When asked to respond to allegations made in an unauthorized biography, the iconic Marlon Brando shrugged, “Friends don’t write books. Acquaintances do.”
For the 2011 book, Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks, author Ronin Ro (no, I don’t believe that’s his real name either), had to rely upon speaking with managers, musicians, record company executives and others banished from the Purple One’s private universe. As the Artist Who Rarely Speaks to the Press often forbids reporters from recording his few interviews or taking notes , there was no way Prince himself would consent to speak to Ro and does it shows.
Prince is one of the few artists whose output is deserving of the 356 pages Ro devotes to him, but the book is short on any new insights for anyone not already familiar with many of the stories and there is considerably less attention devoted to the music than the miniature musician’s contentious relationship with Warner Brothers. The battle lines are drawn from the beginning as Prince rejects his label’s insistence his debut album, For You be produced by Maurice White, leader of Earth, Wind and Fire.
From that point on, Ro’s storytelling becomes a loop of tales of Prince’s irrational wish to release as much music as he wants to whenever he wants and Warner Brother’s fears of glutting the market with increasingly inferior records to the multimillion selling Purple Rain. The war between art and commerce is an old one and Ro decidedly comes down on the side of commerce as he focuses on how each subsequent post-Purple Rain release from Around the World in A Day performed worse than its predecessor until 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls broke the losing streak.
Ro does well in shining a light on former band members such as guitarist Dez Dickerson, bassist Mark Brown, and the closest thing Prince ever had to actual collaborators Wendy Melovin and Lisa Coleman, but even then he bungles the personal aspects. At one point an angry Prince tells the two who were in a lesbian relationship they would both burn in hell and then the matter is never mentioned again. It’s interesting to learn “Kiss” was given to Brown’s band, Mazarati, but after changing his mind, Prince takes the song back for himself telling Brown, “this song’s too good for you guys” but does Brown resent his former boss’s selfishness? Who knows? Ro never bothers to tell us.
Prince’s personal relationships with Sheila E., Susannah Melovin, actress Kim Basinger, and marriage to Mayte Garcia are mentioned, briefly commented upon and tossed aside. We are told his supposed rivalry with Michael Jackson was exaggerated, but the only revelation comes that Prince kicked the King of Pop’s ass in table tennis and he decided against doing a duet on Jackson’s “Bad” because he found the “your butt is mine” lyric ridiculous.
What Ro is most interested in is making the case that while undeniably talented and a creative genius, what Prince lacks in height he makes up for by being a total douche bag. The overall impression given is Prince is cold and indifferent to almost everyone he’s ever come in contact with and is one of the most egotistical, arrogant creeps ever.
Inside the Music and the Masks is full of sloppy writing and missed opportunities. Ro repeats a claim that a fanzine paid Prince not to get involved in assembling The Hits/B-Sides box set, but just throws that tantalizing line out there unable or uninterested in verifying it. During the height of his battle with Warner Brothers, Prince changes his name to an unpronounceable glyph figuring out if “Prince” is no longer making music, he can escape his contract and the five albums he still owed the label. How this strategy could work doesn’t concern Ro. It only furthers his case Prince is a nut hellbent on fucking up his career.
Ro has a bad habit of climbing into Prince’s head to overhear conversations he wasn’t present for. At one point when an unnamed journalist (Ro couldn’t find out who?) began referring to the petulant pop star as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, Ro writes, It seemingly ridiculed his decision but American newspaper writers used it too. So did TV stations. He frowned, “I’m not The Artist Known As Anything. Use my name.”
How does Ro know Prince was frowning? Who was he directing his complaint to? An employee? A friend? His reflection in the mirror? Like I said: sloppy writing and this unauthorized book is full of unattributed remarks just like that.
Musically, Prince is far removed from his purple prime. Though portions of 2004’s Musicology and the follow-up 3121 have their bright moments, they are unessential for anyone but the die-hard fan. As a free agent roaming from label to label, Prince has become the equivalent of the journeyman player in the NBA who will always find work as long as he can occasionally knock down a shot. He makes still makes Prince albums but you get the feeling he makes them for no one but himself and that suits him just fine. Where he is his in his element is onstage where a live Prince show is still a hot ticket when he goes on tour and as his 2007 Super Bowl performance demonstrates he can play some bad-ass guitar even in high-heels and the rain.
It isn’t necessary for an author to like his subject and Ro clearly feels Prince’s ego prematurely sabotaged his career. I don’t disagree. The 53-year-old with the ageless features is a far cry from the guy I once argued had failures more interesting than others’ success. He exhausted even my patience with ego trips like the lumbering three-CD, three-hour Emancipation.
Prince deserves much of the criticism he receives, but he also deserves a better critique of his music than this. In 2002, Prince took offense at former recording engineer Susan Rogers for implying she possessed special insights into his music. “Susan Rogers, for the record, doesn’t know anything about my music. Not one thing. The only person who knows anything about my music is me.”
That could have served as the best critique of Ro’s sketchy accounts and lack of attention to detail. There is a good book to be written about Prince by someone who can bring an even-handed approach to the topic but this is not hat book and Ro is not that writer.
Brando was right. Friends don’t write books, but acquaintances do and so will enemies.
- Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks by Ronin Ro – review (guardian.co.uk)
- ‘Lovesexy’ – The album that saved my life (lady6x.wordpress.com)
- Fashion Law: Artist Prince to Pay Almost $4Million To Perfume Company for Breach of Brand Ambassador Agreement (fashionentlaw.com)