Nearly a year has passed since the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, and two things are clear:
1. We mortals will never fully understand his mysterious life or unique artistic genius.
2. We'll never stop trying to figure him out anyway.
The latest in a stream of books attempting to clear the purple haze around Prince is Ben Greenman's Dig If You Will the Picture, which came out April 11, just before next week's anniversary of Prince's death at 57.
In Dig If You Will the Picture — excellent title, cribbed from the lyrics to When Doves Cry — Greenman writes as both well-versed critic and diehard fan, compiling a work that's part biography, part scholarly text, even a little bit memoir to enlighten the enigma that was Prince.
"It's an attempt to suture the laceration left by his death, to repair the rip in the world," writes Greenman, a New Yorker contributor and novelist who has co-authored memoirs with Brian Wilson and George Clinton. "It's an investigation. It's a celebration. In some ways, it's a frustration as well."
It's only a frustration if you came looking for easy, breezy reading, because this book goes to some pretty heady places.
Leaning on books and profiles already out there, Greenman recounts Prince's early life, influences and career in dutiful detail. It's all useful and informative, and leaves plenty of room for Prince stories, and lord knows the world will never tire of Prince stories (such as details of his mutually respectful but creatively not-so-fruitful relationship with Miles Davis). And Greenman dissects B-sides, bootlegs and later works with as much intensity as Purple Rain or Sign o' the Times, if not more.
But that's not really what this book is about. These are just the basics Greenman wants you to know before he starts coloring outside the lines, like Prince did. "He created the impression that anyone who followed him into the heart of his puzzle was capable of the same range and depth," he writes. And so Dig If You Will the Picture doesn't serve up a convenient throughline from album to album, era to era. Instead it's a hopscotch matrix of mini-essays that examines Prince from every possible lens and angle.
Ten pages go to the properties of Prince's music, from his percussion to his guitars to his screams and lustful falsetto. Seventeen cover sex in his lyrics and persona, including how his flamboyant image inadvertently helped destigmatize homosexuality in the '80s. Six go to his work with Morris Day and the Time, more to his many other proteges (including Jill Jones, the only singer Greenman argues "produced an album that could stand proudly alongside his own body of work"). Twenty-two of the most revealing go to Prince's battle with Warner Bros. and his decision to rebrand as a symbol. A whopping 25 cover "virtue and sin in his music," an intense dissertation that could fly as a college thesis. It's a bit like a rummage-store bin of Prince insight: You want it, it's in there, but you gotta go digging.
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This is not to discount Greenman's considerable literary touch. In qualifying Prince's brilliance, he references Sartre and Blake and DeLillo, Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 14th century Persian poet Hafiz, a Benjamin Jowett translation of Plato — references not often found in pop criticism. He plucks insight even from Prince's flimsiest television appearances. An early gig on American Bandstand portrayed him as "a small weather event of insouciance, all hair flips and doe eyes ... calculated to increase his mystique." A 1996 Today interview with Bryant Gumbel, conducted after Prince's infant son had died but the world did not yet know it, is touching in retrospect as the singer, speaking "slowly and quietly," relied more than ever on that mystique to mask his mourning.
For all his fandom, Greenman concedes Prince suffered from "recurring self-indulgence" and "reluctance to establish limits for himself" that muddied any close examination of his musical legacy. He had a complicated and not always successful relationship with commerce and technology. And his catalog is so dense it can, to a neophyte, seem impenetrable.
Dig If You Will the Picture is also dense; only pick it up if you're ready to dive in deep. But at some 260 pages, plus an appendix, it's not such a daunting mountain. Much as Prince challenged his collaborators to rise to his level, Greenman will challenge you to reconsider your perception and interpretation of the man and his music.
Will you understand Prince better when you're done? Yes. Not fully, of course. Never fully. But it'll always be fun to keep trying.
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.