In January 2016, Prince flew writer Dan Piepenbring out to Paisley Park, his office park-like compound in suburban Minnesota. Prince had decided to write a memoir and was auditioning potential co-writers. Piepenbring, a young editor at the august literary journal the Paris Review, and a lifelong fan, had made the short list.
An abbreviated courtship process followed with Prince doing the courting. There were late night phone calls and invitations to join his Australian tour, and a private screening of “Kung Fu Panda 3.” Prince was cheerful and inquisitive, and occasionally frosty when one of Piepenbring’s answers displeased him. Piepenbring was awkward and nervous.
He soon got the job.
Prince had already settled on a title, “The Beautiful Ones,” named for an iconic song from “Purple Rain.” He wanted to write the biggest music book in the world, one that would serve as a how-to guide for creatives, a primer on African American entrepreneurship and “a handbook for the brilliant community,” he told Piepenbring, “wrapped in autobiography, wrapped in biography.” He hoped the book would solve racism.
Prince began work on the book’s early chapters, eventually turning almost 30 handwritten pages over to Piepenbring. They last spoke on April 17, days after the singer collapsed on his private plane, an incident his representatives blamed on the flu. Prince called his co-writer to reassure him he was fine. “I had flu-like symptoms,” he told Piepenbring, who would later wonder at the singer’s careful choice of words. Prince would die four days later, the victim of an accidental fentanyl overdose.
Prince had not written enough material to fashion a conventional memoir, and Piepenbring returned to Paisley Park the summer after the singer’s death in search of supplementary material from the vaults. He pored over Prince’s personal archives looking for anything that would bring him to life, for “things that communicated some intimacy,” Piepenbring says. Those unearthed pieces, including Prince’s handwritten song lyrics, photos captioned by the singer, personal mementos and an early treatment of the “Purple Rain” script, serve as the book’s heavy, heartbreaking center of gravity.
“The Beautiful Ones” is a curious, fantastically moving hybrid of scrapbook and fragmented memoir, bookended by Piepenbring’s recollections about working on the project before and after Prince’s death. That it exists at all is remarkable. Prince’s carefully tended air of mystery had served as a force field, repelling any serious attempts at biography during his lifetime. During his later years, journalists were not even allowed to record interviews or take notes and could only ask him about his present day life. “I don’t really do biographies,” he told writer Mick Brown in 2004. “I don’t want to talk about the past.”
A memoir, Piepenbring writes in his introduction, might have enhanced the singer’s sphinx-like persona. “The right book could add new layers to his mystery, Prince thought, even as it stripped others away.” Prince did not necessarily want to be understood, merely misunderstood in a new way, a desire that would seem to be fundamentally at odds with the business of memoir writing.
But the chapters written by Prince, with his familiar abbreviations faithfully replicated (“2” for “to” and “Y” for “why”), are appealing and frank explorations of his childhood and high school romances and his parents’ troubled marriage and divorce.
Prince’s father, whom he revered, worked at the Honeywell plant by day and played piano in Minneapolis clubs at night; “Prince” was his stage name. He “loved the Bible & had a keen sense of morality & class,” Prince writes.
His mother, unsmiling in almost every picture reproduced here, had a wild side and a stubborn streak and clashed frequently with his father. “She basically wanted 2 run the household not Him,” Prince writes. “Being the only male in the house with Her, I understood Y he left.” (Prince, as “The Beautiful Ones” makes clear throughout, seems to have loved women more than he liked them.)
His first kiss was instigated by a fellow grade schooler who “looked like Elizabeth Taylor, but little.” He prized mystery from an early age, writing of one romantic encounter: “(I) met her in total darkness at a house party just like my favorite scene from the movie ‘About Time’ with Rachel McAdams.” Though precociously carnal, he was prematurely prim; even as a teenager, he disapproved of cursing, especially when women did it.
Prince’s chapters end in his adolescence. The book uses photos and memorabilia (contact sheets, rare promotional photos, the lyrics to “Little Red Corvette,” handwritten in red ink) to trace the singer’s path to “Purple Rain” and effectively picks up again as he and Piepenbring meet at Paisley Park. Piepenbring and Prince only collaborated for three months, most of that time working separately.
Piepenbring knew nothing of Prince’s struggles with opioids, though the singer did disappear for long periods without warning and often looked tired. But his minute observations of Prince at home in his compound, in the waning days of his life, contribute almost as much to our understanding of what Prince was really like as his own writings do. Piepenbring finds Prince in the margins: He loved Stephen Colbert and disliked Ayn Rand, Piepenbring writes. The idea of Bruce Springsteen confused him. He was a careful driver. His skin was perfect. His least favorite word was “magic,” because that was Michael Jackson’s word.
“The Beautiful Ones” does not offer a clear-eyed view of who Prince really was — he would have hated that, but it illuminates more than it conceals.