Prince: The Story of 1999 bonus feature: an interview with Robert Hilburn

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Robert Hilburn
Robert Hilburn was the chief pop music critic and pop music editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1970 through 2005, and is now writing books. Hilburn was the only journalist to interview Prince in 1982 about the release of '1999.' (Chris Morris)
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Andrea Swensson interviews Robert Hilburn about Prince
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In 1982, Prince released 1999, and the Los Angeles Times' music critic Robert Hilburn was the only journalist to interview Prince about the album. In fact, Prince would not grant interviews to journalists again for several years after that, making Hilburn (whose article published on Nov. 21, 1982) one of the last to speak to Prince before a lengthy period of silence from the artist.

In researching Prince: The Story of 1999, Andrea Swensson had a chance to talk to Robert Hilburn, who himself does not often do interviews. Hilburn spoke about meeting Prince in October 1982 and about seeing Prince perform leading up to the album 1999 — most notably, at a 1981 show at the Los Angeles Coliseum where Prince opened for the Rolling Stones and was met with boos and hostility from the audience. It was an experience, Hilburn surmises, that further motivated Prince to take the music world by storm.

Listen to Andrea's full conversation with Robert Hilburn using the audio player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

ANDREA SWENSSON: I would love to start out — you asked Prince in your interview about this experience he had opening for the Rolling Stones. Were you there at the L.A. Coliseum?

ROBERT HILBURN: Yeah, I was there. There were two shows. There was one show — I think it was the weekend, it was in October. And I think the problem was, this was a time when disco was hated in rock. And I'm guessing most of those white rock fans equated anyone black with disco or funk or something they didn't like. And anyway, some of the fans near the front of the stage hurled paper cups and bottles at Prince and his band on the first of those two days, but the show went on. It was just a little awkward or embarrassing.

Now the second day, though, the booing was so intense that Prince walked off the stage after just three numbers. And what was important about that, as he walked across the field — it was a long way from the stage in the football stadium to the dressing room — and Bill Graham, who's the famous concert promoter of those days, raced over to him and said, "Look, you've gotta go back on that stage. You can't let the audience beat you. If you don't show them that you're in charge or that you're fearless enough to face them, they're never going to respect you."

So he turned around and went back on the stage, and he sang three more songs. And the audience was more polite, because Graham had scolded them for what they did. So it turned out a moderately positive moment for him, because of that.

And when I asked him, in the interview, about that day, he said he thought most of the crowd was OK but he was frustrated because there was some guy near the front of the stage that kept yelling and yelling, and Prince said, "I got so mad that I wanted to fight that guy, I was really angry."

Now, I'm not sure that's true. I think he was hurt. It may have been that way he liked to think of that day, saying I was mad at that guy, but Bill Graham said when he talked to him to go back on stage, he could see he was hurt, he was almost shaking.

Well, yeah, I've talked to a lot of his bandmates; they were really upset. They felt personally attacked, really offended.

Yeah, and I think it was because — it was not necessarily Prince — it was anybody who was doing that kind of music that was black, that was the problem. I mean with those fans that got upset. Because they didn't want their stations to start playing disco and funk and stuff, it was kind of a war — remember there was a thing in Chicago where they broke disco records, they set them on fire or something? So I think he got caught up in that.

Did you hear racist or homophobic things when they were yelling?

No, they were just booing him, I think because they thought he was an outsider trying to get into the rock world. I didn't hear anything about — but you couldn't hear, mainly the throwing and the booing is what you saw and heard.

1981 Stones tour poster
Rolling Stones Tour Poster to promote the band's American Tour of 1981. It was on this tour that Prince opened for the Rolling Stones for two dates at the Los Angeles Coliseum. (Stones Archive/Getty Images)

Do you feel like the music that Prince made next was at all tied to this experience? A reaction to this experience opening for the Stones?

No. I think he played that because he could get a wider audience, you know, being on stage with the Rolling Stones — because his audience was primarily probably R&B up to that point. He was maybe getting some white fans. But Dirty Mind is what started making the changeover to a kind of white audience as well as an R&B and funk audience. But I think he had his course set. He wanted to play with the Rolling Stones to get more exposure. To show his music — that it was compatible and it was good. And that's why I'm surprised when he stopped doing interviews. Because he was so articulate at expressing his philosophy as an artist. I thought the more he would express that, the more people would see how much he had in common with people like David Bowie and Mick Jagger, and Elvis and Hendrix — you know, rock stars. So I think he really hurt himself by not — well, it turned out his music was so good it didn't matter — but I think he could have helped himself move a lot faster if he expressed himself more, because he was very articulate about what he wanted to do.

Did you know you were going to be the only journalist to interview him in 1982, around the release of 1999?

I knew there would be — I think there was four — and I happened to be the first one. So I went in, and again the funny thing was, there was all this mystery around him, and I knocked on the hotel room door, and he said, "Open the door," and I walked in and he was dark. The room was dark. And he turned on the light, finally. And I think he was sitting on the floor, so I sat on the sofa, and we started talking. And you know, I thought it went well. We talked for, it must have been an hour or two hours. And I thought it went well. I thought he was very articulate, he was much more forthcoming than I suspected he would be, and I said goodbye, and when I said goodbye, he turned the light off again and was in the dark. You know, it was this theatrical performance in a way.

So I got a call — this was I think on a Saturday, and I got a call on Monday, saying, "What happened? What did you say?" And I said, "I thought it went really well!" And he said, "Well, he canceled the other three interviews and went back to Minneapolis."

I certainly thought: why is that? I think there was a certain degree of — he liked mystery, you know? The same as Michael Jackson later. The more mysterious you are, the bigger the star you are. And so mystery was one part, I think he liked the mystery — keep people guessing what he was. He didn't want to be ordinary, he wanted to be this special creature.

And secondly, he seemed unusually sensitive about when he was talking about anything other than the music. Somehow I kind of asked him a question about what was the first record that you liked, and we started talking about music that way, and it kind of led into his family life. What it was like growing up. He talked about his father. And I think that's the stuff that made him kind of nervous, when I look back at it. He didn't seem to talk about that as quickly; his head would kind of drop and stuff. I just don't understand why — particularly he didn't want people to know about that, but why he was sensitive about that. But I think the other thing was just the mystery, he liked the mystery of it.

And I think he liked to control things. He didn't like the idea of being able to say all this stuff and have it recorded, having other people be able to use it. It was against his instincts, for the same reason that I think he stayed in Minneapolis — he was trying to protect himself and keep away from the doing music as ordinary.

Did you ask for interviews later on?

I think I did, but he really stopped doing interviews for a long time. And when he came back, his representatives said, "He will talk to you, but you can't bring a tape recorder into the interview and you can't even use a pencil to take notes." And I said, "Well, then I don't want to do it." I don't want to do an interview when I'm not sure what I'm going to remember, what I can use. It's just not professional. So I said, "I'll pass." So I never interviewed him again. He had restrictions after that; not everyone was willing to accept the restrictions.

What was that like for you, to be the last person that did an on-the-record interview with Prince until after all of these things happened in his career? After Purple Rain … he stayed radio silent through all that.

Well, the main thing I was feeling was I was unhappy that I wasn't doing interviews with him, you know. I would love to have talked to him during the Purple Rain period. So it didn't mean anything to me that I was the last person to do it; that didn't matter. The disappointment was I wasn't going to be able to interview him again.

What was your impression of 1999 when you first heard it?

Well, I loved Prince's music from Dirty Mind on. I think Dirty Mind was so impressive, because it just seemed like a debut album. It was such a change over his earlier work. And then when 1999 came out, that was so impressive because it was a double album. You got two Dirty Minds, in a sense! And I put it in my top 10 list of albums that year. Each track felt like it had the energy and brightness of a single. It didn't just seem like an album track. And beyond the teasing eroticism, I felt Prince had a real purpose. He was challenging listeners, like in the same Elvis, Sly Stone, David Bowie manner, of examining issues in life, rather than simply — he was urging to accept issues in life and think about themselves and what they can do rather than just simply accept what's been outlined for them. He was challenging people on a sexual, social, and even political level. And that was very dramatic. Because most artists don't do that. They stay within certain boundaries.

And one of the first questions he asked me, when we started the interview was — I had done a review of him earlier, when he plays Flippers, which is a roller skate rink. He always wanted to do things in unusual ways, so he chose that place, which never had concerts, to do the concert rather than just go into a regular club. And in that show, I said he reminds me a lot of David Bowie, the way he challenges assumptions and stuff, how he's trying to change things. He said, "Explain to me what you meant." He didn't understand why I would compare him to David Bowie. And I explained to him, I said, "Because you are challenging — you're challenging people on a sexual level, the social level, a political level. You're trying to get them to think in wider and brighter ways."

And he kind of nodded his head. I thought he was really pushing the boundaries of pop, and that's what excited me about him.

What else do you remember about meeting him in that hotel room? You've described it so vividly already, but how would you describe the Prince you got to meet?

Well, he was quiet, and he wasn't tricky in any way. A lot of times you see over the years, in the interviews he did, there was gimmicks attached to them, or he had these agendas. He was very — I hate to say this word — ordinary. He was very open, very friendly, very calm. He was excited about what he was doing.

But when I found out he had canceled the other interviews, and as time went on, I kept thinking back too that he was fragile, and he was nervous in a way. There was something that he wanted to control about his life that I'm not sure was healthy. Instead of just doing interviews — I mean, he could have benefited so much in those days from explaining who he is. But again, I think maybe he thinks part of creation and being a performer is the mystery, that people don't understand you. But what I always worried about as time went on was the isolation. The fact that he — think of Elvis and Michael Jackson, there's the isolation there — it's the nervousness about letting people get too close, and he might have lost touch with the outside world in some way. I think he realized the dangers of drugs and fame, and I think that was part of the thing that he was trying to block himself away from staying in Minneapolis, not becoming part of this other world. But that isolation is not a healthy thing.

Did you keep the tape of him talking? I'm wondering if you've returned to it ever over the years.

No, I haven't returned to it.

Thank you so much for talking to me, Bob. This has been a real pleasure.

Great, thank you.

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External Links

Robert Hilburn - official site

Prince - official site

Hilburn, Robert, "The Renegade Prince," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21, 1982

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