Writer Neal Karlen tried to conceal a tape recorder in the crotch of his jeans before a 1990 Rolling Stone interview with Prince. "It was too sleazy and ultimately I couldn't do it."
The ground rules changed drastically between Karlen's 1985 interview introducing Prince to the world, in a cover story, and their time together in 1990.
In 1985 they rode around the metro, visiting key locations, Karlen with a tape recorder in hand. By 1990 Prince was really feeling his power on his European tour for "Graffiti Bridge. "He decreed during this interview in a Paris hotel there would be no taping and, more horrifying, no taking of notes. Karlen was reduced to feigning health problems so he could go to the bathroom. Karlen spent his time not using the toilet but making notes with a pen he could conceal behind his ear in the bounty of curly locks he had then.
Karlen knows he got it right, because Prince wrote him a thank-you note.
"I'm going to do a huge thing on 'My Weird Life with Prince,' which goes way beyond Rolling Stone articles," joked Karlen. "I kept the toilet paper [notes]. I looked at them before I came to see you. I have weird archives."
Karlen, who wanted his writing career to be bigger than chronicling Prince's life, has distanced himself from the rock icon.
A writing teacher at Augsburg College, Karlen has authored books about religious fundamentalism, minor league baseball, linguistics, a history of vaudeville and political corruption in Minnesota. He's currently working on a book about the downfall of Target and a novel of scandalous stories he collected with the help of his late friend Eleanor Mondale, who gave "Sneal," as she called him, entree into life in Lake of the Isles and Kenwood.
Knowing that he doesn't want to be known as Prince's Bobo, I still asked Karlen enough questions about Prince to produce a second video. Why does Prince have a disposable attitude toward friendship? Will Symbolina have anything resembling regular book signing when his memoir is released?
Settle down, Prince fans who attacked Karlen last week on social media. Karlen was joking when he said he was waiting for Prince to die before selling memorabilia. "I love Prince!" said Karlen. "He was the most loyal person to me. I don't know why. I don't deserve it."
It seemed only fitting to get Karlen to re-enact writing on toilet paper for my startribune.com/video, which goes with Part 2 of this Q&A.
Q: You were living and working in NYC. Why aren't you still there?
A: I wanted to come home. This is still home. I'm just another guy with curly hair and a typewriter in New York. Also, I have a drink named after me at Sebastian Joe's. Where else am I going to go and have anything named after me? Here, I'm funky. That's why I'm writing this book, so I'll have to leave. I should tell you some of the scandalous things I'm disguising in the book. [And he did.] So many family fortunes founded on crimes in this town.
Q: You were living in New York at the time of your first Rolling Stone interview with Prince?
A: It was a freelance piece. I was writing for Newsweek as a political reporter. I was in New York, more than a decade removed from Minneapolis, but next thing I know I'm being paged in the Denver airport — I was on vacation — by Rolling Stone: Prince wants to talk. How fast can you get to Minneapolis? I told them I was on my way anyway and would be there in a couple hours. When I got home, there was a limo parked in front of my folks' house — I hadn't had time to call them and tell them anything. My late mom [Charlotte] didn't know Prince anyway, and said, Some guy who said his name was "The Prince" called and said he was sending a limo. I was on the other line so I had to cut him off. Is he with Target? I was doing a freelance piece at the time on Target."
Q: I don't think of toilet paper as being a very sound surface for note-taking. So I have to ask if you ever had to do anything weirder than repeatedly step into a rest room to surreptitiously jot down notes during a Prince interview for Rolling Stone?
A: No. And I never thought I could write that fast. And I had been a sneaky little jerk. They had spent so much money to send me to Europe. I was on tour with him. This wasn't "Drive around Minneapolis with him." They were spending thousands so I had to get an interview. This took place in a hotel room in Paris. I got there and he said, Oh, you can't tape record anything. I [previously] got the only interview of him on tape. It was like, "Oh, God." I had a mini recorder. This I've never told. I cut a whole in my pants and was going to secretly record. I tried it out a few times and it didn't work. I still have the jeans, where there's a hole cut [in the crotch]. I just kept drinking Diet Coke. This was the first interview, but it continued for the rest of the trip. I knew I couldn't remember long stretches of quotes so I'd need to go constantly. I complained of a bladder infection. "Oh, I think I'll have a ninth Diet Coke. Oh, I forgot I have a bladder infection." I had a pen in my notebook but I had to leave everything [out where Prince could see it]. For some reason then, I always kept one pen behind my ear and my hair was so long he didn't see it. So I went in the bathroom and spent what seemed like how long it would take to micturate or pee.
Q: Micturate? I don't know that word.
A: It comes from "The Big Lebowski." I was trying to be polite. It's become famous from "The Big Lebowski." I would take longer so I could complain "the bladder infection" [was making urinating difficult]. I went 22 times in that hour. Every 2½ minutes. I figured I could remember 2½ minutes of dialogue. If I had gotten anything wrong. … But instead [I got a letter].
Q: Your first interview with Prince occurred when?
A: Right after "Purple Rain" in 1984. He had just become a super duper star. It was 1985 in Minneapolis and the entire interview was us driving around and him showing me old sights. If you go to the Rolling Stones site, in 1985 or whatever that year, and then in 1990, my big profile of him is there. That's why I wanted to break away from [him]. I didn't want to be "The Prince Bobo," which is the baseball term for whoever the Whatever you think, boss is. I didn't want to make my living off Prince. Everyone was kissing his ass around town. I'm reverse-kissing his ass, even though he's been most loyal.
Q: Is he still going to be loyal to you now?
Q: How long has it been since you had contact with him?
A: When did I insult him on John Hines' show? Several years ago; I'd say three. In the last year I've been to Paisley Park a few times. A few times we have locked eyes and we smiled at each other.
Q: If you tried to get in touch with Prince now, would he be available to you?
A: I know how to get in touch with him but never once have I. Same thing with Bill Murray. But Bill Murray gets a hold of me. I don't mean to imply he calls me all the time and we're best friends.
Q: What's been the reaction to Prince writing a memoir?
A: I've already told you people are bombarding me with, Are you writing his memoir? I told him yeaaars ago that I would not do that. I would write a book about him, but I haven't, yet.
Q: Do you think he'll have book signings at Barnes & Noble?
A: I think he wants like 20 autographed copies to exist. I don't think he'll do it at a bookstore. I think there'll be 20 written in gold pen and they will be worth $40,000 [each]. You know Bob Dylan signed 100 harmonicas.
Q: But Prince is not going to have a normal book signing, where there are 200 people in line and he autographs, interacts and takes pictures with them?
A: No. I think [signing] 10 books is a good marketing-business-Prince move. He's got so much power. People love him. He's like a religion.
Q: Why does he have so much power? And why is that when he does something like throwing "Captain" Kirk Douglas' guitar on Jimmy Fallon's show, he doesn't really get into trouble for that?
A: He's above the law. Like Bill Murray says at the end of "Kingpin" — "I'm above the law!"
Q: Advice for the person who works on the book with Prince?
A: That would be a nightmare job. I could write my own book just with untold stories. I've told you lots. I'm sorry, Prince, I've got to sell something. When I'm old, I've got to pay for the nursing home. I'm going to have to sell your letters.
Q: And you've got unborn kids to put through college?
A: After I did my first interview with Prince, I got so much mail, me personally. Women were sending ME pictures, and they weren't like "Forward to Prince." If I could get them in touch with Prince they would be my groupie. [Only writing about Prince] have I been offered favors. You've met celebrities. You don't become friends with them.
Q: No. The ones you get along with are part of an intense professional relationship for a short period of time. Don't confuse them with your friends.
A: No. That's the way you don't become friends with Bill Murray.
Q: Why does Prince always drop people?
A: He said growing up he never knew if people were just going to disappear and what if that happened again. He doesn't try to get too close. When he lets people go, it's outta nowhere. You were my best friend one day and then you are nowhere. I think that's his father. Which is what happened to him. At age 14 you are no longer living at this house. That's pretty intense.
Q: Do you think he has the ability to examine his life and see that "the reason I reject people and banish them from my life is because my daddy disappeared from mine?"
A: Yeah. And you know why I say that? Because he said that. And he said it not in exactly those terms but pretty close. I said, "Why do you let everyone go? I got calls from Wendy and Lisa. They were far closer to you than I've ever been. You just stopped talking to them." And he said, What if everyone left me? I've been left before. I couldn't take that.
[Karlen noted that he hasn't talked to Wendy and Lisa in decades.]
Q: He rejects people before they can reject him?
A: Yeah, he always talks about his biggest fear is being alone. He actually reminds me of Michael Scott on "The Office." Wanting to be loved.
Q: You think Prince is a good businessman?
A: He's really funny, [few] know that because he's so into being Mr. Scary, and business savvy. He's a genius in that two-dimensional sense that he knew he could make as much money selling 250,000 copies, if he owned it on the Internet, as he could selling 10 million copies for Warner Bros. And Warner Bros. wanted him to sell "Purple Rain" every time and he could've. I like that he's got his standards. He didn't sell out like Garrison Keillor. But he's a very canny businessman. He knows what he's doing, but I don't think he's a deep philosophical thinker. Even after my active campaign of disrespecting him, because [he] came up in every interview, it was cool. If anyone talks too much about the famous people they know, they probably …
Q: If Prince does his memoir right, it's sure to sell millions, so why isn't the savvy businessman self-publishing?
Q: Because of Eleanor you spent time with the Mondales? Tell me about how the late Joan Mondale made you marvel at your wedding.
A: Joan could invisibly, seamlessly [navigate a reception line], charmingly. Walter has the weird thing of anti-charisma. If you take a camera off him, he's incredibly funny and charming. You put a camera on him [Karlen didn't finish that thought] … I've seen the opposite where they turn into new people.
Q: You've stood close enough to Prince to tell whether that beard he once wore was real or a costuming creation?
A: I DID actually ask him about his beard, which was indeed real, but I was teasing him about how he managed to get "SLAVE" written so perfectly in facial hair. He laughed and didn't say anything. Then he asked me if I'd ever had a beard. I said no, and then quoted totally nonsensically, because I had nothing better to say, the old Yiddish proverb, in Yiddish and English, "Better a man without a beard, than a beard without a man." I have no idea what that means.
Prince said, I have no idea what that means, but I like the flow. May have to use that as a lyric.
I'm still waiting.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her watch FOX 9's "Jason Show."