In Prince circles, Rolling Stone writer Neal Karlen is a bit of a controversial figure. So it is with some trepidation that I have decided to review his new memoir “This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey On and Off the Record” on his friendship with the iconic singer Prince about his experiences interviewing him in the 1980s.
The controversy with Neal Karlen largely stems from his orbit around the Prince camp and his status within it as a friend/confidante/music journalist, and what role exactly was he to Prince? Was he only in search of a good story and nothing more? It is a situation exacerbated by some off-handed comments Karlen in an interview with CJ Johnson—who Prince aficionados will recognize as the reputed “Billy Jack Bitch” who famously and repeatedly called Prince “Symbolina” during his name change in the 1990s—in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “I’m waiting for him to die, quite frankly. I am, because they’re worth infinitely more…he is so worth much more than Bob Dylan.” And while the intent seems to be clearly a sarcastic joke, it has rankled some people as sounding opportunistic, or at the very least being a joke in bad taste. Karlen has since followed up that statement by declaring that he loves Prince and that it was a joke, but as to whether that is sufficient or not is up to the reader.
As with any music journalist, Karlen’s accounts of his encounters with Prince have to be taken with a grain of salt.
As with any music journalist, Karlen’s accounts of his encounters with Prince have to be taken with a grain of salt. This was a profession Prince was suspicious of and did not ever truly trust, as evidenced by his unusual demands that reporters/interviewers not tape record him or write down his statements while he was talking (Karlen addresses this in his book, noting that he had to commit the quotes to quick memory before rushing off to the bathroom moments later to scribble on toilet paper or scrap paper so as not to forget). This is essential when considering that Karlen continually emphasizes the veracity of the book, with the back cover having a quote from Prince to Karlen saying “Thanx 4 telling the truth.” So Karlen wants to establish his bona fides as an occasional Prince confidante (as Karlen notes, and pretty much everybody who knew Prince, his associations with people were always sporadic and subject to periods of withdrawal by Prince. One moment they could be inside his circle, the next they would be a pariah). There is the question of just how much Prince would have trusted a music journalist with any real secrets. Karlen does address this in the book. Indeed, on the inside front flap there is a note about how no one really knew more than 15% of who Prince truly was. Prince was exceptionally guarded and reclusive.
The enigma of the man that was Prince
Karlen discusses in his book the difficulty in approaching Prince as a subject, writing at one point that “At his most knowable Prince is a Cubist painting.” Prince was often contradictory in both his artistic and journalistic statements, often giving out disinformation to interviewers who attempted to gain insight into his inner world and decipher the mystery of the Prince mythos. Karlen discusses this at length in his book, devoting a significant section to the idea of the ‘kayfabe.’ Kayfabe is apparently a wrestling term (Karlen writes that Prince and him shared an interest in the sport) in which the wrestler has to maintain his in-ring persona at all times. For instance, a good guy wrestler cannot be seen hanging out with a bad guy wrestler, even after work hours. If a wrestler establishes a bad guy persona he even has to interact with his fans with that specified persona. The kayfabe in this case is Prince, the mega-rock star and icon. Much like David Bowie, Prince would adopt numerous personas, styles, and pseudonyms throughout his career, and often they were contradictory (dismissing rap and hip hop on “Dead on It,” but later incorporating it into his music on the Diamonds and Pearls album, to name but one example). And also like Bowie, the rock star persona can become a devastating beast that consumes one’s ego and identity. At one point in his career Bowie succumbed to it, necessitating his ‘killing off’ of the Ziggy Stardust character. Karlen alleges that Prince was consumed by his rock star persona to the point where he began alienating both his friends and fans, or family, to use Prince’s preferred term.
It is in disentangling the myth from the reality where the book becomes a bit problematic at certain points. I am hesitant about Karlen alleging that “Prince had been talking about suicide since 1985,” with quotes provided in the book about how Prince felt that he might not live long. This statement, however, could be interpreted as self-awareness that rock music as a profession is a notoriously brutal lifestyle that claims many talented people long before their time. Whether it is because of drugs, such as with Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, or Keith Moon, suicide, such as with Kurt Cobain, because of health issues, such as with Lemmy Kilminster, or crashes, such as with Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Music is tough on the body, and surely by 1985 Prince had an awareness that the physical toll could very well do him in early. Heck, my mother was not even a performer (except in her church), but she taught piano for decades, and as such developed tinnitus, arthritis, and an extra bone growth on her wrist and ankles as a direct result of just playing the piano and teaching kids. Karlen also makes the claim that “he died of multiple causes, including the loss of spirit in what might most be dramatically called a form of passive suicide.” This is a sentiment that I have heard before, namely from Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson. So it could very well be true that Prince might have at least passively courted death—and there is a substantial number of songs in the Prince canon which use death imagery—but this still seems like a significant psychological assessment of Prince’s character from a music journalist, and from one who had not much contact with Prince since the late 1980s.
Prince and childhood
In the book there is a rather large section where Karlen addresses Prince’s childhood and the question of just how true Purple Rain (1984) was. Ever since the semi-autobiographical movie Purple Rain there have been conflicting accounts (often by Prince himself) of how much of that movie represents the actual John Nelson and how much is the creation of William Blinn (the screenwriter) and Albert Magnoli (the director). In fact one of the aspects to Prince that I gravitated to was the depiction of Prince’s father in the movie. This was a representation of a paternal figure that I felt closely resembled my own experience with my family. My father, like Clarence Williams III in the movie, was a failed artist who ended up taking out his frustrations on me and my siblings with physical abuse. My father was bitter, angry, and would take out his frustrations and resentment on me, disguising it as ‘discipline,’ albeit a parental discipline that resulted in bruises, lacerations, and welts. I also recognize the signs of an abused child, and I do see in Prince that he was definitely affected by childhood trauma of some sort, whether serious emotional abuse and/or physical abuse. Karlen declares that those stories are true and that it was not simply added for dramatic effect by Magnoli. In terms of whether he is telling the truth or not I actually do believe Karlen could be right, but there is an issue as to whether Prince would have wanted people reading about it or if it is even Karlen’s place to relate the story.
With regards to discussing the nature of Prince’s childhood I have to admit ambivalence. I admit as a reader I am interested in this aspect of Prince, not for any gossipy reasons, but because it is a source of identification with Prince’s music and with the Purple Rain movie that I connected with on a deep level. I saw in Prince an individual who not only sang about individualism and defiance in youth, but a musician who used his own familial dysfunction to resonate with his listeners who might be experiencing similar backgrounds. Those scars from my childhood linger in me today and it acts as the connection point between me and Prince’s music. I am always interested in exploring that subject, but deciphering reality from fabrication is difficult with Prince. Karlen at one point in the book notes that while he does believe Prince was telling the truth, that it is also true that Prince sometimes believed his own fabrications to the point where Prince became fully immersed in the Prince conography himself.
A true account of Prince, or at least as authentic as an account can be given his reclusive and secretive nature, has to accommodate a representation of the musician who was flawed, complicated, and at times frustrating for even his most ardent listeners.
In terms of the overall tone, I am not interested in hagiography, but rather I do want a realistic depiction of Prince. It is more engaging to read about a supremely talented, yet also deeply flawed and at times mercurial individual. A true account of Prince, or at least as authentic as an account can be given his reclusive and secretive nature, has to accommodate a representation of the musician who was flawed, complicated, and at times frustrating for even his most ardent listeners. This is what makes deciphering some of the mystery that was Prince the most intriguing and complicated, yet simultaneously the most frustrating aspect to Prince.
Overall, the book is certainly a well-written look into Prince’s life and sporadic friendship with Karlen, but there are issues with how much of it is true and how much is fabricated. I do have qualms about Karlen’s status within the Prince camp, especially when discussing details of Prince’s struggles. For instance, Karlen touches on the death of Prince’s son Amiir Nelson, which is a subject addressed more at length and with greater emotional impact in Prince’s wife Mayte Garcia’s book The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, which also has its detractors. Regardless of the rumors and gossip surrounding Mayte, I found that book to be deeply engaging and emotional from someone who was at one time intimately connected to Prince, whereas Karlen is more on the periphery of the Prince camp. The death of Amiir was a subject Prince himself was deeply reluctant to discuss, so an account of it from someone on the periphery of the Prince camp is problematic.
The thing is with almost any Prince book there are going to be detractors who find fault with how the author depicts their relationship with Prince. But since our knowledge of Prince is limited, and as readers we are distant from that experience, I find I sometimes have to remove that from the equation and read the book knowing that this is Prince according to one particular perspective. Morris Day in his book On Time: A Princely Life in Funk, uses a dialogue with the deceased spirit of Prince as a framing device, but also acknowledges that in the end, it is still him putting words into Prince’s mouth. Day’s book, however, which I would recommend, especially now that the softcover is out, still feels authentic to Prince, but filtered through Day’s perception. And Day was indeed someone with close ties to Prince, unlike Karlen. With Karlen, the issue gets trickier because of his job as a music journalist, a profession which, as I mentioned, Prince was wary of. For Prince fans/family they likely have decided already as to whether to purchase it or not (or read it or not. If you have a library or a friend with a copy I would definitely suggest that option).
Just how much of this book is true? That is a question that is difficult even for those individuals, such as myself, who have read a lot of books on Prince.
For casual fans of Prince, I would suggest that they be aware that the book has some issues in regards to the validity of the text and that some of the content and there are questions surrounding Karlen’s motivation. Karlen is a good writer, but despite the appearance of Prince’s approval on the back cover, there are issues with the book that do raise concerns about the role of music journalists and their subjects. Just how much of this book is true? That is a question that is difficult even for those individuals, such as myself, who have read a lot of books on Prince. It is an issue that has been raised in regards to Barney Hoskins (who has written about Prince and Tom Waits) and Jon Bream (who Karlen disapproves of, even though some of the same concerns could be addressed about him). In fact, I would recommend other books on Prince before I would recommend Karlen’s book.
This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey, On and Off the Record by Neal Karlen
Neal Karlen is a former contributing editor for Rolling Stone, Newsweek staff writer, and regular contributor to The New York Times. He is the author of Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock and Roll Band, and other books ranging in content from minor league baseball to fundamentalist religion to linguistics. A graduate of Brown University, he lives in his hometown of Minneapolis.