His Name was Prince


Yesterday morning I had a private tour of the new Prince exhibition at London’s O2 centre… This is the unedited version of a Times piece I wrote about it.


I hadn’t expected the sudden pang of sadness as I walked in and saw all those gaudy, gloriously naff outfits. My eyes went straight to the studded trench coat – slightly frayed – that Prince wore in Purple Rain, and I was intensely aware he wasn’t inside it. He would never wear any of those costumes, or play any of those daft guitars, again.

The clothes looked child-size, tinier even than I remember him being. For all their brocaded opulence, they made him less immortal than he’d seemed in life. As did the other artifacts in the O2’s My Name Is Prince exhibition: the grubby notebooks and yellow legal pads he scrawled his lyrics on; the road-worn flight cases in the special “VIP” rooms; the bar of Dove soap in his backstage makeup box.

I don’t know why any of these relics should have surprised me. For all his “godlike genius” (to use that overblown rock-journo phrase), Prince was as human as the rest of us, a fact made starkly clear by the nature of his passing – an overdose of the “hillbilly heroin” Fentanyl just 18 short months ago. But he operated on a level of enigma, artifice and musical extravagance that bordered at times on the supernatural.

Nik Cohn, the first great rock journo, called Prince the most naturally talented musician in the history of pop; I wouldn’t disagree. A walking one-man mash-up of Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger – not forgetting James Brown, naturally – he could somehow do anything and everything. Including, as it turns out, wash his face with Dove soap.

One might legitimately ask why My Name Is Prince, like the record-breaking David Bowie and Alexander McQueen exhibitions, wasn’t put on at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Its curator, Angie Marchese, told me there are no fewer than 8,000 “pieces” at Prince’s old Minnesota home/HQ Paisley Park, so there’s certainly no shortage of items for a far bigger show. Could it be because he was African-American? Or just because he was ultimately less savvy about fashion than Bowie, let alone McQueen?

Yet that’s one of the things I find most endearing about My Name Is Prince. The entire exhibition is a testament to an essentially small-town notion of glamour, a homemade synthesis of glam androgny and neo-psychedelic dandyism that mirrors the synthesis of the man’s greatest music.

Prince never moved to the coasts; never worked with name designers; never became just another papped celeb in Versace or Lagerfeld (or McQueen). All the outfits from 1987 onwards – starting with the faintly revolting orange-peach ensemble created for 1987’s creative zenith Sign ‘O’ The Times – were made by his own team of seamstresses at Paisley Park. That includes, of course, the matching high-heeled footwear that indirectly killed him. Decades of dancing in them did for both his hips and left him in constant agony. Hence the Fentanyl.

If anything about the exhibition disappoints, it’s the relative paucity of items from the pre-Purple Rain years: no jockstraps from the Dirty Mind days, not a lot from 1999, barring typed lyrics for ‘Little Red Corvette’ and other songs from that breakthrough album. (There’s nothing at all from the late ’70s era of ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and his first two albums for Warner Brothers.) There was something so fresh and D.I.Y. about the hybrid new-wave punk-funk of Prince’s formative period; I’d like to have seen more of it at the O2.

But there’s more than enough to compensate for the absence of 2-Tone badges and kinky garter belts: a multitude of bizarrely-shaped guitars; a recreation of the stage Prince used in his last years; the “third-eye” sunglasses designed in 2014 by Minneapolis sisters Coco and Breezy; and notebooks for the Dreams script that became Purple Rain, with dialogue for Vanity rather than her successor Apollonia. (Embossed on one of the exhibition’s encased notebooks are the words “I’m not crazy I’m creative”. But as we all know, there’s a very thin line between genius and madness.)

Prince was such a weird little dude: so self-possessed, so spookily smart, so almost otherworldly. The one time I interviewed him was the oddest pop encounter I’ve ever had. Yet walking bleary-eyed (and a little teary) around this exhibition, I remembered how radical and revolutionary he was: a miniature purple god, part magus, part satyr, as lewd and libidinous as he was emotionally daring. He made Madonna and Michael Jackson sound like hacks.

And even here, walking through the vaults and wardrobes of his thrilling career, he remains an enigma – a man behind a mask.

Fa-fa-fa-fashion: Vogue @ 100


LAST WEEKEND, owing to a funeral in my wife’s family, I had to forego the chance to rub designer shoulder pads with Anna Wintour and Victoria Beckham at one of the innumerable events lined up to celebrate the 100th birthday of Vogue.

I’d been invited because I once regularly contributed to the fashion “Bible” and had, in fact, been asked to offer up some recollections of my Vogue years for the handsome Voice of a Century coffee-table book published last week by Genesis Publications.

Among the things I wrote was this: “Vogue took me out of the blokeish world of music journalism and injected me into a milieu with which I had – and still have – a very ambivalent relationship. I liked its intense glamour but was always slightly scared and suspicious of it.” And in the end, that was why I felt relieved to send editor-in-chief Alex Shulman my apologies and say I was unable to attend.

That old ambivalence was born almost certainly of the fact that my parents scorned fashion as vain and superficial, but also from a profound lack of confidence in my own sartorial style. Yet to deny I felt any pull towards Vogue’s world would be disingenuous. The fact is, I was pathetically flattered to appear in its pages, as if somehow it hoisted me out of the grubby geekdom of music journalism and propelled me into some jet-set domain in which, in my heart, I knew I did not belong.

My peak Vogue moment came in the summer of 1992 when features editor Eve MacSweeney asked me to fly to New York to interview Naomi Campbell, who predictably kept me waiting in a hotel room for 24 hours. I look back now and wonder if I shouldn’t have ingratiated myself still deeper into that monde, rather than revert to blokeish type and take the staff job offered to me by fledgling music monthly MOJO.


With my wife, who does possess innate sartorial style, I watched both parts of the Beeb’s recent Absolute Fashion doc on Vogue and found myself feeling the same old ambivalence: how seductively luxurious it seems, how beautiful the women are… yet how absurd the preening paranoid vanity of it all… and how grotesque it all is in a world where the most traumatic suffering occurs every moment of every day.

Though I thought Alex Shulman and Lucinda Chambers came across as very grounded and unpretentious in the film – just as they did when I went in for monthly editorial meetings all those years ago – it didn’t change my fundamentally puritanical distaste for the elitism that Vogue represents and defines. I was glad that Patsy and Edina were on hand in Ab Fashion to puncture its manifest foolishness.

And so, in the end, did I regret not being at swanky private club 5 Hertford Street last Sunday to mingle with Posh Spice and Poppy Delevigne? Not really. I’d only have stood around feeling wholly out of place – knowing I don’t belong. I almost certainly had a better time in Blackpool, celebrating the life of my wife’s beloved and brilliantly funny Auntie Elma, than I’d ever have had in Mayfair.