The people’s Prince: even as a teenager the musician charmed everyone he met

7 December 2019

9:00 AM

7 December 2019

9:00 AM

Many pop stars are easy to imagine as children, as it’s a profession that doesn’t really reward growing up. Elton John, for example, looks exactly like his naughty Viz character. Robbie Williams is forever the Year 5 cheeky charmer who the teacher can’t help but forgive.

But Prince? What on earth was Prince Rogers Nelson like as a child? You can just about imagine him marching in to the front room of his Minnesota home in purple pyjamas announcing: ‘Darling papa, please summon for me one each of every musical instrument ever invented. And also, nine ladies. No clothes.’ So the news that there was a cache of his own notes for a memoir found at Paisley Park after his heartbreakingly wasteful death aged 57 is exciting. Genuises rarely write autobiographies; they tend to be too busy describing gravity or painting new ways of looking at stars or writing ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ in half an hour and casually tossing it to somebody else.

What has been uncovered from the fabled vault in Paisley Park? Alas, not much. Included here are around 40 pages of handwritten notes about Prince’s childhood, and the handwritten treatment for ‘Purple Rain’. Even so, it is tantalising. What comes across in these fragments, meticulously dug up by Dan Piepenbring, is just how funny and charming a person Prince was. His mother and teachers called him Skipper, which suits his puckish persona far better than the grandiose Prince. His bar for funkiness is whether it would make Stephen Hawking dance; he calls Ed Sheeran ‘Soylent Green’, and describes critics, inarguably, as ‘non-singing, non-dancing, “wish-I-had-me-some-clothes” fools’.

The Beautiful Ones is a splendidly produced book, complete with purple ribbon marker, although each handwritten page is reproduced in full illegible scrawl that is then typeset in the following pages, which makes asking £25 for it a little punchy.

There are, however, some wonderful photographs (including my favourite, the first of his famously Blue Steel passport photos, possibly the most Prince things of all time). He describes his first kiss in John Hughes terms, was a fervent basketball player all his life, despite topping out at 5’2’’ (his ex-wife Mayte Garcia, a petite ballerina, still found him constantly taking up her trousers to wear them), and it is so good to hear him in his own words on his sheer joy the first time one of his songs came on the radio.

Being surrounded by awestruck supplicants — including, it has to be said, the co-writer, who at one point practically faints because Prince knows how to work the indicators on his car, and declares Prince the best air bass player he’s ever ‘heard’ — wasn’t ideal for someone whose mind was so brilliant and sparky.

In fact, looking at the funny little drawings and reading the Princebonics (his slightly tiresome method of replacing ‘I’ with an eye shape, ‘to’ with a ‘2’ and ‘you’ with a ‘u’) make you sad all over again that behind all the endless music (it was completely normal for Prince, after a ten-hour rehearsal, to go and play the drums alone for another four hours), all the acolytes and women, there was still a hole inside him so vast that he had, like George Michael, to fill it up with so many drugs it killed him.

But here it’s a young, optimistic Prince, rather than the decidedly sadder version painted by Garcia in her (kind and world-weary) book The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, or the exhaustive musical analysis of Matt Thorne’s definitive Prince: The Man and his Music.

And if we are only to have fragments, then these are the very best ones to have: childhood, his complex relationship with his handsome father, a part-time jazz pianist (given name James, stage name Prince) and his beautiful, complicated mother Mattie. As usual, the struggle — even if shortlived in Prince’s case — and the way up is where the fun is, when he was ‘more hair than kid’, according to an early producer.

The sweetest section is the photos of his first ever trip to LA. Unlike many successful musicians, there were no lean years for Prince. Everyone who met him from the age of 17 was just about as convinced of his genius as he was himself. Even Joni Mitchell remembers him watching her concerts, with ‘those huge Egyptian eyes’.

Everything in here is young and fresh: before the paranoia, the failed marriages, the horrific loss of his son, religious obsession and the claws of a deep drug addiction arrived. What on earth happened in the gap? As the man himself said: ‘I am something you will never comprehend.’ But this book is a fun glance, a tiny bolt from what now feels like a very distant past, and will leave you feeling nothing but huge affection for little, brilliant Skipper.

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