The Beautiful Ones, a memoir by Prince, will be published on Oct. 29. Unfortunately, the book was hardly begun when Prince died in April 2016. An article just published in The New Yorker, written by Prince’s literary collaborator Dan Piepenbring, reveals that the book would have been truly extraordinary — and that even the few dozen pages penned before Prince’s death will be a major addition to our understanding of one of the towering figures of American popular music.
The article, which may be an adaptation or excerpt from Piepenbring’s introduction to the book, details conversations that Piepenbring and Prince had about the book at Paisley Park, in Australia, and in New York. Everything described in the article transpired in 2016, starting with a Piepenbring visit to Minnesota in late January and continuing through a phone conversation in April, just days before Prince was found dead from an accidental painkiller overdose.
The article is an essential read for any Prince fan, but here are a few of the biggest takeaways.
Prince had an epic vision for his book
Although The Beautiful Ones would have been full of personal details about Prince’s life and work, he didn’t want to write just another memoir. It was important to him that the book use his experience to illustrate broader truths involving race, music, creativity, and business. Race in particular was a central element of the story, and Piepenbring writes that Prince had reservations about collaborating with a white man who hadn’t experienced racism personally. In the end, though, Prince came to believe that the writer — only 29 when he met Prince — could bring the artist’s vision to fruition.
We’ll never know exactly what form the final book would have taken, but Prince was considering framing it as a book of lessons, perhaps having his voice separate from Piepenbring’s, at least initially. He liked the fact that Piepenbring hadn’t authored a book, and thus would presumably be open to new approaches. The book that will be published next month will include the material Prince penned for The Beautiful Ones as well as a range of other writing and photographs including Prince’s original story treatment for the semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain.
Prince was as skeptical of publishers as he was of record labels
One thing Piepenbring pointed out that impressed Prince, the former man writes, is that “the approach to intellectual property that he abhorred in record labels had its origins in the publishing industry.” Before signing with Random House, Prince negotiated a range of conditions including a buyout clause that would allow him to pay the publisher a certain amount of money to pull the book out of print permanently “should he ever feel that it no longer reflected who he was.”
He floated the idea of publishing the book without a contract (that wasn’t going to happen, said the publisher), and was concerned that Piepenbring get paid as well. “Questions of money,” writes Piepenbring, “usually considered crass, had an air of scrappy anti-corporate camaraderie in Prince’s world.”
Prince was opening up about his earliest years
Many fans at Prince’s Piano & a Microphone shows noticed the artist was being newly vulnerable, uncommonly reflective about his parents and musical influences. Piepenbring reveals that was also true of what Prince was writing for his book. The pages he wrote begin with his first memory, his mother winking at him. “I stayed in Minneapolis because Minneapolis made me,” Prince told Piepenbring.
The article excerpts a passage about Prince going to see the Woodstock concert documentary with his father. “Eye remember already standing by the car waiting 4 him, crazy with anticipation,” Prince wrote in his distinctive style. “My father & Eye had R lives changed that night. The bond we cemented that very night let me know that there would always b someone in my corner when it came 2 my passion.”
Ultimately, though, the book would have gone well beyond Prince’s childhood. The artist seems to have been thinking about Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop” with whom Prince had a sometimes thorny relationship during their mutual ’80s heyday. Prince told Piepenbring he didn’t want the word “magic” applied to his music: “‘Magic’ is Michael’s word.” When “Bad” came on at the afterparty for Prince’s book-announcement show, he mentioned he’d be writing about the Jackson-Prince collaboration that never happened. “There are gonna be some bombshells in this thing.”
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