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

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

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:

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.

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. 

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Don Roberts on 04/25/2016 - 11:31 am.

    Prince and the Minnesota media

    Why wouldn’t Prince be petulant? Some of the media in the Twin Cities hounded him and wrote about him more in the style of the Inquirer. I for one believe that a ‘star’ has the right to privacy. The media makes people want to know who is sleeping with who, the color of someone’s underwear. How would they like it if their private lives were spread across the wires?

  2. Submitted by George Roth on 04/25/2016 - 04:44 pm.

    Prince and the Minnesota media

    I Agree with Don. Certain media personnel acted as if it was their job to find fault. As if they weren’t doing their job if they weren’t scorching him with bad reviews. _You know who you are……
    Yes you.
    I agree that he (P) had a right to privacy and it was sad the way he had to protect himself. I think Prince did the best he could to weather it and shield himself. He had his own tribe and he stayed true to us, he was a real midwesterner at heart. He was so hard working.
    Be good up there, Prince, say hi to Elvis for me.

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 04/25/2016 - 05:36 pm.

    Not all the media got it wrong …

    Interestingly enough, a Minnesota Daily staffer nailed it very early in Prince’s

    Before His Purple Reign
    Lisa Hendricksson (1977)
    Link: http://www.mndaily.com/news/metro-state/2016/04/25/his-purple-reign

    “If he makes it, the most atypical local star to come out of Sound 80 will be a multi-talented [18-year-old] prodigy from North Minneapolis who plays any instrument you hand him, sings with a crystal pure falsetto that would have put the young Michael Jackson to shame, and goes by the name Prince. No last name, and please, no “the” prefix. Just Prince.”

    “In an interview situation, he’s quiet, even aloof, with a sly sense of humor and a quick, intelligent smile. You get the feeling that not even at gunpoint would this kid make a fool of himself in public. Before I talked to him, his manager assured me he didn’t use drugs or alcohol and wouldn’t jive with me. I actually believe the former, but not the latter. Jive takes many forms, and this cool [18-year-old] has it down to a subtle art.”

    “What a relief. Earlier in the studio, I was sure he was a clone, constructed in the back rooms of Owen Husney’s ad agency. Prince is a real live kid, packed with talent, but basically normal and mischievous. Besides his music, that was the nicest surprise of the evening.”

    “Editor’s note: This story was written by Lisa Hendricksson and was originally published April 8, 1977.”

    This is a great piece worth reading in its entirety. One of the reasons I love the Daily is that they have many talented young people starting out. They have their own take on things and are not quite the sharks that some older journos turn into.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 04/25/2016 - 11:34 pm.

      Lisa Hendricksson, 1977

      What a refresher course, you offer.

      I was not of any of Prince’s generations, but knew energized children of friends, bewitched children of his first generation.

      As a classical music man, I was impressed by his instant success and ongoing impact. In his death, I have learned much more of his fundamental “prodigy”, as I see it. What a talent, in artistry and in business (not a typical amalgamation).

      It seems only just that he died here, at home, in a classy Minneapolis suburb…imagery that many must admit as exception to the rule.

      Often a prince rises to be king. That, like Shakespearean drama, will be left to history.

  4. Submitted by Kari Carlson on 04/25/2016 - 10:45 pm.


    When I was growing up in MN in the ’80s and ’90s all I ever read about Prince was those scorching articles about how absolutely weird he was, and this extended into the things people said about him in everyday conversation. I don’t remember them being kind in tone or even fascination with an eccentric person, but rather an extension of a cultural rigidity about “normalcy”. This is why I took exception to the title of an earlier post here, “He Was Ours”. It’s not necessarily authentic to spend decades castigating someone for their difference and then claim ownership of him when he dies.

    The Lisa Hendricksson story is refreshing.

  5. Submitted by Barbara Satin on 04/25/2016 - 10:59 pm.

    And this is journalism to be proud of…?

    I guess the message from this self-serving piece of ego bluster is “don’t ever become a celebrity in Minnesota or we’ll come and make your life miserable. And you and CJ and Bream are apparently proud of that.

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