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‘Why you wanna treat me so bad?’ Prince and the Minnesota media

Prince loved Minnesota, but we didn’t make it easy.

When Prince came along, the local media were determined to prove they were up to the task.
REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Prince Rogers Nelson died last week at his Paisley Park studio in Chanhassen, just 21 miles as the motorcycle drives from where he grew up in north Minneapolis — a little shotgun house he owned at the time of his death. He was the most famous Minnesotan, in modern times, who never really left.

As the local media leans into its Prince tributes, singing his praises and recalling his recent cuddliness with the press, it’s easy to get the impression that here — far from the celebrity-soaked coasts — he was given room to breathe, to be himself, and that’s why he stayed.

But this isn’t exactly true. Because he was one of our few genuine celebrities — because he didn’t leave — the media felt entitled, even duty-bound, to invade his privacy. The press hounded him. Showed up at his home. Knocked on his door. And sometimes he answered.

Here’s Star Tribune columnist Cheryl Johnson (C.J.) in 1997, nine months after his son died in infancy:

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I parked on the street outside [Paisley Park]—having been kicked out of there before, I wasn’t about to get into trouble for trespassing. But when I spied his vehicle positioned just inside Paisley, I got out of my car so he could see his pursuer. Bingo. He pulled out and parked right behind my car.

I walked over. He lowered his car window. [My friend] Beverly came over with a camera in hand. “No pictures!” he said. Even though his eyes were hidden behind dark glasses with a glyph on the temple, there was flight in his voice.

When Prince pulled a fast one in 1996, marrying Mayte Garcia under the media’s nose in downtown Minneapolis instead of in Paris, as his publicist had hinted for weeks, the press was peeved. I was a young reporter then at the Associated Press, just blocks from the church, and eventually we tracked down everything from the name of the processional music Prince composed (“Kama Sutra”) to Mayte’s outfit (white Versace dress) to the flower girl (an Edina elementary-school student) to how long the marital smooch lasted (“extra long”).

When their son was rumored to have died at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, at about a week old, I was asked to call the nurse’s station and keep calling until someone answered. The press pried so much out of the nurses at adjoining Abbott Northwestern Hospital, where the boy was born, that several were thought to have been fired. C.J. confirmed they weren’t, reporting “no reason to feel sorry this holiday season for Abbott Northwestern nurses rumored to have lost their jobs.”

A different Twin Cities

It’s hard to remember — 15 years after crowdsurfing R.T. Rybak became mayor of Minneapolis, 12 years after rising to fourth among states in per-capita income — just how invisible the Twin Cities were when Prince was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s. We were colder and flatter then, fortified by grain silos. The Foshay Tower had been the tallest building in the state for nearly half a century. “Funkytown” was intentionally ironic, created — like almost everything that made its way from Minnesota into the national consciousness then — by a suburban white guy.

When Prince came along, a teenage superstar worthy of the national spotlight, the local media were determined to prove they were up to the task. They were self-conscious that if they were too deferential, if they didn’t get the scoop, if they didn’t criticize Prince, that someone from the coasts would — and they would look provincial.

And so they went about putting him in his place. “I told him I didn’t like the way he behaved,” C.J. wrote in 1997. Star Tribune pop-music critic Jon Bream, as recently as the morning after Prince died, recalled him as “petulant,” the way you might describe a small child, and that he had recently “seemed mature, acting like a 50-something adult.”

Bream, who became the Star Tribune’s pop-music critic in 1974, was among the first reporters to follow him. He dug up Prince’s birth certificate and disclosed that he was actually two years older than he purported to be. He asked Prince’s mom about rumors of pornography hidden in her copies of Better Homes and Gardens. He speculated that Prince was wearing an Afro wig instead of his own hair.

He put everything he learned in an unauthorized biography of Prince, published in 1984 — including most of what ran in a popular four-part series for the Star Tribune called “Our Royal Rocker” — and in the acknowledgments added “most importantly, thanks to Prince, for his vision, his courage, and for staying at home.” He somehow had the stones to hand the book to Prince during rehearsals for the “Purple Rain” tour.

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Perhaps none of this is beyond the bailiwick of journalists — if you want to understand Prince, it may be helpful to know that he is the kind of person who lies about his age. But Prince wasn’t impressed. He banned Bream from his inner circle for years, and refused to give him a real interview for the better part of three decades.

This was the business, of course, the cat and mouse of media and celebrity. And when Prince figured it out, he turned the tables, once agreeing to an interview with a GQ writer — who flew to Paisley Park for the occasion — only to conduct it via phone from another room. He reportedly made other journalists literally dance before he’d answer their questions. “There’s not much I want them to know about me,” he said of his fans, “other than the music.”

Recently the game had exhausted itself. The money was gone from both music and media. Prince was no longer in the spotlight; reporters no longer felt the need to unmask him. He began spending more time in Chanhassen. He threw parties and gave interviews, even to Bream.

In a sense, this was because of us. We had picked his skeletons clean. With nothing left to say, he finally began to talk. With nowhere left to hide, he finally felt at home.