Six Bridges Book Festival: Dan Piepenbring
The Mystery Remains: Co-Writing Prince’s Memoir in His Last Days
As one of the most influential musicians of our time, Prince spread the funky gospel of love in all its forms. His frankness about sexual desire and experience was shocking to the 1980s world that saw him rise to mega-stardom. Self-appointed guardians of morality railed against his music even as his work shaped a young generation who learned through his funk fusions to love their physical bodies and to dance like the world was ending. Prince’s mystical vision of sex as an avenue to the divine as well as his attachment to Christian spirituality baffled critics, especially as his constantly evolving artistic perspective eluded easy definitions.
The intense, raw power of Prince’s music continues to make new fans with every generation. In late 2015, Dan Piepenbring was one of those zealous Prince fans. As a young writer and editor at the beginning of his career, he never would have dreamed that a stroke of fortune was about bring him into a close working relationship as a co-writer with Prince. But in only a few short months, that relationship would be tragically cut short by the artist’s unexpected death, and the memoir project would face an unknown future.
An unexpected honor for a young writer
Piepenbring is still grateful for the unlikely series of connections that led Prince to choose him as a collaborator over a number of better-known authors. Piepenbring’s literary agent knew of his diehard devotion to Prince’s music, so when it became known that Prince was looking for a collaborator to help write his memoir, the agent passed on the news.
“As soon as my agent let it slip to me that Prince was looking for a co-writer, he knew he had made a mistake!” Piepenbring said, smiling. “My agent told me, “I’ll put you on the list of potential collaborators, but I will point out that you haven’t published a book yet, and that reduces your chances to basically zero given the competition.”
But Prince didn’t play by everybody else’s rules.
“When Prince saw the list, which included some very well-known and experienced writers, he crossed off the names of everyone who had already written a book, leaving just two of us who had not,” Piepenbring said. “So, one cold night in January 2016, I sent in a statement about why I wanted to work on the memoir, and 48 hours later I was on a plane on my way to meet him. We started to work together immediately and continued until his death in April.”
A musical genius gone too soon
Prince’s untimely death caused shock and deep grief for people around the world, but for Piepenbring brought even more complications as well. For a time, there was no certainty that the project could even continue, as Prince left no will and an executor had to be appointed by the banks and courts. But even after the executor had given the go-ahead, Piepenbring still had to consider how to complete the project in a way that honored Prince’s artistic voice and his fans.
“When a lot of people heard this book was coming,” Piepenbring said, “their reaction was, ‘What? How could this even happen?’ Some were worried I was going to put words in his mouth. But we were able to structure it in a way to avoid that risk.”
The structure of the memoir works perfectly to convey Prince’s life through his own words about his youth, his own handwriting in lyrics and movie treatments, and photos and ephemera from his personal archives. The only section from Piepenbring’s perspective is an introduction and explanation of how the project developed.
Why Prince chose “The Beautiful Ones”
The title of the memoir was chosen by Prince himself based on one of his songs.
“He came up with “The Beautiful Ones” as his title long before I ever met him, but it took on new dimensions as we worked together,” Piepenbring said. “He felt that particular song had been so frequently misinterpreted when people had claimed the lyrics were about them and started the rumor mill. To Prince, that public reaction to the song was an emblem of everything people had wrong about him. “The Beautiful Ones” occupied a special and profound place in his catalog because it was about his parents. So at first, his use of that title was a reference to the world of his youth in Minneapolis that opens the book. But as he became interested later in addressing the music industry, “The Beautiful Ones” became a reference to his vision of a community of black artists who would be able to create their work without the industry getting in the way.”
Changing artistic perspective on spirituality and sexuality
Piepenbring knew that working with an artist legendary for his eccentricity and strong artistic convictions would be challenging.
“Capturing the balance between the sacred and the profane that always characterized Prince’s work was going to be one of the central challenges, especially because over the course of his career, he himself had been through so many evolutions in that balance,” Piepenbring said. “At the point when I met him, he had become very religious and would no longer play songs like “Darling Nikki” or “Head,” but I think there was a part of him that still retained pride in that part of his work. And he would still talk about sex when the subject came up as part of his past, and took a cheeky joy in relating episodes of discovery like his first childhood kiss with a white girl.”
Piepenbring followed Prince’s lead as they worked together. “I took his attitude as my beacon and let him set the tone. In the end, I found it easier than I had expected. He was willing to take in the total picture of his life.”
Though by 2016 Prince no longer approved of the most graphic sexual lyrics of his past work, he never rejected his more mainstream odes to desire and sex.
“His attitude toward a song like ‘Little Red Corvette’ was more accepting,” Piepenbring said. “With those songs that became his iconic hits, he knew they had entered the firmament of great pop songs. He understood that achievement and was proud of it. And because he did every track himself, those songs never grew stale over the years. He was a talented reinventor of his own music.”
Publishing in the aftermath of loss
Piepenbring can now reflect on the entire process of working with Prince, the shock of his death, and the aftermath of a publishing process that allowed not just Piepenbring but other fans to mourn the loss of an important figure in their lives.
“It’s been something of a rollercoaster. Predominantly it has been humbling,” Piepenbring said. “I’ve been very grateful to go through the whole process. At times I struggled with some fear—that the book would never happen, that we wouldn’t do him justice, or that the fans wouldn’t like it. But I’ve also felt deep and abiding joy—I thought it would be tragic to go through his archives, but discovering, say, the photo album he kept in 1978, after getting his first record deal, brought me to tears. The way that the album continued our discussions of his past brought me a feeling of being in dialogue with him, even after his death. It was an unsettling but very nourishing feeling – the blending of research with emotion.”
Meeting with fans on a multi-city tour after the book’s launch in October 2019 gave Piepenbring insight on the book’s reception by those who had loved Prince and his music.
“When the book came out, I did a tour including Toronto, New York, and London. I was a little nervous because Prince fans are very proprietary—everyone forms a unique bond with Prince because his work is so intimate for so many, and I didn’t want them to feel like I was dictating anything about him that would interfere with their own thoughts. But what I found was that people were still mourning, and to feel that the book helped in that process was amazing. I’ve made lots of new friends. It’s a very supportive group and my worries were unfounded. We’re all still trying to work through the puzzle of who and what he was as best we can.”
The mystery at the heart of Prince’s life and work
Piepenbring was careful in his work with Prince’s writing and his archives not to attempt to “explain” Prince or solve the enigma that the artist had always preserved at the center of his identity. That mystery was never intended to be solved by the memoir, as Prince had always protected the cipher of his mind and spirit as the source of his own artistic inspiration. “He could not help but be that way,” Piepenbring said. “If he had sat down and written a multi-volume autobiography of thousands of pages, you would close it and still have so many unanswered questions. A lot of the greatest artists are that way: no matter how much light surrounds them, the shadows always remain.”
Because of Piepenbring’s respect for those unsolved mysteries in Prince’s nature, he does not give standard critical evaluations of Prince’s place in musical history. “The more I listen to him the less certain in my answer I would get,” Piepenbring said. “All the shorthand critical summaries of the Beatles, for example, are true, and yet also totally insufficient. It’s tough to articulate where Prince’s wellspring of originality came from. Prince was such a quick learner that he was able to take new developments, like the complex synthesizers of the 80s, and understand how to use them. He fused synthesizers with the R&B sounds he grew up with and created a whole new sound.”
In the end, Piepenbring chooses to respect Prince’s protean and multifaceted vision by avoiding musical categorization and speaking instead about what he did for us through his music. “He was fearless in his way,” Piepenbring reflects. “He wrote of love and intimacy with such candor that he made people feel less alone.”
Join Dan Piepenbring at the Six Bridges Book Festival, where he will share more insight from his brush with the genius and mystery of Prince in his final months.
Dan Piepenbring is the coauthor and editor of The Beautiful Ones (2019), Prince’s unfinished memoir. He is also the coauthor, with Tom O’Neill, of Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties (2019). An advisory editor of The Paris Review, he has written for The New Yorker, The Intercept, 1843 Magazine, Bon Appétit, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
feature by Rosslyn Elliott