Rock and Roll Book Club: Ben Greenman's book about Prince

Ben Greenman's 'Dig If You Will the Picture'
Ben Greenman's 'Dig If You Will the Picture' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Near the beginning of his new book Dig If You Will the Picture, Ben Greenman takes a moment to remind readers, and himself, that Prince was an actual human being.

Prince was born on June 7, 1958. Prince was born. That's important to remember. In a life filled with so many achievements — lyrics written, songs sung, instruments played, concerts performed — that they seem to require an army, or a mystical being, we should begin with a reminder that they belong to exactly one person, who arrived on the earth via normal channels rather than descending into our realm from an empyrean plane.

It's true, even in his too-short life, Prince accomplished a tremendous amount. His life and work have already inspired many books, and no doubt there will be many, many more to come. In that canon, Greenman's is an accessible entry that contains some genuine insights as well as some fascinating facts.

Greenman is a rock critic, a regular contributor to The New Yorker who's also written for The New York Times and many other publications. His relationship to Minneapolis is fairly distant: he sees the city through Prince's eyes. His most vivid description of Minneapolis doesn't concern First Avenue or Paisley Park (which he doesn't have the heart to visit as a museum) or any of Prince's actual homes. It's walking down Grand Avenue to visit the house from Purple Rain.

Dig If You Will the Picture tries to do a lot: it contains a concise biography, it has passages of personal memoir, it analyzes themes in Prince's lyrics, it takes on topics like religion and race. In general, Greenman is at his best when he's doing his job as a critic, helping to deconstruct what makes Prince's music great.

For example, Greenman is informative on how Prince's desire for complete control kept him from the kind of collaborations that made his hip-hop ventures less successful than those of his peer Michael Jackson, who didn't hesitate to tap the top talents in the genre. "The most undistinguished rapper he ever worked with," writes Greenman about Michael Jackson, "was Shaquille O'Neal." Prince, on the other hand, "was determined always to exercise control, which limited him to working with people in his camp, and it took him a while to realize that the best rapper in his camp was him."

Greenman is also articulate in explaining why Sign O' the Times has always been a critics' pick in Prince's catalog. "Sign O' the Times is not the equal of 1999, or even Purple Rain, but it is unsurpassed as a demonstration of acrobatic versatility. The album's musical style ranges across spooky political R&B, full-throated psychedelic pop, bone-rattling skeletal funk, and pocket soul so gentle and nuanced you could almost call it folk — and that's just in the first four songs."

When Greenman wanders into personal territory, though — for example, reminiscing about how he interrupted a writer's retreat to have a girlfriend bring a copy of the just-released Batman soundtrack — the book sags. He's also wont to wander into unenlightening asides like a three-page disquisition on the color purple. ("The Phoenicians were the first culture to isolate purple, producing it by extracting pigment from a gland in certain mollusks.")

Any Prince book is going to have some fun facts and good stories you hadn't heard before, and Dig If You Will is no exception. I learned, for example, that "When Doves Cry" was the last solo-artist single to go platinum before the definition of "platinum" was downgraded from two million in sales to just one million. Here's another crazy fact: the day Prince was born — June 7, 1958 — was also the day the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was launched.

There's no index, which is a bummer...but there is an appendix with capsule reviews of one track per album. (Greenman makes a fine case for 2014's Art Official Age being an underrated and essential late-career release.) The book jacket, by Lowertown-via-Australia artist Kristi Abbott, is a story in and of itself: it's a portrait of Prince that incorporates imagery representing collaborators, paramours, and venues, with a key on the inside cover.

I'll close with my favorite story from the book, an anecdote Greenman found in Wired. "Weird Al" Yankovic — who always wanted to parody Prince, but never got the artist's blessing — was assigned to sit in the same row at an awards ceremony. Yankovic later remembered:

I got a telegram — and I wasn't the only one — from Prince's management company saying that I was not to establish eye contact with him during the show. I just couldn't even believe it. So immediately I sent back a telegram saying that he shouldn't be establishing eye contact with me either.

Greenman himself only met Prince once: in 1999 (not a bad year, if you had to pick one), when Prince surprisingly showed up to accept an award from Yahoo! Internet Life, where Greenman was then an editor. Prince won the award for best Internet-Only Single, for a track called "The War" he'd released on his website.

Taking the mic, Prince thanked his band the New Power Generation and shared some brief remarks about the digital world that he had such a famously contentious relationship with. "Don't get fooled by the internet," said Prince. "It's cool to get on the computer, but don't let the computer get on you. It's cool to use the computer, but don't let the computer use you. You've all seen The Matrix. There's a war going on. The battlefield's in the mind. The prize is the soul. Thank you."

Today — June 7, 2017 — many will be remembering Prince on his 59th birthday. We'll be playing 59 of Prince's most party-friendly songs on our Local Current stream, starting at noon, with hosts Andrea Swensson and Jay Gabler.

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