The Beautiful Ones is almost as enigmatic as its author. But if you can’t call it Prince’s autobiography, exactly, Dan Piepenbring — who went from assisting the music icon’s writing process to, after his death in 2016, combing through his archives — has compiled something pretty close: an intimate assembly of early interviews, photos, scrap papers, drawings, and lyrics. Piepenbring describes it as Prince’s memoir, “in that it is a record of his life and his thinking and his process.”
Although Prince’s estate prevented Piepenbring from doing all of his research at Paisley Park, they did set up a special site for him to look through scans of photographs and items they thought would be good to include in the book. “It’s a dangerous game to play ‘Prince Whisperer,’ because it’s easy to get it wrong,” Piepenbring explains. Instead, the author analyzed Prince’s writing and other work for “watchwords,” like “discovery, creativity, Minneapolis, intellectual property — things that had some kind of warmth or crackle to them, that were on that same wavelength.”
[Paper Bag Writer: Prince says “Do Me, Baby” was his first proper ballad. The lyrics being written down on the side of a paper bag “illustrates this penchant Prince had throughout his life to write on anything that was at hand,” Piepenbring says. Remarking on another particular archive find, a planner with various marked-up conversion tables at the end, Piepenbring imagines the singer thinking “I gotta get the lyrics to [Dirty Mind track] ‘Uptown’ down. This is all that’s around. Sorry periodic table of elements, sorry calendar, I’m just gonna write over this.”]
The Beautiful Ones‘ first section showcases Prince’s handwritten work on the book. “This is the way to get the purest sense of Prince, in his words, literally, as he wrote them,” explains Piepenbring, who then translates and complements the text with photos and annotations derived from conversations he had with the singer. “He was just so prolific, it seems like he just sat down, and these words just poured out of him. And you get that through the handwriting.”
While the book really only runs through to Prince’s thoughts about his 1984 album Purple Rain, the initial idea was for it to end on Prince’s 2007 Super Bowl performance, a career retrospective in its own right. With an artist prolific as Prince though, Piepenbring says in order to “tell the story of how [Prince] became himself, then we were going to have to stop it earlier than maybe we would have wanted to.”
[Good in Bed: “I’m just fascinated by his attachment to the bed in this early phase of his career, and his insistence on being documented in his bed, a sacred place where he was doing all this creative work,” Piepenbring explains. “The bedroom demo as an indie launching point is [now] pretty well known,” but was novel when Prince launched his career in 1978.]
With regards to The Beautiful Ones’ audiobook, Piepenbring believes that “it’s tough to imagine the book in anything other than the form we kind of settled on for it,” which in its nature is mixed media. There are plans for an audio version, though, rumored to feature women who were close to Prince voicing his portions of the book, with Piepenbring reading the introduction. “I think it could be really cool. But it will be sort of its own thing,” says the author.
[A Dirty Mind: “You can see him at work, you can see him trying to find new ways to present himself, to be a bit more alluring in one, a bit more aloof in the next,” Piepenbring says of the Dirty Mind album outtakes shot by Allen Beaulieu. All the minute differences and details, including the stockings, tell a story of how the musician wanted to portray himself. “He was always kind of questing for a new version of masculinity and you can see that in these pictures.”]
There are many reasons why The Beautiful Ones’ release is bittersweet. It continues Prince’s legacy and gives him a chance to tell his story in his own words, but also highlights the “contagious enthusiasm he had for working in this new media,” as Piepenbring puts it, that he never got a chance to further explore. “I have no doubt that he could have gone on to have this strange second act [as] a really good author,” the journalist laments. “He was just always letting his mind rove in strange places.”
The Beautiful Ones publishes Oct. 29.