Exposing the Impossible
Tonight, at a packed Barnes and Noble in Edina, Minnesota, Steve Parke created an environment that paralleled the one he crafted in his new book, Picturing Prince. One that captured Prince’s essence not only with visuals but with compelling vignettes of Prince, the man with a unique work ethic. “One of my favorite things about the book is that he picked everything in there,” Parke grinned thinking about the time Prince would spend after photo shoots deleting everything he found less than suitable to portray his identity in that exact moment. Parke started as the art director at Paisley Park in 1988 and stayed on for 14 years, until the birth of his son shifted his priorities. During their time together, Prince loved the ability to delete digital photos on the spot if he didn’t like them, rather than having negatives of undesirable images that could potentially surface later.
When Parke started working at Paisley Park on the Glam Slam video set, there was not a lot of direction coming from Prince. The idea was, “If you don’t hear anything, just keep going.” This sort of “trial by fire,” as Morris Hayes called it, seems to be customary for most, if not all, Paisley Park personnel. Hayes, who served as Prince’s keyboardist and musical director for 20+ years, acted as a moderator and co-storyteller at the event this evening. Prince put a lot of trust in every single person he kept in his world and had an equal amount of faith in each person’s abilities. Parke recalled many opportunities where “[Prince] would say, ‘Can you do this?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he believed me.” Hayes’ first experience as a new musician in the band left him feeling a little less confident in his abilities. After bringing up his concerns with his new boss, he was lectured, “If you want to stay here, I don’t accept ‘impossible’…we figure it out.”
This concept of never giving up and always trying new things was a theme among much of the conversation tonight. As we have learned in previous stories from friends and employees, Prince was very much involved in every aspect of his work. There were many times Parke would be working in Photoshop, and Prince would sit directly behind him and watch. Often, he would make comments about the way Parke should be working on a project and inadvertently set him back several hours. Hayes interjected, “While he’s watching you work, he’s also studying,” and he seamlessly segued into a story about bowling with Prince. As the band would hang out in a bowling alley, Prince would simply sit and watch, asking a question about the sport every few minutes. Morris would explain what the game was about, and Prince would simply nod and let all the information settle in. When he finally attempted to bowl for the first time, he had allowed himself to completely understand the mechanics of the game. He proceeded to bowl several strikes in a row. “He doesn’t like to look bad doing anything,” Hayes smirked.
This control over his image allowed him to portray perfection in everything he did, but sometimes at the expense of hiding his true character. Everyone who knows Prince knows he had a great sense of humor, but Parke commented, “he didn’t show that in his photos much.” We can see the result of this in the amount of stoic or more sensual images of Prince as opposed to silly ones of his great smile. Though, some serious images tend to have funny stories behind them. For instance, there’s an image in Parke’s book with a series of three photos of Prince playing a white habibi (Symbol guitar). Because Parke’s camera had a longer exposure time, the photos would have been blurry if simply captured while Prince played his guitar. So, to be accommodating to Parke’s artistic needs, Prince played a guitar solo, occasionally stopping to hold a powerful guitar-playing pose, then continued his solo. This went on until the photoshoot was completed.
Sometimes the same sense of control vaguely translated into directions for Parke that didn’t quite make sense. When working on the art for Chaos and Disorder, Parke remembers Prince explaining, “I want that to look like a dead dog in the road but not a dead dog in the road.” Seems like straight-forward instructions, right? But Parke recounted that, on numerous projects, “Sometimes you would go down a path that he would tell you to go down, and then he’d get mad and say he didn’t tell you to go down that path.”
We all know Prince’s control didn’t stop at his image but carried on through his entire being and his sound. Hayes talked about hearing Crystal Ball while it was still a bootleg and thinking how crazy it was for Prince to play each instrument on a separate 15-minute track and know exactly how it would sound blended with all the other instruments (even the ones that hadn’t been recorded yet). “Everything is finished in my head,” Prince would say; he simply had to focus on the execution. Even though Prince was an incredible multi-instrumentalist, he told Hayes, “Above all else, I’m a poet.” When Hayes was learning the keyboard parts, he was only focusing on what he needed to play. But after it was all committed to memory, he started really listening to the lyrics in every song and was astounded by Prince’s songwriting abilities as a lyricist.
But, beyond this incredible artist with a complete vision for his output, there was a man who just believed in working hard. “Why do people think I just play? I don’t play; I work,” Prince told Parke one day. Prince opened up to Parke about the stresses of his work numerous times. During the Greatest Romance Ever Sold music video shoot, Prince told Parke about how stressed he got about that kind of work. Prince wouldn’t eat for a few days before a video shoot, so he would have enough energy to do everything he wanted. As Prince looked around the room at all the individuals working on the shoot, he told Parke about the pressure he felt knowing that he was paying all those people’s bills. At another point in the night, Hayes talked about having moments where he looked at Prince and remembered he was that Purple Rain star, but he said, “You forget there’s another guy in there that’s a real dude.”
Parke does an incredible job of capturing the identity of that “real dude,” in his new book, which really is as intimate of a portrait as you can get. He shares stories of the prankster, the boundary-pusher, and the intellectual; but you’ll have to purchase his book to read all his interesting insights or attend one of the events on his book signing tour.