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REVIEW: Prince by Matt Thorne

December 23, 2012

Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad

IN his epic biography of Prince’s music, Matt Thorne has achieved a level of detail that would boggle the minds of even those with the most purple of souls. In Prince, Thorne does not tell the story of the man behind the music, but of the music itself, with an examination of every piece of music the Purple One has ever recorded, performed or written.

This is not a conventional biography — all personal information provided in the book is closely connected to the music that was being created at a particular time. Thorne speaks with a dazzling array of people about Prince, the most important of whom are the musicians who worked with him. He acknowledges the limited patience Prince has for critics, writing early in the book, “as far as Prince is concerned, the only person who knows anything about this music is Prince. He was done with critics as early as 1982 [...] and he never misses an opportunity to remind the lowly writer that he has little regard for anyone who spends the majority of their time at a desk. To the Detroit DJ, The Electrifying Mojo, Prince described writers as ‘mamma-jamma(s) wearing glasses and an alligator shirt behind a typewriter’.”

Thorne reports from many people connected to Prince in various capacities — Revolution members Wendy and Lisa who were a part of the band during Prince’s best known and most commercially successful Purple Rain era (now music royalty in their own right), prior publicists, agents and even muses.

Though Thorne makes it clear that Prince mythologises his own past, a great many of the people who knew Prince professionally are candid with Thorne, resulting in many little windows into the life of one of the world’s most reclusive pop stars. One-time manager Alan Leeds tells Thorne how the band made fun of Prince when he wrote “When Doves Cry,” which became the bestselling single of 1984: “Everyone was teasing him about the fact that there was no bass on the record, saying ‘How are you going to have a hit record without a bass?’ And he was boasting about how only he could do it”. And like all the people Thorne speaks to, Leeds concedes to Prince’s immense talent and skill: “But all I remembered was that simple little piano hook and I knew it was going to be a hit”.

The main problem with understanding Prince is that he doesn’t want to be understood. He’s never been forthright, his actions are often tricky and strange, and music, it seems, is his filter for conversation and his method of social interaction. Many will recall the seven years he spent with his name an unpronounceable glyph (later identified as Love Symbol #2) in an attempt to put an end to Warner Bros profiting from any and all work he produced while under contract to them. Thorne does not attempt to explain away Prince’s behaviour, instead talking of this conflict in relation to the music Prince was making.

The clearest insight from Prince’s inner circle about the strange name change situation comes from Thorne’s conversation with Prince’s publicist at the time, Chris Poole, who remembers thinking the move was “barking but genius”. Poole continues, “And it was quite fun to be involved in something like that because no one had done anything like that before. There was this theory that if he wasn’t Prince anymore, he wouldn’t be bound by his record contract with Warner. He had been reborn, Christ-like, with a new name, a new identity”. Instead of going to court, Prince took a far more interesting route and started a vital conversation about artists’ rights and the ownership of music. The entire stunt paid off in a way when the next stage of his “slow emancipation from Warner Bros” turned out to be a giant success: the independently released single, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” was Prince’s first number one hit in the UK, and the biggest hit he’d had in years.

Like any true fan, Thorne does not limit himself to the more commercially popular music, spending equal energy on lesser known and even officially unreleased songs, which immediately makes his reader want to listen to all of Prince’s music again, with a freshly tuned ear. There are a great many complicated, contradictory themes in Prince’s music (and hundreds of unreleased songs), with Prince often recycling his own music a great deal, cannibalising earlier ideas, picking apart semi-produced arrangements or partially completed lyrics and putting them back together in different ways for different songs or performances. The person who explains this process the best is probably Brent Fischer, the son of the legendary composer and orchestral arranger Clare Fischer who was the only person to have worked with Prince as systematically and for as long as he did — perhaps, because they never met and only communicated via songs. Brent Fischer’s stories stand out from the others’ in Prince, even though Brent himself only met Prince briefly many years after working on his music.

While spirituality has always been present in Prince’s music, a major change came into his attitude and performances when he became a Jehovah’s Witness, reportedly after being introduced to the faith by long-time hero Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. Thorne does not venture too deeply into Prince’s theological evolution and this is perhaps the book’s only deficit, since Prince’s religious beliefs play such a heavy role in his evolution as a creative artist: he has dropped his more risqué songs and accompanying antics from performances, he has stopped cursing, and rumour has it, has even been door to door delivering tracts of the religious magazine, The Watchtower. Thorne does mention Wendy and Lisa’s opinion that religion was simply part of showmanship for Prince, that he himself was confused about his faith, which perhaps explains why the book stays away from detailing this aspect of Prince’s work, as it could be further confusing.

That Matt Thorne is a Prince fanboy cannot be denied — there is no way this book is anything other than a fan obsessing about his personal pop deity. But Thorne is also an award-winning literary fiction writer, who creates an arresting narrative about an intriguing creative personality. Thorne is also a disappointed fan, one who has seen Prince rise to and fall from such great heights that he is unable to be indulgent about his musical failures. Thorne attended 19 of the 21 Nights concerts at O2 in London and multiple after shows; he saw Prince perform at PaisleyPark and has reached his conclusions by listening to every piece of music created by Prince that he has been able to find. This is a book by a fan, for fans: and if you are one it will make you sing the songs you know with a renewed joy — and weep for a vault’s worth of one’s you will never hear.



By Matt Thorne

Faber, UK

ISBN 0571273491

576pp. £18.99