The relatively unknown co-author of the highly anticipated – and predictably mysterious – Prince memoir has written a piece in this week’s issue of the New Yorker detailing how he got the gig, and offering a few hints of what to expect.
Titled “The Book of Prince,” Dan Piepenbring’s article recounts how he was one of two "extremely unlikely" writers selected from a list sent to the singer by the publisher, Spiegel & Grau (a Random House imprint). Both choices had one thing in common: Neither of them had written a book before. Prince cited Miles Davis’ autobiography, John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me” and the free-form, philosophical Richard Linklater movie “Waking Life?” as influences he would like to emulate in the book.
“He offered only one formal guideline: It had to be the biggest music book of all time,” writes Piepenbring, a New Yorker contributor.
A rather standard rigamarole followed, with the writer being flown in and put up at the “unremarkable” Country Inn & Suites in Chanhassen near Paisley Park. Through a series of meetings/vettings, they discussed racism and music -- and especially racism in music -- at length. Prince also quibbled about some of the things Piepenbring wrote in a requested introductory piece about what Prince’s music meant to him.
“To call it heavy on flattery would be an understatement, and I regretted it almost immediately,” Piepenbring quips.
Once he got the job, he hung out more at Paisley Park – including a trek to see “Kung Fu Panda 3” at Chanhassen Cinema one night – and then accompanied Prince on the Australian dates of his Piano & a Microphone Tour. They were to meet and collaborate again after more stateside gigs on the tour. Then came the reports of a emergency plane landing after the Atlanta date. And then came the tragic news from Paisley Park on April 21, 2016.
“Prince had always embodied dualities,” Piepenbring tenderly writes. “Here was one more: he had told me that he was O.K., and he was not O.K.”
The story doesn’t detail how much of the book Prince wrote himself, how it was put together after his death, or even what exactly is in it. Piepenbring does hint at heavy input from his collaborator and repeatedly slips in praise about the parts he contributed to the book: “The pages were warm, funny, well observed, eloquent, and surprisingly focused,” he writes. “This was Prince the raconteur, in a storytelling mode reminiscent of his more narrative songs, such as ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ or ‘Raspberry Beret.’”
One Prince-penned passage is quoted in the New Yorker piece, a sweet one in which he recounts talking his dad, jazz pianist John Nelson, into seeing the “Woodstock” movie with him in 1970:
“The bond we cemented that very night let me know that there would always b someone in my corner when it came 2 my passion. My father understood that night what music really meant 2 me. From that moment on he never talked down 2 me.”
Childhood memories like that apparently came up often, including Prince’s first encounters with racism in Minneapolis. Here’s how Piepenbring (who’s white) recounts those conversations in the New Yorker article:
“His best friend growing up was Jewish. ‘He looked a lot like you,’ he said. One day, someone threw a stone at the boy. North Minneapolis was a black community, so it wasn’t until Prince started fourth grade, in 1967, when he and others in his neighborhood were bused to a predominantly white elementary school, that he experienced racism firsthand. In retrospect, he believed that Minnesota at that time was no more enlightened than segregationist Alabama had been; he’d sung scathingly about busing in the 1992 song ‘The Sacrifice of Victor.’”