By Milo Nesbitt
The Beautiful Ones
Prince, Century, 2019
Prince: Life and Times
Jason Draper, Chartwell, 2016
Just because it’s pop doesn’t make it easy. – Kodwo Eshun
In his introduction to The Beautiful Ones, Dan Piepenbring gives an account of collaborating with Prince on his memoir-of-sorts. First, there was a selection process. Prince had the candidates write personal statements, describing their relationship with his music and why they were the writer for the job. You would be forgiven for expecting it to be a test of who could flatter him most extravagantly – this is Prince we’re talking about, after all – but you would be wrong. According to Piepenbring, in their first meeting, Prince took him to task on some of the things he’d said, telling him that ‘certain words don’t describe me.’ Piepenbring elaborates: ‘He reserved a special ire for the word “magical”. I’d used some version of it in my statement. “Funk is the opposite of magic,” he said. “Funk is about rules.”’
Funk is about rules? Tell that to George Clinton! Tell it to Sly Stone! Tell it to… Prince! Nothing about him ever seemed to indicate that he was that interested in conformity or obedience. He was born in 1958, the same year that Little Richard (temporarily) hung up his guitar and became a preacher. For the spiritually minded – this would include Prince, too – perhaps his departure left some kind of gap in the cosmic market for a freakishly talented and ambiguously sexy black guitarist who would captivate, threaten and seduce audiences and who would come to develop a confused relationship with religion. In any case, emerging in the late 1970s as some kind of reserved, ethereal prodigy who played every single instrument on his debut album (27 in all), Prince went on to produce a discography as unsettling as it was brilliant. With the albums that came between 1979 and 1988, ten purple love bites left on the world, he became an American institution, the maypole around which pop culture danced.
Then again, maybe we can see how this is all a bit heavy for a shy boy from Minnesota, even if his name and the recollections of his childhood ‘hopes of neighbourhood stardom’ in The Beautiful Ones suggest that he was somehow destined for greatness. These days, Prince is perhaps best remembered for his self-mythologising; it can be easy to forget how innovative the music was, especially for those of us who weren’t around to hear it at the time. The synth-heavy, genre-mixing pop-funk now generously known as ‘the Minneapolis sound’ had more to do with the accident of Prince being born there than the city itself – Jason Draper, in the new, updated edition of Prince: Life and Times, quotes him as saying that in Minneapolis, ‘we got all the new music and dances three months late.’
With tracks like ‘Little Red Corvette’ and ‘When You Were Mine’, he took the rhythms of white macho rock and coated them in PVC-slick synths, jump-started by disco drum-machine beats. With ‘When Doves Cry’, he proved you could make a perfect pop song without a bassline. Needless to say, it often reached ‘did I really hear that?’ levels of blatant sexuality, and a lot of it seemed calculated to upset all the right people.
‘Darling Nikki’ is the very reason we have parental advisory stickers on records now, and that track is relatively tame by Prince’s standards. There is enough confrontational androgyny to scare ageing male rock fans in the song ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ alone, but at the same time he always retained enough uncomplicated, bravado sex appeal to keep a mostly young, largely female audience devoted. Prince was nothing anyone else wanted him to be and everything he wanted to be – everything and more.
His admonition about rules, though, does make sense. He came from the James Brown tradition of supernaturally hard-working funk bandleaders, coming into prominence just as his hero was on the wane in the 1970s, with a similarly prolific output (‘I got too many hits!’ he would call out during live performances) and a similarly uncompromising-slash-cruel attitude towards his bands. Brown used to signal to his band members during shows, holding up a number of fingers corresponding not to a change in time signature but to the fine they would receive after the show for making the mistake he had just detected. Prince, meanwhile, once fined two members of one of his bands, The Time, thousands of dollars for having the temerity to get stuck in a snowstorm on the way to a show.
As for the superstar lifestyle, Prince in the mid-1980s was many things: high-energy, high-status, high-risk. But he might have been the only one in the nightclubs who wasn’t high. As Ian Penman points out in his piece on Prince from his excellent new book, It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, ‘by accident or design his 1980s aesthetic chimed perfectly with the first slowly spreading ripples of Ecstasy in transatlantic pop culture,’ and despite Prince’s desire to keep disco at arm’s length, he inherited a lot of its standout features, not least its drug-fuelled, I-feel-love dancefloor ambience. But until much later, until he started taking opioids for his ‘back pain’ in much the same way as Dicaprio’s Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, Prince was famously clean (in the song ‘ No’ he boasts that ‘the reason why my voice is so clear is ’cause there’s no smack in my brain’).
But on to the memoir itself. The Beautiful Ones, in the end, comes to about forty pages of memoir, with added ‘sidenotes’ remembered by Piepenbring from his conversations with Prince; an accompanying forty-page introduction, interesting but not unsentimental, in which Piepenbring recounts his meetings with Prince and the process of constructing the book; and 150-odd pages of handwritten notes, lyrics, cartoons, even an old school report, and photos. These photos are, in fairness, electrifyingly good, though often basically soft porn: turning each page was a nerve-wracking experience as I flicked through the book in the library. As fantastic as it looks, though, it feels very padded-out, and you don’t need to be particularly cynical to conclude that the decision to publish The Beautiful Ones might have been made for reasons other than artistic integrity. As Piepenbring tells us, Prince (astonishing as it might seem) died without leaving a will, and so the management of his estate was left to his bank, who, of course, jumped at the chance to turn some profit from the legendarily expansive ‘vault’ of Prince’s life.
Prince comes across in the introduction as someone who wanted to write a book, but who didn't have a defined idea of what this book would be, someone consequently susceptible to the last thing he came across. It starts out broadly as ‘a project’: annotated lyrics, photos, unpublished ephemera. He later wants it to be ‘a handbook for the brilliant community: wrapped in autobiography, wrapped in biography’; he thinks ‘it would be dope if, toward the end, [his and Piepenbring’s] voices started to blend … in the beginning they’re distinct, but by the end we’re both writing.’ Then he sees Hamilton and thinks the book ‘should be paced like a Broadway play, with lots of dialogue’; he covers the Staples Singers’ ‘When Will We Be Paid?’ at a show and decides that the song should supply the ‘narrative of the book’. In negotiations over the book contract, he insisted on a clause giving him the right to pull it from shelves at any moment, should he feel that it no longer represented the gospel according to Prince. ‘When there’s too much testosterone in a room, men can understand it. They’ll understand why a woman goes with a man who’s not in competition, who understands the feminine.’ This is one of the things that Prince explains in the book. He is clearly casting himself as the one who just understands women, transcending worn-out versions of masculinity; never mind the fact that, in this analogy, Prince makes sure his ‘feminine’ man wins the macho ‘competition’ he claims not to have even been a part of. What, then, are we to make of it when he later describes himself as an ‘alpha’, one of the natural leaders from whom society should just ‘step back and listen’? When, in the same passage, he tells Piepenbring that ‘I am my father. I am the leader of the band’, it’s hard not to wonder if he realises how this sounds, whether he’s deliberately layering these ambivalently sincere boasts in order to deepen The Mystery of Prince, which he undoubtedly always relished doing, or whether he really means it, in which case to engage with Prince’s work is inevitably to enter the messy psychodrama of his fantasy world.
This not the only moment in the book constituting a field day for Freudian psychoanalysts: he writes that he ‘wanted 2 prove 2 my 1st love, my mother, that the name Prince … my father’s stage name & now my given name, was worthy of her love, adoration, & respect.’ In one of the interviews excerpted in the book, Prince describes an unexpectedly popular ‘autograph party’ to promote an early single, 1978’s effervescent ‘Soft and Wet’. He recalls that the main question he was asked was ‘if my real name was Prince’ (along with ‘what is “Soft and Wet” about?’ – I mean, come on). The answer, of course, is yes, it was his real name, and if the egotism of John Nelson naming his son ‘Prince’ wasn’t enough, then it only gets worse when you consider the middle name: Rogers, meaning that he was named after Nelson Sr.’s band, the Prince Rogers Trio. No wonder Prince had a complex about his parents; it’s almost a surprise he didn’t change his name to ‘King’.
There’s a kind of game that a lot of Prince fans, music writers, or even general observers like to play: picking out the before-andafter divide in Prince’s career, pinpointing certain moments after which he ‘lost it’ (lost what?) and the old Prince (the real Prince?) died, to be replaced by some kind of Jehovah’s Witness-convert cyborg, with a perceptible aura of fentanyl and a halo of overproduction. Most commonly cited: the swansong of ‘classic Prince’, 1988’s ridiculous and fantastic Lovesexy, Prince’s version of a gospel album (sample lyric: ‘if I come back as a woman / I want a body like yours’), almost unlistenable except in one long session because of his insistence on formatting its nine tracks as one.
There are other contenders, depending on your sympathies. There’s the advent of the twenty-first century, Prince’s suitability to which was summed up by his self-instigated, weird-and-not-in-a-good-way appearance on the kitschy sitcom New Girl; perhaps by releasing an album called 1999 in the early 80s, Prince had inadvertently imposed a limit on the horizons of his own relevance. There’s the 1993 decision to change his name to an unpronounceable ‘love symbol’ in the (apparently genuine) belief that it would free him from his contract with Warner Brothers, or there’s the track ‘Housequake’ from 1987’s Sign o’ the Times, a premonition of deeply ill-advised and all-too-frequent ventures into hip-hop that were to follow in the early 90s.
Here it is as if, in a strangely self-fulfilling prophecy, Prince felt the onset of his own obsolescence when the 1990s started breathing down his neck, and, in a panic, he chose to jettison the angelically strange popfunk that had served him so well and started playing dress-up with a genre he had intuited would take over the world. Suddenly, he’d started following rules, and the result was dreadful. One track on 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls sees Prince enlist the MC-ing skills of Tony M (no, me neither) to popularise a new dance, the ‘jughead’. It’s not the only thing from the 90s to have aged badly, but it might be one of the worst.
If it seems boringly orthodox of me to suggest the onset of a strange new decade as the reason for Prince’s supposed decline, let me add that I remain unconvinced by the usefulness of pinning all the blame on one fatal error. The game could go on forever; there are even moments from his canonical golden years that, if you try hard enough, might be read as early indicators that it couldn’t last. The 1985 album Around the World in a Day, for example, was deliberately recorded to sound nothing like Purple Rain, the (much better) record which had brought him the biggest success of his career and which had been out for less than a year. Around the World was very obviously modelled on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper (Prince, of course, strenuously denied any influence) and was also the first album recorded at Paisley Park, Prince’s private recording studio and mansion. It’s easy to speculate on the impact that locking himself away in this complex could have had on a star who was already resistant to outside interference, to people who didn’t ‘get it’.
When I looked up Paisley Park, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. Baroque domes stretching into the cold Minnesota sky? Swirling psychedelic stonework? A bit of purple, at least. No: it’s a couple of blank white overlapping blocks, all right angles and glass windows. It looks like it’s made of plastic. Paisley Park is also, we learn from Draper’s biography, where Prince’s ashes are on display, in an urn constructed in the shape of … Paisley Park. Do you see yet? Even postmortem, this is Prince-world: everything perfect, everything mirrored, everything under control.
Not that this is anything you couldn’t tell from the songs. It is difficult to think of another artist who, lyrically and sonically, operated in the realm of fantasy to the same extent, whether in terms of pure sexual wish fulfilment or otherworldly preaching. The Beautiful Ones could have been the fullest realisation of this. Not only is it written in Prince’s hieroglyphic shorthand – an eye symbol for ‘I’, ‘U’ for ‘you’, ‘4’ for ‘for’, and so on – but the project of reconstructing his own life story must have appealed to Prince on this basis. Along with his music and his films, it would have been another opportunity for him to rewrite himself, like the games he played as a child:
A place where I could pretend dress-up & enter a fantasy of my own direction. A different storyline every time, but always with similar outcomes – I am always sharp & I always get the girl.
As it is, The Beautiful Ones is something like the ghost of the book it should have been. Perhaps, in a way, this is fitting for an artist so shapeshifting and remote; perhaps it’s better we never got the authorised version of Prince. As intriguing as the early stages of the memoir that we do have are, perhaps we were spared another fascinating, but faintly embarrassing, accidental self-parody.
It’s difficult to tell quite who this book is for, but as for the rest of us – at least we have the music.
Art by Ellena Murray