(Featured Image: Penthouse, April 1977; photo stolen from Antic Hay Rare Books.)
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the “deep symbolic significance” of André Anderson’s basement in what we might describe as Prince’s origin myth. At the time, I was referring to its importance as a stable home for Prince in his late teens–the first he’d had since his early childhood–as well as its function as an early incubator of his musicianship and songwriting talent. But the Andersons’ house on Russell Avenue was also important for more prurient reasons: it was there, so the stories go, that Prince began to put into practice the theories of sexual liberation he’d spend the next decade-plus codifying into something between an artistic canon and a secular religion.
The roots of this part of the “origin myth” seem to lie in a 1981 interview with journalist Barbara Graustark that ran in Musician magazine two years later, in September of 1983, after his crossover hit “Little Red Corvette” had introduced him to a larger audience eager to find out what made the little purple-clad libertine from MTV tick. Speaking about his foster mother Bernadette Anderson, Prince claimed that she “would let me do anything I wanted to” as long as he finished school. Graustark gamely asked how much one can do in a basement; “Well, it depends on how many people are there,” came the deliberately eyebrow-raising reply. He then went on to vaguely describe a scenario where Bernadette “came down and saw a lot of us down there, and we weren’t all dressed, and stuff like that. It kind of tripped her out, and we got into a semi-argument, and whatever, but it was… you know…” (Graustark 117). In her introduction to the interview, Graustark added fuel to the fire, referring to Prince’s “sexual excesses in a dank, dark Minneapolis basement with his confidant and companion André Cymone and a host of neighborhood girls” (110).
Howard Bloom, Prince’s publicist during his early-’80s rise to superstardom, also helped to shape this narrative. As late as 2002, he affirmed to biographer Alex Hahn, “My impression is that there were a lot of girls in that basement… he was going for liberation and entitlement to any sort of sexuality, pleasure, and enjoyment” (just, you know, no homo; Prince had been careful to note to Graustark that his and André’s orgies were entirely heterosexual) (Hahn 11). But the most salacious version of the story came from an interview André gave to Rock Magazine in early 1984, a few years after he’d made his acrimonious split from the Prince camp. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to track down the actual text of the interview (if anyone out there could help me out, it would be much appreciated), but biographer Dave Hill provides a helpful summary, mentioning “torrid sexual experiments with girls in groups, girls tied up with tape, girls dangling from the ceiling” (Hill 69).
Putting aside the logistics of André’s story–how were those girls “dangling from the ceiling,” exactly?–there are reasons to be dubious of this part of the basement legend. First, there’s the fact that, other than Prince, André, and a few people with commercial stakes in preserving the more scandalous aspects of the Prince legend, no one seems willing to corroborate the notion that the Anderson basement was the site of any “torrid sexual experiments.” Charles Smith, Prince’s cousin and founding member of his band Grand Central, told People magazine that “everybody was basically scared of girls… We talked a lot of mess” (People 1984). Prince’s younger sister, Tyka Nelson, was similarly dismissive: “Prince and André have really wild imaginations,” she told biographer Per Nilsen. “Some of the things they say they did only happened in their minds. Prince always wants people to think he was cool” (Nilsen 1999 21).
Second, and more importantly, Prince’s tales of teenage debauchery deserve our skepticism because he didn’t even keep his story straight over the course of the Musician interview. “I wrote a lot of sexual songs back then, but they were mainly things that I wanted to go on, not things that were going on,” he told Graustark. “Because I didn’t have anything around me… There were no people. No anything. When I started writing, I cut myself off from relationships with women” (Graustark 115-116). The truth, in all honesty, is probably somewhere in-between. I don’t doubt that some amount of hanky-panky went down in that basement; even Bernadette Anderson affirmed that the boys were definitely “interested in the ladies,” and admitted that there were probably “things I didn’t notice” (Hill 70). Quite frankly, however, Prince’s racier songs from this period sound more like the work of an isolated kid with a “wild imagination” than that of a burgeoning deviant with a penchant for “passing girls around” (69).
Take, for example, the 1976 home recording “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” Over a bluesy acoustic guitar riff redolent of Jimi Hendrix, Prince spins a yarn about hooking up with a “foxy lady down in New Orleans” that sounds for all the world like a Penthouse Forum letter set to music. The lyrics, if nothing else, are revealing of Prince’s personal insecurities: when his character first approaches the “finest little woman that [he] ever did see,” she shuts him down by remarking that he looks “young enough to be [her] son.” But the self-proclaimed “Golden Lover” soon turns the tables with a display of sexual prowess so incredible, it apparently defies direct description. Prince phrases the entire verse depicting his imaginary sexual encounter in an extended–and ludicrous–rowing metaphor: “She took me by the hand and led me to her boat / We flipped a coin to see who would stroke / Heads, I won, so I took the oar / Then I rowed and rowed until she couldn’t stand it no more.” It’s an amusingly awkward moment, and not just because it doesn’t gel grammatically with the woman’s titular invitation to “ride” (who says they’re going to “ride” a rowboat?). There’s also the fact that the woman, who appears to be a prostitute, tells Prince’s character not to “worry about the money, I wanna find out / Just what you are made of”–this, apparently, mere moments after putting him down for his perceived youth. But the song isn’t all laughs and wish-fulfillment fantasies: a nasty, vindictive edge emerges in the final verse, when the narrator crows over his conquest, “If anybody asks you who destroyed all your pride / Tell ’em, the Golden Lover did, yes he did / And he sure knows how to ride.”
Of course, it’s maybe a little excessive to subject the musical equivalent of an entry from Prince’s embarrassing teenage diary to critical scrutiny, but it’s still worth talking about the ways in which “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” foreshadows his later musical and lyrical preoccupations. As in the untitled fragments we discussed earlier, Prince can be heard here experimenting with different vocal registers; double-tracking his own voice with a higher and lower harmony, and occasionally dropping from his customary falsetto into his deeper natural voice: a trick he would later exploit to great effect, most famously on his 1986 smash “Kiss.” It can also be argued that the narrative of “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” contains the roots of later story-songs like “Little Red Corvette” and 1984’s “Darling Nikki”: tawdry tales in which Prince’s character comes into contact with a sexually experienced, almost predatory woman who intimidates him before showing him the erotic ropes.
What the earlier song lacks, however, are the almost masochistic undertones that would give its antecedents their subversively sexy charge. As a teenager, Prince still hadn’t figured out how to turn his aforementioned insecurities–over his height, his age, his perceived effeminacy–into strengths. “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” thus comes across as a textbook litany of hollow, juvenile locker-room boasts, with occasional detours into outright misogyny–a little like his and André’s stories about tying up neighborhood girls, as a matter of fact. What would ultimately turn Prince into a master stylist–maybe the master stylist, when it comes to carnal matters–was his later realization that surrendering to women could be far more powerful than dominating them. He’d figure it out soon enough; but for the time being, “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” is an abortive first step in Prince’s journey from imagined to bona fide sexual prodigy.
“Don’t You Wanna Ride?” YouTube