Artists, like terrestrial deities or demigods, arouse great expectations. There's a reason we call them "rock gods" or "guitar gods." We look upon their music and performances for healing; their skills appear supernatural or divinely ordained to the screaming hordes of mere mortals.
But inevitably, there comes a time when we realize they are fallible — maybe after an onstage mishap or, tragically, when tributes pour in after death.
The world came to grips with the sudden, shocking death of not just any artist, but the Artist, April 21, 2016. Within days after Prince's death, a picture began to emerge — not of the known alien angel, but of a mortal in desperate need of rehab for the addiction that ultimately killed him.
If you're looking for an exposé of the final days leading up to Prince's demise, you won't find it in Ben Greenman's book, Dig if You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God & Genius in the Music of Prince. A Prince fan since the age of 13 when he bought 1999 on cassette at Peaches Records in Miami, Greenman, who long ago was a Miami New Times staff writer, will read this Friday at Books & Books.
The author says he was wanted to write a book from the perspective of a fan reckoning with the sudden death of a lifelong idol. Prince informed Greenman's thinking on sex, spirituality, race, and social justice.
"It was written very much in that spirit of trying to go back inside that fandom and feel all the excitement of it and the energy of it, and then the sadness of his disappearance,"Greenman says. "I was trying to capture 35 years lived inside of this person's music, and then suddenly to have that spout shut off — it required a certain kind of book."
Greenman began writing the day after Prince's death and completed the work in eight weeks. "It's a mix of a little bit of personal essay, some critical study, a little bit of biography." He knew that many of the people who would read his book, fans working through their own grief, most vividly identified with memories of the Purple One — a kind of caricature of a man frozen in time in the mid-to-late '80s, rocking a ruffled shirt, purple overcoat, and Jheri curl.
"If I were running an agency and you hired a Prince impersonator from me... and they didn't look like 'Purple Rain' Prince, you would send them back," Greenman says. "So to most people, that's the era they still locate him in. But, obviously, he went on for decades after that, and people don't really understand all of those changes."
Greenman, a Prince completist, aims to remind readers about the complex man and prolific artist behind the iconography.
In no area were Prince's complexities and contradictions more plainly illustrated than in his relationship with the Internet. Prince was a man who famously went after fans for posting his performances on YouTube, but he was also one of the first artists to offer his music for digital download.
"He was very reluctant and very hostile, but he was also an early adopter," Greenman says. "He had a working website with original material and a kind of subscription service before most people."
Greenman met Prince, fittingly, in 1999. "It was funny. I was working for a magazine, Yahoo! Internet Life: a print magazine about the internet, because we thought that was a good idea then." The magazine chose to honor Prince with an online innovator award. Prince accepted, appeared at the awards ceremony, and agreed to do an online Q&A, which Greenman helped facilitate. Greenman remembers the artist to be shy, humble, and all-around "normal" in person. He even got to pick Prince's brain about his favorite B-side.
"I sort of err on the side of not meeting idols, because more often than not, it doesn't go well. You have certain expectations of them, and they don't care that you do, and they're just living their lives being themselves. But I was able to ask him a couple quick questions, and he was funny."
Greenman's reluctance to pry during their brief meeting also reflects his desire to maintain some level of distance and mystery in regard to his musical idols.
"One of the reviews [of my book] said it doesn't solve the question of how Prince will be viewed in 50 years, and I agree it doesn't. I don't think — I didn't care. Just like I didn't care about his drug addiction. There's lots of dimensions and lots of open questions that remain, but I could not answer all of them and didn't want to even try," Greenman says.
"The mystery I do want to know is what would've happened had he not died." After Prince's death, Vice published a piece of short fiction that Greenman wrote imagining Prince at the age of 85. He believes Prince had a lot more left in him.
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Greenman considers Prince's last proper album, Art Official Age, to be one of his best in years. "He looks directly into issues of loneliness, suffering, growing older without a partner, not connecting with people, and for the first time in a decade, really, I thought he was truly writing about his own experience, not just reaching into the Prince trick bag.
"It's interesting to me to think along that parallel line of what would've happened... because in a different way than, say, Michael Jackson, there was so much change in the music and so much change in the creativity over the years that would've continued."
Ben Greenman, author of Dig if You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God & Genius in the Music of Prince
8 p.m. Friday, May 26, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free and open to the public.