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Prince Wanted To 'Break The Mold Of The Memoir,' Says His Co-Writer

Prince performs during the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show in Miami, Fla.
Jonathan Daniel
Getty Images
Prince performs during the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show in Miami, Fla.

Dan Piepenbring was a 29-year-old editor of the literary magazine The Paris Review in 2016 when he met Prince for the first time — and agreed to help the musical icon pen a memoir. It was the assignment of a lifetime for a writer who had not yet published a book, but Prince wanted someone he could open up to — and Piepenbring fit the bill.

"If there was any advantage to the kind of guilelessness that I brought to our conversations, it was that it let me listen to him very openly and without judgment," Piepenbring says. "He didn't want someone who was going to be judging him for wanting to break the mold of the memoir."

But Prince died from an opioid overdose on April 21, 2016, just a few months after that initial meeting, leaving Piepenbring to finish the project alone. At first, he wasn't sure how to continue. Then he visited Paisley Park, Prince's estate outside of Minneapolis, and he began to see a path forward.

While sifting through Prince's belongings, he came across a collection of handwritten lyrics that had been clipped together. The songs included "1999," "Little Red Corvette" and other hits that spanned Prince's career.

The pages, Piepenbring recalls, "were all alive with these cross-outs and revisions and erasures. ... They seemed the perfect testament to his creative process, which is something that he had wanted to bring across in the book."

Looking back, Piepenbring says, "that was one moment where we knew that we could carry forth, that we could make the book happen, even in his absence, because here he was in these pages."

The new book, The Beautiful Ones, includes pages Prince had already written, as well as an essay by Piepenbring about working with Prince. It also contains photos of Prince, handwritten song lyrics and images of items Piepenbring found in the vaults at Paisley Park.

Interview Highlights

On why Prince wanted to write a memoir

I do think he was maybe aware of the fact that he was growing older, of his mortality, of his legacy, and I think he was bringing renewed attention to the role that his parents and his past had played in shaping his psychology, and informing his creative identity. I think that he saw a book as a chance to explore those ideas with some depth that maybe would not be available to him in music.

I know that toward the end of his life he was also sort of experiencing a second act as an activist, and he was very politically aware where maybe once he had not been. He was a huge supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. When Freddie Gray was murdered by police in Baltimore, Prince went and played a show there and he even wrote a song called "Baltimore" that is really the most straight-ahead protest song in his catalog. And I think he saw, having lived through so many political crises and having developed such sharp ideas about how to thrive as an African American creative in America, that he saw the memoir as a way to really address that with more candor than would be possible in his music.

On Prince's parents

They really formed the two poles of his being. And he said in my last conversation with him, four days before he died, that that was really one of the central dilemmas of his life. He said that he liked "order, finality and truth"; those were all things that he ascribed to his father. But if a DJ put on something funky, he was going to want to dance, and that would be his mother's influence.

His mother, in these pages, emerges as a very free-spirited, almost headstrong woman, someone who was irrepressibly free, I think, and who would not allow herself to be told what to do or how to do it. And, of course, we see that time and again in Prince's career. But his father was a much more disciplined, religious man, someone who worked two jobs and one as a musician at nightclubs and the other at the Honeywell factory in Minneapolis. He was concerned with just getting food on the table and keeping the trains running on time. And you see that in Prince too. That vast work ethic, that commitment to making things happen. So I think, to his mind, he was always trying to reconcile the way that those two came together in him, and I think he felt the tension there a lot. And that's something that he would explore throughout his career.

On Prince having epilepsy as a young child

It was very early on, before he was maybe even 10 years old. ... So I think it was a very brief period, but he writes about it with such depth in the memoir pages, the feeling of the blackouts. And he draws a link between his early experiences with epilepsy and his creative life. I think he felt that he had such an overactive imagination putting himself in all of these fantasies that maybe in some ways, it was that overheated aspect that was causing him to have these blackouts. And he urged me to research epilepsy, urges the reader to research epilepsy and its link to creatives, because to his mind there was definitely something going on there. But it's very touching to see him describe the way his parents, especially his mother, would care for him when he was suffering from these [episodes]. And he also saw it as a way that we could blend our voices in the book. This is one of a lot of ways that he wanted to innovate on the page. He thought maybe we could use the blackouts as a way to switch between my voice and his.

On what Prince was like in conversation

When [Prince] locked eyes with you, he could make you feel like you could do things that even five minutes before would have seemed impossible.

He was always framed by the pageantry of his music or his performances. So to hear his voice and his voice only in a very quiet room was, in itself, a pretty remarkable thing. And he was just a very smooth conversationalist, someone who really was not afraid to get carried away in various trains of thought. I loved how digressive he could be in conversation, how discursive, and I think that that really let him feel like he could experiment with the shape of the book and to just riff with me about what it might be. Was it going to be an autobiography? Was it going to have a handbook component where he could really instruct people on his musical philosophy? And how would our voices mix in it? These are all things that we entertained. And when he locked eyes with you, he could make you feel like you could do things that even five minutes before would have seemed impossible. He was a very generous conversationalist in that way, a very charitable interlocutor.

On Prince's clothes and fragrance

When I saw him, he tended to be fairly dressed down for him. But there was still such care put into his appearance. Even if it were just in his hotel room that we were meeting, and there was no chance of anyone being around, he would have a full outfit and his Afro would be picked-out, and he would certainly exude a fragrance. He was always a very perfumed man, and I struggle to describe his scent, but after he died, when I saw his wardrobe again, it still exuded that scent, but, of course, without that extra dimension that comes from it being on the skin as well. And I remember being just bowled over with sadness to smell him on his clothing still.

He would wear things like a draping rainbow top with his own face on it, his own illustration of his own head, or he would wear a matching sweatsuit, almost in this very lovely sienna color, with beaded necklaces and a beanie. And then when he wanted to go out, he would add a pair of leather gloves that had his symbol on it, and, of course, this cane that he was carrying toward the end of his life that also had his symbol on it and had this intricate pattern etched into the steel or the metal.

On the last conversation he had with Prince, four days before he died

He just wanted to call to tell me that he was OK. This was toward the end, when his plane had had to make an emergency landing. He had just made what would turn out to be his last public appearance, and I think there was a lot of speculation in the press that something might be wrong. And he told me, "No, I just wanted to say that I'm all right."

And then immediately he returned to the theme of his parents ... that "central dilemma," as he called it. He also wanted to talk about the idea of cellular memory. This idea that maybe in his cells, his literal body, in his genes, he had inherited the memories and traumas of his parents. And I think he found that something that really aligned with his religious views and with the feelings he'd been carrying around for his whole life about the way his mom and his dad lived inside him.

On Prince's death, which was caused by an overdose of Fentanyl-laced Vicodin

I saw no evidence of [opioid use] ever. And I was just gobsmacked when that news came out, because it did not square at all with the man I had met, who was so sunny and who would sometimes be literally bouncing on the balls of his feet. I remember once we were in that elevator at Paisley [Park] — the same one where he would later be found — and he said, "You've got me all hopped up on this industry talk. I can't wait to write about the music industry and my mother." And to think that in that same space he would later be found dead — it's just something that I could not imagine. So I never had any idea. He was so vivacious and put so much care into everything he said and did that I really I had no inkling of what he was up against.

On how Prince crafted his persona

He was very adamant that this persona and this mystery that surrounded him was something that he really had engineered. It was something that he worked on the same way he worked on his technical craft. He had a very clear idea of the value that existed in letting the world know that you weren't going to show them everything, and I think almost mimicking the way we discover ourselves.

He, until the end, as with you and I, never really fully understood himself. And I think if you can reproduce that sense of mystery that you feel about your own self in performance or in your music there's such a gravity in that. And it really attracts people, because they want to know more without even knowing why or without knowing what might be hidden. So I think he was very astute at understanding the iceberg of the self, and knowing what should be submerged and what should be above water.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.