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Patreon Exclusive Review: The Beautiful Ones

The important thing about The Beautiful Ones is that it’s not Prince’s autobiography; nor is it a rough draft of his autobiography, or even a fragment of his autobiography. It is, in fact, a fragment of a rough draft–a first draft, at that!–padded with pages of ephemera from various files and personal effects found in Paisley Park after his death.

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Zach

By Zach

Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. Founder and editor, Dystopian Dance Party. Tweets @zchoskins.

4 replies on “Patreon Exclusive Review: The Beautiful Ones”

When I heard that Prince The Beautiful Ones, it was not a book that I was excited about. I knew the book would contain a lot of filler material to flesh out a book that had less than thirty handwritten pages. If there was a book that could be accused of being a post mortem money grab it might be this one for lack of material. It was published, according to Dan, to help liquidate the tax bill that the estate was facing. Since there was no will left behind by Prince, the need to take advantage of what he had written is understandable.

I went to a book store and saw the only copy they had. There were things I found attractive; the heft of the paper, the cover, aside from the ugly wallpaper, and the photos and the handwritten lyrics that I wanted to study more closely. I still didn’t buy it but I heard the local library had a copy so I decided I would borrow it.

Sadly, there are some that are of the opinion that Dan Piepenbring was not the right guy for the job. I guess he even wondered if he was. I always find it interesting that people who say they respect Prince for being a genius don’t think highly of the people he chose work with or those he chose to marry. Probably just jealousy. Prince did what he always seemed to do, find the most qualified, inexperienced nobody to do the job. He paid his “being given a chance” forward many times over and you don’t hear anything but gratitude from those who benefitted.

I find it interesting and notable that Prince, at the time the book is being discussed, is still grappling with how the combination of his parents shaped him. It helps to have read a lot of other material. Surely this book is not the first you would want to read about Prince. This book needs context. I find that The Beautiful Ones helps fill in gaps, possibly clarifies or gives a different understanding of his early years. The one we hear about the most and is always noticeably absent is his mother. I think what Prince included in this book clarifies and confirms that Prince’s early wounds came not so much from his relationship with each of his parents but from their dysfunctional relationship as a couple.

Both John and Mattie already have a short record of failed longterm relationships. John’s marriage had lasted eighteen years. I suspect that being married that long that the nurturing aspect was missing, having become less of a priority. Johns’s music side career was his passion and priority and was taking him outside of the home and taking his time away from his wife. The fact that after he had been divorced by his wife did not seem to have any impact on him. He reacted to the situation by jumping state lines into Northwood, IA to marry Mattie because MN law required a six month waiting period after the divorce from Vivian was finalized, a sign of immaturity on his part.

Mattie was quite a bit younger than John and what would make her attractive in the physical sense would make her unattractive in another way. In the fourth chapter, there is a handwritten note by Mattie to John of the type she would put in his lunch that is very telling. She is young and out of touch with herself and reality in general. She is not a woman that is ready or able to make her dreams come true or who has any that is worth running after. This is a sign of those times. There was not much available for women then besides finding their identity and support in their role as a wife and mother. She speaks of an idyllic relationship of the type you convey to people in Christmas letters or pictures; where happiness is based on dream homes, loungewear and a new hi-fi that she says John needs to purchase where they spin records to put them in the mood because she is so out of touch with her own feelings she needs someone else to conger up the words to say how she feels. (I have often seen greeting cards in this light) This note that seems to gush of love just masks how empty and undeveloped of a person she is and I don’t mean to disparage her. It is just where she is at. John was drawn to her physical appearance and how her singing voice made them seem like a good match. But John’s lifestyle was not going to mesh well with the wife/mother identity and she would blame John’s side career, the one that made him light up but was not their main source of income as the problem. There is little doubt that she would argue this viewpoint over and over again to the point where he was being shamed and feeling it. The reason I come to that conclusion is the very short chapter, New Beginnings.

Prince is thirteen. He is tired of his step-father, Haywood, and has little respect for him. I found Prince’s telling of the R-rated movies interesting because it is a different narrative from the one Prince told Chris Rock. But I guess that does not make what he said about his mother’s part in educating him with Playboy magazines untrue nor does this book’s info cancel out what we have heard. If anything, it says that she did not have a problem with Prince seeing R-rated movies. There is a confusing mix of things that Prince is being exposed to by his parents which is really a reflection of the culture in the U.S. during that time. It WAS confusing to children because the culture is a smorgasbord where it is difficult for children to sort out particularly when the gods are eating everything. But Prince sees his dad as a better compass.

Prince is thirteen. On page 101, Prince describes the event in his life when he is going to live with his father. He is dropped off at his father’s apartment, without a word spoken, to wait outside, not knowing then that he would be waiting for two hours because dropping him off at a later time supposedly might have inconvenienced his mother’s plans. This seems to be a passive-aggressive punishment of Prince’s choice to leave her home and move in with his dad. But it would seem he did not understand the “punchline.” He felt lifeless at first but then a sense of joy. He had a sense of hope to prove . . . . . that the name Prince was worthy of her love, admiration, and respect?????? What???

I am willing to bet that in the course of the fighting and arguing that John’s music career, his trio, and everything about that part of his life was attacked and John was left with a lot of negative emotions. If John had any residual, unresolved shame from his past, the passion for music and his delight in playing was his balm that was being judged by Mattie as THE PROBLEM when it was quite possibly her unfulfilled life that was more to blame for her unhappiness. Neither was willing to compromise because they could not see that there was a way to do it How many of us in our past saw people modeling conflict resolution and how to give up something for the good of all involved.

Prince was given his name by his father as a symbol (how ironic) of passing on his hopes and dreams that he was not able to fulfill in his own lifetime. Mattie was giving a clear message that John’s dreams and his talent were not worth his time and effort. She dismissed his desires. Ridiculed them. How did that make Prince feel about himself, his talents, his dreams, goals and the gift of his father’s legacy represented by his name which seemed to have been turned the color scar-lett by Mattie? He would later change that to the color of royalty.

I am always afraid of reading into stuff as if I am trying to jam something or someone into a shoe that I think should fit. But I cannot help but wonder if much of the manic pace of Prince’s creativity was driven by the shame and the need to prove to his “first love” that he would succeed at what she dismissed as not worthy of pursuing. This was over top of the shame he felt as an infant and very self-centered, young child as the result of the discord that resulted in stress and unhappiness. It is this kind of environment that causes one to get stuck in emotional development which is why we see the narcissism in Prince’s character and behavior.

Did Prince ever feel from his mother that she was proud of him or that she supported him in his endeavors? My guess is “no.” On her death bed she requests that Prince become a Jehovah’s Witness and he does. That, like his “work ethic” was a temporary fix for a much deeper problem that will only make things worse. (The abuse he subjected his body to and the ultimate death by an overdose of painkillers he self-administered) That is what addictions do. Mid-Westerners are very good at mistaking workaholism as a work ethic.

None of what I think or have put into words diminishes his talent. It is because of that talent that kept him going as a star for basically 40 years.

There are other things that I could go into as a result of reading this book and having my thoughts triggered. The word hero and Prince’s attraction to superheroes such as Superman or Batman. He called his father his hero which I really understand why Prince felt that way about his dad. Prince understood the power of mystery in the life of a superhero and modeled his life after this understanding. “I Would Die 4U” is very much about being a hero or even a superhero. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s something we cannot understand. Prince has a list of people he considers heroes. Prince becomes a hero to others by being a hero for himself. Prince sings David Bowie’s “Heros” as a tribute to David Bowie in his final tour. Hero in relationship to Prince is a strong theme.

That is some of what I gathered out of 28 handwritten and thankfully transcribed into type-face pages of Prince’s life in his words. I think I understand the movie Purple Rain more deeply and how the parents’ roles were switched to protect the guilty. But that is a few more paragraphs and I am done for now. Thanks for the space to express what I woke up thinking about what is now yesterday morning. Cheers!

Thank YOU for expressing it (and for your patience as I get back into the mode of reading and thinking about all this stuff after my end-of-year break). I completely agree with your evaluation of the book: it IS a cash-grab in the most literal (and unfortunately necessary) sense, AND it is invaluable to understanding the early years that shaped Prince into the person he became. I also am hesitant to read into or project too much onto these things, but as a divorced father myself the way both of his parents handled his custody after the divorce hit really close to home. I was struck by how, even in his late 50s, Prince was still making excuses for his dad’s behavior in particular; that hero worship was really strong, and you can see how fundamentally both it and his mother’s perceived neglect shaped him for the rest of his life and (unfortunately) right up to his death.

The handling of his custody is not something I had not thought about. There are some discrepancies about when his father left the home and when the divorce occurred but I have read John left when Prince was 7 and the divorce was finalized at age 10 as the most consistent recall. So three years in limbo with mom taking her son and daughter out of their REM sleep and using them to tug at his heartstrings over the phone to try to get him to come back to her. But after the finalization, where was the court to check up on Prince’s as well as Tyka’s wellbeing?
Absence in the story does not mean there was no intervention. The mind is very good at blocking things out that we can’t handle. But one sure gets the feeling that there wasn’t any.

On the positive side, when I was thinking about the impetus of arguing and fighting in the Nelson household over John’s music career, those thoughts took me to the realization that John must have been a very talented musician. Knowing where he came from, his tumultuous upbringing and poverty that went along with sharecropping, John moves to Minneapolis. finds a job and finds the time at the age of twenty to learn how to play the piano well enough to get paid for gigs at local clubs. He then forms a band, Prince Rogers Trio, and makes it in the local club scene until his style of music was pushed back behind strippers. That had to be humiliating for him. But you really see the difference in a career that began at 20 and one that began at age 7. It is sad that he did not get a sense of his own accomplishment because it is quite substantial. He is a part of the Minneapolis Sound music tree! Along with the disappointment, one senses also the jealousy of John toward his son, a mixture of disappointment, pride, jealousy, happiness, struggling with unrealized dreams which may explain the on-again-off-again relationship Prince had with Dad, who could only be counted upon when it suited him. Yet, I think it is sad that an album of John’s original compositions did not get produced by his son during John’s lifetime.

Prince was his father’s son who also chose music as his higher priority over human relationships because that is what John had to give his son. And if John had not been so “bold” and determined to realize that part of his life as a musician and composer, Prince would not have realized his talent and have the same audacity to think he would someday be the man of his dreams. It is in understanding the boldness of John Nelson that I understood how solidly “When Doves Cry” was the true story of Prince’s childhood narrative and how it does not fit with the narrative of his Purple Rain parents. Frances L. was hardly bold, seeming more bitter and filled with self-pity. And how could his mother be satisfied with him beating up on her both physically and emotionally? Quite frankly, I believe the roles were reversed in the Purple Rain version. That makes more sense. Think about some of the things Frances L says to his wife . . . That sounds similar to the issues that Mattie had with John’s career that took him out of the home and had him running around at night. I guess it was different when she was the one who he was running around with when he was married to Vivian. And how was that going to change with her being his wife?

And I think blah blah blah blah blah . . . . . . Yeah Yeah uha uha

There was not a lot of content to the book but what is there seemed to tie up some of the loose threads or sharpened the picture a bit more. I think reality makes a better origin story. But for the sake of the privacy of the family, I understand the switcheroo. Do you ever have trouble stopping writing because I am having trouble right now so I do believe I will STOP!

Boy, I did a lousy job of proofreading this comment. I forgot to delete paragraph seven because of TMI that was not part of the point I was trying to make. But another reason why Prince did not like Haywood and why he left home.

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