The Beautiful Ones by Prince
I came to Prince late, perhaps because of my age but more likely because of my upbringing (meaning: white people, classic rock, just Motown on the soul front, not much funk beyond Stevie Wonder). I remember when he died and the outpouring of love from every corner of the world. I hadn’t heard Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987) and that’s where I started when told. I realized I knew most of the LP Purple Rain (1984) and other hits. Coincidentally I watched Batman (1989) that week for the first time. I had seen this book around and flipped through it and finally took time with it this week, years later as if it was calling out to me. Mainly, I want to read every artist’s story. All music is interesting, and what is more compelling than Prince? This book, unfortunately, reads more like a scrapbook than a memoir; his untimely passing prevented it from going further than what Prince had in mind. But just like all things Prince, the making of this book is part of its fascination, and I wonder if he would have liked it this way at all? Finally he gets to, and wants to, tell his story just as he prefers, permission is granted, and then it’s all gone.
I remember when Prince did the secret show in NYC and announced he was writing a book. I was working as a literary agent’s assistant at the time so the book world was excited about such a monolith contributing to the conversation. But then…
I was reading the story chronicling this in The New Yorker where Prince’s co-author, Dan Piepenbring, serialized his experience of being selected by Prince, meeting with him, being unsure if he got the job, and having long chats and meetings with Prince where there was never an answer, just conversation that eventually landed on trust. This story makes up the introduction to the book. Piepenbring lays out what Prince was up to: he was beginning a tour called Piano & A Microphone. Prince was done with the guitar and wanted to retell stories about his parents as he played new renditions of his songs for the crowd in intimate spaces. (It sounds like this is where Bruce Springsteen got his idea for his Broadway series of shows.) Prince was on the verge of a whole new chapter as an artist. Piepenbring is excited in the pages; Prince’s voice through Piepenbring is electric, he cannot wait to get to work.
And he did get to work. Prince wrote memoir pages which are in these pages here; thankfully they were typed because his handwriting is a sweeping jumble of cursive and figures–beautiful and mysterious like the artist himself. When Piepenbring, editors, and Prince’s closest collaborators went to Prince’s home and vault after he died they found photos, journal entries, and artifacts paper clipped and set aside as if Prince knew it was coming, set out like he planned on them being found …or maybe he had just started a long slog through his artifacts to tell the story the only way he wanted to.
Art imitates life and the book ends too soon. I want so much more from Prince himself, more than just photographs (of which there are many). Although the way Piepenbring describes it, Prince wanted the narrative to end at a certain point. (A true memoir operates on a condensed timeline: start here, end here.) But all of it feels abrupt whether or not they got to that agreed upon ending point. The Beautiful Ones seems more like a reminder than a remembrance of what Prince was capable of. I was new to him but I could tell Prince was really on to something.
I knew he was a Jehovah’s Witness and that he prohibited alcohol and drugs from his touring groups. He was a vegan and lived life, ironically, wrapped in strict rules he created for himself, despite, of course, his art being nothing but limitless. As a new fan I was frustrated by the hypocrisy of how Prince had died–an overdose of prescribed fentanyl. But now I just have more questions: did Prince leave on purpose at this point? How many people around him knew he was even prescribed and using drugs? Before he died there were rumors of illness and even a few Piano & A Microphone shows were cancelled, so maybe there was something organically wrong that we weren’t ever supposed to know about. Did he feel guilty using drugs when he was so forwardly anti-drug? No one will ever know but the circumstances are so unusual. But I guess with Prince he can say he’s one thing and turn out to be another. That’s really his whole deal, I now realize.
I feel so sad, robbed, really, of what could’ve been. Of course I will spend a lifetime pouring over his records and art discovering all he was capable of: the strongest sense of self and imagination and freedom that no other individual will ever be able to match.
What will stick with me most is Prince’s thoughts on funk. Piepenbring writes Prince wanted to find a word for what funk is. “‘The space between the notes–that’s the good part,’ Prince would say. ‘However long that space is–that’s how funky it is. Or how funky it ain’t.'”
The space between!! The last place anyone would look! But when you listen to something funky, it is those quite moments in between close together and few and far between notes where time stretches out, just a little, and lets the music live in its own space. That is what Prince was after. There could’ve been so much more of it. Thankfully he left behind a lifetime of music to discover and rediscover for generations. He wanted his fans and readers to read this book and to create. He wanted to inspire people: “Create your day, and then create your life.”
[Originally posted on my Goodreads, May 2021.]