When Prince died in April 2016, he seemed to have a lot of creative energy left in him. He was recording new music and was still mentoring younger artists. He was excited about a new way of performing he’d developed, playing shows with just a piano and a microphone, and he was preparing to write a memoir called The Beautiful Ones, looking back on the remarkable life he'd lived. Losing him was sad not just because of his extraordinary body of work, but because his story was still unfolding. This week's issue of The New Yorker offers a closer look into that period of Prince's life with a beautiful and sad story by Dan Piepenbring, the co-writer of that autobiography, which is set to come out in October.
Piepenbring starts with a bit of backstory on how he got involved with Prince's plan to write a memoir in the first place. It was, like all things Prince, idiosyncratic. A literary agency apparently sent Prince a list of potential writers, and the only two he was interested in working with were the ones who’d never written books before, though they were intimately familiar with his music. So he had Piepenbring and another writer send him personal statements about what his work meant to them.
Prince flew Piepenbring out to Paisley Park a day after receiving his statement. They felt a connection in that initial meeting and talked about Prince's aims for his book. “I want something that’s passed around from friend to friend, like—do you know [the Richard Linklater film] Waking Life?” Prince said. “You don’t show that to all your friends, just the ones who can hang.” They talked about racism and the importance of owning the rights to your artistic work.The next day, Prince invited him to a private screening at a local cinema. They watched Kung Fu Panda 3.
The three months between the time they met and Prince’s death seemed both heavy and wonderfully strange. Piepenbring says he was never formally offered the gig writing the book, but they soon started the work. "Many Prince associates have a similar story: they were never officially hired," he wrote. "Prince simply told them to show up again, and they did."
Throughout the story, Piepenbring paints Prince as funny, loving, and sly. It was the two of them against the publisher, Piepenbring writes, united to make a weird and cool book. But then Prince passed unexpectedly. Piepenbring says it was hard to wrap his head around the loss, at least at first. "It was hard to reconcile the sunny, puckish, solicitous man I met with the one described in news stories and police reports, who could be unyielding, furtive, and willfully opaque," he wrote. "Prince had always embodied dualities. Here was one more: he had told me that he was O.K., and he was not O.K."
It's worth reading Piepenbring's whole piece. It's a loving look an artist who kept the media and the broader public at a distance for much of his life. It's easy to look at his work and see that Prince was a special person, but there are still precious few stories that show what it was like to actually spend time with him.