"Turn this up for everybody, please."
Pacing onstage in the middle of Joe Louis Arena, Prince is huddling with an engineer. You think: Is that Prince? The sex-machine mystic of American pop and record-label scourge is a wisp of a man, dressed for the moment in a dark suit, eyeglasses and black turtleneck, like a professor at some university where soul is in the syllabus. A bass player, drummer and keyboardist wait nearby, ready. On cue, the band erupts and Prince, a lime-green Stratocaster around his neck, wades into a humid nine-minute blues.
"If you've got the time, baby," he moans, over Hendrix-inspired riffing, "I've got the ride."
Oh yes. That is Prince, at a sound check before a concert a few weeks ago, a show that he brings, at long last, to Washington for a three-night stand at MCI Center, starting tonight. During this particular song he'll steer his guitar through 20 different moods -- it's blustery, then worried, then weeping, then joyful for a few bars. He's so fluid and so preternaturally one with the instrument that you watch and must fight the urge to laugh. Or shake your head. Or cry. The performance, like so much of Prince's best work, falls somewhere between a stupid human trick and a miracle.
After a few songs, Prince jumps off the stage and takes a seat in the stands, which will be packed in a few hours but are empty for the moment. He listens to the band, offering directions and one-liners over a wireless microphone. Once he likes what he hears, he strolls over and introduces himself.
"Are you my doctor?" he quips, with a handshake and a wry smile. A golf cart has been backed into the arena and Prince is heading toward it.
"We've got a ways to go, so we're going to drive," he says as he settles in behind the wheel.
"Hang on," he says, over his shoulder. "I don't have insurance."
Prince in the driver's seat -- it couldn't be scripted any better. Known for the fastidious grip he keeps on every detail of his professional life, Prince has longed for this perch throughout his polychromatic career and, at the age of 46, he is finally and firmly there.
Behind him is the rancorous contractual fight with Warner Bros., his former label, during which he changed his name to a squiggle that couldn't be pronounced and appeared in public with the word "slave" inked on his cheek. Prince wanted out of a deal, reportedly worth $100 million, that he signed in the late 1980s, one that gave Warner rights to the masters of his recordings. He reassumed his given name only after his publishing contract with the company had expired.
Behind him, too, is all the personal trauma that so devastatingly complemented the professional turmoil. There was a son who died after just a week of life, from a rare bone disease, in 1996; a subsequent divorce from his first wife, a former backup dancer named Mayte Garcia; the passing of both of his parents. Prince never wanted to discuss any of it. That, plus his cage-match tactics with Warner Bros., took a public relations toll through most of the '90s, turning this deeply private man into what looked a lot like a humorless eccentric.
It didn't help that his output in recent years, available through his Web site, had been uneven, to put it generously, and didn't sell anywhere close to his "1999" and "Purple Rain" peak. As bad, the information vacuum left by his silence was filled by the Jay Lenos of the world, who told jokes like this one, on the "Tonight Show," in 2000:
"The Artist Formerly Known as Prince announced Tuesday that he will be, now and forever, known again as Prince. He should change his name one last time to the Artist Who Formerly Sold Albums."
A knee-slapper. But who's laughing now? After years in a kind of self-imposed exile, Prince is behaving, and recording, like a rock star again. He's filling arenas on a marathon and hugely successful tour, the wind of a certifiable hit album, "Musicology," at his back. He even eased off his phobia about major labels enough to let Sony distribute the album, though the company is merely getting a cut for shipping the disc into stores and will not own the copyrights on the masters.
He's also talking to journalists again, something he's rarely done in recent years. Still, there are plenty of ground rules. Like no tape recorders -- Prince has said he doesn't like the sound of his voice, a claim that is crazy on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start. Also, no questions about his private life.
Even with those caveats, Prince seems mellowed and readier than ever to retrieve that part of his audience that believed he'd gone missing or a little mad. Did he miss fame on the scale of his MTV days in the '80s?
His answer: Not at all.
"Once you've done anything, to do it again ain't no big deal, you feel me?" Prince says, easing back into a dark sofa in his dressing room. "I was on the cover of Rolling Stone with Vanity, I was on the cover of Rolling Stone when I didn't even do an interview, when I wouldn't talk to them. Once you've done something like that it's like, okay, what's the next thing?"
Sipping a bottle of water, Prince looks serene, uncreased and about a decade younger than he is. A guitar and keyboard are in one corner of the room, which has been draped with purple silks and tie-dyes, lighted by candles and lined with couches.
"They do this everywhere we go," he says, sweeping a hand around the place. "Makes it feel like home."
Prince is soft-spoken, intense and a tad pious, and he commandeers the course of this hour-long chat as if it's another golf cart. He also sounds, now and then, a bit paranoid, offering half-serious and dark theories on topics like water fluoridation, childhood vaccines and the Grammys, which he suspects are essentially rigged by record execs.
But here's the surprising part: He's also funny. Even the conspiracy stuff is funny, intentionally so. Humor actually seems like much of what defines the man, and when he talks about his major-label feud, he gets arch instead of angry.
"I wasn't getting anywhere by telling Warner Brothers that they were abusing me," he says. "But the minute I said, 'I got this, okay, that's cool, that's brilliant. I got to give it to you -- you can't sing, you can't dance, you can't write a song, but you own the product afterward and make the lion's share of the money? You're a genius!' "
It's a note he'll go back to again and again: comedy as a survival mechanism, comedy as an answer to what he considers the greedy absurdity of the fame business as it operates today. Like the recent visit from HBO executives who wanted to tape the "Musicology" concert for the channel. The catch, he says, was an agreement that he wouldn't appear on another TV special for a year.
"I said, 'Excuse me? Oh no. End of discussion. You want to talk about something else? I know you flew a long way, we might as well talk philosophy or something.' They said, 'Well, that's just our policy.' I said, 'Well, you keep your policy. You want some pizza? Cause you ain't going to get no concert.' "
Later this same evening, watching Prince perform, you realize how disappointed the suits at HBO must have been to go home with a slice instead of a show. This is one of the best arena concerts in years.
"I'm going to do some damage to this building this evening," Prince promises the crowd at Joe Louis, and darned if the guy and his blazingly taut band -- which includes the legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker -- don't make that hoary cliche come nearly true. There are times it seems anything that isn't bolted down here is going to fly apart.
Through "Cream," "Controversy," "Let's Go Crazy" and a couple dozen other songs, Prince sings, dances, solos and never so much as perspires. Other artists -- Bruce Springsteen comes to mind -- make their effort and sweat part of the spectacle, part of what binds the audience and artist together. Prince goes the other way. He's rarely still, but to a perplexing degree he never appears to be working. There are lots of ta-da flourishes with his hand that say, basically, "Can you believe I just did that?"
It's such a dazzling and uncanny display that when Prince, in one segment, lays his guitar on the stage and stares at it as he slowly retreats from the instrument, you think, for just a moment, he is going to play that thing with his mind.
"I never take it for granted," Prince says when asked in his dressing room about the joy of playing live. "I'm completely outside of it, I'm sitting, watching my consciousness. I do the work because, you know -- I might get misty-eyed now -- but I do the work because I get to watch. I get to marvel at it, too."
With the possible exception of Brian Wilson, no one in pop has been called a genius more often than Prince. It started in the early '80s, as it dawned on everyone that this tiny kid from Minneapolis wasn't just writing all the songs on his albums but playing all the instruments, too. And then he started writing hits for everyone else, for acts including the Time, Wendy & Lisa, Apollonia 6. It was strange. All this choppy, racy, synthed-up fusion of rock, soul and R&B pouring out of Minnesota, of all places. And one guy is the Svengali of it all.
Prince seemed to set to music all manner of ambiguities -- black or white, straight or gay, slightly sacred or totally profane? The guy was hard to pinpoint, which is exactly how he wanted it. Tipper Gore began her crusade to label albums with ratings stickers after overhearing "Darling Nikki," a cut from "Purple Rain."
Prince doesn't play "Nikki" any more. Nor for that matter does he curse, and his ladies'-man days are behind him. He's married again and he's a Jehovah's Witness now. But ask why his act is PG-13 instead of R and he'll talk to you about smart marketing.
"Times were different back then," Prince explains. "I wouldn't stand out today if I was brand-new and came like that. But see, back then nobody else was doing that, and I knew that would get me over. I didn't dress like anybody, I didn't look like anybody, I didn't sound like anybody. We still try to do that. Why do what everybody else is doing?
"Bowie and Madonna, even if it wasn't good, we still talk about it because it was something new. That's a beautiful word."
The impulse to juke when everyone is jiving comes from his father, he says, a plastics molder for Honeywell Electronics who played jazz in a band called the Prince Rogers Trio, which performed at local parties. John L. Nelson gave his son his stage and left the piano behind after he divorced Prince's mother when the boy was 10. "Skipper," as young Prince Rogers Nelson was known then, was shuttled among a host of different families. Along the way, Prince acquired a near-maniacal work ethic; he still gets about three hours of sleep a night. On this tour, as with previous ones, he'll often finish his 21/2-hour show and then peel off to a local club and jam till it's nearly dawn. It's one reason, he has said, that he handles all the instruments on so many of his albums; he's the only guy up at 5 a.m., when he's recording.
"The curse part of it is that it physically drains you," Prince says, "when you try to do everything that comes into your head. Like right now, I could write a song. If I go over there," he says, gesturing toward the instruments, "and start noodling around, I'll write a song. Because I hear stuff all the time. I can make something out of nothing. And that's just weird. But I'm used to it now."
John Blackwell, Prince's drummer, isn't used to it yet. He remembers one day in the studio he started fiddling with the drums for an engineer who was trying to mike his kit.
"I started doing this crazy uptempo Latin fusion beat and Prince was like, 'Keep that going.' And they pressed 'record' and he immediately started adding things, like a bass line. The next day I came in and he said, 'Check this out,' and it was a whole song. I mean, it had everything. My mouth just dropped."
The track, "Everywhere," wound up on Prince's "Rainbow Children" album.
"I've always heard stories like that about him," Blackwell adds, "but until you see it for your own eyes, you can't grasp the whole picture."
It's possible to look at celebrity as a series of deals between performer and fans. The performer gets money, glory and a kind of immortality and, in return, must sign on a bunch of dotted lines. Deals that cut in lawyers, accountants, businessmen, deals that consign a portion of your life to the whole wide world.
Prince is done with those deals -- or he'll sign them only on his very particular terms. He changed his name to a glyph because he couldn't control the brand that "Prince" had become, and he wasn't going to enhance the value of that brand if it was ultimately owned by someone else.
Today, he has more control over his work than any other major artist. He can release music at the same frenetic pace as he creates it. And because he owns the rights to "Musicology" he's giving a copy to everyone who attends his shows, the price having been built into the ticket. It's a move that ensures the disc will hover in the Top 50 for weeks to come.
He calls this "emancipation," and the road map to it, he'll tell you, is right there in the Bible.
"It's in the Scriptures, sir. The system is designed to use you up like a battery and kick you out when they're finished with you. When Jesus was here, the first thing He said was how jacked up everything was. It wasn't like He said, 'Oh, this is great and it can be even greater.' He said, 'This is not the way it was intended, in no way, shape or form.' "
Even if it's in the Good Book, the Prince path to freedom isn't available to unknown artists -- they still need labels to foot the bill for the publicity machine required to get on the radio. But after years of struggling, not to mention plenty of ridicule, Prince has the industry exactly where he wants it, though he's loath to gloat about it. He'd rather exult in the Right Now of all this.
"I don't even know what day it is, really. But man, I get to cue Maceo Parker in? I get to say, 'Maceo, blow your horn'? Are you kidding? I better enjoy this, right? Do me a favor. Just imagine being up onstage, tonight, in front of all these people, and you get to say, 'Maceo, blow your horn.' "
Prince shakes his head with a kind of awe, a man who has carefully counted blessings.