Sex and God and Rock and Roll
Say it's so, Prince, if only for the fans. All right, just say something. As usual, the innovative, hyperproductive Purple Pain isn't talking. Prince, 30, is in the middle of a killer six-month, 60-concert tour, which critics and fans have hailed as the hottest live show of the year, featuring what Musician magazine calls "the best band in the world right now." But such accolades aren't enough for Prince, whose woes in the marketplace have forced him to advertise his usually sold-out concerts on TV. His Lovesexy LP is among the slowest-selling in his 10-year, 10-album career. And he's worried that his message, which mixes his old sexistentialism with exhortations to find God—remember, even a loyalist admits Prince is "not normal, exactly"—isn't getting across.
The upshot is that Prince, who routinely makes band members sign affidavits that they won't talk to reporters, has now deigned to allow Cat and Sheila E. to speak for him.
Cat, 26, is a Chicago-born dancer who met Prince two years ago at the L.A. club Vertigo and has starred in his stage shows ever since. Sheila E., 30, is rock's premier female drummer, thanks in part to the showcase Prince provides. Not surprisingly, the two women come to praise, not bury, their little Caesar. Arriving for separate interviews wearing matching black minidresses—designed by the mini-maestro himself—they begin by trying to dispel all this talk about sex.
"Prince was upset when people misunderstood his album cover," says Cat. "People say, 'Oh, Prince is nude! How gross!' That shows the kind of minds they have. The cover was meant to express vulnerability. Why be ashamed of your body?"
Cat certainly isn't ashamed of hers. Besides her lascivious romps in "Head," her sexual aerobics heated up Prince's Sign O' The Times concert film. But the intimacy she and Prince ecstatically share onstage is, she insists, pure choreography. "In the show, I'm his girlfriend. When we sing 'Head,' it's fun. We're just acting it out. I play the girl." That, presumably, means Prince only plays the boy, but when she is asked whether there's a chance her boss might be gay, Cat cracks up. The boy, she says, is girl crazy.
The rumor mill in Minneapolis, the squeaky-clean hometown he has placed uncomfortably on the lurid-rock map, somewhat agrees. Former Prince protégée Vanity has said on record that Prince is the best lover she ever had. "Believe me, Prince loooves the girls," says another ex-member of Prince's inner circle. "He definitely doesn't just sing about it." Balderdash, protests courtier Cat, who would like us to believe that the man who makes out with her so convincingly onstage is chaste as a monk in private life. "People think he sleeps around," Cat says. "He doesn't. You see him leave a party with a girl, they could be going back to the hotel for anything. They might stay up all night talking.
"He talks to me," Cat adds, "so I know." And what is revealed in these heart to hearts? Not much. Cat says Prince entertains with talk about food fights on the road, his favorite records (Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Cocteau Twins) and the latest films (he pronounced The Last Temptation of Christ "good"). "I love Prince," Cat says. "If I wasn't in his band, I'd want to be his girlfriend. But I don't mix business and pleasure." Except, perhaps, onstage.
After leading her own band for two years, tiny Sheila E. (née Escovedo), gave up center stage in 1986 to beat skins for Prince. She soon became so devoted, she left her family and a lifelong circle of friends in the Bay Area and moved to Minnesota, where she lives close to Prince's recording complex. That has led to more rumors. Sheila is said to be nursing an unrequited, or maybe requited, love for her boss. She says neither is true. "We're always working and we're always together," Sheila explains. "He loves his guitar. He loves his music. His main girlfriend is his music. Musically, Prince is the best. He's a genius. The only other person I felt this way about was when I used to play for my father." (He is percussionist Pete Escovedo, a former Tito Puente and Carlos Santana sideman who sat his daughter at a drum kit when she was 5.
Wherever the truth lies in this tangle of loving denials and sweaty rumors, it is clearly true that Prince is obsessed with music, especially his own. "Oh, he's a workaholic, no question," Sheila says, adding that his cure for the traditional post-performance blues is to "keep playing. We'll end up going to a club and playing for another three hours. It's that much fun."
Such impromptu jams have startled audiences at nearly every stop of the Lovesexy tour, which is expected to play through February. Each concert is structured as an elaborate sin-and-salvation cycle, the first half consisting mostly of the older, funkier, overtly sexual songs that made Prince the man Tipper Gore would most love to muzzle. "The beginning of the show is dark," Sheila says. "We kind of take you through hell, and then at the end—it's like heaven. We were bad and we become good. The music is very spiritual in the second half."
That half represents a Prince we can expect to hear more of, Sheila says. It was his growing "God love," Sheila says, that made Prince stop distribution of The Black Album, a hardcore funk record set for release last December. Bootleg copies were so widespread that cynics suggested Prince pulled the album merely to burnish his legend. Sheila won't have any of that. "It was very dark and negative," she explains. "Prince thought, 'What if something happened to me before I'm able to put out another?' He couldn't sleep at night thinking about 10-year-old kids believing 'this is what Prince was about—guns and violence.' He said, 'I can't leave this on little kids' minds. I don't care if they pressed 500,000 copies.' "
Take that, Tipper. Besides, Lovesexy, his followers say, was issued as a mind-cleansing antidote to The Black Album. Cat and Sheila report that their man sketched all the musicians' stage costumes, featuring bold colors and sleeves decorated with block letters spelling "Love God," "Minneapolis" and the band members' names. He also designed street and evening clothes for the girls. "He says, 'It's up to you if you want to wear it,' " Cat says. "But he has wonderful taste. I'm used to jeans and sweatshirts, but since meeting Prince I like dressing up."
And the beat goes on. "He's such a perfectionist," says Cat. "If there's a mistake, he'll bring it to your attention, and if you make it again, he'll say, 'Docked.' That means he'll dock your pay. But he never does. He is just one of the persons you love to be around 24 hours a day." Which is a lucky break, because, like time, rust and crabgrass, Cat adds, "Prince never sleeps."