THE BEAUTIFUL ONES by Prince (Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 288 pp., $30)
These days, social-media-savvy celebs share everything from mundane moments to personal opinions in an effort to connect more readily with their followers. Some know when to abstain but many fail to understand that full disclosure, from endless photo opps to TMI lyrics, does not an icon make. There is something to be said for maintaining a mystique in a tell-all world.
Prince Rogers Nelson keenly understood how to sustain an aura of mystery as a seemingly accessible enigma. His intimate and often provocative lyrical style appealed to both our inner romantics and hedonists, marrying the sacred and the profane, and the masculine and feminine with him, in a way that felt perfectly natural. That overall union often mystified critics trying to box him in and provoked those who derided his raunchy sensibilities. Keeping himself at a distance from his audience as he seduced them, Prince lured them deeper into his invented world. He also slid in social commentary for good measure.
Like his musical career, the long-awaited memoir "The Beautiful Ones" bends the rules quite a bit. Part of that is because he died at the time that he and co-author Dan Piepenbring — an advisory editor at the Paris Review with no previous book experience then, but a devout Prince acolyte nonetheless — were working out its structure. But Prince wanted his collaborator to integrate his outside observations for a balance that the musician sought in portraying himself. Perhaps he wanted it to be as much about us as him, of how we projected ourselves onto him.
Piepenbring and his editors assembled this book from a few main sources: Prince's initial 30 pages of handwritten recollections; interviews from just before his death; his handwritten first synopsis for the film "Purple Rain"; a reconstructed photo album from his childhood years through to his debut album; and various other photos, handwritten lyrics, illustrations, and memorabilia from the Paisley Park vaults.
It seems apropos that Prince's handwriting is equally legible and illegible. Once you get into his groove, you can flow with it. The collected materials herein humanize him more as we learn about his parents' emotionally and physically tumultuous marriage and divorce, and how their opposite types — a disciplinarian, musician father and a spontaneous, bon vivant mother at odds — became fused within him. We learn of his first crush, first kiss and first licks (music, that is). He describes the epileptic seizures that he suffered in childhood, and how they later disappeared.
Originally, Prince had a grand edict for "The Beautiful Ones": To write a book that could possibly solve racism. Or at least try. He also wanted to inspire people to create, unfettered by anyone else's input. In a way, the two are intertwined, for Prince's career was about breaking down boundaries of all kinds and not giving into the whims of those who would dictate one's path. From the start, he wanted to produce and take control of his music, which would lead to a showdown with Warner Bros. Records over ownership of his catalog there.
If you're craving juicy gossip, plus the “bombshells” that Prince told his co-writer that they would deliver, expect to be disappointed. But Piepenbring's invaluable 44-page introduction serves up an outsider's view from the inside about the unorthodox ways in which the Purple One operated. In some ways, he handled his many employees and associates like fans — giving them just enough of what they needed to keep them hungry for more. (One funny story recalls how, at a label meeting, Prince announced that it was time for dinner and left the room. The record execs were thrilled — until they realized he was not coming back to get them.)
Beyond his showmanship on and offstage, what can be strongly gleaned from "The Beautiful Ones" is how, no matter how great the obstacle, Prince always found a way around or past it. His early childhood experiences with Visualization (before that was a “thing”) are a testament to that. He learned early on that by staying sharply focused, he could attain the transformation that led to his eventual stardom. What is most illuminating is how, despite his chaotic childhood and the shadows of racism over his life, he maintained a positive, progressive outlook, imagining a better life ahead. Imagining the person he wanted to be.
It makes sense that this story ends as Prince releases and promotes his debut album. This is when Prince Rogers Nelson became Prince. Stripping away all of that mystery might have ultimately proved unsatisfactory. Getting just enough of his personal perspective allows us to identify with his very human qualities. There was a very real man beneath the persona of the music god who dangled forbidden fruit before us.
Besides, the ultimate truth is this: Prince fans did not love him for who he was. They loved him for who he became.