Lenny Kravitz on Prince: ‘I Feel Like a Piece of Me Died’
“Here was an African-American cat, skin color like mine, playing the guitar like I wanted to play,” says Kravitz
Lenny KravitzÂ not only cites PrinceÂ as one of his biggest influences, but also one of his dearest friends. They met for the first time in 1990 right afterÂ Let Love RuleÂ hit bigÂ and over the years have hung out all over the world, playing together at many late-night afterparties and Paisley Park jam sessions. Kravitz spokeÂ to Rolling Stone to share some thoughts about his friend a few days after Prince’s unexpected death.
My first memory of ever hearing Prince is when a black radio station I used to listen to in Los Angeles began playing “I Wanna Be Your Lover” in 1979. I remember hearing the song and liking it, but I didn’t really identify with him until the following year when Dirty Mind came out. That was a pivotal moment for me. Just seeing the album cover opened up my imagination. Here was an African-American cat, skin color like mine was, playing the guitar like I wanted to play. Obviously I would have been into Jimi Hendrix as that prime example, but this person was alive. This person was doing his thing right in front of me. So he had a very deep impact on me. I was able to see where I could go.
The music, the vibe, the color, the hair, the band members, everything, was amazing to me. And Dirty Mind is still one of my favorite recordings of Prince just on a sonic level. It’s a really tight, punchy record that is funky with elements of rock and punk. It just really drew me in. Then it just kept going with Controversy and 1999 and Purple Rain.
The fact that he played all or nearly all the instruments on his albums himself was a great example for meÂ I was in high school playing guitar, bass, drums and keyboards and that was such a great influence on me, as was Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney on his first solo record, and Todd Rundgren too. People who play all the instruments communicateÂ in such an amazing way. The beauty was that it sounded like a band.
The first time I went into Virgin Records with my demo tape I was granted a five-minute interview. I’d been trying to get a record deal and I’d already written “Let Love Rule.” Jeff Ayeroff, Jordan Harris and Nancy JeffriesÂ gave me a five-minute meeting since it was a Friday and they were leaving. They were writing things back and forth as they listened and I later learned one of them wrote, “Prince meets John Lennon.”
It was the first time somebody had made that connection between me and Prince. Of course, I was a black multi-instrumentalist and people were going to pick up on that. And even though we did things differently, there is a chord we both have. It’s one of the reasons we became friends. He called me after Let Love Rule came out and asked me to come over to his studio in L.A. We had a friendship ever since.
When he first called,Â I was really curious and flattered that he recognized my music. We met on some sort of soundstage in L.A. and there was a bunch of people around. I wasn’t even sure what was going on, but he was sitting in this big chair and holding court like he always does. We just started talking and it was quite easy. He was very nice to me. After that we got together all over the world: Paris, New York, Amsterdam, Minneapolis, Miami, wherever he happened to be. We’d socialize and play music.
I never saw a huge difference between the private person and the public persona with Prince. I saw one person. When you were with him he could be serious or he could be incredibly funny and goofy, which is the side I always liked because we used to laugh and talk. I remember one time being at his house and watching a Chris Rock special and we just laughed and laughed. I remember another time hanging out with him and Dave Chappelle. He loved having talented people like that around, whether they were musicians or artists or dancers or comedians. But he had this great sense of humor.
I never played basketball with him because I suck at basketball, but we played plenty of pool and ping-pong. He had an apartment in Paris with this nice pool table in it. I might have beaten him once, but he used to kick my behindÂ all the time. His technique was amazing. It was just like how he played music. He had the same attitude he had onstage. He would just come at you.
I remember one time I was dating [the model and future wife of Johnny Depp] Vanessa Paradis. I had just produced her album and she was living in Paris. I took her to his apartment one late night. I think we were there from 11:00 pm to, like, six in the morning. It was he and his girl at the time and me and Vanessa. Vanessa was this really sharp pool player. She’s this petite, extremely beautiful girl, really soft-spoken. He asked if she wanted to play pool, thinking he was going to kick this girl’s behind. And she beat him terribly. It was the only time I’d ever seen someone do that to to him. It’s a great memory.
We played music together quite a bit. When I was on tour, he would show up and play. Most of this was before camera and video cellphones, so there’s not a lot out there of it. But if we were a couple of citiesÂ apart on tour, we’d do an after-show together at a club. It was fun since we’d jump around to different instruments. I’d play drums and he’d play guitar and then I’d come and play guitar and he’d play bass or keyboards. I would sing. He wouldÂ sing. Those were fun times.
The most noteworthy time we played together was his Rave Un2 the Year 2000 concert he taped right before New Year’s Eve at Paisley ParkÂ at the end of 1999. We did “Fly Away” and “American Woman.” It’s really funny because I was in the Bahamas for Christmas vacation. I’m on the beach with my family and friends and he calls me and says, “I want you to come play this New Year’s thing with me.” I said, “Where?” He goes, “Minneapolis.” And I’m like, “Oh my God.” I looked at the weather there and saw it was below zero, and it was snowing. I was like, “God, I really don’t want to leave the Bahamas. I just got off tour.”
But it was Prince. I agreed. I hired a private jet and loaded my guitar and a couple of people, whatever I could fit, and we flew to Minneapolis. When we landed everything was white, silver and cold. I checked into the hotel and went over to Paisley Park. I said, “Okay, let’s do this. What time tonight?” Prince said, “I don’t know. Let’s play it by ear.” His band is on call. There’s a soundstage and a film crew. We hung around the studio for a while and his apartment there. I kept thinking, “When are we gonna do this?”
Cut to two days later. He’s kept me awake the whole time. Man, I’m starting to fade and I’m still waiting to go do these songs. I’m just falling apart, ready to crash. At the exact moment where I’m starting to fall asleep he goes, “C’mon man, we gotta do it now.” I was like, “Now?” He’s like, “Yeah, right now. Grab your guitar. We gotta do it now!” That’s what we did. If you watch the video I seem a little out of it and I’m low-energy. My voice wasn’t really in great form. No excuses, but I stayed up for two days and I was done. I was like, “This guy is a vampire! How does he do it?” His energy was beyond anybody’s energy I’d ever met.
Spending all that time at Paisley Park was incredible. It was like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, or the Wizard of Oz. It’s this larger than life compound that is just his world. The minute you walk through the door you’re in Prince’s world. It’s all about being creative. It’s all about music. Everything you did there was recorded. Sometimes we would just go into the studio and jam with members of my band and members of his band. We’d come up with grooves, just instrumental stuff. He would film it and record it. He called them “mementos” and hand me a cassette when we were done. This is before printing CDs. He’d say, “This is just for you. I have the master tape here and I’m gonna lock it up.”
He didn’t want to show people or exploit it. It was just for us. It was a moment we knew about and nobody else. That’s really cool, man. Everything isn’t for business. It’s for the sake of doing it. It’s about the art, the moment, the memory and the experience. I think that’s beautiful.
Control of his music was very important to him. The beautiful thing is he wasn’t just holding onto things for himself. He was always talking to other musicians about their master tapes, their publishing and so forth. He wanted artists to know their rights. He was ahead of his time with all that. I’m friends with many legendary older musicians. I won’t mention names because it’s their personal business, but their music is played all the time and they aren’t making money. They don’t have their copyrights. They don’t have their publishing. There are many cases where somebody took their songwriting credits. The stories are disgusting and he wasn’t down for that.
He was a loving guy. If he liked you, he really liked you and treated you beautifully. And then of course he could be aloof. He could disappear on you. There would be times I wouldn’t hear from him for a year, but it never bothered me. You saw him when he wanted to do something with you, and then he’d show up when you least expected it. I’m the kind of person that doesn’t need to see my friends all the time. I’m good at picking up where we left off, so that’s how it was for us.
I saw him so much, in and out, that I can’t remember the last time we spoke. I heard about the plane landingÂ the other week. And I knew what it was. I thought, “Okay, he dodged a bullet. Close call, but it’s a one-off and we move on.” And then a week later, I got the news. It knocked me really out. I still haven’t really recovered. Not to be dramatic or overly sensitive, but I really feel like a piece of me died.
I say that because of what he meant to me as an influence. I remember sitting in biology class in high school. I had a Sony Walkman and I’m listening to Dirty Mind. I’m listening to “Head” and I’m studying Doctor Fink’s synthesizer solo. I just remember sitting there and listening to it over and over. That record just opened up my imagination as to where I wanted to go. He looked like me. I could identify with him. I had this big imagination as to where I was gonna go, and it did not fit in a box. He was saying to me, “You can do this. This is how I did it, and now you do it your way.” That meant a lot. He was a mentor and then someone I got to know as a friend and play with. So when he left, a part of me really went too.
As told to Andy Greene.
Watch Prince and Lenny Kravitz perform “American Woman” together below