Prince’s Lifelong Fascination with Names is a Clue About Why He Dropped His

Laura Tiebert
April 5, 2019

Prince gave Denise Matthews the name “Vanity.” Photo credit: Paul Natkin

Prince loved naming people. Denise Matthews became Vanity. Tara Leigh Patrick became Carmen Electra. Mark Brown? Brownmark. (Clever, huh?) Paul Peterson became St. Paul Peterson. Thomas Elm became Tommy Barbarella. Mayte Garcia almost became Arabia but resisted (good call).

Prince gave himself a number of aliases and pseudonyms, from Alexander Nevermind to Joey Coco to Jamie Starr. But for someone who clearly was happy to name almost anyone, it’s unclear if he enjoyed being on the receiving end of a nickname. His family called him Skipper. For a time, and to Prince’s dismay, his neighborhood friends called him The Great Gazoo. But of course, some nicknames are flattering and endearing, while others can feel hurtful. The nicknames Prince gave, at least the ones I mentioned, are more an invention — a vision for the persona and image that person could embody. Tara Leigh Patrick brings to mind a charming Irish lass. Carmen Electra could be no one but the glamorous actor and model that she is still today.

Even surnames were a source of fascination for Prince. Of the surname “Johnson,” he said that his best friends and worst enemies all had the same last name. Presumably, he was referring to his friends from childhood, brothers Keith and Kirk Johnson (Keith is a minister who married Prince and Mayte, and Kirk is a drummer who became Prince’s right-hand man in managing Paisley Park). In the enemy category, I’m guessing we can put C.J., the columnist for the Star-Tribune who was Prince’s #1 critic, at the top of the list.

To name someone is to bring them into existence, in some ways. As a parent, one of the great joys is naming your child. In the book of Genesis, Adam names the animals as part of the creation story. There is something beautiful about giving someone their name.

I believe Prince’s reverence for names is part of the reason why he was so pained at the abuse of his own name at the hands of Warners. And as someone who was deeply hurt by harsh criticism, it might have felt like sweet relief for Prince to tell himself “that’s not me” when people would critique “Prince”‘s work. Because Prince was an artist who worked from the inside out (meaning, all of the music came from inside him, rather than being pieced together externally by a cadre of musicians, producers and the like), Prince’s music was uniquely personal. His music was like no one else’s in terms of the notes he chose and the arrangements he created. Criticism of this was a criticism of Prince’s heart and soul! No wonder he might want to distance himself from it.

Finally, I think Prince saw himself evolving beyond a name. You could argue that a symbol can evoke meaning on more levels than letters can. At least for a time during the period when he identified himself as the Love Symbol, from June 7, 1993 to Jan. 1, 2000, Prince was communicating on another level — something the general public didn’t grasp at the time.

1 Comment

  1. Nan

    Without W.B. and their wisdom and willingness to see Prince through some rough times at the beginning of his career, Prince would never have had the opportunity to become the artist that he envisioned and became. His early years with W.B. were years of indulgence, much the way parents indulge very young children. As difficult as it was emotionally and financially, those in his camp were very intuitive and patient. Those were difficult years to get through and yet so exciting to watch him grow! This was the opportunity that he did not get as a child, to be indulged in such a way. But, then a time comes where boundaries begin to be drawn and that happened with the Crystal Ball Project. I don’t know what his written contract restraints were as far as output, but he started to find out with that three-album project what the “house rules” were and trying to manipulate past them and getting angry when he did not get his way. He eventually relented and produced the double album “Sign O’ the Times” (though I understand Prince’s disappointment in not being allowed the full vision of this album.) and found great success with it being another peak in his career. There were many times after this where there was a lot of lurching in the moving forward with the Black Album and Lovesexy tour. There were a lot of “yesses” that should have been “nos”. But it is hard to say “no” to such a talented child that has been right when your instincts or previous experience would have steered him wrong. At some point in time, he reaches his “teenage years” with his parent, W.B. You know, the time where you still want/need your parent’s money/support, but you don’t want to follow their rules; otherwise known as a rock and a hard place? His financial situation, pride and competitive spirit put him there and he could not see clearly what putting his signature on that line would mean until it was a done deal.

    Prince, after seeing what he had done and not being able to undo it, had to find a way to move forward. He was a teenager living in his parent’s basement and had rung up quite a bill while he was there and realized he was stuck until the bill was paid. He was a slave, but it was of his making and W. B. padded that contract just right to make it appealing so THEY would be paid. Where were his managers and lawyers? Oops! Probably gone by now?

    Don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for Prince. A lot of what happened between him and W.B. and managers was just the natural growth and struggle of people in relationship. I think during this time Prince became much better at respecting money and taking responsibility for that part of his life. A star of his caliber should not have needed a label at this point in his career. If there had been a few more backbones in his camp who were willing to do their job and stand up and put their foot down about how money was spent, he might not have been in such a tight spot. But how many were willing to go to the mat with him and risk losing their job, their position, their status? I think Price got wise and relieved himself of some of that weight.

    The taking of the symbol o(+> gave him a place outside of the reality that he found himself in; beyond the wall that he needed to get over. His leaving of the nest was over-due. (What if I was no longer Prince? What would I do? What would I do if I was not under this constraining contract?) That new name gave him wings to a different reality and he spread them. It was during this time that he was pushing himself into spaces he or others had never explored. He did some of the most innovative things and the results would be there waiting for him when he returned to take back his pronounceable name. But the person that would take it again would not be the same person that laid it down. WIN! WIN! Maybe you have discovered a bit of this for yourself?

    Things he could have done a little differently: 1) he should not have killed himself off. Dead people are not slaves. He should have been one or the other. 2) Him appearing as o(+> on stage with slave written on his face was confusing. He needed to have separated o(+> and the “slave” from each other and found a different way to take his fight into the public forum. while appearing with “slave” on his face only when he was negotiating in the offices of W.B. This would have changed the dynamics of the situation and would have kept his fans out of this fight which was not theirs to wage. Because they were dragged into the family fight, this is where the personal damage came in. Sort of abusive.

    Yes, I know. Such a long response. This subject has fascinated me for a long time and I enjoy sharing what I have seen. Thanks for indulging me and maybe you see something you have not seen before. Happy trails!

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