Paperback of the Week
Prince Matt Thorne Faber and Faber, £18.99
There’s no doubt that Prince Rogers Nelson is one of the greatest musicians pop has produced, a guitar wizard with funked-up feet, a dirty mind and a rock’n’roll heart. He’s also a biographer’s nightmare, intensely private, giving away scant details about his life and maintaining a velvet wall between himself and the media (although he’s happy to let fans roam around his Paisley Park studios, in Minneapolis, and is likely to pop up onstage at your local nightclub and play long jam sessions within pint-spilling distance of his fans).
Matt Thorne, a lifelong fan of the Purple One, has chosen the musical route into the mind of the 1980s star who for a period of time called himself the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Thorne doesn’t manage to uncover the man behind the music, but he does give a comprehensive overview of his prodigious output.
Prince brought a new level of sexual innuendo to pop, and he bedded many a model, singer and starlet, but if you’re looking for a parade of sexual conquests and notched bedposts, this book is the wrong place. It is all about the music, from Prince’s beginnings as a shy but talented teenager growing up in Minneapolis to his blossoming into one of the biggest stars of the 1980s, his subsequent retreat from the music business (following a protracted row with his record label, Warner Bros) and his muddled – sometimes inspired, sometimes mediocre – output from the late 1990s onwards.
Thorne takes us through Prince’s ever-changing musical moods, track by track, giving us an insight into his influences (everyone from James Brown to Todd Rundgren to Joni Mitchell), lyrical obsessions (mostly sex) and mentoring of fellow musicians, including Morris Day, Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman and Sheila E.
As if the endless hours of studio recordings, alternate versions, bootlegs and outtakes in existence are not enough, Thorne waxes enthusiastically about “the Vault”, a semimythical trove of unreleased material stored at Paisley Park. It is plainly Thorne’s dream to see this repository released before he dies. For those of us ambivalent about Prince’s music, it’s a case of life’s being too short.
Thorne is also too fervent about Prince’s excursions into acting, ignoring the plainly visible faults of his three feature films, Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge. Though Purple Rain had a cracking soundtrack, these were mediocre vanity projects that highlighted how far Prince would go to promote himself, but Thorne sees them as cinema classics.
Behind all the music, there were personal upheavals for Prince. In 1996, he and his wife, Mayte, suffered the loss of their week-old baby, who was born with Pfeiffer syndrome. Here, the tragedy is treated as an aside to explain a lyric in one of Prince’s songs. It’s these small glimpses into Prince the person and not the funk machine that make you wonder how much better this book would have been if Thorne had reined in his record collector’s instincts and delved deeper into his subject’s soul.