It wasn’t hard to be skeptical when Prince’s autobiography, “The Beautiful Ones,” was first announced earlier this year. In the rare interviews that he gave, the late artist was famously private, cryptic and confounding when it came to discussing his own life, often answering direct questions in confusing or oddly symbolic terms. The official description of the book — that it features “photos, original scrapbooks and lyric sheets written in Prince’s own hand, and the early pages of the memoir Prince began writing before his death” — lowered expectations even further, evoking a vision of a few dashed-off pages padded with artwork.
So it’s both a pleasure and a surprise to say that although “The Beautiful Ones” may not satisfy fans’ wildest dreams, it delivers much, much more than we had any reason to expect. As is clear from editor Dan Piepenbring’s very long intro (and a more-digestible recent New Yorker article), Prince took the project very seriously, and it shows in the work he delivered. Although the actual autobiography segment of this book ends at the end of Prince’s teens, it shines an intimate and revealing light on the least-known period of his life — his childhood — which is embellished with family photos, notes and other ephemera.
The book does not scrimp on detail: Prince’s handwritten manuscript, rendered in his famously precise cursive script (complete with his trademark “4”s for “for” and “eye” or symbols for “I”), is reproduced in full, and followed by the text in formal print. In it, Prince delves deep into his childhood, noting that his first memories are of his mother’s eyes and his jazz musician father’s piano playing. The family photographs from the era that show just how stylish his parents were; judging from the photos, he got at least some of his cocky and confident swagger from his mother. He recalls the sense of excitement around watching his parents getting dressed up to go out and the visions of his own it inspired: “Only thing better than watching Mother [and] Father getting dressed up 4 the night on the town was watching them leave. That’s where the Imagined Life began. A place where I could pretend dress-up & enter a fantasy of my own direction. A different storyline every time, but always with similar outcomes — I am always sharp & I always get the girl.”
He also wrote of a childhood obsession with “Superman,” noting “It’s funny to turn on the TV and in America you just see white people playing the heroes… That affects your self-image when you’re black and watching white heroes.” He also writes about his childhood nickname (“Skipper”), his first kiss, and the seizures he suffered until adolescence.
Things turned darker when Prince was 7: His parents split up, and he is unsparing in his depiction of his mother, with whom he initially lived before moving in with his father. “She was 2 strong & not always in a good way. She would spend up what little $ the family had 4 survival on partying with her friends, then trespass in2 my bedroom, ‘borrow’ my personal $ that I’d gotten from babysitting local kids, & then chastise me 4 even questioning her regarding the broken promise she made 2 pay me back. In hindsight, I am glad I was able 2 help put food on the table, but this was the 1st time I had ever had any real $ before & it felt amazing.”
Prince lived with his father — his “hero” — for just a few months before moving in with the family of his cousin and best friend, Andre Cymone, the original bassist in his band. At the same time, his musical talent was flowering, and he writes of his early influences (James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles and many others) and the guidance of a local DJ named Jerry “Motormouth” Mac. He also shows an early awareness of his own talent. “Everybody can point 2 at least one song that is ‘their jam’ & nobody else’s. The 1st time I knew I had written [one of those jams was ‘Do Me, Baby’ [released in 1981], a song whose intro made me feel the same way I felt the 1st time I heard ‘Sweet Thing’ by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan.”
Sprinkled in with these memories are recollections of high school and girlfriends from an otherwise ordinary teenage life, along with notes and sketches of imaginary album covers and press kits — which are like so many other teen fantasy sketches, except, well, they’re by Prince and they came true.
As he grows through his teens, so does his swagger, and the trademark Prince smirk begins to appear in photographs as Grand Central, his first serious band (featuring Cymone on bass and future Time frontman Morris Day on drums) grows in stature. However, Warner Bros. Records was interested in Prince as a solo artist, and he signed with the label in 1977 at the age of 19.
That period — from teendom to major label recording artist — is essentially where Prince’s narration ends, although there is his handwritten treatment of the “Purple Rain” film script, with its dramatically different original ending, included later in the book. To continue the storyline — which essentially ends in 1986, when Prince disbanded the Revolution — the book relies on his quotes from a wide variety of sources, including stage banter from his final tour in 2016, along with ample photographs, drawings and notes. The initial segment of that closing section is one of the most fascinating parts of the book: a reproduction of a photo album, with captions by a presumably young Prince, containing a couple dozen pictures from his trip to California to record his debut album, ranging from shots of him in the studio to candids of him and his friends.
While the photos, quotes and ephemera do a mostly satisfying job of concluding the book, the closing chapters are inevitably a bringdown after the revelations in the autobiographical section. But unless there are more pages lurking somewhere in Prince’s voluminous archives, this is all we’re going to get, and it’s a lot: “The Beautiful Ones” brings so much new information to light that it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed.