May 10, 2016KR BlogBlog

Space as Sound: King Interviews Prince

“You would admit yourself an unusual personality,” Larry King says to Prince in a December 1999 interview. “As compared to most people in, let’s say, show business, you’re unusual. Most people don’t get famous with one name and then change it. Right?”

Thus begins King’s struggle to grasp Prince’s namelessness—this interview, of course, is conducted during the time in Prince’s career when he adopted a symbol as his identity. Time and time again, King returns to the no-name issue, seemingly unable to move past it to focus on meatier questions.

“You’re understanding of this plight we’re faced with,” King says of the media’s fixation on what to call Prince. Then he becomes flustered and forgets the question he just asked.

Throughout this interview, Prince literally sparkles, thanks to the sprinkling of glitter in his hair and beard. Sometimes he smiles shyly—or is that slyly?—and he calls King “sir.” But he never gives in to the questions that could be construed as borderline insulting or absurd. In fact, King asks lots of questions that seem absurd today when we consider Prince’s enduring popularity and his inherent nature as an artist. Questions like: How do you promote a symbol? Is the symbol copyrighted? When you call someone on the phone, how do you identify yourself? Are you worried about Y2K?

“Was it difficult,” King asks at one point, “to not be what you had become known as?”

One can only imagine how Prince would have answered a question as potentially broad and amorphous as this, but we’ll never know because King interrupts his own question to explain the importance of name recognition for performers, implying what a risk it is for Prince to abandon his identity. Later, as King grapples with how to interview someone without a name, he jokingly calls Prince “Uh.” He even refers to him as “The” at one point.

I have watched this interview several times since Prince’s death. While no one could call me a diehard Prince fan, I’ve always loved his music, and his songs reverberate through my formative years. I’ve long admired Prince’s weirdness, his boldness, his musical genius, and his determination to be, above all else, an artist.

And yes, there’s the gossip—his reputation for being egotistical, his impossible expectations, how he put stock in conspiracies about chemtrails, how he allegedly sent Weird Al a telegram outlawing eye contact, how he refused to recognize the passing of time. But when I watch his interview with Larry King, I see an eccentric, intelligent, thoughtful musician prepared to discuss inspiration, entropy, faith, artistic ownership, and identity.

He says things like, “I like to say I live in the world, but I’m not of it,” and “I wanted my music, even now, to speak loudest for me.” On his musical inspirations, he says, “I learned a lot about space from Miles [Davis]. Space is a sound, too.” On the runaway success of the song “1999,” he explains, “I just wanted to write something that gave hope.”

Perhaps writers can take some lessons from this interview. Space is a sound on the page, too. Stories or poems or books—even the bleakest ones—can provide hope. And many writers, I think, want their writing to speak loudest for them.

Then there’s the constant battle between commercialization and art. How many times have authors lamented the need to promote and market themselves when really, all they want to do is write? When King asks about financial success and viability, Prince is quick to draw a line dividing the process of creating music, which he sees as his purpose, and selling it, which is largely out of his control. And he always returns to what matters most to him: the work.

“Once I do the music, it’s a success there,” he says. “That’s it for me.”

Maybe it’s sentiments like this that have me fixated on Prince during these first weeks after his death. Typically, the death of a celebrity skates under the surface of my day; I don’t participate in the public mourning online, and such deaths don’t usually impact me personally. But Prince’s death is different. I can’t quite shake him (or the glitter in his hair). Say what you will of his decision to live as a symbol for a few years, but I do think Prince was bigger than his name. He had presence, a magnetic energy, and, despite all the bizarre trappings of his particular fame, a single-minded dedication to his art.

He was an enigma—but through his work, he showed exactly who he was. Even if, in the end, that amounts to silence.

“I’m still Prince,” he tells Larry King. “I just use a different sound for my name, which is none.”