Don’t think of Dan Piepenbring as a Prince whisperer.
He has no idea why Prince plucked him out of obscurity in January 2016 to be co-author of his highly anticipated memoir.
“That’s the question of all questions,” he said over lunch recently in Minneapolis.
Maybe he’s just the last in a string of guileless young talents — a Dan Nobody — in whom the Purple One saw potential.
Piepenbring was a 29-year-old writer from Brooklyn with a well-placed literary agent. At Prince’s request, he submitted a short essay about his relationship to Prince’s music and three samples of his writing for the Paris Review, a venerable literary journal where he was web editor. He’d been a Prince fan since college at William & Mary but had seen the icon in concert only once, circa 2010.
One of two finalists for the project, he thought he flunked the in-person interview at Paisley Park; Prince told the white New Yorker he probably wasn’t right for the job because he hadn’t experienced racism. But a casual remark about parallels between the music and book industries captured Prince’s attention.
Over three months, he spent 10 to 15 hours with Prince, attended two solo piano concerts in Australia and a cameo performance in New York City when the book deal was announced.
Prince even phoned Piepenbring two days after the singer’s plane made an emergency landing in Moline, Ill., after an Atlanta concert. He told the writer he was all right “despite what the press might have you believe.”
Four days later, Prince was dead at 57 and Piepenbring was left to pick up the pieces. Working with Prince’s estate and his editors at Random House’s Spiegel & Grau imprint, he visited Paisley twice and viewed objects from its vault via e-mail. He did some fact-checking with Prince associates but no interviews that contributed content in the book.
“A good memoir is not going to be a tell-all in the conventional sense; it’s going to leave some mystery intact,” said Piepenbring, whose no-royalties contract was with Random House, not Prince. “I wanted to steer clear of more obituary-style kind of summative statements of his career or anything that would resemble the work of a critic.”
“The Beautiful Ones” was a doubly daunting task because Piepenbring was simultaneously writing another book, “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” based on 20 years of research by co-author Tom O’Neill. That book was published in July.
A Maryland native, Piepenbring is soft-spoken with a reserved, Midwestern-like personality, which belies his five years as a drummer in a punk-rock band (he didn’t tell Prince about that). He peppers his conversation with big words like “preternatural” and “sui generis” but doesn’t seem pretentious or presumptuous.
“I don’t think I’m a terribly overbearing presence,” Piepenbring said. “I would ask him questions, but not that many. I was trying with my silence and listening to just draw him out. My chief goal was to keep him talking. If I’d sit still for five seconds or 10 seconds, he’d eventually start to elaborate on a point he’d made.”
To round out the book, he sourced old interviews with Prince — from magazines, MTV and newspapers, including the Minneapolis Star — to produce lengthy captions on photos from the singer’s early career.
After immersing himself in the Purple World, Piepenbring feels Prince instilled something in him: “He has a way of making you believe that you’re capable of doing things that feel impossible.”