- 23 Jan 20
Dan Piepenbring achieved any fan’s – or writer’s – dream by being chosen by Prince to work on his sadly unfinished memoir, The Beautiful Ones. “He really did have a way of making you believe you could do impossible things,” he tells Pat Carty.
There are many reasons to curse April 21, 2016, the day one of music’s very few undisputed geniuses passed away, but the knowledge that Prince was working on a book about his life with Dan Piepenbring of The Paris Review is a particularly bitter pill. This year it finally saw publication, and while it’s a book that many fans will cherish, there is, sadly, an air of what might have been about the whole affair – a fact that the author, to his credit, owns up to.
“It really started when I was 16,” Piepenbring says, remembering how he first fell under Prince’s spell. “I heard ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ on the radio. I was a drummer, so I had this vendetta against drum machines, but this song’s drum programming and the ethereal kind of eerie synthesisers, and Prince’s very haunting delicate gender-bending falsetto, really blew me away. By the end of college, I had just about his whole discography. I was really obsessed, I thought he was the greatest.”
For such a dyed in the wool fan, the prospect of working with his hero must have been daunting, but even when his agent put his name forward, Dan didn’t fancy his chances.
“I really didn’t, I thought the fact that I had never written a book would be disqualifying, as it would be for most potential collaborators. I had no track record, I was only 29 and I really had none of the qualifications that I assumed he would be looking for – someone from Minneapolis, someone who was black. I felt I wasn’t checking any of the boxes.”
Piepenbring was asked to submit a written statement of intent to Prince and it is this that he feels won his quarry over. “There was something in it that he did kind of vibrate with,” he reflects. “This idea that a memoir doesn’t have to be this kind of de-mystifying tell-all thing. I think he wanted to talk to someone who wouldn’t approach this with a template in mind and wasn’t going to turn it into something tawdry or salacious. That’s where it began and once we spoke, I think what made him inclined to keep me around was that I was a good listener. I was so in awe of him, especially at the beginning, that I made a conscious choice to try and speak as little as possible, to draw him out on whatever he wanted to say.”
A cynic might point to this sense of awe as one of the reasons Prince didn’t go for someone with more experience. Piepenbring is quick to agree, but he feels there’s more to it than that. “Of course I wondered about that – he was famously controlling. He liked to have the upper hand. So, even if only subconsciously, that must have informed his thinking. My less cynical side is inclined to say that he did enjoy working with young people and he was genuinely inspired by them. I don’t think he wanted to feel that he was washed up or confining himself in his thinking, and having so many young people around helped with that.”
There are a couple of incidents in the narrative where the singer appears to be testing the writer. At one point, Prince flew Piepenbring to Australia – 23 hours in the air to conduct a meeting that could have been done over the phone. Prince also invited the author to a Paisley Park dance party, only for the singer himself not to show.
“He just wanted to see what I was willing to do,” suggests Piepenbring, “and the extent to which I was willing to play to his rules, and let him set the tone, which of course I was entirely. By that point, that was his mode of dealing with everyone; it had to be on his terms. It did make me nervous of course, but to have him trust me to be the first reader of his memoir pages, to be presented with them handwritten on a legal pad – that was something so special, and something he would not have done with anyone he wasn’t comfortable with.”
There have been some great musical memoirs over the last couple of years. Prince does give him a bit of guff in the book, but Springsteen’s autobiography – as well as Dylan’s – must have been at least instructional. “I never discussed it with Prince, but my editor and I were both big fans of Dylan’s Chronicle, in terms of its candour,” Piepenbring half-agrees. “I don’t think Prince would ever write a book that was anything like that, but in terms of a book that does help one see Bob Dylan in a new way, I think it was valuable.”
Chaos And Disorder
Prince had some outlandish ideas for his memoir – it should end racism, and dismantle Ayn Rand’s paean to individualism, The Fountainhead. Intimidating requests for any writer, surely?
“Certainly they are out of the ordinary, but I was thrilled to hear him speaking so ambitiously, and almost riffing or improvising on what he thought the book could be. He really had such a reverence for the medium and he was almost giddy about what a book could do that a record couldn’t. He approached it with an almost limitless sense of what it could accomplish. Yeah, I did worry. What does a page of prose look like that tries to solve racism or attempt to function as a handbook and a story at the same time? But when you locked eyes with him, he really did have a way of making you believe you could do these impossible things.”
Piepenbring saw several Australian dates of Prince’s final Piano & A Microphone tour, which featured songs from throughout his career. It would appear at this remove that the tour and the book were all signs of Prince looking back. “Yeah, I think so,” Dan agrees. “The intimacy and the solitude and the stories that would seem to occur to him almost spontaneously on the stage. I think those went hand-in-hand with the memoir and he was really trying to excavate his past. An awareness of his own mortality was definitely a part of what lead him down that path. It was pretty eerie and special to go to those shows in Melbourne and see him discussing things that he and I had discussed, or I had read about in his hand just hours before.”
What Dan’s referring to here are the handwritten remembrances from Prince that form the central part of the book. They’re fascinating, but their brevity really makes you hunger for more.
“Of course, it absolutely does. There is always going to be a sense of loss and a sense of wonder at what could have been. It was a major struggle to figure out how to structure it, but if people get to the end and they’re unsatisfied with what’s there, I think that’s a very sensible and understandable reaction. To read those pages is to immediately want more.”
One wonders if Piepenbring, Prince’s estate and the publishers ever questioned whether the book should come out at all? “Yes, it came up and I think there was always a fear that we were moving forward with something that was too incomplete. It wasn’t until near the end that we all kind of agreed that we had enough, that we had a way of telling a story that wouldn’t feel like something slapped together with no real purpose. I remember going to Paisley Park with my editor and my publisher just after Prince died, and we were all very nervous, because we really didn’t think there was going to be a book. It was only when we realised how deep his own archive went that we began to think otherwise. It was a huge risk to undertake something like this with so few of his words to guide us.”
The Prince-written section of the book finds the artist looking back on his childhood: a time of fantasy, seizures and his parents’ heartbreaking divorce. Presumably Prince was using hindsight when he imagined his younger self with superpowers.
“I think he was recalling his childhood with a lot of fidelity,” Piepenbring argues. “Although it’s hard not to draw a line from the imagined life to the world that he constructed for himself at Paisley Park. I think so much of the wellspring of his creativity was in that solitude.”
He refers to his seizures as his brain over-heating – was there just too much going on in that head? “That might be my favourite part, where he’s finding that connection between a sort of overactive, over-fertile imagination and the suffering that came with it. That really rings true.”
It seems he loved his parents equally. Was their divorce particularly traumatic for him? “He brought it up again with me four days before he died and described it as one of the central dilemmas of his life. That was something he really did think about almost constantly. You see it in ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Purple Rain’.”
Based on what he himself says in the book, and the Prince that we all know and love, the armchair psychiatrist could pronounce Prince’s character as being an amalgamation of his mother’s sexuality and his father’s discipline. “Yeah, it’s all part of that same slumgullion of parental influence,” Piepenbring agrees. “His mother’s sexuality must have had a huge influence on his. He has said that she would lay out erotic magazines, Playboy and things like that, and just sort of hope that he would catch on.”
Prince does say he’d rather the Song Of Solomon – the LoveSexy of the Old Testament – than an R rated movie, although I suspect that’s hindsight and not how the teenage boy really felt. His father, John Lewis Nelson, was a serious jazz musician who used ‘Prince Rogers’ as a stage name. Prince describes the day he moved back in with his father, after the divorce, as the happiest of his life. “I think he revered his father’s approach to music and thought if he could stay close to him he would be able to draw from that same well,” says Piepenbring. “Look at him as a band leader and a performer – it’s almost always there. You can see the discipline of his father, he really expected perfection on stage.”
That’s the important thing, the music. Prince’s writing is at its best when the subject is Ohio Players, or Rufus & Chaka Khan, or his feelings about the funk. “It’s so wonderful, there’s almost a budding philosophy of music,” nods Dan. “Of course I wish there was more, but I really delight in those moments. Just to see Prince coming of age in this way, to see him listening to music with such joy.”
The Beautiful Ones is out now, published by Century.