Review of Matt Thorne’s PRINCE biography

The Times Literary Supplement kindly gave me permission to reprint my review of Matt Thorne’s Prince biography.

An edited version of this piece appeared in the 12/7 edition of the TLS.


Prince by Matt Thorne

— Review by Wesley Stace


In the Royal Family of Popular Music, there has been more than one King (Elvis, Michael Jackson, and B.B. to name three) and innumerable Queens, but only one Prince.

Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson) has made 33 albums since he burst onto the scene in 1978 playing an infectious hybrid of rock and funk, wearing only a spandex jockstrap beneath his overcoat. In the glory years of His Purple Majesty’s reign, a new hit single seemed to emanate weekly from the Paisley Park palace in his Minneapolitan principate, each accompanied by a video more outrageous than the last, followed by a tour that outdid all. And when he wasn’t recording the hits himself, he would bestow a spare upon Sinead O’Connor or allow one of his many protégées (always female and bizarrely named) to represent him in the charts, rather as when Woody Allen gets someone younger, taller and better-looking to play himself.

Prince’s progress from young pretender – from an ambitious Stevie Wunderkind, Rick James’ and Sly Stone’s heir-apparent –was the product of genius and a natural workaholism. Matt Thorne’s well-researched, exhaustive and exhausting Prince is a portrait of an entertainer to whom the performance at the after show party is as important as the gig itself, who faces a major setback with the instruction “rehearse harder than ever.” This Prince is not so much Machiavellian as machinelike, unable, in his salad days, to stem the flow of work that seemed, counter-intuitively, genuinely inspired. He repeatedly reheated his familiar brew of licentious sexuality (panties, pussy and semen are high on the agenda) and devoted spirituality, always to revolutionary musical effect. The Revolution, his most famous band, may be “one of the most formidable machines popular music has ever seen” but so was their leader. Like many of his peers, his quality control has always been questionable: he threw it all out there.

And then he did throw it all out there (five albums in four years in the mid-nineties) purely to spite his record company. The War with Warner Brothers, the classic standoff between dotty genius and the suits at the label, spelled the end of the fun. Despite the odd award, occasionally memorable song, and eye-catching sales techniques (the July 15th 2007 edition of The Mail On Sunday arrived with a free CD of Prince’s new album Planet Earth), everything since has seemed watered down and unfocussed, all art subordinated to a spurious independence from a collapsing record industry: foolhardy internet schemes and muddled concept albums hinting at a secret code that “once cracked, revealed very little”. His stranglehold on the charts had been such that it was hard to keep up; now one doesn’t feel the need to bother (but you wouldn’t miss a live show if you were offered a ticket.)

Even Prince’s name is a problem, not least of all for himself. During the Warners argument, he changed it to  , possibly “The Love Symbol”. (The theory at the time was that though Warners owned “Prince”, they might not own music he made under another identity.) Since “The Love Symbol”  wasn’t easily reproducible in newspapers, he became known as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”, but he had long been a typographer and copyeditor’s nightmare, singlehandedly introducing an unsuspecting world to the then-unknown language of text messaging with his every song title, a “Princebonics” that developed from set-list shorthand: “you” was “U”, “to” was “2”, “I” was often a picture of an eye. Nowadays, the artist is formally known as Prince once more.

Other Prince biographies have tended to home in on their subject with a handy subtitle (Prince: Inside the Masks and Music; Prince: Chaos, Disorder and Revolution; Prince: Imp of the Perverse). Thorne’s use of the solitary monolithic monosyllable PRINCE (purple, sans serif) feels like an ill-advised marketing strategy: the book is most valuable not as the definitive biography but as a fan’s memoir of its subject’s life, more Fever Pitch than Arsenal: History Of a Football Club. 

Thorne himself keeps bubbling to the surface (“I’m a good foot taller than most of the celebrities present”) but it is only half way through the book that he reveals himself to be a total Prince nutter (which means he’s previously been exercising considerable restraint) as he attends almost every show of Prince’s 21 Nights In London at the 02 Arena, as many of the after shows as he can manage, and waits up all night for “” to go live. None of this was purely research. “’Write nice things’,” Prince’s protégée Tamar whispers “as she clutches my hands briefly before disappearing into the darkness.” Though Thorne’s allegiance means he is unlikely to distress her too greatly, his opinions are strong when required (“misogynist crap”, “I’ve always found Private Joy a little creepy”). Prince becomes wearying only when Prince becomes wearying; Thorne, the completist, doesn’t always realize when this is.

Despite Thorne’s insistence on Prince’s uniqueness, Prince often brings fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan (also diminutive and publicity averse) to mind. It is Dylan who can claim to be the greatest nonsense poet of the late twentieth century, but though Dylan has quoted many other writers (often without attribution), he has never to my knowledge quoted Edward Lear. On Prince’s 1987 classic album Sign ‘O’ The Times (the ‘O’ is more accurately represented as a peace sign) the least memorable song is a studio-enhanced live take of It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night, filler at nine minutes. Half way through, Prince yowls “give me the bass one time” and, unexpectedly, Sheila E (recorded down a telephone line) recites, or rather raps in its entirety, Lear’s The Table and The Chair, in 43 seconds: an impressive feat.

If I had taken only this from Prince, I’d have been a happy reader; that Thorne then uses this to illuminate Starfish and Coffee, another Sign ‘O’ The Times song, showcases his book’s best qualities: “Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds and a tangerine, a side order of ham /If U set your mind free, baby, maybe U’d understand /Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam.” Edward Lear as “the proto-rap lyricist”?

The book is full of casual wisdom (“it’s always a mistake to associate the mental and emotional state of the singer… with the cool mind that’s constructed the lyrics”) and though you may find yourself disagreeing that “almost every Prince track, even the bad ones, has something of interest”, it’s Thorne’s investment in his subject matter that makes Prince a charming addition to Princeology.