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The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988
New Prince Biography Excavates the Man and Troubled Past Behind the Myth
When we think of Prince today, it’s easy to think first and foremost of his heroic performance at the 2007 Super Bowl, playing “Purple Rain” as buckets of rain fell from the Miami skies. It’s easy to focus on his musical virtuosity and the fact that he wrote, played, and sang virtually every note on his 39 studio albums. It’s fun to recall that (fabricated) anecdote about Eric Clapton, and how when someone asked him what it was like to be the best guitar player in the world, he supposedly said “I don’t know. Ask Prince.” We prefer not to think about the fact that Prince died of an opioid overdose and not of natural causes, or of the traumatic fires in which he and his various personae were forged. As with all legends lost too soon, we airbrush his legacy for our own comfort.
Alex Hahn, the writer of what is arguably the quintessential Prince biography (2004’s Possessed) is the exception to these rules. Hahn was celebrating his 50th birthday on April 21st, 2016—the day his idol died. “The artist who had most defined my life was gone,” Hahn writes in the forward to The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988, his new book about The Purple One. Co-written with Laura Tiebert, the book focuses most squarely on Prince’s childhood, and there, its discoveries are revelatory. When it comes to people as singular, unique, and magnetic as Prince, it’s difficult to imagine them as children. It’s far easier to pretend that they just sprang into being, like fictional characters spring from the mind of authors directly onto the page. By pulling back the veil and letting us see some of the troubling, painful truths of Prince’s life, Hahn and Tiebert give us the chance to see Prince less as a musical legend and more as a human being.
Right from the get-go, The Rise of Prince undertakes the work of dismantling the mysteries that surrounded Prince’s legacy. A famously controlling personality, Prince was often portrayed as “quirky” during his life. The prologue of The Rise of Prince, though, immediately shows that Prince’s so-called “quirks” were defense mechanisms that he used to shield himself from past trauma. That prologue drops us at the very end of Prince’s life, zeroing in on his final months and introducing the elements of his personality—his intense privacy, his preference for extreme solitude, and a tendency to control and manipulate the narratives of his life to erase anything that he found discomfiting—that both made him the artist he was and contributed to his downfall. Prince, as Hahn and Tiebert report, was the only person who had a key to his home at the legendary Paisley Park. He was left alone at the house on the night of April 20th, even though he had shown troubling signs of ailing health in the previous week and even though he was being treated for opioid addiction. The next morning, he was pronounced dead of an accidental overdose. He was 57 years old.
From the prologue’s day-by-day accounts of Prince’s final weeks on Earth, Hahn and Tiebert then switch focus to the early stages of his life. Having illustrated how Prince’s privacy and controlling nature may have ultimately cost him his life, the authors look back to find out why Prince was the way he was. We learn that, when Prince was young, his stepfather would often lock him in his room for long stretches of time as a form of punishment. This, as well as other punishments meant to isolate Prince from his friends and family, offers some explanation for why Prince was such a private, solitary person. And while much of Prince’s music is funky and upbeat enough to mask the loneliness, his introverted demeanor is baked right into the songs. Why else would Prince choose to write and record albums more or less alone rather than put together a band to help shape them?
Rather than let his childhood trauma destroy him, though, Prince channeled it, becoming independent, fiercely competitive, and intensely disciplined in everything he tried—whether it was athletics or music. Those same qualities would spark the originality and restless innovation of Prince’s music, from Purple Rain to Sign ‘O’ The Times. While Prince may be gone, the splendor of his art shines on in the massive, vibrant, and versatile collection of albums he released throughout his career. By shining a light not just on Prince’s surreal last days but also on his humble, troubled beginnings, The Rise of Prince only serves to make the man’s career that much more mythic in its beauty and singularity.
The Rise of Prince is available for purchase from Amazon.com, in both paperback and Kindle formats.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at email@example.com.