Rock and Roll Book Club: 'This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On + Off the Record'


Book: 'This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On + Off the Record.'
'This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On + Off the Record.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Everyone who sets out to write about Prince has to answer the same question, to themselves and their publishers: why another Prince book? Particularly since the music icon's tragic death in 2016, the floodgates have been opened for authors (including Prince himself, posthumously) to share their stories.

Say this for Neal Karlen's new book: This Thing Called Life (buy now) is certainly unlike any other Prince biography ever published. Based on the Minneapolis journalist's own decades of meetings and conversations with Prince, the book is at once completely subjective and an attempt to cut through what Karlen calls Prince's "kayfabe." In pro wrestling, kayfabe refers to the layer of invented reality that sits atop the actual truth, creating a fictional storyline around the actual bouts.

Though Bob Mould is the most famous wrestling fan in Minnesota music, Prince isn't alone in spinning kayfabe. When Bob Dylan first emerged into national view, he told so many apocryphal stories about his origins that it took years to track him back to his actual home town of Hibbing. Prince didn't hide his place of origin — entirely the opposite — but he put a cinematic spin on tales from his youth.

Karlen — who met Prince's parents on multiple occasions and also seems close to childhood friend and neighbor André Cymone — is most concerned with the myths that have grown up around Prince's relationships with his mom and dad. Karlen's view is that Prince's father, a professional musician who gave his son his own stage name as an actual name, was "a wretched, slimy, reptilian motherf---er," borrowing a phrase Mike Tyson once used to describe Don King. Karlen believes there was more fact than fiction in the onscreen depiction of Prince's father, in Purple Rain, as a pathetic abuser; if anything, Karlen argues, the movie overstated his father's musical talent.

Conversely, Karlen stridently defends Prince's mother Mattie Baker as a loving mother who, the author believes, the young Prince wrongly held responsible for failing to stop "the beatings they both took from John Nelson." With authentic biographical facts hard to come by, Karlen writes, journalists over the years gave far too much credence to stories Prince told about his mother being a drug addict or absent caretaker; whatever his motives for spinning such tales, they make it all the more moving that Prince paid such tender tribute to his mother in his own unfinished book.

Given how few journalists ever witnessed any interactions among Prince and his parents, or spoke with him about those relationships over extended periods of time, Karlen's views make This Thing Called Life an important addition to the purple canon. Nonetheless, it's not for everyone and, perhaps, especially not for the casual Prince fan who doesn't crack the book already well-versed not only in Prince's career but in everything that's been said about it.

While the book traces Prince's life and career, in broad strokes, chronologically, it's far from a complete guide — and there are constant detours and asides, as the author writes about his own life and about the changing circumstances of his interactions with the famously inaccessible star.

Karlen first met Prince in 1985, when he was assigned write a Rolling Stone cover story about Wendy and Lisa that Prince was cooperating with but not planning to be interviewed for. He impressed the duo enough that, with the help of Wendy's sister and Prince's then-fiancée Susannah Melvoin, he landed an interview with The Artist himself.

That inaugurated an ongoing relationship that spanned the rest of Prince's life; Karlen spends the entire book deciding whether or not he could ever truly call it a "friendship." Their interactions, it need hardly be said, were always on Prince's terms, often taking the form of long late-night phone calls. Prince called Karlen "Mamma Jamma," and the last time he phoned the author was in March 2016, after Prince heard the term being used in an episode of The Office. (Prince loved sitcoms.)

Karlen suspects that Prince had numerous friends, or contacts, of this nature: people who may not know one another, but who Prince could call upon for various needs he might have. (Though the author doesn't take his speculations this far, that kind of compartmentalization might help explain how no one in Prince's orbit was able to identify the source of the fentanyl that took his life; it would only be consistent for Prince to have a drug contact who didn't know anyone else, even in the artist's very small inner circle.) Karlen, he thinks, was "Prince's late-night angst guy."

Besides an easy rapport, Prince and Karlen shared an origin point: North Minneapolis, where the author's grandparents lived not far from where Prince grew up. Prince once even told Karlen that he remembered seeing the author, his Black friends calling the white boy "Casper." Of course, that could very well be more kayfabe.

The question of Prince's relationship with his parents isn't the only matter where Karlen seeks to set the record straight, as he sees it. He swears that in the '90s, Prince paid him $5,000 to write a last will and testament that was buried somewhere on the grounds of Paisley Park along with a copy of the Love Symbol Album; Prince was changing his name to that symbol, and was ready to close the book on "Prince." Does that document still exist, and could it possibly be legally binding? We're left wondering.

While This Thing Called Life is a circuitous, sometimes confounding journey through F. Scott Fitzgerald analogies, local history, and the literal walls of the author's own home (covered with images of celebrities Karlen assembled to represent shards of Prince's multifaceted personality), it's valuable as the attempt of someone who had numerous extended interactions with Prince to make sense of a life that, for most, simply defies description.

Dick Clark infamously asked Prince how he could possibly come from Minneapolis, and Karlen spends much of his book excoriating the "Minnesota Mean" that failed to appreciate its homegrown Black talent, but without defending Clark, it's been a common impulse for biographers and journalists to wonder how Prince could have come from anywhere. How could such a preternaturally gifted artist have come to be among us on this planet?

Despite his thoughts on Prince's early years, Karlen's book is most compelling with respect to the last three decades of Prince's life, the period during which the author knew Prince. He argues that Prince ultimately died of shame, unable to seek treatment for an addiction he couldn't admit to having, and paints a picture of a man who spent decades grappling with the fact that for all his extraordinary talents, being Prince couldn't protect him from a series of disappointments that included professional misses (holding hip-hop at arm's length, copious and sometimes confounding album releases), health travails (notably the physical wear that seemingly compelled his initial opiate use), and — centrally, in Karlen's account — the death of his newborn son in 1996.

In perhaps the strangest and saddest kayfabe of all, as Karlen notes, Prince and his then-wife Mayte welcomed Oprah Winfrey to Paisley Park shortly after their son's death, Prince talking about their new "family" in a way that suggested the child was still alive. Prince took it upon himself to make the difficult decision to stop providing extraordinary care for the infant born with a devastating genetic disorder, and Karlen believes the experience profoundly haunted Prince for the rest of his life.

More provocatively, Karlen argues that Prince was never particularly religious in the sense of having allegiance to a particular creed. Could there have been an element of kayfabe in his Jehovah's Witness conversion? Karlen believes so. He relates a conversation between Prince and the very same St. Paul rabbi who spurred Bob Dylan's rediscovery of Judaism (as Dylan's longtime friend Louie Kemp related in a recent book). Prince's first question was whether the rabbi believed in reincarnation. "I believe you can be reincarnated in your own lifetime," replied the holy man, an answer Prince found most satisfactory.

Who is This Thing Called Life for? Imagine yourself on an international flight where you find yourself sitting next to Neal Karlen, the journalist who Prince would call at 3 a.m. to talk about life, the universe, and everything. How do you want to spend the next several hours? If the answer is, "Talking about Prince, obviously," this Thing is the book for you. If the answer is, "say a polite hello and then binge-watch The Office," well, maybe this isn't the book for you...but thanks to this book, we now know that Prince himself might respect either choice.

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