The set-up reads like the opening of your standard pop biopic. In early 2016, Prince Rogers Nelson, one of the most innovative and influential musical artists of the last 40 years, selected a relatively unproven writer (and at the time, an unpublished author) to co-write his memoir The Beautiful Ones.
That writer, Dan Piepenbring, an advisory editor at The Paris Review, was granted a series of one-on-one meetings with Prince, as well as access to his unpublished writings. Several months into the project, following a brief period of illness, Prince died suddenly of an accidental drug overdose. Piepenbring found himself the curator of an unfinished work.
The Beautiful Ones is published this month. Prefaced by a fascinating essay outlining Piepenbring’s days in the Paisley Park inner sanctum, and including Prince’s own autobiographical recollections, personal photographs, handwritten lyrics and other curios (such as an early treatment for the Purple Rain movie), it’s a beautifully produced but by nature incomplete artefact.
Prince had grand plans for the book. In the wake of his death, Piepenbring’s job was to salvage whatever he could from the archives. On the eve of publication, he still hasn’t quite processed the entire experience.
“The more distance I get from it, the more dreamlike it becomes,” he says. “It’s been 3½ years since I had this very brief three-month period where I was only getting to know him, then he died. It’s been so strange to reckon with it.”
One thing that becomes clear while reading the author’s account of his days inside Paisley Park is that Prince had an overriding need to stage-manage any given situation, from a private meeting to a press conference.
“I don’t know what made him so eager to control,” Piepenbring considers.
“Maybe it had something to do with feeling loss of control in his family life from a young age, feeling like he didn’t really have any say over where he was going to live, or who was going to raise him. Or maybe that’s his father you’re seeing in him, the more disciplinarian side.
“He talked about that a lot, he felt a tremendous part of his psychology came from both of his parents, and the part that came from his father was the taskmaster, the one that was punctual, with very strict ideas about how to live well and work hard, so maybe the need to assert control comes from there. It does seem like people who were close to him tended to be working with or for him in some capacity, but I don’t really know why that is.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one learns more about Prince from Piepenbring’s fly-on-the-wall reportage than from the subject’s own writings: small but significant details about what it’s like to sit next to him at a concert, or observations about his driving etiquette.
“Yeah, I felt that the only thing I could write, without having him around to express approval or disapproval, would be the frankest, most accurate depiction of our time together. I think of him driving me back to the hotel, or arranging to see Kung Fu Panda 3 in the theatre. Moments like that where I can imagine him flicking on the turn signal or something, they’re like a bucket of cold water on my face, they remind me that it really happened because of how banal they are.
“Going out to Paisley Park with my editor and my agent and my publisher after Prince died, I think we were all kind of awed by the task before us, and also unsettled. We were very reluctant to accept that there could be a book unless Prince had left enough behind to marshal some kind of narrative that would do justice to his intentions, as diverse as they were.
I don't feel the wiser about any aspect of this. I think it's very dangerous to finish a project like this and to arrive at any sense of certainty
“It took us days of roaming the place and feeling his absence in that world, discovering everything that he’d left behind, to see that there probably was a way forward, but it was going to be oblique and messy and would require constant vigilance to make sure that we weren’t wandering into something salacious or something kind of generic.”
How did Prince react to Piepenbring’s notes on his prose?
“He was very receptive to them actually. I think a lot about how he said, when he announced the book, that I wasn’t a yes-man, and at that time I was pretty shocked to hear it, because I felt like I had been very much a yes-man. But whenever I would push back a little bit, or tell him that I wanted more detail on something, or just have a very basic question about what he meant by a certain word, or why he wanted to gloss over something, he was very receptive. I think he was just so excited to be talking with someone he didn’t already know about these very intimate pages he had written, and he wanted to make them the best they could be.”
What may surprise the casual reader is that Prince in his latter days had become quite prudish. In the book, Piepenbring describes a club scene in which a DJ cues Prince’s song Head, only for the singer to order him to turn it off. This from a man whose music and persona were once synonymous with polymorphous perversity.
“Yeah, there’s this fascinating moment in his contractual negotiations for the book where he wants to reserve the right to remove it from shelves at any time, for any reason, should it no longer reflect who he is. I think that speaks to exactly the dichotomy you’ve just pointed out. I’m sure if he were to get into a time machine and go back to 1980 and confront his former self in some scuzzy home studio laying down the tracks for Dirty Mind, and say that this isn’t going to fly in another few decades, and I’m gonna demand that you turn the songs off if anyone plays them, I think his younger self would have been flabbergasted, absolutely apoplectic.”
And yet Prince maintained an innate sense of mischief even in his business negotiations. He never seemed to accept the traditional model of how things are done.
“I love that mischief. When he got his three-album deal with Warner Brothers, rather than give a talk or a speech for the record executives at this luncheon made to celebrate his signing, he just wanted this very cheeky song called Me And WB to be played, and it ends with a nuclear bomb going off. That’s when he was not even 20 yet. And of course in the ’90s you have him going out with ‘slave’ on his face, you’ve got him knocking on doors as a Jehovah’s Witness, and with this book he’s making sure that he has the right to basically pretend that it never existed at any time. He’s always shapeshifting.”
Sense of certainty
More than three years later, is Piepenbring any wiser as to why Prince chose him to do the job?
“I don’t feel the wiser about any aspect of this. I think it’s very dangerous to finish a project like this and to arrive at any sense of certainty, or to believe that I’ve accomplished something that no one else could accomplish. I’m very proud of the book. I think, as best it can, it does justice to the many different iterations of it that he envisioned, but I’m still flummoxed, frankly. There are so many brilliant writers out there, so why did he choose me? I don’t know. I think about our first conversation, and I really do think that there came a moment when he was just enjoying the talk, and as long as I had conversations with him that he enjoyed, that’s all that was necessary.”
Did he have any idea that Prince was ill at the time of their last meetings?
“No, and I feel so naive about that in retrospect. There’s a way that fame can be a brilliant hiding place for people in pain, I think. The idiosyncrasies of fame afford a kind of cloak. And of course he was so intensely private, so skilful at managing how he appeared to people, even in one-on-one conversations, that I got no sense of someone who was ill or who was struggling at all. He seemed so lucid and so strong. I mean, not physically strong, but someone who was in full possession of his faculties, and still burning with ambition.
“That’s the thing I remember most. He said he wanted to write a number of books, and I really think he meant that, and given the fluidity of his prose and how quickly it came out of him, I think he could have done it.”
The Beautiful Ones is published by Penguin Random House in partnership with the Prince Estate