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I didn’t want this story to end. For years now, I’ve been slowly unwinding a story about one of Prince’s most intriguing and iconic instruments, the white Cloud guitar prominently featured in his breakout film Purple Rain. At times, I’ve become obsessed with this story, reaching out to every Prince-related person I could think of and even derailing a perfectly nice vacation with my husband to scour every guitar shop in the Bay Area for clues. At other points, I’ve let it fade into the back of my mind like a movie soundtrack, content to leave it playing on a loop.

It all started nine months after Prince passed away. That whole year of 2016 played out like a bleary, slow-moving car crash. Losing David Bowie was bad enough, but when news broke that Prince had been found dead at his recording complex and creative sanctuary, Paisley Park, the news went supersonic, rippling out from those white-tiled walls in Chanhassen to level fans around the world. I was standing outside his gates when I found out.

Prior to Prince’s passing, you could say he’d been my beat. As a radio host and a music writer at the Current, for years I’d been driving out to that big white box to cover Prince’s Paisley Park After Dark parties and rehearsal jams, first of my own volition and eventually at his invitation. I’d also had the chance to meet with him, including one unforgettable late-night rendezvous that will forever be blazed into my hippocampus. Which meant that, after he died, journalists from around the purple aching globe wanted to ask me what he was doing, saying and creating in the final years of his cut-short life.

I channeled my grief into work, interviewing dozens of Prince collaborators and friends for the Current, writing essays about the emotional fallout of his death, and putting the finishing touches on my book about the origins of the Minneapolis Sound he made famous.

It was sometime in this winter haze of Prince fixation that I first came across a photograph of what has become known as the Cloud bass. I’d been hired to write a series of coffee-table books that would be sold in the gift shop at Paisley Park, which had reopened as a public museum. While researching, I became enamored with this mysterious instrument, which was the design inspiration for Prince’s Cloud guitar. It had the elegant curves and hand-carved details one might see on the head of a cello or violin, and its beauty was transfixing, even in a photo. What I didn’t realize at the time was just how storied and influential the bass had become in the canon of rock guitar history.

The world got its first glimpse of the Cloud guitar less than 20 minutes into Purple Rain, the 1984 film that made Prince an American superstar. In what might be the only romantic meet-cute set in a skyway mall, Prince pauses longingly in front of a store window to ogle a curvaceous, gleaming white guitar chained to a mannequin’s angular black body. “You see something you like?” asks his costar, Apollonia. And though he doesn’t respond, his eyes say it all. In the words of Mike Myers, who would later pay homage to that scene in Wayne’s World: “It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine.”

In 2017, when I started researching the guitar, there was already plenty of local lore surrounding the one that appears in the movie, which was constructed for Prince by luthier Dave Rusan at the Uptown Minneapolis shop Knut Koupeé Music. But little was known about the bass that inspired it.

Prince Guitar Origins | Artful Living Magazine

Photography provided by Errol Joki

I visited Dave Rusan at his Twin Cities home studio back in 2017, and he recalled his memories of building the original Cloud guitar for Purple Rain. As he remembered it, the assignment was handed to him on his first day back at Knut Koupeé after a six-month trip abroad: “After Prince left, the owner came down and said, ‘Prince is going to make a movie. He needs a guitar that’s going to be part of the plot, and you’re going to make it.’”

Up until that point, Rusan had only done repairs, but as with so many artisans who entered Prince’s orbit, he quickly rose to the occasion. He worked off a sketch of a used bass guitar Prince had picked up early on in his career; as Rusan recalled, it might have been purchased in New York City. “New York City is the way I heard it,” he said, then stopped himself. “There’s different stories.”

By the time I met Rusan, I’d already heard at least one of those other stories firsthand. And for reasons I still cannot explain, I had a sudden, all-consuming urge to figure out where that bass guitar came from and how it ended up in Prince’s hands.

There was one person who would know for sure: Prince’s first musical peer, longtime bass player and teenage best friend, André “Cymone” Anderson, who I’d already interviewed a handful of times by the time the Cloud bass mystery took hold. After speaking with so many people who knew Prince at different times and to varying degrees throughout his ever-fluctuating life, it had become clear to me that André held the key to the tender, pre-fame part of Prince’s life that remains under-appreciated and under-documented.

Prince Rogers Nelson and André Anderson met as seventh graders at Lincoln Junior High in North Minneapolis, and within a day, they’d become fast friends and fledgling bandmates. Together they formed Grand Central, which by the mid-seventies had become one of the fiercest groups on the North Side and would compete against other young rivals in the neighborhood like Jimmy Jam Harris (who had his own group, Mind & Matter), Terry Lewis (who founded the band Flyte Tyme), and Sonny Thompson (The Family), who Prince would eventually recruit for the New Power Generation and rebrand as Sonny T.

Prince and André were also roommates. After his parents separated, Prince bounced between his mother’s and father’s homes in North then spent a short stint living with an aunt in South Minneapolis before decamping to the basement of 1244 Russell Avenue North to become the de facto seventh sibling in André’s sprawling family. The two besties spent hours woodshedding in that basement, listening to records, dreaming about making it in the music business and sketching out the blueprints for the Minneapolis Sound.

I caught André in an especially nostalgic mood one afternoon in April 2017, just days after the first anniversary of Prince’s passing. Now a Los Angeleno, he was back in town for various tribute and memorial events, and at one, I pulled him aside and showed him the photo of the Cloud bass.

He looked at the photo, then up at me, then back down at the photo. “That’s my bass,” he said, shaking his head. “I haven’t seen that in a long, long time.”

Prince Guitar Origin | Artful Living Magazine

Photography by Greg Helgeson

All these years later, André’s memory of finding the Cloud bass — his bass — is still crystal-clear. It was the fall of 1977, and Prince had just signed to Warner Bros. Records and won his first of many power struggles with the label: He was going to record and produce his entire debut album himself.

What is lesser known about this period of Prince’s life is that although he demanded to have complete creative control over the process, he didn’t travel to the Bay Area to record at the Record Plant alone. In addition to being accompanied by his then manager, Owen Husney, Owen’s wife, Britt, and the engineers/producers David “Z.” Rivkin and Tommy Vicari, Prince also requested that his best friend come along for the ride.

André has a dreamy, impressionistic way of describing his early days with Prince, and the way he talks about his time in the Bay Area is especially evocative. After all, this was his first real journey outside of Minneapolis, and aside from brief forays to New York City and Los Angeles, it was Prince’s first longer visit to a new city as well. They had both just turned 19.

One day between recording sessions, Prince and André “borrowed” Owen Husney’s rental car and took it for a joy ride. (I later asked Husney about this, and he confirmed it: “It was kind of like I was dad, and he’s just now admitting the kids were sneaking out and taking the car. I was ready to send him to his room!”) The entire crew was staying in a beautiful rental house overlooking the San Francisco Bay in Corte Madera, and Prince and André ended up winding down the hill and driving into nearby San Rafael, where they came across a funky guitar shop.

André remembered being taken with the bass guitar immediately but didn’t know anything more about it other than that it was an unusual vintage instrument. He didn’t have the money to buy it, so he asked if Prince would buy it for him, and he did — which is why it remained in Prince’s possession when André left the band in 1981 to pursue a solo career.

André’s San Rafael memory was so vivid. So why did everyone else seem to think the bass came from New York City?

In August 2017, my husband and I took a vacation out to the California coast. We flew into San Francisco, rented a zippy car, and spent a week driving the twists and turns of the Pacific Coast Highway. On one of our last days there, we intended to drive up from San Francisco toward wine country, and it hit me: We would be passing right through the area where Prince and André found the Cloud bass.

My husband is pretty used to my nerdy whims, so he humored me as we pulled off of the 101 so I could call André and gather as many details as possible about this long-lost guitar shop, which by then had become legendary in my mind. To my surprise, even though 40 years had passed, he still remembered all the twists and turns from the Corte Madera rental house to the San Rafael store. Before long, we were piloting our own rental car down those same streets.

As it turns out, the shop wasn’t where André had remembered it, but a quick Google search pulled up several possibilities in town. Our first stop was a crowded little storefront called Players Guitars, which was overflowing with character but had only been in existence for two decades, not four. 

Next, we visited an acoustic guitar shop called Amazing Grace Music, where I met San Rafael’s longest running luthier, John Pedersen. He listened patiently as I regaled him with everything I was hoping to learn about the mysterious Cloud bass. It was about halfway through explaining the whole ordeal that I realized just how far down the Prince rabbit hole I was slipping, and Pedersen’s eyes grew wider as I spoke. He chuckled as he wrote down the names of a few other guitar pros in the area and was still laughing and shaking his head as I made my way out of the store.

I followed up on all the leads Pedersen provided, emailing them photos of the Cloud bass and guitar, and laying out the whole saga. The most promising lead was with a shop called Bananas at Large, which had been in San Rafael since the mid-seventies. I sent a note to the man known as “Banana” himself, but no one responded. I’d hit a dead end. And, for a long time, I let the story go.

Driving around San Rafael that day, I felt a connection to Prince — and subsequently, to André — that I treasured, regardless of whether I’d solved the Cloud mystery. It was romantic being there, in the place where Prince took his first big leaps outside Minneapolis and into his destiny. And as I looked out at the sun shimmering on the San Francisco Bay, I thought about how exciting it must have been to be there recording his debut album with his best friend at his side.

A lot happened between that Bay Area trip and the next time I thought about the Cloud bass. I released my first book, got pregnant, interviewed Prince collaborators on stage at Paisley Park’s Celebration with a big pregnant belly, kept busy with work at the radio station, and took a few months away from it all to adjust to becoming a mom. Sometimes, while reading Richard Scarry books to my daughter, I’d come across the character Bananas Gorilla and think about that day in San Rafael. But it wasn’t until the third anniversary of Prince’s passing that the flame was lit once again.

It happened in April 2019 in the backroom of the downtown Minneapolis bar Gluek’s, where I was taking part in a book signing with other Prince-related authors. A man walked up to me, glanced down at my name on my book and whispered: “I hear you have an interest in the Cloud bass.” It was the most exciting thing anyone has ever whispered to me at a bar.

Photography © The Prince Estate | Photographer John Wagner

When I confirmed that yes, indeed I did, the man introduced himself: His name was Stuart Fleming, he was visiting from the United Kingdom, and he had an entire website dedicated to exploring the history of Prince’s most iconic guitars, from the Cloud to the Love Symbol to the Hohner Mad Cat. He told me that not only did he know where the Cloud bass came from, but he had spoken to the man who created it! I was floored.

Fleming sent me all the intel he’d unearthed about the origins of the bass, including its original luthier — Jeff Levin, who built instruments under the name Sardonyx Guitars — and the East Village shop where he worked in the seventies, where Fleming believed Prince would have bought the guitar. Fleming had noticed that the Smithsonian, which has Prince’s original Cloud guitar in its collection, credited the design of the instrument to Dave Rusan and Knut Koupeé, and he wanted to see Levin get his due.

I took all of this information, put it in a folder and did absolutely nothing with it for an entire year. At the time, I didn’t know why, other than that I was utterly perplexed as to how André’s vivid memory of finding the bass in San Rafael could possibly square with this revelation about its origins in New York City.

As my work around Prince’s legacy continued to evolve — in the fall of 2019, I began hosting a podcast about Prince in partnership with the Current and the Prince Estate — I realized that I didn’t actually want to know the definitive answer about the bass. As silly as it may sound, it felt like this obsession over a single detail about a niche moment in Prince’s history had become mine and mine alone, and the longer I took to solve it, the longer I could hold onto the personal connection I still felt to him and his music.

The fourth anniversary of Prince’s passing went by in a blur. To be honest, I don’t know that I could tell you what I did that day, other than that I was quarantined with a toddler and probably spent some of her naptime working on the liner notes for the reissue of Sign O’ The Times. So I didn’t realize right away that in the spring of 2020, noted luthier and guitar historian John Woodland had unveiled new information that was being referenced by everyone from the Smithsonian to Rolling Stone or that he was working on a book, Look Up in the Air: The Origin of Prince’s Cloud Guitar.

Woodland’s research set off a chain reaction in the guitar community, which was further escalated when Prince’s long-lost second Cloud guitar, the Blue Angel, went up for auction and sold last June for $563,000. For a moment, I thought my work might finally be done. But when I read up on the latest findings, one fact in particular leapt out: According to former Prince guitar tech Joel Bernstein, who Woodland cites in his article, Prince found the Cloud bass in New York City when he was there shopping his first demo tape to labels in 1976.

It just didn’t sit right. For one, everything that’s been documented about that 1976 New York City trip indicates that Prince had little money to his name at that time. He’d flown out on a wing and a prayer to try to scrounge up interest in his work and stayed with his half sister, Sharon. The idea of him buying random bass guitars at that point in his career seemed off. And then there was André’s vivid memory of a different version of events. I couldn’t let it slide. I realized my soul would not rest until I figured out exactly how that bass ended up in Prince’s hands.

I launched what I can only describe as a lightning round of interviews with everyone I could possibly think of who might hold any clues. I started by replying to Fleming’s email about the instrument’s original builder — 15 months later, a totally normal and polite thing to do — and he graciously offered to pass along my contact information to Jeff Levin himself. 

He also put me in touch with a researcher at the Smithsonian, Theodore Gonzalves, who explained that the museum had recently gone so far as to perform a CT scan of the Cloud guitar in its collection to verify that it is indeed the original that Dave Rusan built for Prince in the fall of 1983. As to where Prince found the bass that inspired it? Nobody has any reason to question the New York City story, since that’s where Jeff Levin built the bass and where he put it up for sale.

I called Prince’s former bandmates. I interviewed his guitar techs. I scoured every Prince book in my collection, which now numbers in the dozens, including a new memoir by early mentor Pepé Willie that mentions Prince visiting an East Village guitar store in 1977 — but also specifically notes that he did not buy anything, only briefly wailed on a guitar to everyone’s amazement then waltzed out the door.

Prince Guitar Origin | Artful Living Magazine

Photography provided by Matt Umanov

In the fall of 2020, I texted André and asked if he would chat with me about his Cloud bass. Again. Then in the hours leading up to our scheduled call, I heard from Jeff Levin, who’d agreed to talk to me. I called him right away, and when he answered the phone, I gasped.

“I’m so excited to be talking to you,” I gushed. “I’m obsessed with your bass.”

There was a long pause. “Did you read John Woodland’s article in Fretboard Journal?” he asked. “I’m not sure I can tell you more than what’s in there.”

“I did read it,” I responded, “but I still have so many questions.”

As Levin told it, the idea for the design of the bass had been percolating in the back of his mind for years as he worked at the East Village shop Matt Umanov Guitars doing repairs and rebuilds. He’d always been drawn to the design of the F-style mandolin, with its curved edges and swooping flourishes. In the early seventies, he and some friends started an informal rock-and-roll band and he needed a bass to play, so he extended the curved horn of the mandolin and stretched out the neck to create a bass guitar in the same style, complete with beveled edges and hand-carved details. Looking back on it, Levin told me, “there’s nothing particularly interesting about it, really. I just needed something to play.”

The band never moved past its occasional jam sessions, and before long Levin decided to put the bass up for consignment at Umanov Guitars. “I had a family to feed,” he said with a sigh. “You know, when you’re in business, that’s what you do. You sell them, right? And that’s what I did.”

To Levin’s knowledge, the person who bought the bass was indeed Prince. He couldn’t recall the exact year it was sold, but it was sometime after he built it in 1972 and before the end of the decade, when he got out of the guitar business. Levin wasn’t in the store the day it sold and there are no records of the sale, but he had no reason to doubt his shopkeeper friend’s memory that it was purchased by Prince.

I started explaining the whole saga to him: about André’s memory of finding the bass. About my time driving around to all those San Rafael guitar shops. And whether there would ever be a way to know once and for all what happened between the time the bass left Levin’s hands in the mid-seventies and when it was handed to Dave Rusan in 1983 to build the Cloud guitar.

“I’m sorry, were you asking me a question?”

“No — I don’t know,” I said. “I do have one more thing I wanted to ask you: What was it like for you to see your design turned into this famous guitar?”

He sighed a heavy, existential sigh. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s just another instrument,” he told me. “I’m flattered that somebody bothered to copy it. What I didn’t like about it is that, you know, if you’re going to copy something, give credit where credit is due.” He was especially irked when he came across a placard at the Smithsonian that credited the design to Prince: “That was annoying, but not more than that.”

“Well, in my opinion, there have been all of these Cloud guitar replicas made, but there’s still just the one bass,” I expounded. “And Prince held onto it all these years and still had it when he passed away. That has to mean something, right? I think that’s what drives me to figure this out. He bought this bass for André, his best friend, who was like his brother, basically as a gift for him so he could have something cool to play, and I think that says so much about their relationship, and about Prince’s beginnings.”

“That’s a sweet story,” he humored me, shortly before we hung up. “That’s very nice to hear.”

The Smithsonian has since updated its research to include Jeff Levin’s name in the creation of the Cloud. The only thing left, in my mind, was to talk to André.

As soon as André picked up the phone that afternoon, I dove right in. “I can’t let this go,” I told him. “Is there any way you could have bought the bass guitar in New York City?”

André sighed. He was clearly frustrated by the new research that had emerged.

“I mean, if people wanna find some new story, that’s fine,” he said. “But the reality is that I remember it, physically — there’s never been a question about it in my mind. I mean, I even remember why I got it. I bought it as a backup bass, because I knew we were going to do shows. I’m playing it in videos.” (André can be seen playing the Cloud bass in the 1980 video for “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”) “I played it. I remember it exactly. Prince and I were together all the time. And if he slipped away and somehow bought a bass I didn’t know about, that would be interesting, you know?”

The more passionate André became about his memories, the clearer it became to me why this seemingly minor detail about a long-forgotten bass guitar had stayed with me so long. This wasn’t a story about a guitar at all. It was a story about who Prince was in that nascent period of his life, a story about his deep creative bond with his best friend, a story about who gets to tell the story about his life now that he’s gone.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” André said. “San Francisco was like a music hub in the seventies. I mean, everybody who was anybody was there: Tower of Power, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone. So many bands, a whole lot of traveling. Somebody could have bought it and brought it to San Francisco and traded it in — or who knows what. All I know is that’s where I saw it, you know?”

Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

I started telling André how much it meant to me that he was willing to share his memories of Prince with me, but as soon as I got into it, my voice caught in my throat. “There is something so beautiful about your friendship with Prince and your bond,” I told him. “I don’t really care about the guitar at all. Honestly, I start to zone out when people talk about how guitars are made and what pickups are used. But the part that is so beautiful to me is that this was such an important time in both your lives, as you were wondering what the future might hold. I’m just kind of taken with it.”

“You’re so right,” he said. “That’s the honest, organic beauty of that time, because it really is the precursor of everything that came to follow. I mean, think about two kids who came from where we came from, and literally months before that, we didn’t have no money. I mean broke. So that whole idea he was buying a guitar in 1976 — are you kidding me? But I do get that some people think that’s a better story; Jimi Hendrix used to walk around the Village and find these cool tapestry shops, blah blah blah. You know, with these stories, sometimes they try to make him into somebody else. But Prince’s story is a beautiful story. It’s a story of friendship, but it’s also a story of his own journey to figure out who he was.”

That night, just before falling asleep, I noticed a new email alert on my phone. It was from the new owner of Bananas at Large in San Rafael, who I’d decided to ping one final time in hopes of one last clue.

“Hi Andrea,” it read. “I believe this to be true. I’ve heard the story from multiple, credible people. The original founder, Fred Waxler, told me his version of the story. Prince was working at the Plant in late ’77 and would wander into the shop occasionally. I’m told he bought that bass, a keyboard, and a guitar plus accessories.”

I texted André immediately.

“That’s awesome. So I’m not crazy after all,” he responded, signing his text with a purple heart.

I took a deep breath in and slowly let it out. My mind whirred at the idea of following this new lead even further — maybe tracking down a receipt or some other tangible piece of evidence to document this tiny piece of Prince’s massive life story once and for all. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this story is just a microcosm of what makes Prince such a complicated, enigmatic, endlessly fascinating force in my life.

In a way, the story of Prince’s Cloud guitar is just another example of the tension that was at the core of his entire career: It’s about ownership, credit and control. Who “made” the Cloud guitar, an instrument so influential that it will be forever memorialized at the Smithsonian? Was it Jeff Levin, who built the original bass? Was it André, who fell in love with the bass and brought it into Prince’s orbit? Was it Dave Rusan, who constructed the first Cloud guitar? Or was it Prince, who saw the potential to embrace a new shape — one with rounded edges, Machiavellian flair, a feminine tenderness, a winding complexity — to further differentiate his aesthetic presentation from the rock machismo of the 1980s?

Who owns a person’s story? And who has the authority to tell it? These are the questions that keep me up at night as I puzzle out more of Prince’s past and, in turn, my relationship to it. And these are the questions that will keep me coming back to this work. Prince is gone, and for a long time, that was really hard to accept. But channeling my grief into these projects has only added more depth to my appreciation for what he accomplished in his short 57 years in this realm — and it has shown me that there will always be another thread to pull, another research hole to tumble down. So I’m letting this whole Cloud guitar thing go. For now. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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