Prince Rogers Nelson’s public persona was defined by the irony of him not being a particularly public person. So as opposed to artists such as Michael Jackson,George Clinton and Stevie Wonder whose histories was more of an open book? Prince was someone who required some outsider figure to try to understand him. So literature on the man was paramount as I was getting into his music. Authors such as Per Nilsen,Jason Draper and the Daily Mail’s somewhat controversial Liz Jones were helpful in terms of writing the Prince literature that I’ve personally been exposed to.
With the reference material from my Amazon.com reviews on these Prince related publications,this article will attempt to provide an insight into the information I was taking in about Prince while just digging into his music. Most of you fellow Prince admirers out there probably had similar experiences. And I’d enjoy hearing about them in the comment section of this article. They three books are being illustrated here in order of release in order to point out the progression of what impact their content had on my interest in Prince. So please enjoy this literary musical experience!
Purple Reign: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince by Liz Jones (April 1998)
Prince is a notoriously difficult biographical subject. Most things said about him are second hand accounts of one sort or another and what does come from the source tends to be cryptic and open to much interpretation. He makes himself into such a mystery and as much as she tries writer Liz Jones isn’t able to go much further than that in writing this. There are some obvious contradictions that do get played up here,the most obvious being that Prince didn’t listen to R&B growing up: he most certainly did by most accounts.
Basically we start after Prince and than wife Mayte Garcia lost their only child to a birth defect,goes back to Prince’s beginnings and right back to square one again. There are plenty of interesting musical analyzations along the way and they make up the best part of this particular book. One thing almost every account tends to point out is Prince being a workaholic control freak,often obsessed with perfecting his musical art and often recording mounds of music only to can most of it in his massive vaults.
There’s also some troubling notes regarding his extreme rudeness to fans on occasion and even outright hostility towards others,notably musicians he seems to feel threatened by. His moodiness would seem to indicate he wheres his astrological sign of Gemini on his sleeve as his attitude seems to know little predictability. Again though these don’t come from Prince himself. What you do get here from his own mouth paint the picture of another character.
It’s that of an aloof,complex and reflective man who has yet to discover who he is personally and developed his persona largely as a method of coping with sensitivity over mistreatment in his life. It’s a similar psychological makeup to another talented musical icon Prince greatly admired;Miles Davis. The book doesn’t go too in depth to Prince’s somewhat baffling name change to O(-> during the mid 90’s and his confusing record company hassles. Again most of this comes from different outside accounts.
There’s a lot of healthy discussion here regarding the long gestating making of his debut motion picture Purple Rain and all the twists and turns,cast and script changes it went through during it’s conception. This helps to explain why 1983 was the one single year of the 1980’s that Prince didn’t release an album of his own. Even though a lot of the book tries to make some sense of his life it actually ends up asking more questions than it answers and that’s what makes this book so interesting. Even so there has yet to be a definitive and thoroughly truthful biography of Prince.
Prince-A Documentary by Per Nilsen (Published on July 1st,1998)
After reading Michael Jackson: Visual Documentary the sight of this similarly themed, large format paperback led me to immediately snag it up. Not only are different writers involved here but the style of the books couldn’t differ more. Adrian Grant presented MJ’s life in a detailed textbook like context based on names,places and events on a fairly strict timeline. Considering the public persona of his subject that was really the only approach Adrian could take in that regard. Prince was always a more complex figure.
As a man possessed of a very elaborate personality and who is still something of a one man music industry a half an inch thick book like this covering his life and career up until 1992 even would seem highly intimidating for any writer. This book has a lot of pictures but is a more analytical and scholarly approach to it’s writing. This book has far more literary content as not only does it present reviews of Prince’s albums but those he was involved in-not to mention reviewing all his feature films.
There’s also a great deal of his known biography involved in the story. The book starts off with a description of the twin cities as Prince grew up in them,even down to a small map of the area along with,as in the rest of the book direct quotations from the man himself taken from various interviews about his life and career. This actually has one of the best presentations of Prince’s pre-recording music career than much before it as it describes a lot of his school life and how he became interested in music-along with insight into the possible nature of his sometimes explicit lyrics.
There is also extensive information on Prince’s many concert tours,often describing the experiences of each one to the extent you might believe you’ve been to one. If your not aware of all the music he produced outside himself from lesser known spin-off acts such as Mazaratti,The Family and Prince’s legendary Madhouse projects. I suppose some of the musical criticism is,as criticism is by some definition slightly bias but is generally fair and I agree with a great deal of it mainly because it sticks to obvious facts rather than blanket judgment calls.
It would be wonderful if this volume would be re-written today with updates about his 90’s career and 21’st century commercial comeback-along with the newer spin off acts he continues to create. But as it stands this book has always impressed me and I find myself going back to it again and again.
Prince: Life & Times by Jason Draper (September 1st,2008)
Well it’s certainly true that Prince is one of the most enigmatic subjects for biography. The trouble is he’s also one of the most elusive. Truths about his life seem to contradict each other as much as the lies and with all the books written about him in the past he genuinely does seem like one of the worlds most unknowable celebrities,both musical and personally. This enormous coffee table book is a wonderfully presented volume,featuring a colorfully present volume containing hundreds of rare and unseen photos,both in black & white and color of Prince,his proteges and almost everyone else in his circle.
For the more casual reader this book surpasses both Purple Reign: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince in terms of a more fully balanced viewpoint and Prince: A Documentary in terms of not presenting too many musical technicalities and surpasses both in terms of it’s scope. Both of those overall wonderful books were written in the mid 90’s and before many of the events in Prince’s life and career. This album ends roughly during the 21 Nights period and therefore extends all the way up to the circumstances revolving around the release of his Planet Earth album.
In this volume there’s a lot of biographic facts most of us are already familiar with along with an in depth discography presented including,happily a lot of Prince’s somewhat obscure online only releases such as ‘Xpectation’,’C-Note’,’Slaugterhouse’ and ‘The Chocolate Invasion’. One of the big selling points of this book is also how is very casually looks to reconcile Prince’s sometimes obscure career choices with his personal life and how they often wind up joining around the middle.
His spiritual journey and now well known legal battle with Warner Bros in the mid 90’s are explained well and in frank and honest enough terms for most readers to understand as well as also being analytical enough to appeal to those who enjoy digging deep. The writers present very personalized reviews of each of his albums,no matter how obscure. And while their self assurances about their opinions is not my personal cup of tea the reviews make a lot of valid points on all ends,even if people won’t always agree with them.
This book is especially detailed on the period between 1993 and around 2004 which,even for people such as myself who happily put up with Prince’s publicity moves,started to totally lose his intentions. Considering that “the internet is over” for Prince, to coin his own phrase this book would be interesting to revisit a decade from now with an addendum since I believe the game is certainly not over for The Artist Always Known As Complex.
Now that Prince is no longer with us,there exists the possibility of his life becoming literarily unraveled. Perhaps in a way he’d have found totally undesirable in life. Currently there awaits Prince’s personal memoirs,set to be released this fall. Suppose there’s one key question when it comes to any Prince related literature. Just how important is knowing the man and his motivations in terms of appreciating his musical art? I don’t personally have the answer. That leaves it up to each and every one of us to make that choice for ourselves-based on our experiences with the late master of Purple Funk.