Irresistible Book: Prince’s memoir “The Beautiful Ones”

Brittany Howard’s album Jaime just dropped, and sitting alongside Prince’s soon-to-be-released autobiography The Beautiful Ones, I find the timing borders on providence. Perhaps I need not lay this pairing at the feet of fate, considering Prince is so ubiquitous to modern music. He is gone yet everywhere, and one could make several long playlists – and dozens of careers – out of work inspired by Prince. That said, Howard’s solo debut is not a Prince legacy album in the way that most other ones are. Jaime shines from Howard’s sweat through and through. And yet, there are moments where I am convinced that, in a compositional or studio moment, she thought, “What decision would Prince make here?” and then executed her will in the spirit of the man. Setting aside Jaime’s dizzying array of merits, it is a record that Prince would not have composed (well, maybe the song “Baby”), but that Prince would have dug, and you need look no further than his book to know that.

In Prince’s cosmology, there are really only three reasons to pen a book that purports to flirt with autobiography: further demystification, education or deconstruction. While we will never know which of those goals Prince would have come down on, the book we have is somehow, and thankfully, all three.

After Prince’s death, expectations for the book wavered between hopeful and low. Only thirty pages of original manuscript were reported to have been delivered by Prince, and he wasn’t exactly known for being forthcoming. There was every likelihood that the whole exercise might read like the text from a tour book: interesting, but hardly enlightening, and not what you bought a ticket to see. And if we are honest, readers are not looking for more questions about Prince’s life – more mystery, more philosophy, more religious slight of hand – but answers. An autobiography deal suggested clarity and, if we were lucky, genuine personality. Thirty pages couldn’t possibly begin to capture anything useful about Prince for most fans, and what if they were the wrong thirty pages? What if he started in the middle of his life? What if he spent thirty pages on chemtrail conspiracies and the remainder on being vegetarian? As compelling as such kitchen table talk might be coming from Prince, that’s not a book you buy. That’s a book you check out from a library.

Fortunately for us, Prince gave us the right thirty pages.

As a writer by calling and blood, a part of me gives Prince side-eye for thinking the creation of a book is a thing that could just be picked up. Given his history of choices afforded him by a life of freedoms, would he deliver a literary Sign o’ The Times or churn out a well-meaning-yet-bloated Emancipation? And who was I to judge, as if I had never picked up a guitar and plucked at its body, thinking I was recording “God (Instrumental)” into a 4-track recorder starving for my genius, only to discover on playback a cacophony so ludicrous I couldn’t be sure I was playing the same instrument as Prince?

As it turns out, the book we have is a compelling For You, almost literally. The parts written by Prince focus largely on his childhood and family, and the private photos (picked for this book posthumously) stop just shy of his major mid-80s success. Given more time and the same steady hand observed in his existing manuscript, the book probably would have become a Purple Rain (an expansion of the Purple Universe from his throne), or better, a Piano and a Microphone (intimate and delightfully revealing). The book we have is a little bit of all of these things.

Much of what’s in the book probably wouldn’t have come to light if Prince hadn’t passed away. It’s one thing for him to tell us in his own words what he wants us to know, but something else entirely to share the numerous candid photos of him learning how to become Iconic Prince. He wouldn’t figure out how to do that for a few years, and this book shows a lot of neophyte blemish. Prince may have turned a corner on expressing himself, but I don’t know if he would have even chose that cover, let alone the assemblage of memories and pictures within.

We have to talk about the editor of this book, Dan Piepenbring. We have to talk about him because the book we have is largely due to his efforts and engagement with Prince, and I haven’t come down on whether that is for better or worse, and I need to wrestle with it now.

Piepenbring was to be a co-author with Prince, but his contributions here fall largely under what he eventually gets credit for: editing. His extensive notes in the back are invaluable, turning what could have easily become a coffee table scrapbook into a refreshing carafe of anecdotes, clarifications, and color commentary.

The worthiness of the end result being a given, I must confess that when the project was announced I was confounded by Prince’s choice in collaborator. I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. The decision to go with a young, fan-enough white guy who hadn’t written a book was pretty much Prince’s standard operating procedure. He had built an empire – and dozens of careers – plucking people with just enough talent to hold a note/memorize a few dance steps/look good in lingerie, and controlling everything around them. I want to be clear: pointing that pattern out isn’t throwing shade on Piepenbring. There were things that Prince could not do that he would sometimes bring someone in to realize, and I believe his hiring of Piepenbring is more in that vein; more Eric Leeds on saxophone than Apollonia trying to carry a singing group. Prince has always been a top notch producer if nothing else. Even he knew that he didn’t have all of the tools he would need to bring a book home worthy of his story. A reading of the work that Piepenbring has done prior to this project shows he possessed the chops. (I was engaged with his review of photographer David LaChappelle’s 2017 retrospectives, as well as a simmering riff on Chick-fil-A.)

And yet, there are some seemingly missed opportunities here that only Piepenbring was in a position to address. He was in the room with Prince, sometimes alone. He had access to Prince’s original manuscript, and the freedom to make notes on them, asking for greater detail or clarification. Given these opportunities, I wanted the writer to dig deeper, to not be so starstruck and forget what Prince smelled like: Ask him about his production values. Ask him about how to direct a movie. Ask him about dancing. Ask him about his record collection. There was always a Prince waiting to come out, which is why he even entertained doing the book. You can’t be coy in those moments, not under this relationship. I found myself yelling at parts of the book because I wanted more and I believed someone else – perhaps an experienced biographer or someone black or someone who played music on the side or someone more versed in Prince lore – would think to ask. You never see those question in interviews with Prince and it is unfortunate. I believe he wanted to talk about those things, and I think I’m right because in The Beautiful Ones, he ATTEMPTS TO TALK ABOUT THOSE THINGS. Come on, Dan: Ask the man to insert a playlist or a top 5 or something. Maybe Piepenbring did and the book got edited to hell. Only he can answer that.

While the book isn’t what Prince envisioned, there is enough of him here to gauge whether or not the book begins to approach his goals. According to Piepenbring, those goals changed as a matter of course. Depending on the day, the book was supposed to be the “biggest music book of all time”, a primer on navigating the music industry, a family record, a solution for racism. Faced with infinite possibilities, Prince confirmed something I have always maintained about him: that he was a fiddler. I believe that he liked to tweak things, pressing all of the buttons on a new synthesizer or a washing machine. How else do you make a pitched rimshot your musical calling card? The book presented an opportunity that the albums of the latter half of his career did not. Unlike much of his catalog after the high-hog season of the 80s, Prince could be guaranteed that much of the world that knew his name would at least peek inside the book. They might skip the twenty-fourth or thirty-second Prince album, but nobody was going to bypass the first-ever book written by the man himself.

Given the opportunity to present to the world any kind of book he could conceive of, it is no surprise that he wanted to do it all, to play with everything a book could be. Even in The Beautiful Ones there is a sense of that in the breadth of his recollections, the details of his stories, and the items scanned into the book from personal memorabilia: a school report card, hand drawn cartoons, a Black Power button, sketches of album covers…all things Prince held on to, kept locked away, sometimes perused. A lifetime of things that weren’t music at all, hoarded away in the belly of Paisley Park, relevance unknown, but in his mind worth keeping around. You never know when stuff like that might become useful, what it might inspire. Looking around my junky basement office, I often wonder why I keep all of the things that I do. It is very much the same thing, save that no one wants to drop thirty bucks on a book of my basement ephemera. You never know what a pile of New Orleans beads or a wall of magnetic poetry is going to inspire, I suppose.

Prince had larger goals in mind for the book that are readily obvious and, depending on the reader, easily met. Prince mentioned wanting a book that would inspire people to not only create, but to learn how to control what they created, particularly young black artists. To my mind, the book, even shortened, accomplishes this. Even as a mere snapshot of a full life, that life was Prince’s, and if the right hands owned by the right critical thinking skills take this book to heart, there are a lifetime of lessons to be learned.

There is, of course, the aspect of the book that no editor, collaborator or even death could subsume: This book is black as hell.

When working with his collaborator, Prince does all of the prerequisite hazing that he is known for, though tweaked for a white writer. He is cordial, but never allows Piepenbring the luxury of forgetting that his host is black. He trolls his collaborator with YouTube videos about racism, questions his ability to write convincingly on race, and floats rhetorical statements about “All lives matter” to check Piepenbring’s reaction. The Prince we get in his own words speaks to us in powerful givens: his parents were real people, they were obviously black, and conversely, he is black. His childhood was a black childhood, surrounded by other black children and black family members, doing things that black Midwestern children do. He played black music in black bands for black audiences in black parts of Minneapolis. His formative musical influences are made clear not only by name, but in music theory, and they’re all black:

“Singing along with records – James Brown, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, & Aretha Franklin – helps 2 develop range & a sense of soul that can cover all bases.”

He further mentions “countless hours” spent looking at the images of “the greatest R&B stars”, and then rolls out a list of blues artists who straddled genres, courting crossover success – calling out B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Al Green and Joe Tex by name. This acknowledgement is important for several reasons, but two most notably. It shows how Prince began to define overarching success as a musician, but also his significant rooting in the blues…the most fundamentally black and American musical form ever invented. Understand: Yes, Prince listened to white artists. I am not making a case that he was not influenced by white music. I am pointing out that, when it came time to talk about where his art came from – sans any need to crossover – he put some other, blacker names on the list. At the molecular level, these black people and artists like them were the ones he drew inspiration from and emulated. The white artists he was influenced by were in-addition-to, not the nucleus. Anything else Prince may have slipped into the zeitgeist about his heritage in the interest of professional ambiguity is stripped clean away here, coupled with enough photographic evidence to settle the score. If anyone finds themselves embroiled in a debate about the extent of Prince’s blackness moving forward, they’re wasting their time. Prince makes exceedingly clear what should have been apparent the entire time. Any other case being made is just someone trying to win an argument that, in light of this book, they can’t. Fans and critics should feel free to stop giving undue credit for his expansive musical influences to random white band members in the 1980s.

His handwritten manuscript is presented both as direct copies and transcribed text, so that readers get a richer, more personalized experience. The text is also enhanced with sidebars by Prince, which find him expanding elements of the main passages. Sometimes the asides are enhancements, sometimes tangents. These moments are where some of the juicy outtakes are coming from that people are making clickbait headlines out of, like what Prince thought of Katy Perry or Ed Sheeran’s music. Some of them are things he wished to explore further, and it is a gift to be able to see him compose, then further process what he’s composed. It is unfortunate that so much hay is being made of the extraneous information and not of the meat. There is gold to be mined in the text that he spent time to put down at length, in the stories he felt important to recount, and not just the soundbites.

Religion, sex and family values are areas critics have been interpreting on his behalf for years, but we are now offered something tangible – albeit small – to add to our own vaults. There are things that fans and scholars alike will need to reprogram about their Prince code, especially where his family is concerned. Purple Rain was not his upbringing, and it is important to know that, and to consider why a portrayal opposite of that reality was deemed necessary to his success. What does it say about his audiences that Prince felt that was the best way to tell the story of his almost-life, and that it worked? What does it say about Prince that, in the full treatment for the project (also presented in the book), we are shown a family in even more distress than the one we saw? Prince always intended for readers to walk away from his book having to do some homework, not on him, but on themselves and the world around them. Even in this abridged form, he continues to offer us the challenge of change.

As I closed the cover of The Beautiful Ones, having finished it for the first of what will be many times, I was struck with a sharp sadness. It is a feeling I am learning to become accustomed to as more product comes out of his estate, more albums, more videos. This project hit me harder than others because with a revisited album or demo collection, you are hearing a Prince that no longer existed even when he was still alive. This book gives us a Prince that was still evolving, a Prince that still felt he had something to say. It is a Prince that still believes you can change the world with your bare hands, and then gave us thirty pages on how to start.

The good news is that, for all its sharpness, the sadness is short, a poniard of grief, but that heals quickly when you consider what Annie Dillard once wrote: “There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.” Prince had a good life for 95% of his life. You can’t stay sad looking at a stat like that.

No one has added “author” to Prince’s Wikipedia page. There is enough of the man in his own words in The Beautiful Ones to make that title legit.

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