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. Read More