Prince reveals his childhood memories in posthumous autobiography | Books | DW | 29.10.2019
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Prince reveals his childhood memories in posthumous autobiography

The artist had started working on his memoir before he died. "The Beautiful Ones" dives into his childhood, from his first kiss to his fondness for Superman. It also hits back at music critics and what they got wrong.

Four days before his death from an accidental drug overdose, Prince Rogers Nelson, the artist known simply as Prince, called the author he had commissioned to write his autobiography, Dan Piepenbring, to tell him he was feeling fine. At the time, news outlets were writing that a plane had been forced to land due to his poor health. The press always exaggerates his flu-like symptoms, Prince told the writer. The prolific musician was eager to discuss the details of the forthcoming memoir they were working on together.

On April 21, Piepenbring, like the rest of the world, was surprised by the news that Prince had been found dead in an elevator. He was only 57 years old and had been working feverishly on his autobiography, which was to be his last big project.

An expression of grief 

Piepenbring had worked closely with the artist for three months and decided to complete the work. It was published in English and German on October 29, three years after his death. The title, The Beautiful Ones, was chosen by the musician himself and is the name of a rock ballad on his hit album Purple Rain. Originally it was meant to be the working title, but after Prince's death, it stuck.

"For the rest of my life I'm going to be wondering what else there was to say, and what form the book could have taken if he'd lived," writes Piepenbring in the foreword. The book represents only a fraction of what it could have become and is both an expression of grief and a hymn to life, writes the author.

Read more: Iconic Prince items to be auctioned in New York

An image from The Beautiful Ones (1985 Allen Beaulieu)

The new book was released three years after the artist's untimely death

The white establishment had no idea

Prince was full of ideas — he'd had enough of making music wanted more than anything to write a book to show the world who he really was as a musician and as a person. He felt that white critics too often described his music with words that had nothing to do with him; they had no idea who he really was.

He lamented that his work had been attributed "alchemical qualities" and that some authors used the adjective "magical," which made him particularly angry, Piepenbring writes in the preface. Prince made it clear that funk is the opposite of magic: It's about rules.

A treasure trove full of memories

Long and intense discussions between Piepenbring and the artist lend the new book its authenticity. Piepenbring didn't want to publish what he describes as simple merchandising fodder, but rather to do Prince justice.

For months, he searched through the estate and eventually came across a treasure trove of items that Prince had kept from his childhood: his high school student ID, his father's wallet, numerous drawings, song lyrics, and photos. However, Piepenbring found nothing reminiscent of a diary. 

The book is divided into four sections, and in the almost 50-page introduction, the author talks about the book's origins, his numerous encounters with the charming and self-critical musician, the intimacy that developed between the two, and his shock upon learning of his death. Such reflections give readers a comprehensive picture of the artist known for being elusive.

Read more: Iconic Prince items to be auctioned in New York

Prince (picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library)

Prince was known for mixing multiple genres in ways that were new and unexpected

From Superman to his first kiss

The book includes more than 50 pages written by Prince himself, including his first memories and feelings of fondness for his parents. Five-year-old Laura was the first woman to kiss him regularly when they played house as kids. She said they were not the first interracial couple in Minneapolis, but that they were certainly the youngest.

In it, he also muses about his childhood enthusiasm for Superman, and why all superheroes are white. He talks about his parents' quarrels which led up to their divorce. Then there was his first performance at school — not as a musician, but as a tap dancer. He probably only got applause because he left the stage, he remarks.

It started in a basement

As a teenager in Minneapolis, Prince spent countless hours in the basement studio of DJ Terry "Motormouth," where he listened to songs by BB King, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and others for hours on end and, eagerly transcribed their lyrics. Later, he wrote his own songs, his voice being just one of many instruments he mastered. 

When he heard himself on the radio for the first time, Prince said he didn't recognize himself. Yet, fame followed quickly, with his career taking off when he was only 19.

Prince's musical legacy can be experienced in the recordings, photos and compositions carefully compiled from the musician's career and included in book. It is the real-time story of a boy, who, absorbed the world around him, already had an artistic vision long before fame defined him.

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