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In ‘This Thing Called Life,’ Neal Karlen captures glimpses of Prince’s humanity

Karlen’s ’80s and ’90s interviews with the reclusive rock icon led to a decades-long connection that forms the basis of a new biography.
Prince, shown in concert in 1985, is the subject of Neal Karlen's new biography 'This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey On and Off the Record.'
Prince, shown in concert in 1985, is the subject of Neal Karlen's new biography 'This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey On and Off the Record.' [ AP ]
Published Nov. 7, 2020

The bad mamma jamma we called Prince wasn’t human. Couldn’t have been.

Not the way he wrote funk, rock and R&B music, shredded a mighty guitar, pushed the cultural envelope and barely slept in the process. And that’s not fandom talking — it’s the portrait of the man delivered by one of the journalists who knew* him best, longtime Minneapolis writer Neal Karlen.

That asterisk is there for a reason. Karlen would be the first to tell you that no one knew Prince, that in fact Prince was “the loneliest soul I’ve ever met,” as he writes in the opening pages of his new biography, This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey On and Off the Record.

Yes: Another posthumous Prince biography. Like there haven’t been enough. But this one’s different. From the early ’80s to the mid-'90s, Karlen was pretty much the only major music writer Prince talked to, and their conversations ended up in a handful of Rolling Stone cover stories. But their connection ran from their childhoods growing up near one another right up until Prince’s death in 2016, more than two decades after Karlen stopped writing about him professionally.

Neal Karlen, author of "This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On and Off the Record," will be a guest at the 2020 Tampa Bay Times Virtual Festival of Reading.
Neal Karlen, author of "This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On and Off the Record," will be a guest at the 2020 Tampa Bay Times Virtual Festival of Reading. [ Michelle Kasimor Streitz ]

Karlen is hesitant — deeply so — to call their relationship a friendship. Prince had employees, lovers, worshippers, heroes and enablers. Friends? Karlen doesn’t think so. Prince had an agenda with everyone, and it mostly seemed about maintaining the mystical, alien aura he kept for life. For many years, Karlen assumed he was just another scribe with whom Prince treated truth like a toy, even after the singer asked him to collaborate on a rock opera, and later to write his secret will.

“For Prince’s entire lifetime he pretended he was Prince," he writes. "And it worked.”

Honestly, it sounds infuriating. And yet Karlen never hung up when Prince kept calling him at weird hours, for years, to talk about this and that and the other, even when he knew Karlen was done writing about him.

Karlen pulls from these conversations to analyze Prince through many lenses: Minneapolis, race, basketball, boxing, pro wrestling, Jehovah, his 97-year-old former music teacher, his frequent use of the phrase “mamma jamma.” He examines the devastating imprint left by Prince’s scoundrelly father and dead infant son, both of which haunted him forever. He concludes that to come merely close to knowing Prince, you must first know all of these things, because they offer some of the clearest glimpses into the barely human rock star almost no one else saw.

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Neal Karlen has written "This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On and Off the Record."
Neal Karlen has written "This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On and Off the Record." [ St. Martin's Press ]

It may be impossible to write, in Karlen’s words, “a historically sound and journalistically accurate account and accounting of Prince, who ranks among the most seemingly unknown and unknowable people of our time." But Karlen does impart the sensation of riding shotgun with Prince, sometimes literally, as he culls from notes and recordings of their many drives around Minneapolis, revisiting shared haunts and the ghosts that lived there.

Compared to other recent Prince projects, This Thing Called Life feels less like an opportunistic cash-in. It feels like a book Karlen had to write in order to understand himself, to process what this Mozart-level musical deity got out of being around him. To process Prince’s death, he looks inward without it feeling navel-gazey — just like he weaves in May’s Minneapolis area death of George Floyd without it feeling like forced cultural commentary. (You really do wonder what Prince might’ve said about it all.) All of it feels absolutely necessary to understand Prince, the world he grew up in, the galaxy he inhabited, and why he kept the company he did.

Sometimes with these icons, it takes a silver-screen closeup to rekindle the cultural conversation around them. Someday, there may be a Prince biopic (no, Purple Rain doesn’t count), and in terms of source material, you could do worse than This Thing Called Life. Like The End of the Tour for David Foster Wallace, or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for Mr. Rogers, the device of trying to have a journalist crack the code — a man trying to look a god in the eye — might be the only way in.

The problem, of course, would be finding someone to play Prince, and that’s never going to be easy. The artist was simply not human.

This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey On and Off the Record

By Neal Karlen

St. Martin’s Press, 352 pages, $29.99

Times Virtual Festival of Reading

Starting Nov. 12, watch an interview with Neal Karlen at festivalofreading.com.

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