In two decades of studying Prince and his life I thought I knew almost every important fact but one. You see, a crucial part of why Prince became Prince is that from the age of 13 he grew up outside of his parents’ homes, living in the basement of a loving woman named Bernadette Anderson, while quietly plotting revenge on his parents. More on that later. Prince was close with Bernadette’s youngest son, and she was widely known as very maternal—several people told me they and others thought of her as their second mom. Bernadette was Prince’s first big fan—he would sit in her kitchen and play his first songs for her and she would give him positive feedback and encouragement. But Bernadette was also a single mother who had many kids of her own and was pursuing an advanced degree in social work so she didn’t have that much time to parent Prince which gave him the freedom to spend his every waking hour working on music in whatever way he wanted. Morris Day, who lived around the corner from Prince in Minneapolis, said that sometimes teenage Prince would come by his house at midnight or 1am or even 3am and bang on the door and demand to be let in so he could record a song that had just come to him. These sorts of experiences are critical to Prince becoming Prince—he had an unusual amount of freedom as a kid—and they may not have happened if Prince had grown up in his parents’ house. So why didn’t he?
This is one of the core Prince questions I was able to answer while researching my new Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U, an oral history that comes out on Tuesday. I knew why Prince left his mother’s home when he was about 11—his parents had divorced years earlier and his mother had remarried and Prince hated his stepfather and grew to deeply dislike his mom. His girlfriends talk about him doing a mean-spirited impression of her half-drunk and smoking and he strongly discouraged them from drinking and smoking. Everyone in his circle says he had a deep disdain for his mother, even as an adult. She was rarely mentioned and rarely came around. In his brief memoir, Prince speaks of the joy he feels when he’s leaving his mother’s house to go live with his father but after that the memoir ends.
We know the broad strokes of what happened next—Prince went to live with his father, John Nelson, a musician who played in clubs at night and dreamt of becoming a star. But his music was abstract—some likened it to the sounds of Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra—and he didn’t quite know how to draw a big enough crowd for his career to be more than a small time thing. He made money by working at Honeywell but continued chasing the dream. Prince loved and idolized his father but for some reason, about six months after Prince moved in, he was out. At age 12 or 13 he left his father’s home and moved in with Bernadette Anderson, who was not a part of his biological family. For years I wondered what really happened? I asked people in Prince’s circle—Did Prince run away from big John or did John kick him out? What caused the break and how could John have let such a young boy leave home without a place to go? No one knew. Then finally, last year, after years of asking around, I found someone who knew. Someone who had been there—Morris Day.
Morris and Prince were close even as young kids and even then they were all about chasing girls. Morris told me “John had some rules that he laid out—'Be in by this time,’ and ‘Don’t bring no girls over to my house.’ But Prince and I had these girlfriends who were close friends, and we would hang out with them. You know when you kinda say you’re sleeping over at somebody’s house, but you’re at somebody else’s? We’d tell our parents we were going one place and then go to Prince’s. One day, he sneaks the girl in. John had already threatened him about bringing girls up in his house, but Prince sneaks the girl up to his room, pulls the mattress off the bed, and throws it on the floor so there ain’t no noise or squeaking. But John found out about it. I was there with him when it happened. We came in and said hello to John and he didn’t say nothing. He just looked at Prince and said, ‘Put your key on the table.’ John called him Skipper. He said, ‘Skipper, put your key on the table.’ That was it. He was kicked out. There was no negotiating. He knew that that meant he was out.”
There it was—John kicked him out which set the phenomenon in motion. After that day Prince bounced from one family to another, staying on people’s couches. He once told a reporter, “I was constantly running from family to family. It was nice on one hand, because I always had a new family, but I didn’t like being shuffled around. I was bitter for a while, but I adjusted.” He would soon end up at Bernadette’s house and by then he had the two key pieces of emotional baggage that would propel him to become an incredibly driven teenager who was dying to become a rock star. First, he needed to get back at his mom for abandoning him (by remarrying) and, second, he wanted to win back his Dad’s love after being shunned by him. Friends say Prince felt like becoming a rock star would prove his mom was wrong—See! I do matter!—and it would capture the attention of his father. Succeeding in music where his dad had failed would surely make Dad proud of him and win his respect. This is the story that launches the regular person to becoming a superhero. This is what puts the battery in his pack that makes him become who he became. Once I knew that, I felt I could truly understand the life of Prince.
For more pleas pick up my new Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U, out on Tuesday. Available at Target, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and anywhere else books are sold.