Just prior to Prince’s unfortunate death in 2016, he had released a statement that he had signed a deal with Spiegel & Grau to publish a memoir called The Beautiful Ones. At the time not much information was given about the exact nature of the project.
Would it be a memoir focusing on a specific time period? Would it be an autobiography encompassing all of Prince’s life? And most importantly, considering how elusive of a celebrity Prince was and his reluctance to give interviews or reveal much about himself, how much detail would Prince be willing to depart? This past November we got our answer with the posthumous release of The Beautiful Ones in hardcover.
First off, let me discuss the presentation. While I do like the cover photo that adorns the book, and it is certainly a much better concept than what editor Dan Piepenbring says Prince had proposed (Prince wanted to use a Martin Homent illustration. And while I do like Homent’s illustrations, they have been used twice before), but I do have a quibble with it. Namely, the texture of the paper which is the rough feeling and cheap quality paper. I might be more inclined to remove the dust jacket and keep it on my shelf with the purple hardback, if it was my copy (I read a copy that I borrowed from my brother, who is an even bigger Prince fan than I am, as luck would have it).
Gripes about the paper quality aside, this is a beautifully organized book that would make a great addition to your Prince library, alongside Picturing Prince and A Private View. You will find yourself looking over the book repeatedly and taking in all the photographs, the facsimiles of the lyrics (and cringing at the original opening verse of “Darling Nikki”), the various promotional material and posters, Prince’s passport, and various doodles by Prince. It is all great stuff to look at.
As for the book itself, it is broken up into six sections:
- Introduction by Dan Piepenbring.
- The Beautiful Ones: a facsimile of Prince’s handwritten pages that he managed to complete before his passing.
- For You: a look at the earliest stages of Prince’s career through photos, a few odds and ends, and a scrapbook with captions by Prince.
- Controversy: A collection of quotes from previous interviews covering the early 1980s, some lyrics, a few photos, his original collage art for the 1999 album.
- Baby I’m A Star: Prince’s original treatment for what would become known as the movie Purple Rain (it was called Dreams at this stage).
- A concordance of notes and the quotes and information provided in the book.
The introduction by Dan Piepenbring is an interesting look at how he came onto the project and his dealings with Prince. Some of it is expected, by interesting, nonetheless, about how truly unique it was to work with Prince. Prince does not abide by time tables or contracts, so the process sounds to be rather fluid at times, with Dan not even knowing he was hired by Prince. Prince is simply too eccentric (and I mean eccentric in a good way. I have no patience myself for the 9-5 banality of everyday life, but I do not have the prestige and money to defy it the way Prince did) to comply with the standard working procedures of work life. Which, of course, you would expect from him.
The section I found most interesting and somewhat heartbreaking, was Prince’s original vision of the project as an instructional guide for creation. The book, as Prince told Dan, “should teach you that what you create is yours.” Indeed, the title The Beautiful Ones was intended to reflect this aspect. As Dan mentions, the lyrics of the song; “Paint a perfect picture / bring to life a vision in one’s mind,” embody that creative visualization aspect (he also jokes that you should just ignore the rest of that song’s lyrics). The message of autonomy and creativity and the freedom to pursue one’s goals in life is a very powerful one. It is also what makes it heartbreaking because I would have liked to have read Prince’s thoughts on personal freedom in more detail. It is an idea that runs through my life as a central concern. I would not have chosen to pursue my passion in life and get a Masters degree in English Literature if I had any other considerations in mind or if I had listened to my father who wanted me to pursue a more practical and financially rewarding path. But my mother, who was a music teacher, encouraged the same principle of freedom that prince espouses in this book, and for better or the worse that is the path I have chosen. It makes me a bit sad that Prince did not get to fulfil his goal for this book because it is an important message for people to hear.
The next section, which thankfully prints a typed transcript of Prince’s handwritten pages, is the bulk of what he had written up to the point of his death. A bit of it has the feeling of a journal entry rather than a finished product. As Dan mentions in the introduction, Prince wanted the final product to be a blend of their two respective voices and not just his, as he believed in the idea of community over the individual (in a section that I particularly liked in the introduction Prince criticizes the objectivism of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Prince refers to the movie, but I suffered through reading the book, which is truly among the worst I have encountered). Prince writes about his parents, early school experiences, some of his high school girlfriends, and his school mates.
All of it interesting to read, especially from the artist himself, although my favorite has to be the sentence “Those considered ‘different’ R the ones most interesting 2 us.” Not as revealing as the autobiographical details, as this is a theme that pops up frequently in his music, but it is the sentiment that I most identify with. From the Purple Rain movie and soundtrack and throughout his career this is the theme that I most gravitated towards in Prince’s music. I was labelled as being “odd, weird, nerdy (it was a pejorative in my day), freakish” throughout my early life because I was quiet and moved to the beat of my own drum. I was not rebellious in school, but my teachers still had a difficult time trying to conform me to their expected norms. I was essentially the Ally Sheedy character in The Breakfast Club. And, like Prince, I was a child of divorce (Prince’s parents split when he was 7, I was 8 when mine split up) who had a difficult relationship with a father (my father was an alcoholic, which is what precipitated the divorce). So when I saw all these themes come through in Prince’s 1980s material, I gravitated towards his music because I did see part of myself in his works (not the charismatic, effortlessly cool part, mind you).
For You is one of my favorite aspects of the book. The thing about the photographs from Prince’s scrapbook is that his own scribbled comments convey the humorous part of his personality, which is something we did not get to see a lot of. Whether that was by design because Prince wanted to promote a mysterious and enigmatic persona, or possibly he just never got the opportunity to display that aspect of his personality, it is difficult to answer. Prince was elusive about his personal life and perhaps that affected his ability to let people see this aspect of him. But at least we get to see it in some portion here and it really is a highlight of the book.
The last section that I will discuss is the original treatment for Purple Rain. This version is significantly darker and more brutal than the finished product. In this treatment Prince (he is not named “The Kid” in this early vision of the project) sees his mother being shot and killed by his father, Prince as a character is described as being mentally disturbed and possibly schizophrenic, and commits suicide at the end of the movie after losing the battle of the bands against The Time. Or so the viewer thinks until it is revealed that it was all a dream (hence the title Dreams). Interesting to read what Prince’s process was for developing this project, although needless to say this would have made for a truly terrible version of the movie. As cheesy as the movie is, this would have sunk it like a stone. But it is all part of the filmmaking process to shift and change the vision behind a movie during its initial stages, and it is an intriguing psychological look at what Prince wanted to accomplish at a specific point in time.
I would say that as a Prince fan (or family, or friend, whichever term you prefer), this is an obvious must-read. One of the downsides for me is that it only took approximately two hours to finish. It is a glossy book with a lot of photos. But considering the circumstances and the little amount that Prince had completed before his death this is to be expected. When I first heard the news (which I read online while writing my thesis in the campus library and had to physically restrain myself from crying so as not to make a spectacle of myself in public. It wasn’t easy) I did ponder what might become of this book. So the obvious thing is that yes, you will think about “what might have been” while reading this book and envisioning what the final product would have ended up as, making this a bittersweet read. But it is a worthwhile read. If you are not a huge Prince fan, I would still recommend reading it anyways for his insights into creativity and freedom, although you might want to borrow it from a library, or, if you are lucky enough to be related to a Prince fan, borrow their copy. And quite likely if you do listen to Prince’s music, you have already purchased and/or read this book by now, rendering by review a bit moot.
Order Prince – The Beautiful Ones (Memoir)
From Prince himself comes the brilliant coming-of-age-and-into-superstardom story of one of the greatest artists of all time – featuring never-before-seen photos, original scrapbooks and lyric sheets, and the exquisite memoir he began writing before his tragic passing.