Prince’s Flaws Only Made Him More Captivating
We sat down with Ben Greenman, author of ‘Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince,’ to talk about the late artist’s legend and legacy.
Soon after Prince’s death, one year ago today, a clip from George Harrison’s posthumous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2004 started to recirculate. A band that includes Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Steve Ferrone, Jeff Lynne and Harrison’s son, Dhani, play “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The video comes alive the moment that Prince saunters onstage, around three minutes into the clip. He’s wearing a scarlet stetson to match his shirt and pocket square, a black suit, and there’s a custom Fender Telecaster—one of his more modest guitars—slung around his neck. His guitar work is all cherry bomb pyrotechnics and the grin on his face moves from wry to ecstatic, but never out of control. Dhani looks on in awe—genuine, dumbstruck awe. At one point, during a particularly chaotic flourish, Prince turns around and eases backwards into the crowd, held up by a security guard, and for a moment it looks like he’s floating. The video captures, as much as any three-minute clip of a six-minute YouTube video can, so much of what was essential about Prince Rogers Nelson. There, he’s virtuosic, fun, natural, beautiful, a little arrogant, and transcendent. Almost literally. At the end, when he has decided that enough is enough, the drums slow, Prince rounds one final trill, the song ends, and in one smooth motion, he lifts the guitar from around his neck, pulls it down to his waist, hurls it in the air above him, and walks offstage. The guitar doesn’t come back down. It remains, to most people, a total mystery.
Ben Greenman spent the better part of a year writing his sprawling, unique tribute to the late artist, Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince. He has no idea where that guitar went. He interviewed Steve Ferrone, who sat at the drums a few feet behind Prince that night, but he had no idea either. Eventually, definitive answers weren’t important. “Clearly, whether it was on a rope or whether there was a stage hand right there or whether it was magnetized or whether it was a raygun that dematerialized it, someone knows what happened,” Greenman tells me. “It’s not literally magic. And I think what I was trying to recreate is that sense. He’s sort of a deity and it’s sort of a charlatan and sort of a magician in the ways that real magicians are both magical and charlatans.”
Dig If You Will The Picture is a remarkable tribute to the late artist. It’s part hagiography, part non-sequential biography. But, above all, it’s Greenman’s autobiography of an obsessive fandom, shamelessly and honestly colored by the author’s own emotional responses. He breaks the book down into sections that inevitably overlap: sex, self, virtue and sin, race and politics, Prince’s relationship with his fans, his battles with the industry, his name, the significance of purple; he pores over Prince’s life and art, sometimes separately, sometimes as one. But the lens is always Greenman’s own.
“I wanted to recreate the fan experience,” Greenman says. “The one I had. So, when I was a kid, people told me, ‘Oh, Prince said in the Rolling Stone that he’s only half-black.’ And I think to myself, ‘Well, that’s not true… But maybe it’s true, I don’t know. He’s telling a reporter that, I think he’s lying, but then why is he lying? What’s at stake for him to send that message out? Why does he wear this weirdo hood at the [American] Music Awards where he won’t look at anyone? Why does he court so much mystery and mystique? What’s in it for him to do that?’ That’s obviously the artist that I fell in love with over that decade.”
Greenman’s three novels—2004’s Superworse, 2009’s Please Step Back, and 2013’s The Slippage—all drive, in different ways, at the lyricism he uses in Dig If You Will The Picture. But most recently, he’s co-authored the memoirs of Brian Wilson, Questlove, Mariel Hemingway, and George Clinton, each of whom informed his treatment of Prince. “Watching all these celebrities, largely musicians, remember and deploy the circumstances of their own life, was really interesting. Because, as you say, no one tells the truth when they’re remembering their own life. They tell a version of the truth[…] Memoir has the word ‘memory’ in it, and that’s what it’s for.”
It means that Greenman leaves his stories to breathe. He is “chaser of the myth,” he says, rather than a strictly investigative reporter. A year on, there are still unanswered questions about Prince’s death and the roots of his fetanyl addiction, but those questions weren’t there for Greenman to resolve. “I don’t care when he was an addict, which is an odd thing to say having just written a book about him and covered that. But I think that’s his private business. I saw hints in the work all along the way of him grappling with this, like any famous person would: grappling with sexual temptation and pharmaceutical temptation and stress and spirituality.”
“There is such a thing—and it’s not quite the same as unearthing his addiction—but there is such a thing as too much information,” Greenman says. “Because at some point, what you’re doing is you’re waterlogging. In the old days before the internet, no one had had access to any of this. We had zines and had tell-alls. I wanted to kind of replicate that.”
It doesn’t lead Greenman to deify his subject, however. His completism gives him an an intimate knowledge of Prince’s less critically and commercially successful records, works made from the depths of resentment for labels or spiritual complacency. “Perfection in artwork turns the contents cold,” he writes. “Flaws are what makes for beauty, the way a stray strand tumbling out of an impeccable hairstyle ignites the heart.” Prince never figured out how to incorporate hip-hop into his work; often, the results were cringeworthy. Graffiti Bridge was not a good movie. His devotion to being a Jehova’s Witness led him to rigid and occasionally regressive albums. For Greenman, these are all a part of a fascinating whole—a flawed genius.
“He created so many different layers of his persona, partly to protect the real person,” Greenman says. “I had this theory when I was a teenager that Michael Jackson was a space alien and Prince was a normal guy who was tremendously talented[…] I think my goal was to present Prince as Prince was presented to me by Prince. And because it’s not a hagiography done with him looking over my shoulder saying make me look good, I also look at the ways he fell down on the job.”
Writing about Prince with that idiosyncratic lens also gave Greenman the opportunity to dive into his own, admittedly odd, theories. When Prince meets Nikki in the lobby “masturbating with a magazine,” Greenman doesn’t just assume she’s staring at the pictures. He has plenty of questions: “She was using it to masturbate? Holding it while she was masturbating? He was holding the magazine while she masturbated? Sometimes poetic compression just creates unclear pictures.
“Someone was mad at me for that,” he tells me. “They said, ‘This is stupid and an editor should have changed this.’ But I remember hearing it as a kid and thinking, ‘Huh, I guess I know what he means. I guess she’s using the magazine. I guess it’s a magazine dildo.’ But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she’s holding the magazine with a picture of some porn in it and masturbating. It’s a weird way to put it.” (For what it’s worth, I’d always assumed that Nikki was holding the magazine with one hand while masturbating with the other; since reading Greenman’s theory, I can’t listen to “Darling Nikki” without trying to decipher every possibility).
That unique close reading of Prince’s music is a valuable tool for deciphering Prince’s artistry. Whatever Nikki was doing with that magazine, Greenman insists that the song is as much “a metaphor for popular entertainment” as it is a song about sex: “Prince signed his name on the dotted line, watched as the lights went out, and then witnessed a performance,” he writes. “What did Nikki owe him when the lights came back on? Was he telling his audience something about what he did or did not owe them?” And when Greenman is forced to confront more ethically challenging moments in Prince’s life and career—a brief but apparent belief in chemtrails, anti-Semitism in his lyrics when raging at Warner, the strict, patriarchal religiosity of Rainbow Children—he finds small resolutions buried in the lyrics.
“I feel I was willing to confront those things but, again, through the lens of the work. There’s a body of very angry love songs in the mid-90s[…] to me they’re about Warner Bros. They’re about his breakup with Warner Bros. Now you could read those as violence towards women. In looking at the work, I don’t think they are. I think he was figuring the label as an ex-lover. This is the way he dealt with it.”
“Prince is all about personal growth,” Greenman says. “And cycling. And, at times, sort of undoing certain advances.” This was, still is, a part of Prince—brilliant and flawed.
Greenman says that he’ll spend the one-year anniversary of Prince’s death listening to 1999 from back to front—he thinks it’s Prince’s finest record or, at least, he admits its his favorite. I tell him that I’ll be listening to Dirty Mind. Then he rethinks: “Controversy is the other one I might do just because it’s so flawed. It’s great, but it’s so flawed. It’s like the beginning of him thinking ‘Oh I can do anything. Current events? I’ll do that.’ I have a lot of affection for that. Dirty Mind is perfect. There’s nothing wrong with that record. And Controversy, there’s a lot wrong.”