Prince: The Story of 1999 bonus feature: Dez Dickerson: 'Put an explosion over it'

Dez Dickerson points at the audience at First Avenue
Dez Dickerson points at the audience while playing with The Revolution at First Avenue on September 1, 2016. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
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Dez Dickerson: 'Put an explosion over it'
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Prince's first guitarist, Dez Dickerson, talks with The Current's Andrea Swensson, taking us back to the early days, into the recording studio, and from the smallest clubs to the biggest stages. "From the very beginning, Prince had a clear idea of what he wanted, how he wanted it, how he wanted us to coalesce as a band, what he wanted to say, and what message that would send," Dickerson says.

You can listen to their complete conversation using the audio player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript


ANDREA SWENSSON: Thank you so much, Dez, for being here with me.

DEZ DICKERSON: Glad to be here. Glad to help.

We are obviously getting very excited for this 1999 reissue. I definitely want to talk to you about that. You're here now because this exhibit's opening and we're really looking back on those very early days when Allen Beaulieu was taking all those amazing pictures of Prince and the band. I would love to hear some of your memories — kind of setting the stage leading up to 1999. Maybe let's talk a little bit about the Dirty Mind tour and then some of the other first memories you have of being in Prince's band. What was it like back then?

To me — and there are some fans who kind of concur with this, the folks that have been kind of there from the beginning — the energy at that time was different than it ever was at any time going forward, because there's something about people who are kids — you don't think of yourselves as kids at the time — who are doing what they, in their constructive hubris, think that they were always meant to do, but you have this forward momentum, and you're just kind of hurtling forward through the candy store. And there was just something about those days that was more adventurous. It was not real calculated. We tried to be purposeful, but a lot of it just kind of happened along the way. It was an amazing time.

How old were you when you met Prince?

I think when I joined the band I was 22; something like that. And I was the oldest one once we kind of finalized that original lineup. I was three years older than Prince and I was the oldest guy in the band, which is funny now, looking back, because it was the blind leading the blind.

Something that I am really curious about, thinking about the pre-1999 experience, is that Prince is obviously signed to Warner Bros., and is trying to develop this national presence, but the music industry was so segregated at that time, and I really pinpoint two opportunities that you guys had as maybe eye-opening experiences regarding how the music industry was operating in that era: One was opening for Rick James, and one was opening for the Rolling Stones. Tell me about Rick James first. What was that experience like? And you were on the road with him for months.

Yeah. We did like an entire tour. I think it was the Fire It Up tour? The tour where Rick had the famous six-foot dancing joint onstage, I think.

First of all, Rick was one of my favorite people of all time; just a loveable guy. The problem was he kept thinking he had to be Rick James instead of just being James Johnson. So being on the road with Rick was almost like an SNL skit, because he was this caricature of himself. There was a point early on where there was just kind of this sort of inscrutable beef between Prince and Rick, even though it wasn't an overt thing. It was just one of those "I'm not going to be the first one to reach out and just be human and be normal." And they were kind of intimidated by one another, which happens so commonly. It's a business where you have egomaniacs with inferiority complexes, and that kind of runs things. Neither of those guys were, but…

So there was a point on that tour where I just decided we need to do some sort of armistice, so I got Bobby and we went to Rick's room late one night after a show, like 2 or 3 in the morning, and we just sat down and — I think we were in Buffalo, and I think his mom had made some food, so we were eating his mom's homemade food. And it was just one of those, "Oh, I don't really know what the problem is" kind of things. And after that it was awesome. We lovingly called them the Braid-y Bunch because they all had braids. I don't know what they called us, but it was a fun tour.

Is it true that he and Prince would watch each other's sets?

Yeah. At first Rick would, but then Rick's routine was he would go on his bus and sleep until 30 minutes before he went on, and they would literally wake him up 30 minutes before he went on and hand him a bottle of Courvoisier, and point him to the stage. So Rick didn't see much after the beginning of the tour. But yeah, we watched Rick most of the time, and it was interesting because at that time we were playing what folks then called "the Chitlin Circuit," so we're playing arenas, but we're playing to stone-solid African-American audiences, which — we grew up [in Minneapolis]. So it was different here. But it was a great experience. We pretty much kicked Rick's butt every night in a good way, because you're competitive and you want to go out there and — so I think that kind of added to some, I don't want to call it "tension," but drama. But it was great fun.

Animation of Dez Dickerson performing in Purple Rain. (Warner Bros via YouTube)

Recently there was a screenshot of the badge that Prince wore on the tour. It said "musician/star."

Right.

Do you think he was developing a little bit of a persona in response to being around Rick?

It could be. At that point in time — again, the confidence factor was off the charts, but at the same time the insecurity factor was kind of omnipresent as well. So I think that at times Prince was determined to assert that he was the new kid on the block, and that ultimately none can stand before me, you know what I mean? But it was interesting.

So then a short while later — well, you went on the Dirty Mind tour and then ended up opening for the Rolling Stones.

Indeed we did.

So it's interesting to me to look back and think Prince really only opened for these two acts ever in his career.

Kool & The Gang — one show.

Oh, really?

San Francisco. Circle Star Theatre, playing in the round with the stage rotating. I kicked my Marshall over on their keyboards. It was awesome. It was like Pete Townsend meets Smokey Robinson. It was amazing.

So thinking about going from playing to primarily black audiences on the Rick James tour and then being in front of 94,000 mostly white rock fans at the Rolling Stones show, set that scene up for us a little bit. What was the band thinking about going into that?

See, here's the interesting thing about that: we as a band obviously had not been in that setting before. As a frontman, Prince had not been in that setting before, because he really hadn't done a ton of shows as a frontman, because in the old days with he and André and Morris and that whole thing. Prince wasn't the frontman, really. So you had those factors going on, plus you had the fact that the dynamic between us and the audience — and actually the number that I was quoted was that there were 120,000 people there. And 5,000 of them were Hell's Angels, for a fact — 5,000 of them were Hell's Angels. So statistically in any public speaking situation — public situation — at least five percent of your audience decides before you do a thing, they don't like you. Well, if it's 120,000 people, five percent, that's a sizeable number of folks. So musically, visually, in every way we were not what most of that crowd expected, and certainly the band didn't know what to expect. I grew up playing in biker bars, so I kind of tried to tell folks going in, "Understand, this is not going to be Rick James. This is going to be a different thing."

So it was a bit of a shock to the system, but I think the folklore over the years, as folklore tends to do, kind of overblew the negativity of it. The Friday — because it was Friday, Saturday off, Sunday — the Friday show actually wasn't that bad. The first two songs — I can still hear that sound, that sound of that many people. It was like amazing. The Sunday show was Game of Thrones. The Sunday show was like whew, man, winter was coming! But the Friday show I thought was pretty awesome.

And didn't you say that maybe a little bit of a rumor had gotten started between the two shows? The radio stations were kind of playing it up — "Oh, people booed this guy, Prince" — and some people were kind of coming to that Sunday show maybe expecting a fight.

That's exactly what it was, because it was actually Bill Graham, legendary promoter — I love that guy, but that's a story for another time — he got up onstage after we shortened our set the first day. And as only Bill could do, he started calling people out by name — "You're at every show!" — and he's like cussing them out, and they booed Bill. But what was it, KISS FM? I can't remember which station. They were broadcasting from the Coliseum, and they said we got booed off stage. It was false, but doesn't matter if it's true or not. It just matters if enough people hear it.

So yeah, people came prepared. First thing I saw Sunday when we stepped onstage was this dot in the distance. As it got closer — "That's a Ziploc bag with some sort of — those are chicken parts." And as they got real close, they were grey, like somebody took the time to put them in the sun. It was like, "This is going to be an interesting afternoon."

A Ziploc bag full of rotting chicken parts.
Rotting chicken parts, and then I turned and looked just in time to see Mark Brown's bass with a gallon of orange juice exploding on it. I mean, it was war, but you just had to kind of survive. We had shortened our set and put the loudest songs we had in one set. Again, I think that was a turning point in that those battle scars you carry into your future persona and victory.

Absolutely. Well then you had the opportunity to speak to Prince between these two appearances.

I did.

And I think it's interesting that Mick Jagger called Prince and couldn't talk him into coming back, but you called Prince and did talk him into coming back for that second show. So what did you say?

Well, what I did was — and it's something you can do when you are the ones that are in the trenches together; you're the band of brothers or whatever. So I just literally appealed to his manhood. I said, "We cannot let them do us like this. We can't let people run us out of town, because if we do it now, we're going to be running forever. So you gotta come back. We gotta do this, and we just have to make our stand."

And that is what clicked. Frankly, I don't know what Mick said to try to get him back, but — "bless his heart," as we say in the South — it didn't work.

It makes sense that you'd be able to get through to him. You're from the same place. You kind of pinpointed this, and I know Bobby Z and others have pinpointed this as well as this huge turning point, and we're turning into the Controversy tour, but really what — as we know, Prince was always a couple steps ahead — he was starting to formulate this idea for 1999 and for Vanity 6 and what he was going to do next with The Time, so I'm curious to know, how much did the band know as you were on the road doing the Controversy tour. How much were you aware of that he was working on in the studio?

There was a little bit of distinction with respect to the flow of information. I think part of why — really harking back to Prince being influenceable when I called and talked him into coming back in the Stones thing — there was a little bit of a — I was a little older and I'd been doing it for a long time before we kind of joined forces. So for whatever reason, he trusted me, and there was a level of respect that he had, and he would listen.

So oftentimes he would call and run things by me. Or more often your phone would ring and it would be like: "Dez. Prince. Can you come over?" And I would just go to the house. Of course, I was all the way on the opposite side of town, so it was like, get your passport and pack a lunch. But a lot of times I would hear about those things long before they happened, like the Vanity 6 thing and some of that stuff. Those were things he talked about for a while in different iterations. The name was originally different than that and a whole lot of things.

This was the Lake Riley house in Chanhassen?

Yeah. And even before that, even from the beginning when he was still living on France Avenue [in Minneapolis]. My involvement in the band started that way. After the Dell's Tire Mart audition, I just started getting these calls from him, and he wanted me to come over to the house, and it would be me and him and André sitting on the couch, and we'd play music for 15 minutes and then laugh for an hour and a half. That was how it started.

I can see that.

Oh yeah. And that's definitely how it was.

So would he ask you for input or advice?

Yeah. Oh, yeah. He would actually listen, and especially in the beginning it wasn't like this obligatory kind of a thing. He genuinely wanted to know what I thought. In fact, for me, the point where it was changing to the degree that I knew I needed to think about leaving the band was when that wasn't happening as much. He was still listening, but it was like "Yeah, I hear you, but I'm still going to" — then it was like well, OK.

So thinking back on 1999 as a standalone album, as this moment in Prince's career, how do you describe the sound of that album?

Man, I think first of all, because he was always the quintessential student of the game, as we say, on the one hand he was incredibly inspired and spontaneous, but at the same time he was also very calculating in a good way. So I think that he had learned along the way.

His first album, he was just trying to go boldly where no man had ever gone before. And then the second album, the label had put him the pressure of, "Yeah, you gotta have a hit." And so by the time 1999 came around — I would compare it to like an NFL quarterback. By the time you've been playing for five years, the game has slowed down and you see exactly what's happening before it happens. By 1999, that's kind of where he was. So that record was just this masterful combination — it's got the funk elements, but it's got the pop and it's got the hooks and it's got the stuff that's uniquely him. In fact, he told me this one time. Make sure that every record has one sound that you use on every song. That was one of his motifs. So that record was kind of the culmination of all that.

And what would that sound be, the LinnDrum?

Well, the LinnDrum turned out to be part of it. On different records — like for example on 1999 there's that sort of [singing] — that electronic percussion sound. Go back and listen to the record, and that sound is everywhere.

One of the things he also told me one time was — this was back before Pro Tools and all that stuff, obviously — every once in a while, you'd get a take, and the energy and the feel of the take was so good that even though there might've been a mistake technically, you wanted to use the take. So he said, "You know what, when there's something in the track that you want to keep but there's something in the track that you don't want in there, put an explosion over it." That was it. So now you know studio secrets with Prince. Put an explosion over the mistakes. There you go.

That changes everything.

It does. George Clinton said, "It's not funky until you put a nursery rhyme in it." Prince said, "Put an explosion in it."

I like that. One of the things I was wondering about is if you had aligned the sound of 1999 with what we call the Minneapolis Sound.

Of course we didn't call it the Minneapolis Sound. Prince didn't call it that. Other people did. And clearly what the Minneapolis Sound was, was just the sound that was developing as Prince was going along and we were doing what we were doing, and he was kind of absorbing from the people around him, because that was part of it.

Part of the Minneapolis sound was Prince growing in his ability to kind of just assimilate everything around him, and keep the best stuff and get rid of the stuff that didn't work. So to me the LinnDrum and the polyrhythm thing, along with the Oberheim — the OB8 — the horns being simulated by a synth — that was the Minneapolis sound. But what he did was find a way to do that with more of a pop motif. So you could have a song like "1999," which still kind of has this rhythmic thing and has the horn stabs, but it's purely pop almost to the point at times of being almost silly it's so poppy. But at the same time it's apocalyptic, so he found that sweet spot.

What do you remember about recording on that?

What I remember is, again, as always, he called me. "Dez. Prince. Can you come over?" But this time, he had the record substantially finished and had some holes, as he always did by that time, that he wanted me to kind of step into and fill. So the first thing he did was he actually put up the "1999" track, and he had recorded it in such a way that it could've been alternating verses where one singer sings the first verse in its entirety, one sings the second, and so on. It could have been such that he sang in alternating lines, or it could've been what it ended up being on the record. So he just had me come and actually had me sing most of the song. It's not just the lines that ended up on the record, but he had me sing through most of the song. And I don't think we experimented with any additional guitar, but what he did have me do is that "1999" — the pitched down spoken "1999" on the vamp out? Well, that's me. He had me as almost an afterthought, because he had already done the "Don't worry, I won't hurt you," but evidently got the inspiration — let's kind of bookend that with this thing going out, so that was my voice. When I was finishing up my vocals he said, "Hey, I want you to do one more thing."

[Little Red] Corvette, on the other hand, was just background vocal stuff: "Hey, try this, try that," and again, he would give me a lot of latitude. He'd kind of throw out an idea, but then he'd let me try things, and when he heard something he likes — but with the guitar solo I just kind of did five passes, just like one after another, and then we sat and comped it. And there were some things that he felt strongly about that was like "eh," and mainly I was thinking in terms of "how am I going to play that?" Because that interval was completely unnatural. You're not going to go from playing that phrase to playing that phrase. People will think it's genius, but I'm never going to be able to play it again. And then other parts of it I was like, "That we gotta keep." And that was it. It was those five passes, comped it into one solo. The rest is a mystery.

What did that mean to you to have, as we know now, Prince is such a — like one of the all time greats on guitar — for him to give you the guitar solo on that song? What did that mean?

We had actually had a conversation, I think it was in St. Louis; like, I can see the room. And he said, "I'm going to start playing guitar less and less." People aren't going to believe this, but he said, "You know, you're a better lead player anyway. I'm just going to front. I'm going to focus on being a front man and I'm going to have you do most of the lead stuff from now on." And that's what he did.

Sorry folks, but that's what he said. And I know Eric Clapton said — and whatever — but Prince said, "Dude, you take it." So what can I tell you?

Put that on the résumé.

Exactly. I didn't pay him to say it.

Wow. That's a big deal.

Yeah, it's a huge deal. Looking back now it's like — of course again, at the time, being an arrogant kid I thought, "Well it's about time. I've been smokin' here behind you this whole time!"

We went into the little bit of competition between the Rick James band and Prince, and there was definitely competition between The Time and Prince, but within the band, was there kind of a one-upmanship going on?

You know, I think it was — it definitely wasn't overt. It's more that we pushed each other, because early on especially, we would do the thing where we would switch instruments during rehearsals and play other stuff. And I think that we just really wanted to make sure — probably more so in the show than anything else — that you were taking up your game a notch and looking to see what somebody else was going to do. So I would say it was a competition, but not overt. We just drove one another in a really healthy way.

Prince and his band in 1982
Prince and The Revolution promoting the album 1999, circa 1982. Dez Dickerson is at far right. (Allen Beaulieu / Courtesy Warner Records)

Thinking more about the two singles that you mentioned — "1999" and "Little Red Corvette" — do you feel like, or was it ever explicitly stated that Prince was trying to create a radio hit?

He never said it directly, but it was obvious. We talked about radio all the time. We talked about the compositional demographic makeup of the audience. We talked about those things. We talked about it in the band. It was a discussion between Prince and management. It was a discussion between management and Prince and the whole band. It was the worst-kept secret of all time. So yeah, when I came into the house and heard the record, it was like "OK, well there it is. That's what you've been talking about, and there it is."

Do you think it's fair to say that he was trying to reach a whiter audience than he had previously?

Open secret. And it wasn't about neglecting or devaluing our existing fan base. It was about never wanting to be limited. It was about never wanting to be marginalized. If you look at the population as a whole, our fan base should look like the population as a whole and not a small portion of it. So it's like they have a pitch count sometimes in baseball. We had the white-people count. There was a point — we touring — X number of minutes before show time the road manager or one of the managers would come in if they were out with us on that show: "Hey, audience is about 75 percent white." And then that number kept going up. We got to the place where it was like the audience is over 90 percent white.

Again, it was just one of those things where we didn't want to be marginalized. We wanted our audience to look like the Western world.

What were some of the things you were observing about the way Prince was handled by his managers, his label, the industry as a black artist in that era?

The thing that I noticed is that he refused to be handled. From the very beginning, he had a clear idea of what he wanted, how he wanted it, how he wanted us to coalesce as a band, what he wanted to say, and then what he wanted who we were to say what message that would send. From the beginning, it was like this United Nations of Funk thing with every race, every gender.

So any pushback that he got, it wasn't going to matter, because he was going to have his way, and he would find a way to even make a dig out of it. The way that the whole bikini underwear thing started was one of the Dennis the Menace pushback things. It was, "Prince, you can't go onstage without underwear like that. You gotta wear underwear."

"OK, then I'll come out just wearing underwear."

It was kind of always like that. And they were trying to steer him. I remember he called me up one time after "I Wanna Be Your Lover" was recorded — the extended version — and he called me up and I could always tell when he would ask this disjointed question out of nowhere, that "OK, this is going somewhere." But he said, "What do you think about percussion?" I'm like, "You mean in general?" But what it turned out to be was one of the Warner execs said, "This record's not done. It needs percussion." And he didn't want that. He said, "No, it's done."

So they would try to push to a point, and then they got to the point where, "No, we're just not even going to try anymore."

I wanted to ask you about Jamie Starr, because it's really interesting for me to look back on some of Morris Day's interviews around that time. People were insisting Jamie Starr was a real person who lived in Minneapolis who was producing these albums by the Time and Vanity 6. How in on it were you as this whole persona was being developed?

It was really more between Prince and Morris, but I was really heavily involved in the first Time record, less so in the second, because there was a co-write dynamic that was developing as well where he would call me. There's a phone motif here. He would call me and say, "I've got a title. I need you to write the lyrics." So a couple of songs — "Cool" and "After Hi School," I had written the whole thing — but there was some co-working on those first couple of records.

But definitely as they were doing the vocals, as Prince and Morris were kind of fleshing the records out, that whole thing kind of emerged because Prince's whole thing was he wanted to really kind of white-label the thing — didn't want it to be this obvious Prince, kind of Svengali deal.

We all thought it was hilarious that people thought that Jamie Starr was like a person, because Jamie Starr was more a composite — Prince primarily, but then you had Morris's input, and I had a little bit of involvement, and there were a bunch of people who had a little bit of involvement. So at the end of the day, Jamie Starr was a creation of people's imaginations. They believed what they wanted to believe.

So what do you think he was trying to express with his work in The Time even though he wasn't associating his image with it at that point?

I think, honestly, he was still trying to keep the pure funk sound, to have a place for that, to have a repository for that, so that he would not feel that he had to keep that present in his work as Prince, so that he had a place to go with that material. And really, it was as much a fact that that was what he loved and it was part of him as it was a commercial consideration or a financial consideration. So I believe that's really what it was. It was someplace to keep the funk at the end of the day.

As his own sound was expanding?

Yeah.

As he was taking on this new sound?

Yeah, exactly.

That makes sense. How about Vanity 6? How do you read that?

You know, it's well known at this point in time that he loved the movie The Idolmaker. And I think there was the vibe of the time that film is set in, the girl groups and that whole thing. And I think that was just an idea that hit him and stuck, and he wanted to do the updated version of that. So, like I said, the idea of the girl group had been in his mind, and it was called The Girl Group. I'm not being sexist. That's what it was called back then.

That was just an idea that he had, and when he had an idea he wouldn't let go until he did it. Because if he got over it, he was done. Didn't matter how much went into it — "Yeah, I know we did a whole film, but we're not releasing it, so that's that." Weird.

I wonder if we could maybe pull up a couple of those tracks. I pulled up a couple that are coming out on this reissue, that I know you were a part of. I wanted to see if we could maybe jog some memories. Let's check out "If It'll Make You Happy."

So the thing about this — there was a period of time where if you listen closely, you can tell which bands or which artist it was at the time. There was definitely this heavy Police influence thing, because that was a huge — like the very first album — what was it, Outlandos d'Amour? When I was first joining the band, that record never left my turntable. I was constantly playing "Roxanne" riffs and stuff in rehearsal. And it was one of those things that Prince grew to love the band as well. So there was, like on "When You Were Mine," for example, there are all these songs where these little reggae motifs kind of pop up. So you can kind of hear that in this track, that there's some of that — a little bit of that backbeat reggae feel in it.

The Police.

Yeah, definitely.

Have you heard this since—

I was just sent the entire package, and I haven't listened to it because it's like 8,300 songs! But I haven't heard this one since back then. I haven't heard this since back in the day. That's wild.

What's it like to hear something how many years later? 37 years later?

Oh, man, at least 37. It's interesting in that it brings me right back to sitting in that room. It's like wow, yeah. I can see the console. I can see the whole thing. It's wild.

Tell us more about how that space was laid out and how people worked in there.

He had it laid out in sort of this idiosyncratic way. In fact it got to the point where he left everything set up the way he liked it, which in artists' personal studios that often is the case. There's a good friend of mine who was the Bee Gees' house engineer guy for a lot of years, and they did the same thing. They had settings taped off on outboard gear.

But it got to the point where [Prince] would do vocals sitting at the console. Someone had shown him how you can put the speakers out of phase and not have to use headphones. So when you came into his room, it was kind of odd compared to other studios. There'd be things where it would be like "Oh, can we patch in?" "What do you mean you don't have one? Everybody has one of those." But it was set up for what he did, the way he did it.

I think it was Peggy McCreary who taught him that. She told me it was because she'd get to the 12th hour of a session and then he'd want to do vocals.

She was one of the first ones that hung in there. The joke was they were wheeling engineers in and out because he would get on the two-, three-day runs and wear out engineers. What it came down to was who could keep up with him. He would keep people that could keep up with him.

So who would he allow into this Chanhassen home studio?

I never worked in that studio ever without it being just he and I — maybe he and I and Don Batts, or he got to the point where he would just give me the keys. So a lot of times I worked in there, Don kind of got me set up and got going, but I worked in there by myself, and I don't remember ever working in that studio with it being beyond just us.

When we did the Vanity 6 stuff, we did that at Sunset Sound — but even then it would be just he and I and Denise, or he and I and whatever. Because sometimes there was stuff like, "I want you to go out and play drums on this," so there's a song on that record that I played drums on. It's not credited. Nobody knows. We just kind of worked in that small ensemble that way.

Which song?

It was "3X2=6."

Have to go back and listen to that one.

There you go. So they're kind of wobbly drums — that's me.

Let's check out the other tracks — other memory lane…

[listening to "Do Yourself a Favor"]

Exactly. As I recall, wasn't this one of the 94 East tunes originally? Because you can hear some of the older motifs in it, especially in the synth parts, the guitar parts. It sounds like the early even pre-Warner demos — some of what he's doing, some of the chord changes, and even sonically. But he's got the little new-wave-like floor tom thing that we wore out for a minute because when the whole new-wave bug bit him, then every song had either some kind of something that we ripped off from Adam and the Ants, or Stray Cats were big when I was talking about that the other day.

So there were certain things that he would kind of mash up with some of the older things, which, again was some of the brilliance of how he went about doing what he was doing. And that's how you accrue a fan base over time, because you're not losing your old fan base, but you're not boring them either. So you're adding as you go. This one strikes me because it's like this is this blend of both of them — the old, and then where he was at the time.

That's really interesting. Do you think that it could've been like even recordings that he revised, and some of the parts were from a previous session or something?

Yes. You didn't hear me say it, America, but yes.

Interesting.

There's no doubt that that went on from time to time.

What do you remember about — did you contribute to this?

I remember hearing it. I don't remember going in and him playing it for me. If I played it — see, there were some things that I'm now remembering — oh, yeah, I played on that — oh, yeah, I did the guide vocal on that. And then he went back and erased it, or the other way around. He had done the guide vocal and I came in. On this one I just think he played it for me. I don't remember playing on it, but I may have. It was just a lot of music. It blurred together back then.

So as someone that also came up in Minneapolis, tell us about 94 East. What did you know about that group prior to meeting Prince?

Not a thing. It was funny because we rehearsed in Pepe's basement early on, and so I got to know about the whole 94 East thing through getting to know Pepe, and early on, Pepe actually took me to New York. I don't even think I'd been in the band a full year. There was the break we took so that Prince could go record the second album, and during that break, Pepe just decided to give me a chance to track some stuff. So I heard a lot of the 94 East tracks for the first time on that trip because he would play me all the stuff and tell all the stories and that whole thing.

I guess I don't know because I wasn't hanging out in Minneapolis in 1977, but I don't know if they had a live presence or any kind of buzz or anything around town.

I don't remember. The scene that I was in was the rock cover bands, and there was like a pretty vibrant scene. There were bands — I'm trying to remember — like The Mystics and Danny's Reasons, and Cain, and so I kind of came up through that and kind of was this upstart kid. A booking agent heard about me when I was 15, so I started to play the Bel Rae Ballroom and some of those places that those bands played. And it's funny because André and I have had that conversation, how we were in town in the same city technically at the same time, but playing in completely different worlds. So a lot of what Owen was doing, I crossed paths with that. But a lot of what André and Prince were doing, I was in a different sector.

That's why this album is so interesting to me is that even in Minneapolis, it took until Prince's fifth album, 1999, for those two worlds to both know about him, and to acknowledge him and to put him on top-40 radio and KDWB and all those things. Was that your impression as you were observing this all come out?

Drove us crazy. Absolutely. I was telling my wife about this the other day, actually as we were even driving into town, and the stations that I listen to in junior high, high school, whatever. The stations that didn't play us forever — we would go out and we were headlining arenas, but we'd come home and we're playing like a 1,500-cap theatre because we can't get arrested on radio in our own hometown.

So that was a huge thing when that finally broke, when we broke through and headlined the old Met Sports Center. It was like, "Finally." Because at first, it was just a really odd feeling. "KDWB? No, they don't play us. KQRS? They don't play us." So when it happened, it was like, "All right." Then we kind of had a little bit of an attitude about it, a little bit: "Oh, so now — OK, well, all right."

What was it like to play the Met?

For me it was huge. I literally started going to concerts — arena shows — in 9th grade. The first arena show I ever went to was at the Met. It was like an indoor festival. Grand Funk Railroad headlined. Iggy Pop and the Original Stooges, Ted Nugent and the Original Amboy Dukes, Minnie Riperton and Rotary Connection — it was like this amazing lineup. And that was the night that I knew that's what I'm going to do. I made the decision in that arena that night, so to be able to come back and headline in that arena was like — man, it was crazy.

Dez Dickerson at First Avenue in 2016
Dez Dickerson performs at First Avenue on September 2, 2016. (Emmet Kowler for MPR)

I do want to end talking a little bit about the live show. I think there are a couple of the tracks that are live in Detroit on the 1999 tour. I thought we should listen to "Little Red Corvette."

Absolutely.

But I would love to hear, as this is playing, a little bit about what it was like to be in the band on this tour and to know what memories this recording brings back for you.

Absolutely.He knew how to work it by then. He knew how to push every button.

The thing that comes to mind most is it was on this tour and with this record that we kind of had — it wasn't just the breakthrough, but what that experience was like kind of from our side of the table, was full-on experiencing what it's like to be a band with across-the-board radio, and at that time, MTV success. That was like a whole other thing. It went from being largely, I don't want to say "unknown" in your own hometown, to not being able to walk down the street in your own hometown. Literally, it got to that point. Kids camped out in front of my house — I've been chased down the streets of Minneapolis, literally, like the Monkees or something — chased and having to get police assistance.

So it was with this tour and this record and this song in particular — all of that came together, and all of a sudden that whole dream of being rock stars and what it was going to be like, it was like, "OK this is what's it's like. This is actually right here — this is what it's like."

And then the other thing was Detroit was probably our best market. We could sell out. We probably could've sold out 20 shows every tour. We would do multiple shows and then tour — come back, do multiple shows again, and we probably could've camped out. We could've bought a place in Detroit. It was even crazier there. There was a great "getting chased by fans in a rental car" story. That happened leaving Cobo Hall in Detroit.

And the other thing I'll say is that Prince had gotten to the point where he was just absolutely positively confident in who he was and what he was doing and the space that he owned on this record and on this tour. And we were in the same space as a band. We kind of could read each other's minds in a sense, to the point where we knew what was going to happen, we knew what he was going to do, he knew what we would follow him in, so everything on this tour — to me, this was the peak, which was another reason why when this tour was over I was kind of like, "I don't know. I don't know…" It's kind of like, why did Barry Sanders retire when he did? Because he kind of knew.

How did Prince respond to the fame?

It was a mixed bag. For everybody, it's not what you think it's going to be, for everybody. So even though there are probably a few people who have prepared themselves as proactively as he did, it still presented things he did not expect, that he didn't see coming. And so I think that as someone who was on the one hand supremely confident but on the other hand kind of naturally shy and introspective, certain aspects of fame freaked him out, I mean just flat-out freaked him out, because they'd freak anybody out. Well, wait, it didn't freak me out, so now that I think about it, what am I saying about myself?

But at the same time, there were certain aspects of it that, again, because in his mind he was famous from before he got the Warner deal. So reality was just kind of aligning with his expectations.

But there's one conversation I remember having, and this kind of encapsulates this for me: It was after I'd left the band. They were on the Purple Rain tour, and I get one of those infamous calls: "Dez. Prince." But what it is, is he's sending us some tickets, putting us up at the Watergate Hotel, wants us to come out on the road and see a few nights of the new show. He wanted to know what I thought. So again, he really appreciated my opinion. In fact, I remember telling him the first night, "Man, the mix was awful." And he had just hired a very big-name record engineer/producer, and Prince took the guy aside and said, "Hey, my guitar player says your mix sucks, so you better step it up."

But the bottom line was we were hanging out with him the day after the second show, and by then they got the grand piano that they put in his suite in every city, and the chef on the road. It's over the top by then. And we're getting ready to leave and I said, "Hey, we're going to Georgetown tomorrow just to hang out. Remember how much fun we used to have doing that? Man, you should come along."

At first his eyes got big, but then it was like he was just crestfallen. He said, "I can't do stuff like that anymore." And that was one of the saddest things I've ever seen in my life, because that was the flip side of, "Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it." And that's what it looks like.

External Links

Dez Dickerson - First Avenue artist profile page

Prince - official site

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