Prince had grand plans for his autobiography, but only a few months to live.
On January 29, 2016, Prince summoned me to his home, Paisley Park, to tell me about a book he wanted to write. He was looking for a collaborator. Paisley Park is in Chanhassen, Minnesota, about forty minutes southwest of Minneapolis. Prince treasured the privacy it afforded him. He once said, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, that Minnesota is “so cold it keeps the bad people out.” Sure enough, when I landed, there was an entrenched layer of snow on the ground, and hardly anyone in sight.
Prince’s driver, Kim Pratt, picked me up at the airport in a black Cadillac Escalade. She was wearing a plastic diamond the size of a Ring Pop on her finger. “Sometimes you gotta femme it up,” she said. She dropped me off at the Country Inn & Suites, an unremarkable chain hotel in Chanhassen that served as a de-facto substation for Paisley. I was “on call” until further notice. A member of Prince’s team later told me that, over the years, Prince had paid for enough rooms there to have bought the place four times over.
My agent had put me up for the job but hadn’t refrained from telling me the obvious: at twenty-nine, I was extremely unlikely to get it. In my hotel room, I turned the television on. I turned the television off. I had a mint tea. I felt that I was joining a long and august line of people who’d been made to wait by Prince, people who had sat in rooms in this same hotel, maybe in this very room, quietly freaking out just as I was quietly freaking out.
A few weeks earlier, Prince had hosted editors from three publishing houses at Paisley, and declared his intention to write a memoir called “The Beautiful Ones,” after one of the most naked, aching songs in his catalogue. For as far back as he could remember, he told the group, he’d written music to imagine—and reimagine—himself. Being an artist was a constant evolution. Early on, he’d recognized the inherent mystery of this process. “ ‘Mystery’ is a word for a reason,” he’d said. “It has a purpose.” The right book would add new layers to his mystery even as it stripped others away. He offered only one formal guideline: it had to be the biggest music book of all time.
On January 19th, Prince chose an editor—Chris Jackson, of Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Penguin Random House—and started the search for a co-writer. A few days later, he put on his first-ever show without a band, “Piano & a Microphone,” at a soundstage at Paisley. He’d pared down his songs to their essential components and reinvented them on the fly. He’d been practicing there into the night, playing alone for hours on end, his piano filling the vast darkness until he found something that he described, to Alexis Petridis, of the Guardian, as “transcendence.” In a recording of the concert, which I watched a year later, Prince shared some of his earliest musical memories with the audience. His mother, Mattie Della Shaw Baker, was a jazz singer; his father, John Lewis Nelson, who went by Prince Rogers, was a musician and a songwriter. “I thought I would never be able to play like my dad, and he never missed an opportunity to remind me of that,” Prince said. “But we got along good. He was my best friend.”
I later learned from an aide that Prince was in the habit of reading the reviews of his shows that fans tweeted or posted on their blogs. These were the people he felt deserved the collaborator job, not the high-profile candidates floated by the publisher. He’d inspired them to write, he said, and they might inspire him, too. He wanted an improvisation partner, someone he could open up to and with whom he could arrange his story the way he would a song or an album. Of course, publishers would balk at the idea of hiring someone entirely untested. In a spirit of compromise, he accepted two names from a list of candidates that Jackson and the literary agency I.C.M. had provided for him, mine being one of them. The other writer and I were the only ones who’d never published a book. Prince’s team sent us an assignment: we were to submit personal statements to Prince about our relationship to his music and why we thought we could do the job. I submitted mine at eight-thirty that same night. To call it heavy on flattery would be an understatement, and I regretted it almost immediately. But the response from Prince’s camp came at two-twenty-three the next morning, and within a day I was on a plane to Minneapolis.
Around 6 p.m., Pratt texted to say that she was picking me up from the hotel. P, as many people in the Paisleysphere called him, was ready to see me. The sun had set, and Paisley—a vast network of squat buildings, including three recording studios, panelled in white aluminum like an office park—was illuminated by purple sconces. “He’s really sweet. You’ll see,” Pratt said. “Actually, looks like you’ll see now—that’s him.” Prince was standing alone at the front door.
“Dan. Nice to meet you,” he said, as I approached. “I’m Prince.” His voice was calm, and lower than I’d expected.
In the foyer, the lights were dim, and the silence was broken only by cooing doves—live ones, in a cage on the second floor. Scented candles flickered from the corners. Prince was wearing a loose-fitting top in a heathered sienna, with matching pants, a green vest, and a pair of beaded necklaces. His Afro was concealed beneath an olive-green knit hat. His sneakers, white platforms with light-up Lucite soles, flashed red as he led me up a flight of stairs and across a small skyway to a conference room.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“No, I’m O.K.,” I said, though I hadn’t eaten since morning.
“Too bad,” Prince said. “I’m starving.”
In the conference room, his trademark glyph was etched into a long glass table. Toward the back, a fern sat beside two small sofas arranged in the shape of a heart. On the vaulted ceiling, a mural depicted a purple nebula bordered by piano keys. Prince took a place at the head of the table. “Sit here,” he said, gesturing to the chair next to him. He seemed accustomed to choreographing the space around him.
Prince asked whether I had brought a copy of my statement; he wanted to go over it together. I hadn’t, I said, but I could read it from my e-mail. I fumbled for my phone in my pocket, fearing that I was already in over my head. I cleared my throat and began, “When I listen to Prince, I feel like I’m breaking the law.”
“Now, let me stop you right there,” Prince said. “Why did you write that?” It occurred to me that he might have flown me in from New York just to tell me that I knew nothing of his work. “The music I make isn’t breaking the law, to me,” he said. “I write in harmony. I’ve always lived in harmony—like this.” He gestured at the room. “The candles.” He asked if I’d heard of the Devil’s interval, the tritone: a combination of notes that create a brooding, menacing dissonance. He associated it with Led Zeppelin. Their kind of rock music, bluesy and harsh, broke the rules of harmony. Robert Plant’s keening voice—that sounded lawbreaking to him as a child, not the music that he and his friends made.
Behind his sphinxlike features, I could sense, there was an air of skepticism. I tried to calm my nerves by making as much eye contact as possible. Though his face was unlined and his skin glowed, there was a fleeting glassiness in his eyes. We spoke about diction. “Certain words don’t describe me,” he said. White critics bandied about terms that demonstrated a lack of awareness of who he was. “Alchemy” was one. When writers ascribed alchemical qualities to his music, they were ignoring the literal meaning of the word, the dark art of turning base metal into gold. He would never do something like that. He reserved a special disdain for the word “magical.” I’d used some version of it in my statement. “Funk is the opposite of magic,” he said. “Funk is about rules.”
To my relief, much of my statement sat better with him than the first lines had. He said he liked “some of the stuff” I wrote: about his origins in North Minneapolis, his pioneering use of drum machines, his nest of influences. Our conversation loosened up a bit. He said he was finished with making music, making records. “I’m sick of playing the guitar, at least for now. I like the piano, but I hate the thought of picking up the guitar.” What he really wanted to do was write. In fact, he had so many ideas for his first book that he didn’t know where to begin. Maybe he wanted to focus on scenes from his early life, juxtaposed against moments set in the present day. Or maybe he wanted to do a whole book about the inner workings of the music industry. Or perhaps he should write about his mother—he’d been wanting to articulate her role in his life. He wondered what writing a book had in common with writing an album. He wanted to know the rules, so he could know when to flout them.
The book would have to surprise people—provoke them, motivate them. It would become a form of cultural currency. “I want something that’s passed around from friend to friend, like—do you know ‘Waking Life’?” he said, referring to Richard Linklater’s surreal 2001 movie. I said that I did. “You don’t show that to all your friends, just the ones who can hang.” Books like Miles Davis’s autobiography or John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me” were natural touchstones, he thought.
The book would allow him to seize the narrative of his own life. Once, he said, he’d seen one of his former employees on TV saying she thought it was her God-given duty to preserve and protect the unreleased material in his vault. “Now, that sounds like someone I should call the police on,” he told me. “How is that not racist?” People were always casting him—and all black artists—in a helpless role, he said, as if he were incapable of managing himself. “I still have to brush my own teeth,” he said.
He noticed my phone still sitting on the conference-room table, and seemed to falter for a moment. “That thing’s not on, is it?”
“No,” I said—it wasn’t. He had never explicitly said not to record him, but I didn’t even try to take notes. (As soon as I got back to my hotel room, I retraced as much of our conversation as possible. I’ve used quotation marks only when I’m confident that I’ve captured his remarks verbatim.)
In 1993, Prince had publicly broken with his longtime record label, Warner Bros. At the time, his contract had promised the label six more albums for a hundred million dollars, but it limited his prolific output to one new album a year and gave the label ownership of his master recordings. Hoping to break the contract, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and appeared in public with the word “slave” painted on his face. With the help of his manager, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, he’d gained control of his master recordings in 2014. Every artist should own his masters, he told me, especially black artists. He saw this as a way to fight racism. Black communities would restore wealth by safeguarding their musicians’ master recordings and all their intellectual property, and they would protect that wealth, hiring their own police, founding their own schools, and making covenants on their own terms.
The music industry had siloed black music from the start, he reminded me. It had promoted black artists to the “black base”; only when they captured that base would those artists “cross over.” Billboard had developed totally unnecessary charts to measure and quantify this division, which continued to this day. “Why didn’t Warner Bros. ever think I could be president of the label?” he asked. “I want to say in a meeting with big record executives, ‘O.K., you’re racist.’ How would you feel if I said that to you?” His eyes settled on mine with a blazing intensity. “Can we write a book that solves racism?” he asked. Before I could answer, he had another question: “What do you think racism means?”
After sputtering for a few seconds, I offered something like the dictionary definition. Prince only nodded slightly. He recalled some of his earliest memories of racism in Minneapolis. His best friend growing up was Jewish. “He looked a lot like you,” he said. One day, someone threw a stone at the boy. North Minneapolis was a black community, so it wasn’t until Prince started fourth grade, in 1967, when he and others in his neighborhood were bused to a predominantly white elementary school, that he experienced racism firsthand. In retrospect, he believed that Minnesota at that time was no more enlightened than segregationist Alabama had been; he’d sung scathingly about busing in the 1992 song “The Sacrifice of Victor.”
“I went to school with the rich kids who didn’t like having me there,” he said. When one of them called him the N-word, Prince threw a punch. “I felt I had to. Luckily, the guy ran away, crying. But if there was a fight—where would it end? Where should it end? How do you know when to fight?”
Those questions became more complex as racism took on insidious guises, he said. “I mean, ‘All lives matter’—you understand the irony in that,” he said, referring to a far-right slogan that was gaining some traction at the time.
A little later, Prince said, “I’ll be honest, I don’t think you could write the book.” He thought I needed to know more about racism—to have felt it. He talked about hip-hop, the way it transformed words, taking white language—“your language”—and turning it into something that white people couldn’t understand. Miles Davis, he told me, believed in only two categories of thinking: the truth and white bullshit.
And yet, a little later, when we were discussing the music industry’s many forms of dominion over artists, I said something that seemed to galvanize him. I wondered what his interest in publishing a book was, given that the music business had modelled itself on book publishing. Contracts, advances, royalties, revenue splits, copyrights: the approach to intellectual property that he abhorred in record labels had its origins in the publishing industry. His face lit up. “I can see myself typing that,” he said, pantomiming typing at a keyboard. “ ‘You may be wondering why I’m working with . . . ’ ”
We’d been speaking for well over an hour when he paused. “Do you know what time it is?” he asked. The singer Judith Hill was playing on the soundstage that evening. He disappeared for a moment to call his driver, hoping she would take me back to the hotel. Apparently, she was already engaged.
“It’s O.K.,” he said, when he came back. “I’ll take you myself.”
I followed him out of the conference room and into an elevator. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he punched the button for the bottom floor. “You got me hopped up on this industry talk,” he said. “But I’m still thinking about writing on my mother.”
The elevator opened into a dimly lit basement, and Prince led me out to the garage, walking briskly toward a black Lincoln MKT. Climbing into the passenger seat, I noticed a fistful of twenty-dollar bills in the cup holder. Prince activated the garage door, and we pulled out into Paisley’s main lot, now noticeably fuller than when I’d arrived. “Looks like people are starting to show up,” Prince said, sounding excited.
Turning out of the complex, his posture straight, he picked up speed and resumed our discussion on chains of distribution: who controls a piece of intellectual property, and who makes money on it. “Tell Esther”—Newberg, his agent at I.C.M.—“and Random House that I want to own my book,” he said. “That you and I would co-own it, take it to all the distribution channels.” He added, “I like your style. Just look at a word and see if it’s one I would use. Because ‘magic’ isn’t one I’d use. ‘Magic’ is Michael’s word”—meaning Michael Jackson. “That’s what his music was about.”
In the portico of the Country Inn, he put the car in park. “I’ve never seen race, in a certain way—I’ve tried to be nice to everyone,” he said. He seemed to think that too few of his white contemporaries had the same open-mindedness, even as they fêted him for it. When it came time to sell and promote the book, Prince wanted to deal only with people who accepted that he had his own business practices. “There’s a lot of people who say you gotta learn to walk before you learn to run,” he said. “That’s slave talk to me. That’s something slaves would say.” He offered me a firm handshake and left me at the hotel’s automatic doors.
Around four o’clock the next afternoon, I was returning to the Country Inn from lunch when I saw Prince, at the wheel of his Lincoln MKT, pulling out of the hotel lot, his Afro looming large in the driver’s-side window. I watched him idle at a traffic light in front of a bank, beside a dirty snowdrift. For some reason, sighting him in the wild felt even stranger than riding with him. What was he doing? Interviewing another writer? Running errands?
When I got back to my room, I saw that one of Prince’s aides had e-mailed a link from him: a short video on Facebook about the continuing relevance of the doll test, the famous experiment, first conducted in the nineteen-forties, in which black children associated a white doll with goodness, kindness, and beauty, and a black doll with badness, cruelty, and ugliness.
I’d reconciled myself to a Saturday night alone in Chanhassen when Prince’s assistant, Meron Bekure, texted. There was to be a dance party for Prince’s employees at Paisley, followed by a movie screening. She would pick me up. In a high-ceilinged room adjacent to the soundstage, Jakissa Taylor Semple, who goes by DJ Kiss, was spinning records on a plinth surrounded by couches and candles. Six of Prince’s aides and bandmates swayed to the music next to a tray of vegan desserts. A mural of black jazz musicians from Prince’s “Rainbow Children” era was on the wall; a large silver rendering of Prince’s glyph was suspended from the ceiling. After a while, Bekure left and returned holding a bundle of coats. Prince regularly arranged for private after-hours screenings at the nearby Chanhassen Cinema. We were going to see “Kung Fu Panda 3.” We headed over in two cars and found a lone attendant in the empty parking lot ready to unlock the door. Prince arrived just after the movie began, slipping into the back row.
“Is there popcorn?” he asked Bekure. She went out to fetch some. We watched as the animated panda ate dumplings and relegated evildoers to the Spirit Realm. I heard Prince laugh a few times. As the credits rolled, he rose without a word, skipping down the stairs and out of the theatre, his sneakers shining laser red in the darkness.
Many Prince associates have a similar story: they were never officially hired. Prince simply told them to show up again, and they did. A week after I returned from Minneapolis, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins wrote to Prince’s agent at I.C.M. He was taking “Piano & a Microphone” on tour in Australia. The show, Prince told the Sydney Morning Herald, would be “like watching me give birth to a new galaxy every night.” He wanted me to join him for the first leg, in Melbourne.
I arrived on Tuesday, February 16th, the day of his first show, at the State Theatre. His bodyguard, Kirk Johnson, was staying in the room next to mine at the Crown Towers hotel. Johnson told me I could expect a call from Peter Bravestrong—Prince’s preferred pseudonym for travelling. I liked how obviously, almost defiantly, fictitious the name sounded. Its comic-book gaudiness was in keeping with some of his past alter egos: Jamie Starr, Alexander Nevermind, Joey Coco. Around twelve-thirty, the phone on my bedside table lit up. Peter Bravestrong was calling. Sounding crestfallen, Prince said he’d just received some sad news. I couldn’t draw him out on it. “I’m just going to get ready to play the show tonight, and I’ll see you tomorrow?” He brightened a bit. “I have a lot of stuff to show you.”
I Googled “Prince.” News outlets were reporting that Denise Matthews, better known as Vanity, was dead at fifty-seven—Prince’s age. In the early eighties, Prince and Matthews had fallen in love, and Prince had tapped her to front the group Vanity 6. She was slated to appear in his 1984 film, “Purple Rain,” when their relationship fell apart, and her role went to Apollonia Kotero instead.
The stage set already had a touch of the séance to it. Long tiers of candles burned around the piano, light poured in a velvety haze from the ceiling, and fractals purled and oozed on a screen at the back of the stage. Prince came out and sat down at the piano, and as the cheers faded he said, “I just found out someone dear to us has passed away.”
The next day, I followed Johnson up to Peter Bravestrong’s suite, where Prince had secreted himself away in the bedroom. Johnson conferred in private with him and then pointed me toward a desk in the main room. A legal pad had been filled with about thirty pages of pencilled script, with many erasures and rewrites. Johnson said that Prince wanted me to read what he’d written, and then he’d talk to me about it.
Prince’s handwriting was beautiful, with a fluidity that suggested it poured out of him almost involuntarily. It also verged on illegible. Even in longhand, he wrote in his signature style, an idiosyncratic precursor of textspeak that he’d perfected back in the eighties: “Eye” for “I,” “U” for “you,” “R” for “are.” The pages were warm, funny, well observed, eloquent, and surprisingly focussed. This was Prince the raconteur, in a storytelling mode reminiscent of his more narrative songs, such as “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” or “Raspberry Beret.”
He’d written about his childhood and adolescence in Minneapolis, starting with his first memory, his mother winking at him. “U know how U can tell when someone is smiling just by looking in their eyes?” he wrote. “That was my mother’s eyes. Sometimes she would squint them like she was about 2 tell U a secret. Eye found out later my mother had a lot of secrets.” He recalled his favorite of his father’s shirts, the way his parents outdid each other sartorially. He summoned up his first kiss, playing house with a girl in his neighborhood. He described the epilepsy he suffered as a child.
Prince had become a Jehovah’s Witness around 2001, and had stopped playing his raciest hits. I’d worried that he would shy away from describing his sexual life, but, in these pages, he conjured the first time he felt a girl up; his first R-rated movie; a girlfriend slamming his locker shut, “like in a John Hughes film,” just to hold mistletoe over his head and kiss him. These memories were interspersed with his philosophy about music: “A good ballad should always put U in the mood 4 making love.”
He wrote about the sometimes physical fights between his parents, and about their separation, when he was seven. After his mother remarried, in 1967 or 1968, Prince went to live with his father, a day he described as the happiest of his life. He recalled persuading his father to take him to see the 1970 documentary “Woodstock” after church one Sunday:
Eye remember already standing by the car waiting 4 him, crazy with anticipation. Calling back 2 mind the whole experience reminds me 2 do the best Eye possibly can every chance Eye get 2 b onstage because somebody out there is c-ing U 4 the 1st time. Artists have the ability 2 change lives with a single per4mance. My father & Eye had R lives changed that night. The bond we cemented that very night let me know that there would always b someone in my corner when it came 2 my passion. My father understood that night what music really meant 2 me. From that moment on he never talked down 2 me.
After I finished reading, Johnson took me to my room and told me to call Peter Bravestrong.
“So what’d you think?” Prince asked when he picked up. I told him, truthfully, that what he’d written was excellent. We touched on a few spots where I had been confused or wanted more detail. “I can feel myself getting amped up about this,” he said. We hung up. Had I spent twenty-three hours in the air to talk to Prince over the phone?
Fortunately, following the show that night, he invited me to join him at an after-party in a waterfront lounge swathed in purple light and chintzed out with faux-crystal chandeliers. He strutted in through the back entrance—he was holding a cane, which enhanced his royal aspect—and invited me across the velvet rope into the V.I.P. area. We sat on a plush couch with a marble tray of chocolate-covered strawberries in front of us.
“I was in a different mood tonight,” Prince said when I asked him about the show. He’d been happier, less aware of himself. I told him that I was glad to hear “Purple Music,” an unreleased track from 1982 in perennial circulation among bootleggers. “That was the first time I’ve played that song live,” he said. “Someone said they recorded it. I might just release it.”
He sat forward and gripped his cane with both hands. He was wearing black leather gloves with his symbol on them. “Have you talked to Random House?” he asked. “You have power now,” he said. “Learn to wield it. It’s you, it’s me, and it’s them. Convince them that they need to put everything behind me.” He locked eyes with me. “I trust you. Tell them I trust you.”
He told me that he’d look at my notes on his pages and would address them. “Get a stenographer,” he said. “I’d prefer it to be a woman. Or—you can just type it yourself.”
We left the club through the kitchen. An Audi S.U.V. was waiting in the service garage. Prince and I sat in the back in silence. I found I had nothing to say that was worth breaking it. Prince gazed out the window at Melbourne’s shuttered shops and empty streets. “We should do a golden-ticket promotion,” he said, after a few minutes. “Put the book together with some other prize—maybe we play a concert for the winner. Make the winner tell their own story.” He sounded exhausted, as if he couldn’t turn his mind off.
The car pulled into Crown Towers through a special entrance that snaked below the hotel to a bank of underground elevators. I told Prince that I liked the quiet of hotels at this hour. There was something weirdly appealing about wandering their long carpeted corridors late at night. Prince gave a sly smile. “I’ve done it many times,” he said.
On Friday, Johnson led me back to Peter Bravestrong’s suite so that I could pick up some papers. What I thought would be a simple handoff became a two-hour conversation. Prince, wearing a rainbow-colored top with his face on it, sat me down at the desk where I’d read his pages. There were a few packs of hairnets off to the side. “Sit here,” he said again, bringing over a pen and paper. “Music is healing,” he said. “Write that down first.” This was to be our guiding principle. “Music holds things together.”
Since we’d spoken at Paisley, his ambitions for the book had been amplified. “The book should be a handbook for the brilliant community—wrapped in autobiography, wrapped in biography,” he said. “It should teach that what you create is yours.” It was incumbent on us to help people, especially young black artists, realize the power and agency they had.
I liked the idea of framing the memoir as a kind of handbook. It was a way to expand its remit, giving another layer of meaning to the title, “The Beautiful Ones,” which could denote an entire community of creators. “Keep what you make,” Prince told me more than once. “I stayed in Minneapolis because Minneapolis made me. You have to give back. My dad came to Minneapolis from Cotton Valley, Louisiana. He learned in the harshest conditions what it means to control wealth.”
Prince wanted to teach readers about Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a wellspring of black entrepreneurship that flourished in the early twentieth century. After the Civil War, freed blacks flocked to the booming city and bought land. Segregation forced them to the Greenwood neighborhood, where their proprietorship and ingenuity created a thriving community. Soon, Greenwood boasted more than a hundred black-owned businesses, as well as nearly two dozen churches, several schools, and a public library. Prince loved reading about that amassing of wealth. Then came Tulsa’s 1921 race massacre, when thousands of armed whites, their hatred fanned by accusations that a black boy had attempted to rape a white girl, doused Greenwood in kerosene and burned it down block by block, looting and plundering as they went. Hundreds died; about ten thousand lost their homes. Black Wall Street was decimated.
“ ‘The Fountainhead,’ ” Prince said. “Did you read that? What’d you think of it?” I said I didn’t like it—that I had no patience for objectivism, or for Ayn Rand’s present-day acolytes, with their devotion to the free market and unfettered individualism. Prince agreed, though he saw that the philosophy could be seductive. “We need a book that talks to the aristocrats, not just the fans. We have to dismantle ‘The Fountainhead’ brick by brick. It’s like the aristocrats’ bible. It’s a compound of problems. They basically want to eliminate paradise,” he said. “We should attack the whole notion of supremacy.” The purity of its original meaning had been corrupted, he thought. “There used to be a band called the Supremes! Supremacy is about everything flourishes, everything is nourished.”
But a radical call for collective ownership, for black creativity, couldn’t be made alone, he said. “When I say, ‘I own “Purple Rain,” ’ I sound . . . like Kanye.” He paused. “Who I consider a friend.” Statements of ownership too often read as self-aggrandizing, he believed. It was more powerful to hear them from other people. He wanted to find some formal devices that would make the book a symbiosis of his words and mine. “It would be dope if, toward the end, our voices started to blend,” he said. “In the beginning, they’re distinct, but by the end we’re both writing.”
He’d recently had a new passport photo taken, which he’d tweeted. It had gone viral. Of course it had: his lips in a gentle pout, his eyeliner immaculate, every hair in his mustache trimmed to perfection, he seemed to be daring the customs officials of the world to give him a kiss instead of a stamp. He said, “Maybe we should have that on the cover, with all my info and stuff. We need this to get weird.” We were both laughing, exhilarated. “Brother to brother, it’s good to be controversial,” he said. “We were brought together to do this. There was a process of elimination. To do this, it takes a personality not fighting against what I’m trying to do. You know a lot more words than I do. Write this thing like you want to win the Pulitzer and then—” He raised his arms, hoisting an invisible statuette, and pretended to smash it against the desk.
He stood and we walked to the door of his suite. “This was helpful to me,” he said. “I have a clearer understanding of what we have to do.” He gave me a hug goodbye. Suddenly, my nose was in his hair. I spent the rest of the day catching whiffs of his perfume. It was summer in Melbourne, and I walked along the Yarra River with his words in my head, listening to the Ohio Players’ “Skin Tight” at a deafening volume. “The bass & drums on this record would make Stephen Hawking dance,” Prince had written in the pages he showed me. “No disrespect—it’s just that funky.”
In New York, Prince’s book contract was deviating far from the boilerplate. At one point, he called Chris Jackson, his editor, at home, and asked if they could just publish the book without contracts or lawyers. Jackson later recalled, “I said I’d love to, but the company can’t cut a check without a contract in place. He paused and said, ‘I’ll call you back.’ And he did—with some fine points for the contract.”
Prince wanted to reserve the right to pull the book from shelves, permanently, at any time in the future, should he ever feel that it no longer reflected who he was. The question was how much he’d have to pay Random House to do so. On a Friday, after a three- or four-day volley of offers and counteroffers, they settled on a figure, and Prince hopped on a plane. At 7:40 p.m., he tweeted, “y is prince in new york right now?!”
By eight that evening, a hundred and fifty people had convened to hear the answer at Avenue, a narrow, dusky club on Tenth Avenue, in Chelsea. Prince, in effulgent gold and purple stripes, announced his memoir as he leaned on a Plexiglas barrier on a stairway high above the crowd. Later, he performed what Prince enthusiasts had come to call “the sampler set,” in which he cued up the backing tracks to a medley of his greatest hits and sang live over them. “We want to thank Random House,” he interjected at one point. “Ain’t nothing random about this funk!”
The next day, as news of the memoir caromed around the Internet, Johnson invited me to join him, Bekure, and Prince at the Groove, a night club in the West Village, at around midnight. Li’nard’s Many Moods, fronted by a prodigious bassist named Li’nard Jackson, was playing. Prince’s security detail had reserved a high-backed banquette toward the rear, facing the stage but hidden from the dance floor. Prince had me scoot in beside him and cupped my ear. “Did you get paid yet?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Me, either.” I was confused—the contract hadn’t even been signed. But questions of money, usually considered crass, had an air of scrappy anti-corporate camaraderie in Prince’s world, and became a kind of comforting refrain. The artist should always be paid; the company should always be paying.
Michael Jackson’s “Bad” came on the speaker system. Prince said it reminded him of a story of the one time they were supposed to work together. “I’ll have to tell you about that later,” he said. “There are gonna be some bombshells in this thing.”
Prince’s d.j., Pam Warren, known as Purple Pam, joined us, and he gave her a few words of advice. First, it was always a good idea to close a set with “September,” by Earth, Wind & Fire. Second, no profanity. “These d.j.s play songs with cussing and then they wonder why fights break out in the clubs,” he said. “You set the soundtrack for it!”
A while later, he nodded to Johnson that it was time to go. “So what we’ll do is—you free in about a week? We’ll get together wherever we’re playing and really start to work on this thing,” he said. He shook my hand, gave me a quick side hug, and hustled out, holding his jacket over his head.
A week went by, and then another, with no word. In early April, Johnson asked me if I could resend the typed pages with my notes. I did, and heard nothing. The silence began to worry me, especially after I read that Prince had postponed a show in Atlanta. A week later, TMZ reported that his plane had made an emergency landing after departing the city, and he was hospitalized in Moline, Illinois, supposedly to treat a resilient case of the flu.
Within hours, Prince tweeted from Paisley Park, saying that he was listening to his song “Controversy”—whose lyrics begin, “I just can’t believe all the things people say.” Subtext: he was fine. On the evening of Sunday, April 17th, he called me. “I wanted to say that I’m all right, despite what the press would have you believe,” he said. “They have to exaggerate everything, you know.” I told him that I had been worried, and was sorry to hear that he’d had the flu. “I had flulike symptoms,” he said. “And my voice was raspy.” It still sounded that way to me, as if he were recovering from a bad cold.
But he didn’t want to linger on the subject. He’d called to talk about the book. “I wanted to ask: Do you believe in cellular memory?” he said. He meant the idea that our bodies can store memories, and that experience can therefore be hereditary. “I was thinking about it because of reading the Bible,” he explained. “The sins of the father. How is that possible without cellular memory?” The concept resonated in his own life, too. “My father had two families,” he said. “I was his second, and he wanted to do better with me than with his first son. So he was very orderly, but my mother didn’t like that. She liked spontaneity and excitement.”
The conflict of his parents lived within him. In their discord, he heard a strange harmony that inspired him to create. “One of my life’s dilemmas has been looking at this,” he told me. “I like order, finality, and truth. But if I’m out at a fancy dinner party or something, and the d.j. puts on something funky . . . ”
“You’ll have to dance,” I said.
He paused for a moment. “We need to find a word for what funk is,” he said. Funk music, which fused impulse to structure, was the living contradiction he embodied: his mother and his father in one. It was all something to consider for “when we really start working on it.” He’d often used phrases like that, usually adding that in a week or two he’d clear his schedule and we could get down to business. “I just wanted to call and let you know that that’s what I’ve been thinking about,” he said. “And I’m O.K.”
Late in the morning on April 21st, I was on a Metro-North train to Connecticut when the text messages began to come in. TMZ was reporting a fatality at Paisley Park. I kept refreshing the news sites. Soon, the headlines increased their point size. Prince was dead. Outside, spring had come, and through the train window I watched the landscape scroll by at a stately pace, acres of brown earth now mottled with green.
The following days brought news of addiction, first in the exclamations of tabloids and later in more sober reporting. He’d died of an accidental overdose, having taken counterfeit Vicodin pills laced with fentanyl. The source of the pills remains unknown. One of the people closest to Prince told detectives that, after Prince’s first show in Atlanta, he’d said that he “enjoyed sleeping more these days,” and that maybe it meant he’d done all he was supposed to do on Earth; waking life was “incredibly boring.” I found those words wrenching when I read them, a disavowal of everything we’d talked about. Then I remembered that he’d said something similar at the first “Piano & a Microphone” show. “I like dreaming now more than I used to,” he’d told the audience. “Some of my friends have passed away, and I see them in my dreams. It’s like they are here, and the dreams are just like waking sometimes.”
As I read more about his last months, it was hard to reconcile the sunny, puckish, solicitous man I met with the one described in news stories and police reports, who could be unyielding, furtive, and willfully opaque. Prince had always embodied dualities. Here was one more: he had told me that he was O.K., and he was not O.K. There was nothing false in the way he spoke to me, and nothing false in the way he spoke during his darkest moments. I can’t think less of him for hiding his pain. He was living on his own terms. To expect anything more of him would have been to expect magic. ♦
This article appears in the print edition of the September 9, 2019, issue, with the headline “The Beautiful One.”
Dan Piepenbring is a writer in Brooklyn. He collaborated with Prince on “The Beautiful Ones,” a memoir, which will be published in October. Read more »
4. "More accurate to call him the cowriter of a big book" In response to Reply # 3
... than the publisher. It's really Tom O'Neill's memoir of investigating the case, as-told-to Dan Piepenbring. I'm sure he's wordsmithing and such, but the substance is from O'Neill.
Basically it's the same kind of project that this one is, except his subject/memoirist died in this case, and it became a bio.
I know when he got this gig he was an obscure dude known for editing at the Paris Review. Folks were surprised he got the gig. Other folks in the running had multiple books published and had done co-writing/ghostwriting, which he hadn't at that point.
5. "so this will be the Prince version of This Is It?" In response to Reply # 0
as in "folks who had a deal with him before he died salvaging whatever they had to still make some money"
this won't really be an autobiography because he died before it was done (started?), so *whatever* the final product is it won't necessarily be what Prince would have wanted/blessed.
and i wonder what happens to the "it can be pulled if I decide it isn't reflective" part
at best it'll be this guys version of what he and the publisher thinks will sell
did I miss it in all the talk or did they (Prince and the author) not ever get a chance to really get to writing. instead having just had a few talks about concepts, the spirit and tone, and a few notes?
11. "It's tricky because I am not sure how much they have to honor now that" In response to Reply # 5
he is dead.
I mean they both signed up for an autobiography, but he is dead. So they could just decide to write a biography in which case they can write whatever they want. but he gave access on the basis of them writing an autobiography. It's messy and depends on what the contract says but I just want to read whatever comes from it understanding that it probably won't be what Prince would have approved (which might be a good thing).
********** "Everyone has a plan until you punch them in the face. Then they don't have a plan anymore." (c) Mike Tyson
“ ‘The Fountainhead,’ ” Prince said. “Did you read that? What’d you think of it?” I said I didn’t like it—that I had no patience for objectivism, or for Ayn Rand’s present-day acolytes, with their devotion to the free market and unfettered individualism. Prince agreed, though he saw that the philosophy could be seductive. “We need a book that talks to the aristocrats, not just the fans. We have to dismantle ‘The Fountainhead’ brick by brick. It’s like the aristocrats’ bible. It’s a compound of problems. They basically want to eliminate paradise,” he said. “We should attack the whole notion of supremacy.”
------------------------------ For the record, my teams: MLB: Mets / Soccer: PSG NCAA BB: Arizona / NCAA FB: Michigan NBA: Spurs / NFL: Jets === "Si la meuf est bien physiquement, je ne refuserai pas grand chose"
12. "Yeah, this caught my attention as well." In response to Reply # 9
>“ ‘The Fountainhead,’ ” Prince said. “Did you read >that? What’d you think of it?” I said I didn’t like >it—that I had no patience for objectivism, or for Ayn >Rand’s present-day acolytes, with their devotion to the free >market and unfettered individualism. Prince agreed, though he >saw that the philosophy could be seductive. “We need a book >that talks to the aristocrats, not just the fans. We have to >dismantle ‘The Fountainhead’ brick by brick. It’s like >the aristocrats’ bible. It’s a compound of problems. They >basically want to eliminate paradise,” he said. “We should >attack the whole notion of supremacy.”