Even as Prince was plotting his next move as a recording artist in mid-1978, relations were souring with the management team that had helped get him signed in the first place. Owen Husney had organized a small promotional tour after the release of For You, to some success: particularly in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a crowd of 3,000 showed up and threatened to overwhelm security. It was a significant enough event to warrant a short news story from teen magazine Right On!, which ran with the headline “Prince Pandemonium in Charlotte.” “That’s when he said he felt like a piece of meat being carried around,” Prince’s cousin and early mentor Pepé Willie recalled to biographer Dave Hill. “But he was high, really high up there, you know? To bring him back down to earth was a real chore” (Hill 45).
Indeed, the 20-year-old’s small taste of celebrity had only left him less satisfied with the progress of his career–and, in what would become another of his determining patterns, he began to vent his frustrations on his management. “Prince didn’t have enough experience to know that this is a really slow process,” Husney later told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “He had been told that he was fantastic so much that he believed that he was really going to be successful straightaway. And when he wasn’t, he was really disappointed. He started to blame Warner Bros. and then he started to blame me… We became very disappointed and started to wear on each other” (Nilsen 1999 49)
A point of particular contention for Prince was Owen’s day job at the Ad Company, where he still devoted some of his time. “Prince said, ‘Hey, why am I calling him up on the phone, and he says, “Hello, it’s the Ad Company?” How come he’s not in L.A. or New York?’” Willie recounted (Hill 56). “Prince wanted me to be there all the time,” Husney later told Uptown. “He thought I was supposed to be there if the sink broke, fix it. If the toilet broke, fix it. Due to his lack of experience, that’s what he thought managers do” (Nilsen 1999 49). To be fair, this definition of management doesn’t seem to have originated with Prince: in an interview with biographer Matt Thorne, Willie recalled confronting Husney on the artist’s behalf when he needed a space heater for his basement studio. “I told him, ‘Your manager’s supposed to be doing this… Owen is not supposed to be at the Ad Company right now. As far as I’m concerned he’s supposed to be in New York or L.A. lobbying for you.’ So I go over to Owen’s office and I says, ‘Owen, Prince is unhappy, he’s cold, he don’t have no space heaters.’ And these are Owen’s exact words: he said to me, ‘So I’m supposed to leave my company and do all of this stuff for some artist that probably won’t make it?’” (Thorne 2016).
Frankly, I’m skeptical that Husney was quite as dismissive as Willie claimed. For one thing, in the manager’s version of the story, the space heater request was taking him away from a legitimate opportunity for Prince, not (just) his own business interests. “I was sitting waiting for a call from William Morris about an upcoming, potential, small tour,” he said to Uptown. “Prince wanted me to come over and bring him a space heater. And I said, ‘Pepé’s there, just have Pepé go get the space heater. I’m not going to bring it, I’m waiting for William Morris to call back’” (Nilsen 1999 49-50). Whatever the specifics, communications between artist and manager quickly deteriorated, with Willie serving as a go-between. “He told me, ‘Can you go to Owen and tell him there’s an argument?’” Willie told Hill. “So, I go to Owen and say, ‘Owen, Prince says, “Fuck you.”’ And Owen says, ‘Well, you tell him, “Fuck him too!”’ So I go back with that, and Prince says, ‘OK, he’s fired!’” (Hill 56).
As you’ve probably gleaned, it’s a bit of artistic license on my part to pair Prince’s sentimental 1978 demo, “Miss You,” with this recounting of the end of his first formal professional relationship. I am by no means suggesting that Prince was literally inspired to write a breakup song by his and Husney’s falling-out; but Husney, at least, has described it as “more like the break-up of lovers or a father and son. It was a lot deeper and a lot more hurtful than just the breaking-up of a manager and his artist.” He later told journalist Liz Jones, “My wife and I were his surrogate family…just like Bernadette Anderson had given him a home, we gave him a home” (Jones 46). During the For You sessions in northern California, Husney had “made Prince scrambled eggs”; his wife at the time had “made him breakfast and lunch, washed his clothes” (53). But he would have to learn a hard lesson, one that would be repeated time and time again over the years: for Prince, the line between personal and professional relationships was a hazy one, and a disappointment in the latter often meant the severing of ties in the former.
Prince did have kind words for Husney on at least one public occasion after the “breakup”: his previously-quoted 1981 interview with Barbara Graustark of Musician magazine. For the most part, however–just like with Chris Moon and, later, Pepé Willie–his former mentor’s name would be wiped from the official narrative. By late 1999, during an interview on CNN’s Larry King Live, the artist then-“formerly known as” Prince would refer impersonally to Husney as “my first manager, whose name escapes me” (see video below). As ever, Prince’s actual feelings in the aftermath of Husney’s departure remain inscrutable. Many of the existing biographies treat the space heater incident and its aftermath as an example of Prince’s burgeoning ego; his already-growing disconnect from the people around him; his chilling tendency to get close to people and then discard them as soon as they were no longer of use. But who knows how he really felt?
So–again, in an act of artistic license–I’m discussing “Miss You” in this context. If this blog was a documentary about Prince’s life, I’d want to have “Miss You” playing during this sequence. And in any case, it’s not as if Prince never used music to reflect on his relationship with Husney–see, for example, “So Blue.” Like that earlier song, “Miss You” is really about a romantic relationship, likely an imaginary one. Over some delicate acoustic guitar chords, Prince looks back on memories so vaguely warm and fuzzy they almost read as parodic: “I miss the ocean / I miss the time we made love under the stars / I miss the summer rain / I miss those big ol’ fancy cars / I miss the blue sky / I miss the pouring rain too / Most of all, baby, I miss you.” But as cheesy as the lyrics come across–really, Prince, two separate kinds of rain?–the melody and vocal performance are both spellbinding. I especially like the multi-tracked backing vocals that come in after he sings “I miss you.” And the slight Country & Western flavor feels like an embyronic version of another song from his upcoming second album, “Still Waiting.”
Like a lot of the songs we’ve been discussing recently, “Miss You” is a fragment: just a single verse and a guitar outro that probably wouldn’t have gone on nearly as long in a completed version. But it’s probably the most compelling fragment in that whole crop of mid-to-late-1978 France Avenue recordings: the one that, with a little work, would have been most likely to shape into a halfway decent album track. It’s pretty, tuneful, and exquisitely performed. And if I want to read a little bit of regret about the loss of an important mentor into the subtext, well, that’s my own business.
Next time–at last!–we put the hinterlands between For You and Prince behind us with a look at Prince’s first concert as a solo artist, and the mysterious song on the setlist. Then, we’ll officially embark on the next “chapter” of the blog, starting with the recording sessions that resulted in one of his trademark songs.