Book Review: Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince - By Ben Greenman

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When Prince died on April 21, 2016 at the age of 57, it broke the hearts of millions around the world. Many fans, myself included, struggled to find ways to come to terms with the loss of such a prolific, expressive, groundbreaking artist. Some of those grieving fans happen to be professional writers. One such person is Ben Greenman, a music journalist who co-wrote memoirs by the likes of Questlove and Brian Wilson. His most recent work is Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince, written in the wake of the icon's passing. Sharing his thoughts and opinions of Prince's music was clearly a therapeutic endeavor for Greenman. Reading the book will hopefully serve that same basic purpose for those who maybe haven't quite figured out how to put their feelings into words.

Dig If You Will the Picture isn't, strictly speaking, a biography. Throughout four sections, Greenman jumps around Prince's chronology. As he examines the meaning in the music, and the influence it had on other artists, Greenman inserts personal reflection. This sort of thing can be irritating when overused, but here it works well enough that I wish it there had been more of it. For instance, early on Greenman discusses the place religion holds in Prince's music. He reflects on how it felt more and more exclusionary to less-than-devout fans as Prince grew more rigid in his beliefs. This kind of personal content sets Dig If You Will... apart from bios that stick to chronicling hard facts.

But it won't be for everyone. The straightforward biographical material can be found in other, more exhaustive tomes. Some readers exclusively want the 'just the facts' approach. That's understandable, to a point. As important as those accounts are, there's also value in more personal takes. Dig If You Will... is Prince's story as remembered by a longtime fan who cares deeply about his subject. Greenman is a few years older than me, so his point of discovery and subsequent fan-timeline vary somewhat from my own experience. Yet my journey as a Prince aficionado parallels his enough that it often felt like I was reading something I might've written (if I'd had the discipline to sit down and actually chronicle my own feelings).

It took me a while to read, which has nothing to do with the quality of Greenman's writing. The unexpected death of Prince knocked the wind out of me. Though I'd never met the man, he'd had a palpable impact of my life from the age of ten onward. As of April 21, 2016 I'd lived long enough to experience the loss of family members, friends, pets, jobs, and more. But however foolish it seems in retrospect, Prince seemed like constant. There would always be another Prince album, always another concert tour. Not so. After the 21st left me, like so many others around the world, reeling in disbelief, I bought the tribute magazines and some of the new books. Couldn't bring myself to look at most of it. I did review Matt Thorne's updated Prince: The Man and His Music last year. And this year I've been slowly making my way through Mayte Garcia's memoir (which is really beautifully written).

Which brings me back to Ben Greenman's book. I'm glad I read it and I recommend it to other fans. Especially those who grew up in the '80s, during the height of Prince's commercial and critical success, but also continued to follow him through thick and thin. Greenman has captured the special feeling of being a true blue Prince loyalist. It was tough at times, giving Prince the benefit of the doubt as he managed to derail his career numerous times. Many jumped ship at various points along the way. Greenman doesn't shy away from the weirdness and the puzzling aspects of Prince's career. The lawsuits brought against fan sites (and even fans). The name change. The swearing off of profanity and explicit sexual lyrics. The fan base of any artist with significant career longevity could probably claim the same, but being a Prince devotee was a one-of-a-kind roller coaster ride. Greenman brings back memories as he charts that ride, all while maintaining an undercurrent of consolation.

Dig if You Will Ben Greenman cover.jpg

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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