By: Chris Heath (GQ Magazine)
Date: December 8, 2016
“I count time different.… There’s no such thing as time, really, once you study the orbits of the planets.” — Prince, 2010
Van Jones: He’s six hours off from everybody else. So when it’s midnight to you, it’s only 6 P.M. to him. And when it’s 6 A.M. to you, it’s only midnight to him. But time just kinda stops working around him. It’s hard to explain. Suddenly four in the morning doesn’t seem so late, because whatever is going on around him is so free. Paisley Park is the one place, besides a couple of experiences that I’ve had at church, as an African-American man, where I’ve ever felt truly free and human.
Hayes: Nobody was allowed to say “deadlines” around him. He hated that word. He said: “That’s arbitrary and stupid. What happens when I go over the line? I’m dead?” Prince would always tell us “time is a trick.” I remember one day I was late, and he was, “You’re late, Morris!” and I said, “Well, you know, Prince, time is a trick…” It didn’t work. He was, “How about I Jedi-mind-trick that check when you don’t show up again?”
Willis: The middle-of-the-night calls from Prince were a consistent reality. Two, three, four in the morning—having the phone ring was not uncommon. And if you didn’t answer, he’d call back. Or call someone to call you to say that Prince was trying to reach you. “Got a pen?” was the way many of those conversations started. A not untypical story: being awoken at three-ish in the morning on a weeknight. “Um, got a pen?” “Not under my pillow. I’ll be right back. Okay, I’m back. What’s up?” “I’m not sure which morning show it was, but one of them was doing a story on this woman—I think she was in Boston. Somewhere in Massachusetts. She has spent most of the past 10 years trying to save money to buy a building for feeding homeless people, and she’s found a building but doesn’t have enough money. I want to ﬁnd her and give her the money.” “Okay. Did you catch her name?” “No.” “Okay. We’ll ﬁnd her.” “Let me know. Thank you.”
Tollefson: There was always this folklore that he levitates for people. I wouldn’t go that far.
Van Jones: Prince wrote music the way you write e-mails, okay? If you were transported to some world where the ability to write e-mails was some rare thing, you would be Prince. He was just writing music all the time. He slept it, he thought it. And it wasn’t all great—some of it was good, some of it wasn’t. But he had no expectation, he was just being himself. It’s like you cut the water faucet on—I don’t think the faucet is sitting there thinking, “This is the best water ever!” The faucet is just doing what the faucet does. That’s kind of how he was.
Davison: We were on a flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, about a three-and-a-half-hour flight, and we’d been up pretty late the night before, but he wanted to go out to record. On the plane, [he’s] asking for pads and paper, and so I get him a notebook and pen and he starts writing, and he writes a poem and he hands it to me. And I read it and I go, “Well, you know, that’s nice…sounds clever, good.” I hand it back to him. Ten minutes, 15 minutes later, he hands me another poem. I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s just as good as the first.” And I’m like, “Why does he keep handing me these poems?” This goes on for the whole flight, and we land and he says, “Do you mind if we go to the studio?”—he was always cordial—and I’m like, you know, “You can do whatever you want to do.” And he says, “Well, I’ll just be there for a few hours, and then we’ll head to the house.” And so we go to the studio. We were in there for three days, almost four days, straight. When he’s finished, I go into the studio and I’m listening to the music. I asked him on the way home: “Did you have all that in your head? Not just the lyrics, not just the music, not just the melodies, but the arrangement, everything?” And he said, “Yeah, you know, I have to get it out when it’s in there or I can’t sleep.” He had written [the first two album sides of] Sign o’ the Times. He had basically written an album in a three-and-a-half-hour plane ride.
Stefani: We went out one night in a limousine—we went to a club, I think—and it was when Jennifer Lopez had that song [sings] “waiting for tonight….” And he said to me something weird: “That’s your competition.” And I was, “What are you talking about?” Like, that was a completely different planet of music, compared to what I was doing at that time with No Doubt. I thought that was interesting, that he saw some kind of parallel between us. He was just a super-smart, amazing guy. He said to me [one time], “Have you ever tried to write a hit? Why wouldn’t you just try to?” I was like, “Okay.…” It was something that never really dawned on me. Like, how do you write a hit? And for me, I’m not one of those arty album-track kind of girls that likes all the obscure songs—I live by hits. That’s what I love. And I think when he said that, it just kind of resonated with me. I was, “Wow, that’s interesting.”
Freed: I remember one time he had a house party where there was ten of us after an Emmy party, 2009. He was playing for two and a half hours, like it was the Staples Center, 20,000 people. He would bring it, no matter what the crowd. He never half-assed anything at all.
Khan: He loved to read about prophecies and the Third World Order and Big Brother, those sort of books. That just appeals to human nature: We want to know all the big secrets. One way to keep an intelligent mind occupied is to pretend we have the secrets. A riddle or a secret? We’re on, baby! For the most part, it’s just a way to occupy your mind.
Willis: Although he had whispering down to an art when others were around, he typically would speak at a regular volume, although in a bit of a monotone—the voice you might hear when he is speaking at awards programs. That was one voice. The other one was reserved for those of us he knew well—and whether he was jovial or agitated, he was often pretty animated, even loud, if he was excited, moved, or inspired about a topic, and had a twinkle in his eye much of the time. But he was moody. From one day to the next, I never knew if I was walking into his office as friend or foe.
Washington: He can get carried away in the moment and be quote-unquote normal. He’s like, “Yes! Let’s take photos!” And he’s, “Great! I’m done for the day!” So I go back to the hotel and he’s now again in his galaxy. Because he’s still Prince, he still has a conspiracy kind of thought process. So Theo [London, a Prince assistant] would call me [in the evening] and say, “Hey, Prince wants you to destroy everything.” I said, “I’m going to edit it first, and then if he still doesn’t like it, then I’ll destroy it.” Because I already get his personality type. In my time with him, he flip-flopped from hot to cold—one minute he’s really jovial and laughing, the next he’s really quiet. I e-mailed the album cover, and Theo called me and said, “Hey, we’re gonna cancel your flight and you’re gonna stay and work on the rest of the album.”
Keller: I think they were rehearsing for the Controversy tour, and he was dating Vanity at that point, and she was with him in a BMW. We were across the street, and we see this BMW with Prince in it, like, “Oh, Prince is just pulling up to rehearse.” And I think he got very self-conscious, because he kept looking at us. He started to back into the space, then he didn’t do the one-two-three maneuver that you do when you parallel park, so he hit the curb. Went up the curb a little bit, then he looked sheepish, pulled out, and I think Vanity started laughing. Then he pulled back in and completed the exercise. I think he was embarrassed. He’s just like the rest of us—some days you can parallel park, some days you can’t.
Washington: He could be abrasive. You have to think about it—he is Prince. He’s never had a job, I don’t think. I asked him: “Have you ever worked anywhere for anyone?” “Never.” For his photo shoot for that album cover, his clothing came from a dry cleaner, and he had another freak-out moment just before we shot. He was, “Look at my clothes! Look what they did!” According to Prince, the dry cleaners stitched labels into his shirts, and he went on to say, “They’re stitching bar codes! I don’t know what that bar code means.” There’s some sort of paranoia he’s being tricked or something like that. He’s, “Should I fire her?”—his assistant for putting the dry cleaning there. I’m like, “No, I don’t think you should do that.” And then he’s, “Should I sue the dry cleaners?” And I’m like, “Oh my God…no!”
Hayes: When he says, “Oprah’s on,” that means “Get out—go watch Oprah. I don’t need you.”
Free: After Shalamar, I designed my whole look to look like Prince. You know, he was the guy. I found out where he had his clothes made and his boots made. He didn’t ever blatantly go, “Why are you trying to copy me?” He would look at me and bat those big Bambi eyes and go, “I like your look,” or something like that. So I’m coming into this club, and Prince is walking out with his bodyguard, and he says, “You look very handsome tonight—there’s only one thing missing.” And he takes out his handkerchief from his suit—which was a pair of frilly, lacy red panties—you know, Princely shit—and put it in my pocket where my handkerchief would go. Then he patted it and goes, “There you go—now you’re all together, Mr. Free.” And then he walked out. That was Prince, you know. It was just so cool. I’ve still got those panties today, baby.