ONE DAY, when the ’80s were in their infancy, I overheard some junior high classmates discussing a Rolling Stones concert they’d just seen, a few miles away, at the Los Angeles Coliseum. They weren’t talking about the Stones, though, but about someone named Prince, who had opened the show. This “freak” had worn fishnet stockings and not much more — and was greeted with a rain of garbage from the crowd before being booed off stage. I’m not sure exactly what that reception did to Prince, though it appears he was still steamed about it years later. I know what it did to me, though: I hauled ass over to the local record store to purchase Controversy, took it home, and unpacked it, literally and figuratively. Nothing was ever the same.
For much of my generation, blossoming into maturity in the age of Prince meant making a choice. You were either with Prince or against him. But I’d go further. Harold Bloom has argued that Shakespeare made us, creating the modern mind. Well, unless you were denied access to pop culture altogether, Prince made you, whether you’d joined the party or not, even whether you know it or not.
He did it, in part, through MTV. Despite the efforts of his rival Michael Jackson, no one was made for music television like Prince, with his slithery dancer’s body, outré confidence, and absolute genius for showmanship. When he hit MTV with “Little Red Corvette,” he was Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, shocking and seductive. And talk about brave. His mass debut included the line “Trojans and some of them used” — what? How did that even happen on television?
I saw a lot of shows as a rock critic in the ’90s — sometimes three or four a week — but I never saw anyone work a crowd like Prince. Even during his lulls in the ’90s, when his output was disappointing or just confusing, the audience was his instrument. He was a creator and a conductor, a manipulative and brilliant bandleader, a general master of everything that happened at his concerts. He worked the crowd into a unified funk frenzy. Perhaps the booing at that sad Stones show inspired Prince’s determination never to lose his grip on a crowd. He was going to control it like a snake charmer.
But who really knows what went on in Prince’s mind or soul? A number of recent books try to get at the essence of the man — his music, his personal life, his creative ambition. There’s Ben Greenman’s Dig If You Will the Picture (a brilliant title, if only they hadn’t continued with the grandiose anticlimax: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince), Prince’s ex-wife Mayte Garcia’s The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, and, from the end of 2014, Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain. All three books show that the man behind the music was — no huge surprises here — maddeningly complex.
Greenman’s Dig If You Will, written in the wake of Prince’s death, is often wonderful. Both a fan and a critic, Greenman, a New Yorker contributor who co-wrote Questlove’s memoir, has full Prince bona fides: he hung on through the star’s valleys as well as his peaks. He looks at Prince’s take on God and spirituality, on women and fans, and on the music industry’s power structure, teasing out deeper meanings by taking a magnifying glass to the stories within the songs. Greenman’s digressions can sometimes steer far from their course, as when he spends a very long and academic-feeling paragraph comparing Prince to William Blake in his chapter on the concept of self, but his book is a must for anyone who wants to get at what the contradictory, exhilarating, and subversive artist was all about. The book is especially insightful on the question of Prince’s sexual explicitness. We all know the man was naughty, but Greenman demonstrates just how completely unmoored he was from any standards of propriety or acceptability, and the effect that had on our culture.
In places, Greenman blends his deadpan analysis with Prince’s off-the-wall straight talk, and the results are hilarious. In describing “Joint 2 Joint,” a song about a one-night stand from the 1996 album Emancipation, Greenman flexes his muscles as a serious music critic. The analysis is long — the song is even longer — and wonderfully incisive. At the end is the punch line: “Prince goes downstairs for breakfast, accompanied by sound effects of cereal crunching and a reflection on both that cereal (he recommends using soy milk) and his one-night stand.” There is something glorious about Prince’s everyday approach to sweltering sexuality. Greenman tees it up perfectly, uncovering the beauty of the artist’s work from the years that his fans often dismiss.
As free as he was with sexuality (in his songs, at least), themes of power and control were always central to his work, and to his life. Often, his battles against power structures, especially against Warner Bros., turned off the press and his fans. When he decided to turn himself into a symbol, the press had a field day, each magazine and newspaper competing for the most dismissive moniker — now that they couldn’t use words to name him, they used them to mock him. It was one of the most spectacular celebrity backfires of the past 50 years.
There are some revelations about this period in The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, a wistful book by his ex-wife. Mayte Garcia asserts that Prince’s switch to ankh was a throwaway, barely thought about, and hardly an orchestrated celebrity power move. (The fact that dozens of newspapers and magazines received a copy of the symbol as a floppy disc hardly makes it seem like a toss-off, but who knows? Prince was the kind of figure who might move mountains on a whim.)
If fans buy this book to learn what Prince was actually like in bed, they will be sorely disappointed. Garcia shows Prince at his most vulnerable and tyrannical, but she doesn’t kiss and tell, except for one scene that reads like a transcript of a ’50s make-out session after a homecoming dance. The Prince who appears in these pages is demanding, jealous, and at times as irrational and determinedly loopy as Harry Potter’s Professor Trelawney.
More than anything, we get a sense of what life was like for a talented ingenue who got stuck at the powerless end of a power couple. Garcia is a winning narrator — she is kind and critical when she has to be — but her tale is heartbreakingly private. It doesn’t aim to capture the glory of the music or the creativity of the artist. An illustrative moment occurs when she takes a tour of Prince’s early studio, which had been converted into apartments. “At the time, I just thought the place was very cool,” she writes. “It didn’t occur to me until much later that he’d had a lot of women in that house before me. And after me. At least one during me.”
Garcia is too close. And as Prince often told his fans, drivers, et cetera, you don’t want to look into his eyes. Get too close and the magic is gone.
Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy, by contrast, is neither close analysis nor memoir. It is reportage, and it answers some questions about what Prince’s life would have been like before, during, and right after the explosion of the Purple Rain album, film, and tour. It discusses the important people — a motley crew of L.A. creatives (mostly female), music industry strongmen, and Minneapolis soul and funk players — who helped to define him. There’s plenty to chew on, from the description of Prince sitting alone with his spaghetti and orange juice, to him forcing his band to do the Jane Fonda workout, to his refusal to show up for “We Are the World” because he thought the song stank. Perhaps most glorious are the glimpses of the artist at work in the wee hours, in whatever makeshift studio he could rig up, because he was burning with inspiration.
Prickly, unfettered, and brilliant, Prince essentially conjured himself out of thin air. There was a backdrop of funk and soul (Sly and the Family Stone, for one), a smattering of rock heroism (Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix), but he was his own creation. Much has been made of his gender fluidity, but maybe not enough: he redefined acceptable sexuality for an entire generation. As much as Sinatra defined the GI Generation and the Beatles defined the Boomers, Prince made us Xers.
I never cry when celebrities die, but it was hard not to shed tears on April 21, 2016. Prince had seemed such a fact, hardwired into my soul. The essential book on Prince has yet to be written, but these three volumes, each in its way, let us go back to when a diminutive man unleashed a galaxy of funk and knocked our world off its axis.
Sara Scribner is a Los Angeles–based librarian and writer. She has written about books, culture, and information literacy for Salon.com and the Los Angeles Times. Her work has also appeared in Mojo Magazine, Rolling Stone, GQ, Might Magazine, and the LA Weekly.