The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks'

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Ronin Ro's Prince biography
Ronin Ro's 'Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

The irony of Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks is that despite the book's title, biographer Ronin Ro doesn't try too hard to peer behind Prince's many masks. In some ways, that's a good thing.

In writing his 2011 book — reissued after Prince's death with a new introduction and final chapter — Ro didn't have access to the artist. In the new introduction, Ro proudly claims that freed him to be an honest reporter. "I was no yes-man," writes Ro, taking Prince's lack of action against the book as a kind of implicit endorsement. "If anything, when considering his own memoir for 2017, he wanted a cowriter to bring more of this sort of honesty to his own work."

That sets the reader up to expect a book full of tough judgments and controversial assessments, but in fact Inside the Music is a very straightforward book chronicling Prince's career. If it feels journalistic, no wonder: journalism provided the bulk of Ro's information, and on almost every page he mentions one publication or another that covered Prince.

For what it is, Inside the Music totally works. It's highly readable, and there's real value in a synthesis of four decades of Prince coverage. Far from peeking "inside the masks," though, Ro ends up writing precisely about the masks: he extensively chronicles the frustrations reporters have had trying to cover an artist whose relation to the media, to all media, was near-constantly contentious.

What's remarkable is that in 363 efficiently written pages, so much is left out. Most albums get just a few pages of discussion, because Prince was so wildly prolific. In some cases, the book's conciseness is welcome — there are enough rock-star biographies filled with tawdry accounts of backstage drama that it feels perfectly adequate for Ro to imply that when Prince went on tour, he kicked ass and that was that.

In other cases, though, the lack of detail is frustrating. Paisley Park, the vast studio complex that became so central to Prince's life and work, blooms into being in an offhand mention: with no previous mention of the studio, suddenly we read of Prince strolling through its halls. In the new final chapter, Ro's discussion of the cause of Prince's death is simply a paragraph of rumors. Granted, Ro never interviewed Prince — but didn't writing an entire book about the artist give Ro some insight as to which of those rumors might have been more plausible than others?

While the book's largely chronological progression has its drawbacks — it might have been more informative to have devoted an entire chapter to, say, Prince's failed nightclub chain, even if that meant skipping around a little in time — its upside is that Inside the Music is a handy reference to the basic sequence of Prince's career.

There's simply so much to know about Prince's career that even diehard fans will likely find plenty of new nuggets of information here, and casual fans will find it a solid overview of the whos, wheres, and whens. Ro is illuminating regarding, for example, the evolving role of Wendy and Lisa in Prince's music (it started well before their marquee moment in Purple Rain, and continued long after). He's also concise but convincing in communicating the basic dynamics of Prince's two marriages, and doesn't rush his account of the son — with first wife Mayte Garcia — who died in infancy.

Perhaps the book's most poignant moment comes in a tiny anecdote from 1996. Keyboardist Ricky Peterson buzzed at the door of Paisley Park, and Mayte let him in. "'It was the sweetest thing,' Peterson said. Then, Prince descended a flight of stairs by the front door in big bunny slippers. 'Come on in,' Prince said. 'He was so happy,' Peterson remembered. 'I've never seen him happier than when she was pregnant.'"

The least readable sections of the book, though, also describe Prince in the '90s: the artist who staged a long and arguably self-destructive battle against the label he'd just signed a multi-album contract with. Ro's account is often sympathetic to Warner Bros., as many — even Prince's fans — were at the time. Despite Prince's infamous labeling of himself as a "slave," his recording contract with Warner Bros. had been negotiated from a position of power and was viewed by many as being more than fair.

Still, in the final analysis, Ro's book is a portrait of an artist who lived his life according to a set of fairly simple, consistent principles. He loved music. He cared about social justice. He wanted artistic freedom, and he wanted respect. When he released an album that didn't sell big or earn critical raves, he didn't become paralyzed: he channeled his frustration into new music. Ultimately, Prince can be seen as perhaps the most pivotal major artist bridging the old, label-centric system of music distribution and the current, decentralized system.

Some day, Prince will get a much more ambitious biography. So many people who kept hush during Prince's lifetime — out of respect, as well as out of worry that Prince would cut them out of his circle if they said something to displease him — are now talking, opening a multitude of fresh insights into Prince's life and work. For now, though, Ro's biography is a solid first pass at capturing the epic sweep of this legendary artist's legacy.

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