Faber & Faber, 562pp, £18.99
Whether or not you’ve paid any attention to Prince in the past 20 years, you’ll probably know three things about him. First, in 1993, in the midst of a spat with Warner Bros, he turned his name into a symbol. Second, in 2007, he played a record-breaking 21 sold-out concerts in less than two months at the O2 Arena in London. Third, he likes to give his records away for free with newspapers. The one-off payment of $500,000 that he trousered for the Mail on Sunday deal in 2007 for the album Planet Earth was reportedly as much as eight times what his previous album had earned him in UK royalties. It was a hands-in-the-air gesture of defiance against changes in the music in - dustry – last year in the Guardian, he compared piracy to “carjacking” and PRs asked the interviewer, “Please do not discuss his views on the internet.”
Matt Thorne’s new biography analyses the legendary hauteur that keeps one of the world’s most influential artists “hiding in plain sight”. “Oh, my God, not another extremist move,” fretted the publicist Howard Bloom when Prince turned his back on the net. “You cannot expunge pieces of life.”
You can, when you inhabit a universe of your making, where critics are “non-singing, nondancing, wish-I-had-me-some-clothes fools”, where no one understands your music but you and every song feeds into a giant super-narrative with Prince at the centre, extolling the four virtues Thorne neatly summarises as love, sex, rebirth and anger. It’s the sex you think of first. I still remember chanting “23 positions in a one-night stand” (from “Gett Off”) in the playground without knowing what it meant.
Fascinating stories kick off this account of Prince’s 34-year recording career. He wrote his first song, “Funk Machine”, at the age of seven; as a teenager in Minneapolis, he took evening classes in music copyright and publishing. His idol Joni Mitchell told Rolling Stone how she had spotted him in the front row of one of her gigs (he was 17), “quite conspicuous, because he’s got those big eyes like a puffin – those big Egyptian eyes”. When he signed to Warner Bros at the age of 19, Prince demanded to produce his records straight off the bat. “Just don’t make me black,” he reportedly added to the A&R man Lenny Waronker.
Thorne is a good stylist and a deep thinker but primarily he’s a fan. This ought to be a disaster but, when tackling Prince, that added layer of obsession carries a rare significance, because more than any other megastar of the 1980s, Prince’s relationship with fans went beyond the call of duty. Forget Lady Gaga’s “little monsters” – in 2000, Prince held a weeklong “open-house” session at his Paisley Park Studios, bringing fans in for exclusive DJ sessions and intimate gigs, letting them dance on his sound stages and tinker with his guitars.
At this time, Prince was an internet pioneer. In February 2001, the New Power Generation Music Club went live, offering fans new songs as and when he uploaded them, in return for a $100 subscription. One track, “Y Should Eye Do That When Eye Could Do This?” referred to his distaste for playing his old hits. Here was a natural control freak, dazzled by the possibilities of artistic liberation in digital music.
It only went sour because he assumed that people would keep paying. Thorne locates the schism at the point LotusFlow3r.com, an online platform for his album LotusFlow3r, was launched in 2009. You had to pay $77 to join and you only got one free song; you could get advance tickets but you had to crack a riddle first. The latest alternative world Prince had created for his followers – Thorne refers to them as “paracosms” – was, in effect, shutting them out. Some of them never came back.
Thorne is a compelling, emotional narrator. More than 500 pages long, this is clearly his attempt at the definitive biography. Yet it is also something else – a lesson in fan devotion, with all the strains and contradictions that entails.
His perspective is particularly useful if you want to know where Prince’s music is “at” nowadays. Loving him more than anyone, Thorne is harsher than any critic would be, despairing at “substandard” releases in recent years – 20Ten is “low quality . . . with terrible cover art”; the track “Purple and Gold” is “dire”; his taste for greatest hits shows is a constant source of pain (“He seems to insiston presenting himself as a heritage act”). Yet Thorne drags himself to these gigs again and again with “low expectations”. Anyone who’s ever truly loved a pop star will recognise the inner conflict between the attachment that cannot be broken and the burning disappointment you feel when you see your idol going off course.
Thorne can’t get Prince out of his system because, as he explains, his hero won’t remove himself entirely from the public eye, the way David Bowie has done. He is a Jehovah’s Witness now; there are rumours that he needs a double hip replacement after years of dancing on stage in high heels and the religion won’t sanction the operation. He seemed perfectly robust at the Hop Farm festival last year. “The ‘now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t’ of the last decade has proved exhausting,” writes Thorne sadly, “at least for those of us still paying attention . . .”
Kate Mossman is the New Statesman’s pop critic.