'This Thing Called Life' author Neal Karlen on Prince: The man and the myths

Neal Karlen's 'This Thing Called Life.'
Neal Karlen's 'This Thing Called Life.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)
Euan Kerr interviews Neal Karlen
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Minnesota journalist Neal Karlen, who interviewed and spoke with Prince many times over the decades, is the author of a new memoir: This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On and Off the Record (buy now). He recently spoke with Euan Kerr of MPR News; listen to the interview above, and read a transcript below. Jay Gabler will feature This Thing Called Life on The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club on Feb. 25.

Kerri Miller: Minnesota-based journalist Neal Karlen is the first to admit he is almost completely lacking in basketball skills except for one thing: his ability to spin a ball on his fingertip; but it changed his life because it attracted the attention of Minnesota music legend Prince and began an unlikely friendship. Over some 30 years Karlen interviewed the press-averse Prince for national publications. He also became used to unexpected late-night phone calls and occasional visits to his apartment. Karlen recently spoke to MPR's Euan Kerr about his new book, This Thing Called Life, which details a complicated relationship with a complex man. He told Euan he first met Prince when they were both middle-schoolers on a North Minneapolis basketball court but he had no memory of it until years later when Prince reminded him.

Neal Karlen: My grandparents lived three blocks away, on Oliver, from where Prince was living when I was 12 and he was 13, I guess, and there was a Dairy Queen right next to them on Plymouth Avenue. And when I met him later at 25. I was at Newsweek, but I was doing a freelance piece for Rolling Stone, and this and that happened, and suddenly he agreed to talk, and we were driving around the Northside, and he said, "I remember from when..." And I just thought, oh god, he's just doing his act. But then he said, "I remember you spinning a basketball on your finger," and we sort of bonded over soul music, and it endured because I think I stayed apart – I never thought I was his best friend. He talked about his best friends, but always, over 30 years, whoever was his best friend today, like a week from Thursday he'd never speak to again. And I remember I was sitting, typing in Sebastian Joe's, my coffee shop/office, and a guy came up to me and said, "I don't mean to insult you, but why do we need another Prince book?" And I realized why it was worth taking all this time to do another. There's been all these great biographies out there and great discographies and memoirs. No one had shown him, I didn't think, as a guy, just a human being.

Euan Kerr: The question of truth runs all the way through this story and how much was – how much of Prince's story – how much of the story that Prince told about himself – how much of the story that others told about Prince – it's really hard to know what is true. And I mean how, writing a memoir, do you deal with that question of truth?

Neal Karlen: It's a very important question. I try to address it up front, and I tried to make it so it could all be fact-checked. I have it on tape or contemporaneous notes. He did tell some whoppers. I mean, much of the muddiness was on purpose. He spread – told five different stories. I mean, there's the Rashomon effect of one event being interpreted by eight people differently. He'd have eight Rashomons. He'd tell eight different people different versions – especially about his family. And I'd say, "Why did you do that? Why did you tell all these stories?" And he said, "I would tease journalists." That's what he called "lying" – "because I wanted them to focus on my music and what was coming out of me that day and not that I came from a broken home." So the truth is important and if I want – if this book is remembered at all I want it remembered for its truth, and if I'm not sure, I say that and that's the best I can do.

Euan Kerr: I mean, I'm left wondering, because he had created this myth about himself. I was in the newsroom the morning that we found out that he had died and very quickly the rumor went around that it was drug overdose. And everyone said no, that can't possibly be true because he didn't take drugs.

Neal Karlen: Yeah.

Euan Kerr: And maybe this is just my naivete, but the idea that this was because of the agony he was in because of having jumped off stacks of speakers during performances over the years and having basically destroyed his own body, and then was taking opioids to stave off the pain was just profoundly shocking. I mean part of it is because he had created this – he couldn't get the help that he needed because of this myth that he created about himself.

Neal Karlen: Yes, that's exactly what happened. He took it very seriously, this notion that he didn't take drugs. I was on tour with him in England in 1990, and I smoked cigarettes when I was in my 20s – idiot – and I had to take a shower before I interviewed him, because I smelled like smoke and doing any kind of – smoking marijuana was a firing offense in his organization. And he took that so seriously that – it's so funny; nothing embarrassed him. He could appear virtually naked onstage with an ejaculating guitar and that didn't embarrass him, but he felt shame that he was a drug user and I have tapes where he's talking at 25 and 26 about being injured on the Purple Rain tour and that's when it started. And it's kinda good to remember that everything you see of him after Purple Rain, he's in pain.

Euan Kerr: Well, let me ask you about one other thing there that's been a constant question, and that is the existence of the will. And you say in the book you truly believe the will exists and it may well be found at some point.

Neal Karlen: Yeah. He told me he had a will and I wrote this thing that was supposed to accompany it, sort of a last testament. It was 1993 and again, I have all the documents – the signed things from Paisley Park. It was sort of his goodbye to the world. It's when he changed his name to the unpronounceable glyph. And he said that what would go into this time capsule to be buried at Paisley Park – on the ground of Paisley Park somewhere – but who knows? I didn't see it. I didn't see the will. And all I know is what he told me and I believed that. He loved practical jokes and I think this was his last practical joke. And he was too good at it. He hid it too well. It was 23 years before he died but that's my case, Euan.

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