David Henry Hwang is a playwright who has been producing plays, musicals and operas for three decades. He won the Tony Award for his play M. BUTTERFLY and also writes for movies and television. After his previous blogs where he unleashed his Asian Shame and discussed his worst career moves (see here, here and here), he turns to write about something more…funky.
Growing up, I listened to lots of music, but the two artists who meant most to me were David Bowie and Prince. I discovered Prince through his 1980 album DIRTY MIND. See, back in 1980, there was black music, and there was white music. Period. I listened mostly to black artists cuz I imagined most of the white guys would just as soon beat me up as pick up their guitars. Unless they were British, in which case they might not beat me up cuz, I dunno, they had cool accents.
But Prince. DIRTY MIND. What WAS this? Kinda R&B, kinda New Wave. Kinda disco, kinda … punk? How was this guy managing to pull it off? The sound wasn’t black, wasn’t white, it was BOTH. Or neither. Whatever. It was totally new. And brilliant. So danceable. And … really nasty. I loved, loved, loved it.
From then on, I bought every Prince album the day of its release, scoured record stores for unreleased and bootleg tracks, followed each concert tour. I saw 1984’s PURPLE RAIN show in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis — on Christmas Eve.
So imagine my groupie heart in 1989, when I opened PEOPLE Magazine to find a picture of Prince, coming out of M. BUTTERFLY, my Broadway show! Prince goes to Broadway? Who knew? He saw my play! Did he like it? How come no one told me? I could’ve been there! I could had like a … casual conversation with him. “Hey, Prince, how ya doin’?” Do people actually call him “Prince?”
Four years later, in 1993, I began hearing through my agents that Prince was interested in meeting with me. To talk about an idea for a stage musical.
For about two weeks, a woman from Paisley Park, his music studio outside Minneapolis, would ring my home. “Are you available to speak to Prince?” Hey, they do call him “Prince!” Even though, by then, he’d renounced his name over a contract dispute with Warner Brothers and changed it to that unpronounceable symbol thing. But his People were still calling him “Prince.” I was already getting Inside Information, Baby!
“OK, he might call you tomorrow.”
Then a couple of days later: “Are you available to speak to Prince?”
Finally, “He’s going to call you at 2 pm tomorrow.” Around the appointed time, the phone rings. “Prince would like to speak with you.” I’m falling into a groupie coma.
“Hi.” It’s Him. I know that voice! Here I am, a Chinese kid from San Gabriel who grew up wearing coke-bottle bottom glasses and with terrible acne, the antithesis of cool. I’m on the phone. With Prince!
“Hi!” I motor-mouth. “I’m really happy to meet you on the phone cuz your music has meant so much to me, and thank you for thinking of me.”
Dead silence. From the other end of the line, not a peep.
Prince finally speaks. Wants to meet me in person. In New York. I’m living in LA at the time, but, hell, I can go to New York. When?
I meet Prince in the penthouse of the Riga Royal Hotel on West 54th St. He has the whole top floor. The door opens, and — there he stands. Prince. But, I mean, really Prince. Like, with the high heels, and the make-up and the purple jacket and — For our meeting, he’s donned full Prince drag. Or maybe this is how he hangs around his hotel room all day, who knows? All I know for sure is, this is the same guy I’ve seen onstage in countless cities. On albums and bootlegs and in fan magazines and … I’ve come prepared with lots to say cuz, you know, he might not speak.
This time, however, Prince turns out to be remarkably down to earth. For him. We sit and drink, I dunno, soda water, and he tells me this story based on his own experience. About his relationship with a fan. Which became obsessive and weird — in a sexual way (of course). He wants to do a show about it.
I am so on the case. I can go home. Do a draft of the script. Send it back to him. We can bat it around. I don’t talk about money, or contracts — I figure, I am doing this on spec. After all, I am friggin’ Working With Prince!
One more thing. He’d like me to write a poem for him. About loss. The way you feel when you’ve lost someone you love. And you know they’re never coming back. And that, for the rest of your life, you’re going to be alone. He wants to do a song that suddenly breaks into a spoken word interlude. He rolls his eyes, “They’re gonna say, ‘The boy’s really lost it this time.’”
The whole meeting lasts maybe half an hour. Then I’m back on West 54th St. Having met my idol. The greatest pop star of the decade. And we’re Working Together!
I return to LA and a couple of days later, an envelope shows up. From Paisley Park. With cassette tapes. Of new Prince songs for the show. This is the ultimate bootleg. Wait, it’s not even technically a bootleg. They’re just … unreleased songs. That I’m hearing before the rest of the world. Why? Oh yeah. Because I’m Working With Prince.
Interestingly, all the songs include a middle section that fades out. Then the song comes back in. Oh, I get it! That’s so they can’t be Bootlegged. More Inside Information, Baby!
I write a poem about Love and Loss. Fax it to Paisley Park. A few days later, I get another cassette. A new song. Incorporating my poem. Not as a spoken word interlude after all, but as part of the lyrics. It’s called “Solo.” Hey, I’ve written a song. With Prince. Just like that.
The musical doesn’t end up working out, and Prince and I have never had reason to speak again. But a year later, I got a call from the woman at Paisley Park.
“Just wanted to let you know that the album is coming out. It will include ‘Solo.’ We’re thinking is it’s probably also going to be the B-side of the first single. I’m glad because it’s one of my favorite tracks.”
The album is called COME, whose first single, “LetItGo,” does indeed include “Solo” as its B-side. I checked the writing credit on the CD case: “Prince with David Henry Hwang.” No contracts between us, nothing on paper. But he remembered. That we had Worked Together.
COME ends up becoming Prince’s lowest-selling album to that date. Which is still good enough, though, to be certified by the RIAA as a Gold Record. To be honest, “Solo” is not the greatest Prince song ever written. But that doesn’t matter, does it? I got to become part of the Prince discography. And if that weren’t orgasmic enough, Paisley Park even sent me a Gold Album. The greatest piece of fan memorabilia a life-long groupie could ever desire.