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Both the writer Neal Karlen and the superstar Prince were Minneapolis boys; the former Jewish in the blackest neighborhood to be found in a city that was 99% white. Roughly the same age. Mirror images of each other’s skin as compared to their surroundings. And they both liked wrestling. They bonded over names like Mad Dog Vachon or The Crusher once they reconnected as adults and professionals. Karlen was savvy enough to discern how the wrestling practice of kayfabe, informed Prince’s public persona. Which is to say, almost all of what we knew of his personality.
Karlen hypothesized that Prince was everything he said he was…at least 15% of the time. Vegetarian? Vegan even? Sure…except when he was getting barbecue at the joint near where Karlen lived. From profane funkateer to devout Jehovah’s Witness with a swear jar where employees who cursed had to drop greenbacks while he would allow himself the mild expletive “mamma jamma?” Suuuuure… when he wasn’t dropping MFs like they were going out of style. And what other Jehovah’s Witness ever threw themselves lavish birthday parties?
Maintaining the illusion meant that the author [and the rest of humanity] never saw Prince in any state other than impeccably styled, dressed to the nines and ready for stage. Half cribbed from professional “grapplers” always acting the storyline, and the rest taken from the handbook of cool written in the mid-70s by basketball pro [and superfly prototype] Walt Frazier. Frazier impressed on the young Prince the fact that threads make the man, which was a concept that he rocked until his dying day.
All of this make-believe was instrumental in manifesting the sort of superstardom that he desired. After all, the same approach worked for Bowie a decade earlier. Conceptualize the best rock star ever. Stay “in character” and spend money like there’s no tomorrow to blur the line between reality and fantasy. Become that rock star. For Prince, it also worked. At least for the bulk of the 80s.
The 90s were a different time where Karlen suspects that much of The Artist’s problems came down to him starting to believe the story he was creating himself. Prince called Karlen to write up a script for the “3 Chains O’Gold” rock video…in addition to a manifesto to be buried in a time capsule along with his will [Karlen swears this happened] on Paisley Park property. He began to see Warner Brothers Records under the watch of Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker as “slavemasters” and he famously changed his name to a glyph and Karlen was one of the first to know about this besides Prince’s management. He was asked to write the press release. Most of this era was also thin on the sort of hits that The Artist Formerly Known As Prince® was accustomed to. From the perspective of this one time fan, he looked like he was on shaky ground in the 90s, and then the earthquake happened.
His son Amiir being born in 1996 with Pfeiffer syndrome 2 which saw the infant live only a short time, was a crippling blow. Prince was so deep in denial and/or maintaining appearances, that he famously gave an interview with Oprah Winfrey after his son’s death maintaining the fiction that he was alive and well. Karlen saw this event as casting a very long shadow on the trajectory of Prince’s life thereafter. He actually bulldozed the playground he built before his son’s birth and ultimately his marriage to his wife Mayte was annulled. As well as bulldozing his father’s house after his death…and the Toronto Mansion where he lived with his second wife. He took his symbology [and bulldozers as well] very seriously.
Though he ended the 90s by suing the fans who ran websites devoted to him, Karlen thought that by the 21st century that Prince genuinely made strides in how he related to others. Prince was elected into the Rock + Roll Hall Of Fame on his first year of eligibility, despite the many bridges he’d burned by then. “Musicology” and “3131” rebuffed his reputation. His 2007 Super Bowl halftime show cemented it. He had circled back to legend status once more with the general public. But all was not well in Paisley Park.
By the late 90s, Prince had to moderate his dancing. The pain in his hips and ankles was too much for him. No more ecstatic leaps off of monitor stacks in four inch heels. The dancing days were winding down. There were rumors about hip-replacement surgery that even Jehovah’s Witnesses [who were not allowed blood transfusions] could have done discreetly. Karlen knew first hand about Prince’s painkiller habit. When the author had broken his leg in five places in 1997 Prince had called him on the phone for the first time in four months. In daylight hours. After small talk, verifying that he had a supply of Percoset after his surgery, Karlen was shocked that Prince said he’d drive over from Paisley Park in Chanhanssen to visit him in Uptown Minneapolis. He was touched by the gesture until Prince entered and went straight for the bottle of pills, gobbling them down before the barely mobile writer could stop him.
The last late night phone call that Prince made to Karlen a few weeks before his death rattled him. Prince seemed to be …off. People who had been close to Prince were also having their Spidey-Sense™ tingling. Karlen intentionally dropped very false stories with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune gossip columnist who was Prince’s bête noir in the hopes he’d get angry and call. In retrospect, not the most direct course of action.
André Cymone had independently texted Prince claiming he was homeless [he wasn’t] and he needed a place to stay in the hopes he could once more get close enough to help. Horn player Alan Leeds called after the news that Prince’s plane made an unscheduled stop in Moline, Illinois on the way back from his final performance in Atlanta for a reputed fentanyl OD treatment. But he was rebuffed with “everything’s fine.”
By the time that Prince died alone in his elevator in the wee small hours of April 21st, 2016, the pain was such that even though he wasn’t dancing, he was struggling. Not just his hips and ankles, but by then his hands, and arms were wracked with constant pain. Not dancing was a second kind of death for him following the loss of his son 20 years earlier, but his ability to play music was slipping through his fingers like grains of sand.
The horror related here was that Prince’s staff had reached out to Dr. Howard Kornfeld; an addiction specialist who sent his son out to Paisley Park to meet with Prince and ascertain the severity of the situation. He was eating breakfast with two members of Prince’s staff when they mentioned that they had not checked on Prince in a while; nothing unusual in that. Andrew Kornfeld was alarmed by this and told them that they should go to Paisley Park immediately. They arrived to find the subject of their concerns already dead.
Decades after admitting to Karlen that his greatest fear was to die alone Prince did exactly that. This book could not have been an easy job to write given that the author, in spite of his uncertainty that he was ever a friend of Prince, was clearly the person to get across the most nuanced and subtle glimpse of the driven artist who sought to cram an unholy amount of music into a lifetime that was all used up by the time he was 57 years old. It’s a fascinating read and it even begins to paint as human a picture as we’re ever likely to have about the artist, given that most of his friends were gone from his life by the time he reached the plateau of stardom. He shut many people out, but the fact that he let a writer get as close as he did for over thirty years allows us an empathetic look inside the walls he built around the mononymed construction that was Prince. And it can make your heart ache.
What a superb review. Have to get this book.
Dave Turner – It’s not all heavy going. The story of the last time Karlen saw Prince was a truly laugh-out-loud moment. It helps to put a human face on what was largely an unknowable phenomenon.
Sure sounds like a good read. I’ve read the official part-completed auto-biography, Mayte’s brilliant book and Morris Day’s unusual but equally enthralling work. Looking forward to getting this. And thanks for highlighting it. Might never have heard of it otherwise…
Dave Turner – I can’t remember where I heard of Karlen but my wife was on a Prince jag [she still is!] and got the book for the library where she works.
Saw Prince on the Emancipation tour. One of the greatest shows I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a LOT of live music). At one point he’s playing his guitar, alternating between rhythm and a solo, climbs up on top of the grand piano, jumps off, lands into doing the splits and does that move where he slides into standing and moves around the stage some more. All the while he never drops a note. OF COURSE HE HAD HIP ISSUES!!!
postpostmoderndad – Rub it in! I never got to see Prince. One of my biggest gaffes.