Purple Reign review: the first word on Prince

Mick Wall has done his research for this biography, delivering a rounded portrait of the Paisley Park star, but it falls short of being a definitive account

Sat, Aug 20, 2016, 05:46


Book Title:
Prince: Purple Reign


Mick Wall

Orion Publishing

Guideline Price:

Prince married the singer and dancer Mayte Garcia on St Valentine’s Day in 1996. He said of their wedding night: “Mayte was still wearing her long white dress when I brought her into the bedroom and played her my new song.”

Eight months later the couple had a baby boy, who died within a week of being born, from Pfeiffer syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Days later Prince appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Asked about his new child, Prince replied “Our family exists” and showed Winfrey a photograph of the child’s playroom – never mentioning the fact that the couple had just buried their son.

Both stories, taken from this new biography of the singer, tell you perhaps all you need to know about the method and madness of one of the most gifted musicians of his generation. Such was his absorption in the music he constantly created that even on his wedding night he needed instant critical feedback. And such was how he interacted with the outside world that he would bend and shape the truth, no matter how banal or personally traumatic that truth was.

Mick Wall, the author of this biography, is better known for his books on heavy metal stars, but he was an early champion of Prince – and took a bit of beating from metal heads for putting Prince on the cover of the metal mag Kerrang! in the 1980s.

It’s unclear whether this biography was already under way at the time of the singer’s death, in April this year, or was turned around in three quick months. Although it is well researched and well written, with plenty of insightful material, the shock of Prince’s death, at the age of 57, leaks into the text.

Just as you can never really judge an album until it’s five years old, the real story of Prince’s life and death will have to wait until the dust settles and the secrets and lies are sifted out.

Wall is good on the early years of Prince Rogers Nelson, covering his traumatic childhood – bullied at school, called “Princess” by classmates – and his difficult child-of-divorced-parents upbringing. But when you come across a sentence, about Prince’s star sign, that reads, “Before you say you don’t believe in astrology, consider this: characteristically Geminis are extremely independent,” your confidence in the text begins to ebb.

Wall makes the interesting observation that, as a Minneapolitan, Prince grew up in a predominantly white city; he quotes him as saying, “The first time I saw a person of colour in a book, he was hanging from a tree. That was my introduction to African-American history and that set a fire in me to be free.”

But a few pages later we read that when, still a teenager, Prince signed a million-dollar recording contract with Warner Music, he insisted that the label not market him as a “black artist”. And that when he supported The Rolling Stones, early in his career, and the beered-up rock crowd booed him off the stage, he interpreted it as racist abuse. And that when he met his hero Miles Davis he realised that they were both colossally talented “un-cooperative black men in a white man’s world who frightened the hell out of straitlaced record companies”.

Any one of these stories could cue an examination of Prince’s complex views on race and identity. This was a man, after all, who wrote the historically loaded term “Slave” on his face during his long-running dispute with his record company.

If Prince can be understood only through the prisms of race, sex, God and music, then a lot more needs to be thrown at him. Wall covers all four subjects, but he should have made visible more of the connecting points.

What does come across well here is how absorbed Prince was in all aspects of his career. He would interrogate potential collaborators – he drove a scriptwriter on the film Purple Rain to the middle of nowhere, late at night, and left him fearing for his life as Prince cross-examines him – and discard, like one-night stands, any who did not display blind obedience.

Wall correctly pinpoints the underlying cause of all of Prince’s troubled relationships with the music industry as stemming from the fact that he when he wrote and recorded a song on a Tuesday he wanted it in the shops on Friday and didn’t want to wait for the three-year album-and-tour cycle to begin again.

Wall also includes a lovely quote from the singer about how, when he built his Paisley Park residence and studio complex in Minneapolis, he wanted to have it “as the kind of place you could invite God in to hang out a bit”. The story behind the singer’s decision to become a Jehovah’s Witness, in 2001, is handled very well here, as are his final days.

Prince’s personae, both public and private, are fleshed out well. Wall avoids the cliche of treating the singer as an eccentric or oddity, instead providing details of real events and real conversations and so showing a more rounded person than the one portrayed in the many profiles that appeared soon after the singer’s death.

What doesn’t help Wall’s case is that he doesn’t appear to have met Prince outside the confines of a press conference or a grip-and-grin photo opportunity.

This may be the publishing world’s first word on Prince, but it’s not the last word.

Brian Boyd writes about music for The Irish Times