Dan Piepenbring was a huge Prince fan when he got a once in a lifetime opportunity to co-write a memoir with the musician in 2016.
But the two never finished. Prince died several months later, but Piepenbring used what Prince had already written — along with photos, handwritten notes and other materials — to put together the book, "The Beautiful Ones."
When the opportunity to write the book presented itself, Piepenbring was a 29-year-old writer for The Paris Review who had never written a memoir before. Piepenbring says the reason why Prince chose him is still a mystery.
“I think what maybe led him to embrace someone like me who had never done anything like this before was that I tried to be as open as possible to writing a book that was in no way going to be a conventional memoir,” he says.
Prince wouldn’t settle for “a mere autobiography,” Piepenbring says. He wanted something more than that.
“He wanted something that would break the mold of the genre and that would have people talking,” Piepenbring says. “And I think even more than that, that would inspire people, especially young black creatives, musicians, artists, to make art that they felt had no debt to anyone. That was truly one of a kind.”
The finished product asks what the book could have been if Prince had the chance to finish writing it himself, Piepenbring says.
“It's almost a book about a hypothetical book,” he says. “It really had to have this majesty to it. He's royalty after all.”
On how Prince writes about his parents in the book
“I think like many of us, as Prince grew older, he was more aware of himself as his parents' son. I think he really regarded his parents as the two poles of his being. They were always inside of him, both of them, kind of competing for the primary role. So on one side, you have his father, a very disciplined man, dedicated with an unimpeachable work ethic. On the other hand, you have his mother, a much more spontaneous woman, someone who's almost irrepressibly free, who doesn't want anyone telling her what to do or why or when. You see both of these in Prince. I mean, that work ethic is absolutely there. When you think about the song, 'The Beautiful Ones,' I've read that he recorded that song in a single 17-hour session. And he's recording all of the parts by himself. He's writing the lyrics. He's writing the music. He's doing the mixing. I don't think he could have done something like that without that part of his father in him really pushing him to keep at it. But when you hear the kind of emotion and that kind of unfettered emotion, that puts me in mind of his mother.”
On how his parents’ divorce influenced Prince’s music
“Because his parents divorce lived so strongly within him and really registered, I think, as one of the primary traumas of his life, he felt that he had this very ready access to heartbreak. And I remember him saying, because he could be very funny, too, of course, he would mime receiving a phone call from someone like a butler or something who had just heard one of his breakup songs and say, 'Well, sir, the flowers are dead. You've killed them.' That was something he was very proud of. He could write a love song or a breakup song that would kill the flowers.”
On Prince’s sense of gender fluidity
“Prince regarded himself as a man. He would always speak to me about his masculinity. I know that it was certainly imbued with large swaths of a feminine spirit or what he would call the feminine principle, which he thought underlined every solid community that he had ever encountered. He felt that it was always the women in the community who were really looking out for one another, who had each other's backs. The masculine would be a much more competitive, testosterone-driven energy given to sundering things rather than uniting them. And you're right. I think he felt both of those within him. I do sometimes wonder, had he been born in 2019, for instance, would he have been what we call gender fluid? But to my mind, he was always a man, just one with an unusually acute sense of the feminine and a real gift, I think, for crossing a bound that too many men are reluctant to cross.
“And even when he would ask me to transcribe these pages he had written, he was like, 'Well, if you're not going to do it yourself, I would prefer that you get a woman to do it.' Really, that's another reason why I didn't think I was going to get the job, that I wasn't a woman. You know, I was just a 29-year-old white guy from Brooklyn. It seemed like on every possible level it wasn't going to be me. So I try never to predict what Prince would do or say or think or feel because he really wasn't predictable in that way.”
On the parts of Prince’s life that he wishes he could have explored with him before his death
“I know that he regarded that Super Bowl show as a kind of summit or maybe a return to a summit he had been to before. And to see him playing 'Purple Rain' in the rain, I mean, it did seem like an almost divine moment. So, of course, I would have wanted to ask him about that. And of course, the death of his child, too. He and his first wife, Mayte, lost a child when the baby was only a few days old. I've always wondered what he made of it. To me, it seems like the great kind of unprocessed event of his life, something that must have been just utterly wrenching to him. And I just wondered, after so many years have past, what he would make of it. That's one of many things that I wish I could have gotten him on the record about.”
"Adore" by Prince — Tonya's favorite
This segment aired on November 4, 2019.
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