Back in late Fall (last year, 2019), I read an article in the New Yorker by Dan Piepenbring. It was about being selected by Prince to help write his memoir. The article included interesting tidbits about Prince’s mystique, but mostly it was about landing the job and formulating the message, the essence of what the book would and could be. At the time, Piepenbring was not a published author, and though he didn’t think he stood a chance, he was hungry for the chance to work with the music icon. In preparation, he obviously did his homework as far as familiarizing himself with Prince’s work and career milestones in detail. But he also cautiously measured his response to Prince’s ideas. Piepenbring mostly listened. He began to understand that Prince was not interested in retelling his life story or explaining past decisions. Prince wanted to talk about Creativity. Inspiration. Art. Prince wanted to put into writing and pictures, the essence of Funk. By the end of a months-long interview process, that included traveling with Prince and his entourage, watching him perform, meeting with him privately, and reading Prince’s own writing for which he was seeking collaboration… to Peipenbring’s surprise, he was offered the job as Prince’s co-author.
And then Prince died before the project was even half-way completed.
With no estate plan in place, it has taken Piepenbring this many years to obtain permission and rights to put together a collection of writings, photos, and artifacts that would have found their place into the planned memoir. The result is The Beautiful Ones. And it is beautiful.
The Beautiful Ones is over 300 pages of thick bound glossy-stock photograph paper, in the style of a coffee table book you might pick up and flip through. However, in contrast to an ornamental display set out to inspire conversation, it is the size of a novel, roughly 8 X 11 and a few inches thick. It begs to be read like a book. Its substance, worthy of such rich packaging, is even deeper than its sleek gleaming exterior – just like The Artist, (formerly known as “Skipper” when he was a boy), and his music. The words and the photos combine for three-dimensional insight into Prince Rogers Nelson.
The book starts with a reprint of the New Yorker article written by Piepenbring. It’s a good intro.
What follows is Prince’s handwritten manuscript proposing his ideas for his memoir in page by page photographs. He actually wrote with an eyeball symbol for the word “I” and a number 2 for “to.” He wrote in all caps, with readable but crowded words and sentences. He corrects and crosses out. I dug in, ready to decode. But then realized that the words he wrote are reproduced in full, in the next section. Though I was willing to read every one of Prince’s hand-penned words, reading the printed type is a little easier on the brain.
So often, when you read a celebrity memoir through the words of a professional writer/collaborator, the effect is that the famous person seems polished and formal. Reading Prince’s own words reflected his not-quite finished ideas; the thoughts he needed help putting into words. It was not the expected account of his albums, songs, movies, his march to fame, and encounters with other celebrities you typically read in musical autobiographies. It was about ideas he wanted to explore, influences throughout his life including his parents, friends, and music, and experiences that shaped his creative process.
The majority of the book is photos, notes, postcards, and other remnants of Prince’s life. His childhood home. His high school girlfriend. The new Datsun he bought with his first big paycheck. There are quite a few photos of
original iterations of songs, which he always wrote by hand on whatever writing surface was available when the inspiration came. You can browse the pictures then flip to the index in the back that provides information about each. Fan Candy! I read every word.
The final part of the book includes, again in Prince’s handwriting, the movie treatment for Purple Rain. It’s pretty close to the movie that was made. There were some surprises, though, to me anyway. Like the characters, The Kid (Prince), Apollonia, and Morris, were all from high schools of different affluence. Their relationships with each other were a statement about wealth and privilege. Apollonia was from the ritzy part of town. (I guess that explains why she dressed in a bodice leotard and a cape, like most rich high school girls. haha) The Kid -middle class with a troubled home life, and Morris, a pimp from the wrong side of town. I guess I didn’t realize they were supposed to be high school aged. But I am only poking gentle fun at this movie, I loved it the first time I saw it, the second and third, and all the others.
I still love Prince, maybe even more after reading The Beautiful Ones. You don’t have to be a superfan to enjoy this book. Probably have to be a fan at least, though. It is a fabulous collection of pieces of a life that gave many of us great joy and a healthy dose of Funk.
Funk Memory #1
Before the days of playlists (but after mixed tapes), I used to burn compilations of songs on CDs. I burned“My Name is Prince” on a CD for my friend, Mary. This must have been 16 or more years ago – One night, Mary woke up with her youngest daughter Emma, only 2 years old or so, in the middle of the night to change her, and while she was getting Emma back to bed, the toddler was singing “My name is Prince, and I am funky…” I’m very proud to have played a role in turning Emma on to the funky rhythms of Prince and the New Power Generation. And guess what, she turned out to be a helluva dancer!
Funk Memory #2
At a Prince concert in Kansas City, Prince was hand selecting all these women dancing down in in the front of the audience to come up on stage with him. Once he pointed to them and beckoned them with the “come here” gesture, his crew members (big beefy guys) would lift them up on stage and they all danced together. Prince pointed to one extremely curvaceous gal, but instead of the “come here” gesture he wagged his finger in sort of a “no no” way and said, “not you, you too bad.” For a second she looked crest-fallen, but before you knew it, Prince’s guys were in the audience escorting her around to the stairs where Prince met her and danced with her one on one for a little bit. She about lost her shit, and the crowd went wild.