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21 October 2013

Wherever U Go, Whatever U Do (Part I): Steve Parke Talks 2 Beautiful Nights

  Steve Parke is a true renaissance man.
  He is best known to Prince fans as the creator of the Grafitti Bridge album cover, designer of the "Glam Slam" music video set and  photographer behind many pictures of Prince and associated artists throughout the 1990s. In addition to photography, Parke has also done acting, graphic design, drawing, painting, has past journalism experience and created graphic novels.
  A chance meeting with Levi Seacer in the late 1980s set Parke on a course of events that culminated with him being hired as art director at Prince's Paisley Park studio complex in Chanhassen, Minn. That opportunity led to various work with artists like Chaka Khan, fDeluxe, Wendy and Lisa and David Bowie, among others.
  More recently, Parke did the photo illustrations for "Psych's Guide to Crime Fighting for the Totally Unqualified," a companion book to the USA Network TV show "Psych," released earlier this year. "Medusa's Daughter," a graphic novel he created with Jonathon Scott Fuqua, is set for wide release in December, and is currently available at He also does freelance photography for corporations and individuals.
  He is currently working with the band fDeluxe (formerly The Family) on artwork for their new covers album which is tentatively set for release at the end of 2013 and a children's book that will come out sometime next year.
  K Nicola Dyes conducted an in-depth interview with Parke last month for "Dyes Got the Answers 2 Ur ?s," where the Baltimore resident discussed his original career path, his childhood in the Washington D.C. area and the chain of events that led to him working for Prince:

Part I

On growing up...

 My childhood in Virginia was really good. I lived in an area where everybody knew each other. I started out going to a separate school from the other kids in my area, because, I got into a gifted and talented program. It's good that I was in it, but, I hated not being in the same school as (the) other kids. That was a little rough in the beginning. Once I got into junior high school, I was put in with everybody else. (I) got to know people had a great experience and great teachers. It was a really nice place to live at that time.
  I had access to the Washington D.C. area for going out. I worked in a record shop down in Georgetown. 
  The population base (in the town), worked in D.C. My dad was in the military-- he actually worked for the Pentagon at that point. It was interesting being in a political town and I never really thought about that. Your backyard news was politics, versus, for example, when I would travel. If I was in the Midwest--like Ohio where my grandparents were-- their backyard news (might be) the farm report and that was always weird to me. You had all kinds of bizarre rumors. It was the 1980s. That was an interesting, political time, to say the least.
  It's so overly populated and traffic heavy now (that) I don't think I'd want to be there again. At the time, it was a pretty ideal place to live.
  My mother and father always told me I could do whatever I wanted. They really supported me, but, they were also, conscious of the fact that if you go down certain paths, there are realities.
   I was a theater major in college and decided I wanted to be an actor. I thought I was pretty good at it. My dad sat me down one day and said to me "A lot of actors don't work. That's the reality. Or you work (in the theater) at night, (but), you wait tables, you do things like that. It's a hard road.” 
  I appreciated him telling me that, even though I’m sure, at the time, I said "Yeah, I'm going to be the one who makes it."  My father had a military background. He literally got out of high school and into the military. He had a career of it. He and I thought a little differently.
  Later, I said "Man, I don't really want to be doing this (theater) now." If you're in school, (you can play) an 80 year old in a school production. In the real world, there would be 30 80-year-old (people) fighting you for that part. You wouldn't even be considered for that part.
 Ideally, I thought I would go to art school and my dad said "If that's what you want to do, we'll make it happen." (I talked to) the guy you would go in and show your portfolio to. He looked at my portfolio and said "I don't know why you want to go here."
 I said "What do you mean?" He said "You already have a strong portfolio and a strong direction. I honestly believe that if you came here, all you would be doing is arguing with the professors."
  I'm so grateful for that, because, I'm sure someone's job like that is to pretty much steer you in the direction of coming to the college.  I'm sure that 90 percent of the time, (he said) "Sure, apply and spend your money."  That's what they do. He was nice enough to say Look, you've already got stuff going on, why would you want to spend-- back then, certainly the price of a house-- to go to college? 
  The fact is that my parents were willing to say, "If you want to do (this), we'll find a way to make it happen." I think the way to make that happen would have been to get a student loan. I'd still be paying that off.
   My mom and dad have been incredibly supportive. I owe my parents a lot and I literally owe my parents some money (laughs). As a parent myself, I know that you do everything you can for your kid, within reason. You have to let them do their thing sometimes, too. You can't hold their hand. They have to fail or succeed on their own.
  (My parents) really supported (me), so, I could succeed on my own. President Obama said that you don't succeed on your own. You succeed with your own drive, but, you have to have support from somebody, whether it be from parents, teachers or whomever. It's impossible to fight the odds with no support, especially (from your) parents. I think people forget that sometimes.

  My mom was into music. She grew up in Ohio (and) it's interesting to hear about music back in the day. She said "We used to tune the 'race' channel." I said "What are the 'race' channels?" She said "The Black channel... That's what it was called back then. You know, Elvis was actually played on those stations." They assumed Elvis was Black. They had never seen him before. It's kind of cool. These days, there's no questions, there's no ability to have any secrecy in the music industry; no surprises.
   She grew up on a lot of R&B. She exposed me to James Brown, The Spinners, The Crusaders.  My dad was never a music listener and when he did listen to music it was like that weird "parent" music--you know that stuff you hear going up in the elevator, like "What is that?" He liked "Saturday Night Fever." I have to give him credit for that.  
  My grandfather was a guitar player and he was really into jazz. He exposed me to George Benson and a lot of great guitar players back in the day. George Benson is still a great guitar player. He's just done a lot more vocal stuff.

  Friday Night Videos...that was a blast. It was another opportunity to go and meet all these people. I would shoot the local concerts to post them at the end of each month, like here's who had been in town.
  This was before MTV took off. A local (TV) station did Friday Night Videos and they wanted to tie in the local things that were going on. That gave me the opportunity to go and photograph, oh...Luther Vandross. I got to photograph so many people. It was so much fun.
  The guys that ran Friday Night Videos also did a show called "Kid's World" when I was a teenager. I hosted a local segment of that TV show. I got to interview Harry Wayne Casey from KC and the Sunshine Band and Muhammad Ali.
 (Ali) was a really fun guy. He was on a tour for the American Dental Association and they had him out fighting tooth decay. You would think it was kind of goofy, but, kids loved it. The kids knew who he was, because, of their parents. They all came and it was a fun event. I've still got his autograph, somewhere, but, I've got to dig it out.
   Meeting those people earlier on set me up for the opportunity to do photo shoots later. You wouldn't necessarily tie those two things together: "If I do this, it's going to open up and opportunity for me to use later." But, it did.

  As a college newspaper reporter...I wasn't so much a reporter ... Let's just say this: I used the idea of being a college reporter to shoot shows I really wanted to see. I would also write about the shows.
   I found a way to do the thing I loved, which was go see shows, for free. I got to see a ton of shows and I would go see shows (even if) I didn't care about the artist one way or the other.
   My college now has its own stadium and I think it opened up my senior year. I remember photographing (British Musician) Howard Jones. I went to photograph Fishbone and ended up doing an in-depth article with them. I did an interview with The Thompson Twins.
 (I shot) U2, Judas Priest--they were hilarious, by the way. I saw them after I saw "Spinal Tap." I shot Cyndi Lauper at a smaller venue in D.C. and I shot The Firm, which (was) Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers, the lead singer from Bad Company. That was a weird show. They were totally wasted on stage. I (later) found a bunch of negatives, when I was moving, from shows I had forgotten that I had shot. 
   My college experience was great fun. Somebody said "You want to do this?" and I said "Sure, why not?" I try to do that with everything. I say "Why not try this?" Don't say no to stuff you haven't tried, unless you're going to be put in danger. I think I worked for them for two years.

  Another thing about being in the (Washington D.C.) area: BET had just started up. I had met Donnie Simpson a few years earlier and I got to hang out at BET a lot, meet people there and, through (the network) I got to see a lot of shows in the area.
   I was at a show that (featured) New Edition and one of the promoters said "Hey, I'd like you to airbrush T-shirts for the New Edition guys—just their face on a T-shirt." So, I did all of them. 
  (Later), I was in the elevator. Bobby Brown got on the elevator and he had his shirt in his hand. He said  "Hey, how's it going?" I said "Hey. I just wanted to let you know I did that shirt." He said "Man, you did this shirt? I'm gonna do the solo thing and it's going to be big. I'll stay in touch with you. Let's do some stuff..." 
   I gave him my information and I'm sitting there like "Yeah, right, you're going to do some big stuff." It was interesting to see a kid that age and he had a goal. They were kids at that point in time. I wasn't that much older, but, they were definitely younger than me. It's a shame he overshot his goal-- kind of going in the opposite direction-- but, it was interesting to see a kid that young that driven to succeed. 

On  Life Changing Events...

Levi Seacer, Jr. (l) former guitar and bass player with Prince

  Meeting Levi Seacer was really cool. I met him when I photographing a Lionel Richie and Sheila E. (concert). I met Levi backstage. 
  We just got along, started talking and I drew a picture of him on a napkin (laughs). He said "Hey, that's pretty good."
   He kept saying "Hey, keep sending me some of your work and I'll show Prince" and he did. He really did. A lot of people say that and they don't do it. They say "Send me your work and I'll give it Prince." What they really mean is "Send me your work and I'll put it on my wall."
   He was definitely instrumental in hooking me up with Prince. (He is) a really great guy and a really good guitar and bass player. We stay in touch here and there. I would love to do some photos with him. But, it's difficult with him being on one coast (and) me being on the other.

Original drawing for Glam Slam Music Video Set. Courtesy of Steve Parke
  The set for the Glam Slam video...I got a call from Alan Leeds. "You want to come out and paint this set?" I thought jokingly "Nah, nah, not me, I'm not the guy for that." I said "Of course." 
  I got out there (to Paisley Park) and I saw that they had already started it. Levi explained to me someone had started (painting) the set and they were doing it in layers. Prince came in, saw it in layers and I guess he was like "This isn't working for me." I learned from that quick interaction that Prince wants to see stuff finished. I guess that, visually, he doesn't want to see "process." If he's walking in and it's partially finished, he's not going to dig that.
   I just tooled around Paisley Park, looked around and saw what was going on. I (looked in) the wardrobe department and all around the building. I did a drawing (for the set).  Prince approved it and then he went away for three days. In that three days, I said "What third of the stage can I get done?" I had two people from Minneapolis Children's Theater help me out. I stayed up three days straight. I'm not joking. These guys helped me out (and) they thought I was crazy. It was insane. I was 25, so, I was okay with doing that.
   I wanted to make sure I had the job when he came back. And I did. He came back and I don't think I heard anything. I said "I didn't hear anything." Somebody told me, I don't know if it was Levi, "Oh, you didn't hear anything? It's good. If it wasn't good, you would hear something." I said "Ah, it works like that, does it?"
   I was on the set if something needed to be fixed, painted or repaired. I did that over the first three days and then I just painted over the course of the rehearsals. What we would do is paint all night and then seal it with a finish. It was a heavy-duty urethane like they use on bowling lanes. I'd have to seal that by four or five in the morning and let it dry in time for Prince to come rehearse. Prince rehearsed everyday at 1 p.m. and they rehearsed for eight hours, pretty much every day for that Lovesexy Tour.
   I would finish up (painting the set) in the morning, go back to my hotel (to sleep), then get up and go back for rehearsal. Every single day. I was crazy. 
  Watching the process during the rehearsal was amazing. He was doing it on this giant circular stage, which was basically the template for the final Lovesexy stage. They had a big scaffold built on the side, so, you could see it from above. He was able to see that set like somebody in an arena. 
  He would choreograph it all and they would rehearse with all the dance moves. I remember when the was car (which was a prop in the show)  was finally delivered and built. He would try different things, like surfing on top of it. It was on a track that wasn't the smoothest thing in the world and it would catch. He would hit the top of the car really fast. He'd like get down, like "Uh, oh, I don't want to fall off."
   I remember once when they were working with the heart in the middle and the riser would come up during "Anna Stesia." It kept going higher and higher. Prince was ducking down, even though it never would've hit the ceiling there-- it was huge-- but, it was really funny. He was kind of shrinking himself further and further down to the ground. It finally stopped.
Final Stage for Glam Slam Music Video Set. Courtesy of Steve Parke
 I stayed all the way through to the video shoot and then I came back to do the final Lovesexy stage. I just did the eye next to the little basketball court thing. When they (toured) Europe, they had a very different stage, because, it wasn't in the round. I got flown out to England to paint Prince's "eyes" on some clouds (on the stage). How cool is that? My friend said "You're actually the guys who paints Prince's eyes. They fly you around the world to paint Prince's eyes. I had not thought about it that way. 
  (Later), I met J.D. Considine, a reviewer for Rolling Stone, (who) also wrote for the Baltimore Sun at one point in time. I told him that I worked for Prince and about the work I did for Lovesexy Tour. He said "Yeah, I Iiked that show. But, I really didn't like how many samples they used. I said "What are you talking about?" 
 He said "Well, obviously, they were just samples running in the background." I said "No, man, they triggered all those samples....They were samples, but, they were triggered by the drummer or the keyboard player in appropriate places. It wasn't just a track running behind the whole song." He said "Are you sure?" I said "Yeah, man, I was there." He said "There's no way they could do that." I said "You want to know how they did that? They rehearsed it. Eight hours a day."

 The original painting that was later used for the Graffiti Bridge Soundtrack. Courtesy of Steve Parke

  The Graffiti Bridge album cover actually arose out of my figuring, "I've got to get a job." I'd connected with Prince on the Lovesexy Tour and I was getting bit and pieces of work here and there. But, I hadn't solidified anything. I said well, that was cool, that was a nice ride, time to move on to the next thing. 
  One of the things I was trying to do with that painting-- before it got associated with Graffiti Bridge-- (was that) I had a connection with Prince, so, I might as well put Prince in it. I thought if Prince is going to see this, I thought what hasn't he done? What hasn't been a theme in what he's done?
 I just thought of a lot of cool elements that I thought would go well into it. The weird part was (later) seeing all these elements in the movie. I had no idea. Nobody gave me a script. I was kind of on the same page with him at that time. It was weird.
  I sent it off to my friend Levi, who had been showing Prince my work for a while. I sent a transparency, I didn't send the actual painting. The actual painting is double the size, like an big-fold album cover. I just randomly chose that size.
   Levi said "You know, Prince has got that transparency sitting at his desk... He kind of looks at it every day." I said "Huh? Okay, well that's good." He said "I think he might want to use it or something." That's what ended up happening. 
  Prince called me up at one point and told me how much he liked it, which was really cool. The biggest thing was I had to add some things in (the painting): I had to add Morris Day and I had to add Ingrid Chavez. It was just at the edge of digital, so, I literally had to take sandpaper to the painting surface and sandpaper out some of the stuff I had already put in. It wasn't a big deal, it was just background.
 I had to get Day and Chavez back into it. I had to make the black and white girl look a little bit more like Jill Jones, but, it wasn't originally set up to be Jill Jones. It was interesting. Prince changed his jacket from red to black on the cover. 
  The process for that was as weird as it could be. It was not somebody calling me up and saying "Hey, I want you to do this." I did it and it ended up being used.  I was beside myself, to say the least. What a strange way for that to work out, but, I'm certainly not ungrateful.
  I always think you can work real hard towards a goal and there are certain of things going on to make it work for you.  I feel like all the stars aligned properly for that to happen. Whatever stars those were, I'm happy they aligned. I know I heard back from Levi pretty quickly that Prince kept looking at it (the painting). Maybe I was not aware, but, (the film "Graffiti Bridge") may have been in production at that time. Eventually, I did become aware of it, because, obviously (they said) we'd like this for the movie soundtrack. I don't know where it quite fell into line, but, it must have been in pre-production, because, they knew who was in the cast.
 It (the album cover) wasn't real until I saw it. It seemed sort of surreal. Growing up, I was the kid who looked at all the liner notes (on albums). (I) looked who played on everything and I could name session percussionists, producers and who did the artwork.  
  The exciting part was that (the album was released) right at the end of vinyl. It actually came out on vinyl, which was even cooler. Ironically now, I'm working on vinyl again. I worked a long time on that piece, even though it wasn't specifically for anything. It was for me, I wanted it to be right, so, I spent a lot of hours on it. 
  I look back at it now and the cover has a 1970s vibe to me. That's the kind of album art I grew up with. I wasn't thinking that at the time. When I was done people said "Wow, how did you collage all those photos?" To me, it's photo realistic, but, it doesn't look like photos. 
  I absolutely went to the record store. That was the coolest thing."Look, it's my record. Yay!" It wasn't my record, of course, but, the cover was mine. (When) you're proud of your work, you want to see it. It's natural.  I understand actors not wanting to see themselves in a movie, that's a little weird. But, I think something you worked on is different type of thing.
  I honestly had no thoughts of that becoming anything other than a good portfolio piece (that) showed I could handle a lot of different material.


  I painted instruments for (Prince). I painted that one-eyed bass for him. That's a funny story, because, he wouldn't stop playing it. I painted it and he'd play it without getting it clear coated. He would rehearse and wreck the paint job. Then I'd have to paint it again. His guitar tech finally just took it to get lacquered. 

don't know if that made Prince happy, but, in the long run, that painting stood up for a while. His technique on the bass would definitely wear the paint job off. Slapping your bass will wear off paint.
  I just tried to see how well I could fit in to what (Prince's) needs were. I eventually got a computer and learned to use it. I sent some of the things I'd done and they said "Oh, this is really cool."
 He presumed that I totally knew how to use a computer, which wasn't true. The truth is I sort of knew how to use the computer and then I winged it as I went.  I think that was the turning point. I felt like, in my mind, I could meet whatever challenges he needed in art.  
  When Prince's in-house art director quit (working at Paisley Park), they said "Do you want to do this?" I said "I'll give it a shot." It kind of went from there. It was a lot of flying by the seat of my pants.
 I was lucky enough to get a partner out there, Michael Van HuffelHe's one of those guys who could sit down,read a manual to a program and get it. My eyeballs would falling out of my head. He was great. He worked with Prince for many years. I think that's the only reason I survived.

On Working at Paisley Park...

   When I was the art director at Paisley Park, I worked a lot. I handled a lot of things, learned a lot and wore a lot of hats. Being (the) art director, I made sure things got out on time, I hired the talent, I kind of managed things. But, I hired myself most of the time to do things. (Laughs). 
  I thought of myself more as a one-man art department, because, I was my only resource a lot of time. I didn't necessarily want to be that. I would loved to have brought people in to do projects, but, (I) never had time. Nothing was planned.
   I think (Prince) just does music. I don't think he plans it. I think he just comes in like "I'm going to make some music" and he makes it. Then, he decides if it's something he wants to make a record project with. We all know that stuff doesn't all come out. He's constantly making music. Somewhere along the line it must click, for him, "This would be good on a record." Which then meant "Hey Steve, we need a cover for this." I would say "Okay. I also have five things due out to magazines."  He would say "Well, I need to get this, too."
  It was as much like fine art as opposed to commercial art that you can be in a business. It was all so "take it as it comes." There was planning sometimes; on some releases, we definitely had plans. The record labels needed certain things by certain dates. But, a lot of the time, it was "What's going to happen this week? I have no idea."
  There were a few different Prince groups or forums back when I worked there that friends of mine turned me on to. (They) would tell me "I read this or that." I would say "How do you know that?" They would say, "I read it in this Prince forum." I started going to them (and), I swear to God, I don't know how people knew these things, but, I would then have a better idea of what I was doing that week. 
 (The forums would say) "Oh, this is happening at Paisley Park this week." Sure enough, what they were talking about impacted what I was going to do (that) week: "Prince is going to be having a party on Friday. I'll probably help him do something for that." It was really kind of bizarre that I could do that.

Courtesy of Steve Parke

  Working with Prince was always interesting. (Laughs). He was trying to something different, outside the mainstream and always having you think on your feet. 
  There were no simple solutions to anything, because, he wanted to push the boundaries all the time. You had to learn how to not say no. You had to learn how to say "Yes, we can do that and here's what it takes." Once you told him what it will take, he would make the decision whether you went forward or not. There was never a time I said "Well, this is boring." No. (Laughs). Frustrating, yes. It was frustrating sometimes.
  But, quite frankly he gave me opportunities. Prince would see that you could do something and he would give you opportunities. He asked me at one point "Do you do photography?" I said "Yeah, I used to shoot back in college." He said "Let's try and do something." 
  Now, all of a sudden I was shooting under very different conditions, because, I had to learn studio lighting. I'd never used it. I didn't know how to use that stuff at all. So, my first shoot with him was not great: it was in focus and it had a light on it. (Laughs).  It had those two things going for it. But, he gave me that opportunity and I learned as I went.
  The technology changed and let me tell you, early digital cameras sucked so bad. They were good for like table food photography, (but), they really were not great for what I was using them for. I had to fix stuff a lot back then (during the photo editing process). It was just an unfortunate reality of the time. 
  Prince liked (that) digital photography meant you could look, see you had and shoot some more if you wanted. None of that getting negatives developed and all that. The digital camera was its own Polaroid camera in a way, because, you could look at it right away, as opposed to having to check your light and then go shoot. 
  He gave me pretty much every opportunity. I went into the studio a couple times to record some things-- in the background, just some talking stuff on some of the songs-- which was fun.

Courtesy of Steve Parke

  What was interesting with Prince is that we would sometimes shoot these photos and he was all into them. Then, all of a sudden, he would decide that wasn't the image he wanted and we went and shot something else. I didn't think the (newer) photos were as good, from my perspective, but, it was up to him. It was his product. But, you would think "Oh man, those other shots were so cool." 
  I liked the packaging that we did for The Truth as a full CD. Unfortunately, it never came out, so, that's too bad. There's a cassette floating around that kind of has the cover on it. It's kind of smashed up with Prince sitting on a stool playing guitar. But, in the interior, I took a cue from Purple Rain and actually did typography that was all different for the different songs. We had all these random black and white (images). I liked it because it didn't show Prince's face. I like the interior little poster thing. I thought that was a lot of fun.     
  New Power Soul was going to be printed on black flocked paper material to make it look like a black light poster. If you think of that cover as a black light poster, it's kind of cool. But, when you take it away from black light poster, it's not quite the same. I was kind of disappointed, because, that was a cool plan, then it didn't happen. 
   Ultimately, I was in a job where I was there to make my client happy. You push for your professional opinion or your professional best, but, if they disagree with you, ultimately they're the boss. What are you going to do? That's the way it goes.

  We did a party-- I think it was The Gold Experience party-- and I pretty much art directed how the whole studio was transformed. That was great fun. I was able to bring people in and work with them. I loved doing that, because, I could say "Okay, here's what I need. This room's supposed to be like this," then, those people would give me input, "Well, how about we do this?" and I would say "Oh, that's really cool, but, how about we add this?"
  It was a sharing of ideas. I loved that process, instead of just sort of having to pull it all out of your own head and have no feedback. The time you get feedback is when the (project) comes out, then, you don't have a chance to change anything. 
  Somebody would later write "Oh, it would've been better if he had done this." Then you're like "Oh, he's right, it would have been better." I just didn't have any feedback. That's the other thing: I couldn't really show stuff I was doing for Prince to people. I couldn't show it around to my friends and say "Hey, what do you think? Give me your feedback." That was not the way that worked. I did it and Prince said yes or no. That's it. It was a very different process.

  I decided to leave Paisley Park when my son was born. I was out (at the complex) about two times after my son was born and I just couldn't imagine being away that much. I wanted to be there for him. 
  I will say that creatively I had done all I could do at Paisley Park. It's not that I wouldn't have stayed, but, I started to feel like it was the same routine over and over again. I think that my son's birth and wanting to be present for his life definitely gave me a kick in the pants.
  There were a couple of times where I had done some photos (for Prince). The problem was, I was right in the middle of another job and felt, if I left, I would hurt my opportunities outside of Prince.
 If you ever hear "He only wants you to come for a day" from that camp, it's almost never true. There's almost never a point where you go for a day. A day means a week. (Laughs). I knew that. Anybody else, I would have said "A day? Okay, fine."
 I knew it wasn't going to be a day and I couldn't afford it. If it was a day, I would've gone and done it. The first big opportunity I had (after leaving Paisley Park) was working with DC Comics and I did not want to lose my forward motion and have them say  "Oh, you're behind." 
  I was trying to reestablish myself. I was already rebuilding my career, (so) people knew who I was and I was available to work. 

To be continued...

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