Karlen’s memoir of his is-it-or-isn’t-it 31 year friendship with Mr. Nelson, it seems like I didn’t know the half of it.
Karlen was a journalist [writing for Rolling Stone] in the mid-80s who had interviewed Wendy + Lisa for the “Prince’s Women” cover that ran, and afterward, Wendy Melvoin mentioned to her twin sister and Prince’s current steady Susannah that this guy was all right. Maybe he would be the right guy to interview the Purple One? It had been at least three years since he had spoken to the press and since becoming the hottest star on the planet in the interim, there was a pent-up desire that needed sating. After his partner gave him the all-clear, Neal Karlen got to interview Prince not just once, but for several Rolling Stone covers.
The crazy thing was, that the first interview in the mid-80s wasn’t his first meeting with Prince. That would have been when the author was twelve. And he joined a pickup basketball game in his neighborhood near the Dairy Queen and the white, Jewish kid managed to make an impression on the youthful Prince [then known as “Skipper”] with his adroit ball handling and showmanship skills he developed in lieu of actual gamesmanship. So their 34 years of camaraderie actually had a foundational aspect that was near mythical. Karlen certainly was taken aback when Prince mentioned it to him as he had no reason to remember it from his own perspective.
When I consider the inhuman levels of musical productivity that Prince adhered to in his life, I have to shake my head and wonder at the very human costs that such a burning drive surely exerted. The portrait that emerged from this memoir was that of a lonely man who poured 100% of his compensatory energies into being the most dazzling musician of his generation. Maybe several generations. Karlen devotes many pages toward the push and pull of the performer’s tumultuous relationship with his father, John Nelson. Prince vacillated between either denigrating him or seeking his approval throughout his life.
Better was his relationship with his mother, Mattie Nelson, who was an addictions counselor, and not the libertine drug addict that Prince had scandalously painter her as in his early interviews. The willingness of Prince to throw bucketfuls of misinformation at the hungry press was just another of the star’s coping mechanisms. But whatever issued forth from the artist’s mouth was far from gospel. Better to seek the truth between the lines of his songs than in his often fact-free interviews.
Truth could be divinated from the interviews conducted with his one-time friends who figure in these pages; particularly André Cymone. Karlen imagines that the talented Cymone might have been the last authentic friend [in the understood sense of the word] that Prince may have had. He exited the story in 1981. Prince’s history in the last 40 years showed a willingness to isolate and cut people out of his life that did him no favors as he careened through the phases of his life. And when the shame of painkiller addiction due to his years of demanding physical concerts took its toll, there was no one close enough to him in the end to offer help.
It spoke eloquently that Karlen who had many dead-of-night night phone calls from the artist through the years, as well as adventures like a visitation to the grave of Sonny Liston for Prince to relate a message from the also dead Muhammad Ali. Sure, there were long stretches of no communication from The Artist at various times, but can happen between friends, right? Karlen was never sure of his status with Prince. He was too guarded even when ostensibly “hanging out” with Karlen and shooting hoops.
Next: …Grappling With Superstardom