Book Review: Prince: The Man and His Music - by Matt Thorne

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Prince at Coachella - Image: Scott Penner

British novelist, journalist, and dedicated Prince fan Matt Thorne first published the biography Prince in the U.K. in 2012. The U.S. version (updated with post-2012 events), Prince: The Man and His Music, was issued in February 9, 2016. At the time, of course, the future was still rife with possibilities in terms of new directions for Prince. He was in the midst of his one-man Piano & a Microphone tour as well as penning his memoirs. On April 21, 2016 all of that came to a sudden, permanent end with the tragic passing of Prince at age 57.

Full disclosure: as a Prince-obsessive since Purple Rain in 1984, the news of his passing hit me very hard on a personal level. For many music fans, Prince had largely faded from the pop culture radar many years ago. Whether it was the controversial name change in the mid-'90s, the lack of genuine hit singles over the last 20 years or so, or his often-confounding alternative means of releasing new music, Prince had become a nostalgic figure at best and a has-been at worst in the eyes of millions. But for the many hardcore fans who continued to jump through hoops to get everything the artist ever released, the loss was felt at a profoundly deep level. Being a Prince fan was a bit like being part of a secret club—most casual fans had little idea of the internet-only releases over the years, or of an album like 20Ten which wasn't released in any format in the U.S. during Prince's lifetime—but not an elite or closed club.

"Admission is easy, just say you believe" is what Prince sang in his largely-unheralded 1985 anthem "Paisley Park," and that's an apt description of being a member of the unofficial Prince "club." This club was (still is, come to think of it) open to everyone. Just listen to his music. Get caught up on releases you may have missed. As obvious as that may seem, the amount of people who "used to" like Prince but hadn't bought any new music (if they were even aware he was releasing it regularly) in the last couple decades is staggering. Maybe more so than any other true global superstar, there are vast numbers of people who say that they just didn't "get" Prince. If that's you, Thorne's book will help remedy that. And if you do "get" Prince, the book will help you get into him even more.

Through the years all Prince's bizarre (often contradictory) proclamations, intermittent religious sermonizing, and a puzzling career-long neglect of his own legacy do nothing to detract from his one-in-a-million genius as a songwriter, musician, vocalist, and live performer. Thorne's Prince: The Man and His Music is a celebration of all that greatness. Unlike some other books on the same subject, Thorne's book is not an attempted character assassination, not gossipy yellow journalism, not negative revisionism. I think it's important to make all of this very clear. Though he is balanced in his critical analysis of Prince's vast body of work, Thorne never, ever comes across like anything less than a mega-fan of his subject. His comprehensive knowledge of Prince's work (not to mention the impressive roster of concerts attended) makes the book essential for Prince fans old and new.

Because this updated, 2016 edition was published prior to Prince's death, Thorne never even had the option of rose-tinting any of his appraisals of the many album, tours, video releases, or side projects covered. That's not to suggest he consciously would, but at least one Prince biographer (Alex Hahn, Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince) has already announced plans to issue an updated tome with "a dramatically different perspective and approach." Not meaning to slam Hahn here. His upcoming Make the House Shake may very well turn out excellent (I don't believe a publication date has been established at the time of this writing). But the point is now that Prince is gone, the temptation for re-evaluating opinions is understandably great. The need to celebrate "the man and his music" is arguably greater than ever before.

So regardless of what any other writers do from now on, let it be known that Thorne has already achieved the formidable accomplishment of celebrating the entire arc of Prince's career before any post-death second-guessing was even possible. Reading The Man and His Music in the wake of Prince's death wasn't always comfortable. For me, personally, it was slow going—not because of Thorne's writing, which is always direct, articulate, and thoughtful. The downside here is that, of course, Thorne writes with an unspoken expectancy of what further greatness might yet arrive. For anyone moved, inspired, or otherwise affected by Prince's music, this adds a resounding note of sadness as we continually remind ourselves to change the tense from present to past as we read.

The book itself is fantastically researched, with Thorne having done plenty of direct interviews with Prince associates such as Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. The focus is absolutely on the music and other work Prince issued throughout his life. That means anyone looking for dirt about relationships and other personal matters should look elsewhere. Only when it's germane to the actual music does Thorne let Prince's personal life come into play—and even then, he always maintains a professional, unbiased tone. The book functions as a guide from album to album. At times I was reminded of the late Ian MacDonald's Beatles' critique Revolution in the Head and wished Thorne had also taken a song-by-song approach (which, admittedly, would've been exhausting for both author and reader). 
Prince The Man and His Music cover.jpg You may not always agree with Thorne's assessment of certain albums or individual songs (I, personally, found myself agreeing for more often than not—though I'd love to debate him about the merits of a specific track or two), which is all part of the journey. The book will undoubtedly send you back to to the albums for further study (or inspire you to seek out material you might not have heard before). Whether you're a new fan (or one returning after a hiatus) OR a longtime fan looking for a virtual "friend" to help get you accustomed to the much less-funky world in which we now exist, turn to Matt Thorne's Prince: The Man and His Music.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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