Prince’s Memoir Isn’t Really Prince’s Memoir

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.

Prince performing onstage.
Prince performing onstage in Chicago during the Purple Rain Tour, on Nov. 11, 1984. Mike Maloney/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Dearly beloved, we R gathered here today 2 get through this thing called life—or rather, 2 browse through this thing called a book about Prince’s life, The Beautiful Ones. But I’m here 2 tell U (and 4give me, I’ll quit it with the Princeoglyphics now) that it’d be false to say the book actually represents the Artist’s memoirs, pieced together after his maddening death in April 2016, at age 57, due to apparently misprescribed painkillers. The great (perhaps greatest) late-20th-century songwriter, live performer, funk-pop-rock synthesist, and cultural trickster had begun that effort a few months earlier with Dan Piepenbring as co-writer, then a Paris Review editor in his late 20s who’d never written a book before. (Prince seems to have preferred a willing disciple to a more seasoned potential rival.) But what got completed on that project amounts to fewer than 20 full printed pages in Prince’s own words here, out of a total 280. They are accompanied by reproductions of Prince’s handwritten draft of the same text, in dense, hard-to-decipher script. Yes, they’re written with eyes for I’s and numbers for prepositions. They’re also substantially enhanced by passages in the margins from Prince’s conversations with Piepenbring (here credited as editor) about how the two might have expanded on the themes in the future, if that future had ever come.

Since it tragically didn’t, it’s a serious question whether this handsome volume should exist at all. But first, what is in the section that Prince did write? Primarily, he describes growing up in 1960s and 1970s Minneapolis. He admits to the failure of his first public performance, when he took to the grade school talent-show stage to tap-dance, at great length, with no training, and not even any background music. A schoolmate scolded him afterward that black people weren’t supposed to tap-dance anymore. He also talks about his first kisses (playing house with a little girl who had a flair for domestic drama), the impact of his unusual given name, and (at quite some length) the personalities and physiques of various high school girlfriends. He recalls his early reveries about having superpowers, involving “Hidden Places, Secret Abilities. A part of oneself that is never shown”—which he then calls “the main ingredients of a good song.” It’s a formula that makes something better than sense. In one of Piepenberg’s addenda, Prince also discusses musical “alphas,” giving the examples of himself, Michael Jackson, and Beyoncé, and why it’s sometimes better for artists to be less than democratic in their leadership approach.

Most of all, he talks about his parents, two other alphas who couldn’t share space easily. He begins with “my mother’s eyes” and “my father’s piano,” the two earliest influences he credits with opening up his senses and his imagination. He waxes about how beautiful they were when they dressed up to go out, which is easy to interpret as the stirrings of his unforgettable fashion sense. But mainly he unpacks the truth behind the lines about his family in “When Doves Cry,” about his “too demanding … too bold” father and his “never satisfied” mother. He is affectionate but judgmental toward what he seems to see as his mom’s undisciplined hedonism (a quality abundantly manifest in the young bawdy Prince of the 1980s) and much more admiring toward his dad’s religious sternness, self-reliance, and work ethic (traits that came to dominate Prince’s later persona). John Nelson was a factory worker by day who dubbed himself Prince Rogers for the purposes of his nightclub gigs on jazz piano, and across some emotional distance, it was music that eventually bonded the two Princes.

What the autobiographer’s account here seems to play down is how deeply destabilizing his parents’ divorce would be. He’s more matter-of-fact than seems plausible about moving out to live with his father when his mother remarried a man he didn’t like, then before long being sent off to live with an aunt and for some stretches with friends (including some later bandmates). All these upheavals sent him to different neighborhoods in the city, across the class and race spectrum, which might have helped condition his adult fluidity in crossing social boundaries (“Am I black or white/ Am I straight or gay?”). But it also seems like such uprootings might have contributed to his permanent aura of loneliness. All we get here are hints. Then the notes are over.

What follows are a couple hundred pages of previously unseen flotsam—photos, drafts of lyrics, notes on the Purple Rain screenplay, a storyboard for a video, etc.—salvaged posthumously from the somewhat disorganized archives at Prince’s Paisley Park compound, accompanied by some quotations from press interviews over the years. All of this material is charming, often hilarious (it includes Prince’s high school cartoons and his sarcastic captions to a photo album he made while recording his first album in 1977 and ’78), and occasionally fascinating. Perhaps most striking is the Purple Rain treatment, where we find a much younger Prince again writing at length about his upbringing, this time in the guise of the backstory for the movie’s fictionalized protagonist, who was at this stage called Prince instead of the Kid. While it’s obviously exaggerated—instead of a divorce, he has the parents’ relationship end in a murder-suicide—the way he writes there about the mother’s drinking, the father’s fits of domestic violence, and the emotional trauma they inflict on their child feels like it adds something, at least in feeling and likely in fact, that’s missing from the middle-aged Prince’s more guarded and perhaps sentimentalized account. How much so, I suppose now we’ll never know.

As a whole, the supplementary material might be more satisfying if Piepenbring’s thoughtful explanations of each artifact’s origins (who’s in the photos, etc.) weren’t shoved into the back of book as endnotes and keyed to page numbers that don’t appear on the actual pages. But perhaps that’s a kind of strategy to preserve some mystique, an element Prince and Piepenbring discussed early in their acquaintance—the factor that made it odd to hear he was writing a memoir in the first place, and renders it sadly fitting that in the end he really didn’t.

The whole package is also preceded by a more-than-40-page introductory essay by Piepenbring about how the project evolved, from his mysterious first summons from New York to Paisley Park, through several months of intermittent further meetings, to after his subject’s demise. The essay is understandably a bit starstruck, and in turn it becomes overly absorbed in the author’s experience of his brush with stardom, but mostly it’s just squarely dutiful, perhaps inevitably under the circumstances. It comes to life when Prince is actively present, swathed in silks, calling in the middle of the night, or cupping his hand over Piepenbring’s ear to shout ideas in noisy clubs in Australia, or brainstorming hypercreatively (and hyperbolically) about how the book might meld his and his white amanuensis’s voices—could it be by using his childhood epileptic seizures as a literal “blackout” device?—and, who knows, maybe end racism.

By the final 10 or 15 pages of setup, my eyeballs were ready to burst their sockets with impatience to get to these pages of Prince’s writing that Piepenbring kept teasing. But the introduction is necessary (though the bulk of it was already published in the New Yorker in September) and often illuminating. It’s particularly vivid on the continuum Prince saw between his art and his business. How a project would be released and promoted had been part of his imagination since he was a teen. But he also strongly believed that black artists having ownership and control over their work was a matter of racial justice. It had been on his mind from his very first record deal (though then he only conceived it in terms of creative autonomy) through the yearslong battle with Warner Bros. in the 1990s that led to him famously changing his name to an androgynous glyph and scrawling “SLAVE” on his cheek in public appearances, and later during his disputes over streaming and other online matters. He planned to write at length about the industry and intellectual property in the book (or maybe several books, he mused), but first he would have to negotiate a book contract that also fit those imperatives. Which was part of what delayed him and Piepenbring from making further progress before he died.

In that light it’s impossible to leaf through what amounts mostly to a very fine scrapbook without feeling haunted by how far away it is from the format-busting reinvention of the memoir that the would-be co-authors fantasized about. And worse, without feeling disturbed by whether it represents, despite its best intentions, a collection of mostly white publishing people ending up in control of part of this black artist’s legacy. I believe that Piepenbring and Spiegel & Grau have tried never to put words in Prince’s mouth nor act contrary to his wishes. However, my spirit truly sank when Piepenbring described his trip into the Paisley Park archives being supervised by staff from Bremer Trust, the Minnesota banking company that was first appointed by the courts to oversee Prince’s estate until the mess of other claims were settled. Which they still aren’t. So it’s currently impossible to point to the rightful custodians of his work, and it’s wrenching, given what we know about Prince’s feelings about that.

So should fans buy and read The Beautiful Ones? I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the chance to examine the draft lyric page on which Prince originally started the first line of “1999” as “I was tripping when I wrote this” instead of “I was dreaming when I wrote this.” Or the photos that he captioned “Before and after the operation,” which is one normal picture of 18-year-old Prince and another one of 18-year-old Prince grinning like a fool in a false Groucho Marx nose with glasses and moustache. And the scant memoir pages are touching and offbeat and make him seem less gone from us, less out of reach. But Prince really isn’t the author of this book that bears his name. And I can’t help wondering if it would make him declare that there are thieves in the temple.

The Beautiful Ones

By Prince. Penguin Random House