In January 2016, Dan Piepenbring—then The Paris Review’s online editor—was offered an opportunity to collaborate on a book with the artist Prince Rogers Nelson, known variously throughout his career as The Kid, The Artist, The Purple One, The Prince of Funk, Joey Coco, Alexander Nevermind, an unpronounceable symbol, or, simply, Prince. Yes, that Prince. Purple Rain Prince. “Act your age, not your shoe size” Prince. Prince Prince.
The famously enigmatic musician, then in his late fifties, was grappling with how to reveal more of himself and his ideas to the world. He wanted to write a memoir about the music industry, about his childhood, about his experience as an African American artist. With Dan’s encouragement, Prince began putting his thoughts on paper. Like his music, Prince’s prose was lyrical and unexpected, reflecting his singular voice and a unique sensitivity for narrative. Even in its nascent form, the book promised to be extraordinary. But, just a few months into the project, Prince died unexpectedly, leaving the fate of the memoir uncertain.
Grief-stricken and reeling, Piepenbring and his editors at Random House moved forward with the book—transcribing Prince’s handwritten drafts and curating them with a selection of photographs, lyric sheets, and other ephemera collected from his estate. Introducing the book is an essay by Piepenbring that details the unlikely story of their profound, if short-lived, collaboration.
Like much of Prince’s oeuvre, The Beautiful Ones defies traditional categorization. Part collage and part elegy, the book tells a fragmented story of the musician’s young life beginning with his very first memory (his mother’s eyes) and continuing through the early days of his career. In it, Prince writes with candor about his epilepsy, his first kiss, his parents’ separation, and his rise to fame.
Much of Prince’s story is told through miscellanea: childhood photographs, a middle school report card, his first check from Warner Brothers. Particularly poignant are the excerpts from a seventies scrapbook recounting when, at the age of 19, Prince first moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. The photographs, accompanied by handwritten notes (“My first car!” “A crazy snapshot of me!”) capture the hopeful excitement of a young man in the foothills of stardom. What emerges from all of this is a richly textured and intimate portrait of one of the most mysterious pop-cultural icons of the last century.
My interview with Dan took place earlier this fall at a cafe near The Paris Review office.
I want to start by asking a little bit about your relationship to Prince’s music. How old were you when you started listening to him seriously?
I have a vivid memory of the first time I encountered one of his albums. It was at a Walmart in Hunt Valley, Maryland in 1999. This is embarrassing to admit but, at the time, I was really into nu metal—Korn and Limp Bizkit and other thirteen-year-old-boy stuff. I would go to Walmart, because they sold censored versions, which were the only ones my mom would let me buy. I remember browsing the shelves and coming across the cover of Prince’s record Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. He was going under his unpronounceable symbol at the time. If memory serves, he’s on the cover wearing a blue vinyl outfit with a kind of sparkly texture. It’s skin-tight. It looks very extraterrestrial, very Y2K. And he’s giving this imperious, sultry, mysterious look to the camera. I was utterly drawn in.
But I didn’t really go deep into his music until I got to college. Someone in my dorm, from California, had seen him on the Musicology tour and was raving about it saying, If you’re not into Prince, you don’t know what you’re talking about—in the way that eighteen-year-old boys can just throw the gauntlet down with some critical bullshit. So, I started getting my hands on all the Prince I could. and really became obsessed. By the end of freshman year I had amassed his whole discography and was steeping myself in it, listening to it all the time, forcing it on friends. I was a goner.
What, specifically, about his music resonated with you?
Growing up in Baltimore County as a fairly devout Catholic, his music felt really scandalous to me. Subversive. Here was this male voice singing in a very effeminate way—a high piercing, unnervingly intimate falsetto—with slinky drum programming behind him and these ethereal synthesizers. The whole thing was very otherworldly and entrancing and funky. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. It seemed to be flouting every rule of what funk music was supposed to be, even in something as fundamental as his use of drum machines instead of drums. It’s ubiquitous now, but it was so new and exciting to me at the time—it felt like a total violation of what I thought were the musical norms.
Prince is a notoriously enigmatic figure. He rarely gave interviews and was careful about cultivating his public image, never revealing too much of himself. In a way, his persona was a part of his work. As a fan, had you been interested in him as a figure? And, if so, how did that curiosity shape your approach to the book?
I definitely fell into the cult of mystery around him. I think it’s hard to listen to his music without wondering about the person behind it. Though he kept himself quite private, there was also this body of apocryphal knowledge about him, facts that fans would trade back and forth about his sex life and his past. He was a Jehovah’s Witness. He didn’t believe in age. You couldn’t make eye contact with him. I came to believe in him as this supernatural figure. I was completely in love with his persona. And I thought it was the coolest thing that someone who was such a cultural touchstone could manage to isolate himself and hide himself so totally. I really respected that. I still really respect that. I think it’s very easy to put yourself out there, and I think he knew exactly when and how to do that in such a way that people would always be wondering and are still wondering and will forever be wondering who he really was and what motivated him. Even at the end of this process, having thought about him now for three and a half years in the context of this book, I feel really no closer to having pierced that veil, or grasped his essence. I’m not a Prince whisperer or a Prince expert. I don’t know that anyone can claim to be. There is always going to be negative space around who he was, and I think that’s part of what drew me to him as a fan, and part of what drew me to this project. That’s what can draw people to one another over any amount of time. There’s always a question there. An uncertainty. A kind of promise.
Your introduction to the book is very personal. It details how you first met Prince, at Paisley Park in Minnesota, and the conversations the two of you had while brainstorming ideas for the book. When you began the project, did you expect to be writing so openly in the first person? Did you anticipate that so much of yourself would end up on the page?
No. Not at all. At the beginning, I kept pretty copious notes because it was such a bizarre experience and I wanted to remember everything. I mean, nearly everything he said and did was strange and compelling to me in some way. But those were just for my own reference, I didn’t really imagine that they would become a part of the book. I mean, he and I played around with the idea of having my voice in it, but I figured that, while it would be my writing, it wouldn’t actually be me, per se. It was really so preliminary, so inchoate, that I have no idea how it would have looked. I kept all those notes thinking that I should just write down everything he said as closely as possible. And, of course, that became invaluable.
You describe several conversations in which Prince discussed his hopes for the book, among those being that it “be the biggest music book of all time” and “solve racism.” As a young white writer, who had never published a book before, I imagine the scope of his vision must have felt daunting.
One of the many mysteries still surrounding this book is why he chose to work with me. I don’t know the answer. But I will say that the encouragement you could feel from him was really profound. You’d finish a conversation with him and feel like you could move mountains. So, whatever underlying panic I felt about accomplishing these titanic goals he’d set out for us were assuaged by his confidence. Looking back now, it would have been next to impossible to accomplish all he wanted. But when you’re in the room with him, and he’s got this energy that makes you think you can do it. You don’t even think it, you just know you can.
You mention that when you first started reading his memoir drafts, you were floored by the level of eloquence and sensitivity that he brought to his own life. What surprised you the most?
I think it was the directness. The clarity. He was famously reluctant to talk about himself and could often be cryptic, so to see that he was interested in telling a straightforward narrative about his past—and that he had such a power for storytelling—was really exciting. I wasn’t surprised that he was capable of it, but I was surprised that he was bringing those powers to bear on his own autobiography. He had pages and pages written in pencil and they were so engaging. It was so clearly his voice—the observations, the flashes of humor. Everyone who has had even a passing encounter with Prince talks about how funny he is, and it’s true. He’s hilarious. He’s got this amazing deadpan. You see that in his performances a lot, so I was thrilled to see that humor in such abundance on the page.
What notes did you give him?
The main criticism was that I wanted him to slow down and to delve more deeply into the episodes. He was treating them very quickly, and as you can see, he was really whipping through his childhood at a steady clip. I knew that I wanted him to open up more about that stuff.
I noticed a symmetry between Prince’s prose and his songwriting—playful, provocative, with a crystalline attention to detail.
Me, too. Going back to his music after reading those pages, suddenly certain songs—“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” in particular—seemed to light up. They so obviously emerged from the same mind. They are comic and heartbreaking and utilize such phenomenal economy of detail. He just has the perfect eye. I mean, the storytelling in that song is better than most short stories you’ll ever read. Like, “Dishwater blonde, tall and fine / She got a lot of tips.” And the images … Prince eating a fruit cocktail, taking a bubble bath with his pants on. It’s so good. There’s not a wasted word in there. I see a real consonance between those pages and that song, and other songs like it. He is telling you a story and it’s just so fluid.
Can you talk a little bit about how the concept for the book changed after he died?
At first, it wasn’t clear we were even going to go forward with the book. In conversations with Chris Jackson, the editor, and Julie Grau, the publisher, and Dan Kirschen, my agent, the four of us arrived very early at the conclusion that the only way we could continue with the book was to have a pretty radical level of transparency about how it all came together. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be the authority to make the rest of it congeal into a meaningful narrative. So it was decided that the introduction was going to be really frank and honest about every detail of our relationship. Without the story about how I met Prince, I think people, understandably, would wonder, Who is this guy? Why is he doing this? Because I’m not a member of Prince’s inner circle or someone with the necessary base to pursue such a sacred, posthumous project. It was only by telling that story that I could do it. We felt we had some license because he and I had discussed having my voice in the book. Then it was just figuring out what form that should take. Most important was that we didn’t want to put any words in his mouth. That would have been treacherous without him around to approve it.
In one of your conversations with Prince, he says that he wants the book to be a “radical call for collective ownership.” That kind of snuck up on me when I was reading. I have an idea of what that may mean, but it feels like it could be subject to interpretation. What did that mean to you?
I thought about that a lot. The hope was, I think, that the book would feel alive and participatory in some ineffable way. That it would “belong” to the reader and not be something that explained itself all that much. This idea definitely had a big influence on my writing. Whenever I would take a step back and feel any inclination to write something more summative or critical, I would just remember the disdain he felt for the “white critical language,” as he called it. And, as a white critic, I feel that if even one errant critical idea about him had wormed its way into the book, it would have been a rebuke to what he had wanted it to be. It seemed much more productive to me to write something generative, something that people could use as a stepping-off point for their own thinking about him, rather than broadcasting my own ideas.
The book is constructed largely around ephemera—photographs, documents, and journal pages collected from Prince’s estate. What was the curation process like? How did you decide what to include in the book?
It was tricky. The estate hired a few full-time archivists to scan all his documents, papers, and photographs. There was so much material. I think there ended up being more than five thousand items it total. So, it was kind of like drinking from a firehose for a while—just a continuous process of winnowing. We looked for things that crackled and had some relationship to what he had written. Then I worked with Chris to make sure the order made sense. It was a unique challenge, and not something I had much experience with—storytelling through objects.
The result feels very private. Almost like trespassing. Like reading someone’s diary or going through the things they keep in a box under the bed.
We intentionally chose things that we felt told a story in some way. His report card from middle school, for instance. Going in, I am not sure any of us expected to find things like that. I definitely didn’t. Given how frequently he spoke of his aversion to retrospection, it seemed unlikely that there would be any sort of paper trail leading back to his youth. And when we saw that there was one, it gave us hope that we could actually make a book that conveyed what he had started to convey. A glimpse into his mind, like peeping through a keyhole.
This book defies traditional genre categorization—part memoir, part elegy, part scrapbook. I’m curious how you have come to think about its form.
I mean, it’s all three. It’s billed as a memoir but really it’s more like a gesture toward a memoir, toward what the book could have been if he had lived. In conversation with Chris Jackson, we both knew early on that if we were going to do the book, we had to capture his absence. It is a book full of potential energy as much as actuality. We wanted to give the reader the opportunity to imagine their way into the many other books that might have emerged from the detritus that’s in this book. I really loved that—it’s almost like there’s an imaginary book pushing at the boundaries of the one that’s actually in front of you.
Cornelia Channing is a writer from Bridgehampton, New York. She is an editorial intern at The Paris Review.
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