Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince
By Ben Greenman
286 Pages, $28
If you fall from that highwire bridging the chasm between fanboy love letter and sturdy critical inquiry, it's a long, lonely fall, and there will be no one there to catch you at the bottom.
Journalist Ben Greenman loves Prince, and throughout "Dig if You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God & Genius in the Music of Prince," the reader is never allowed to lose sight of this fact. But Greenman is that truest and most vital variety of fan – the sort capable of seeing the weak mixed within the superhuman, the failures scattered among the unquestionable successes. His love for Prince requires that he hold the artist to a higher standard, and that he call him out when he fails to deliver. And so, Greenman navigates the highwire ably.
"Dig If You Will…" is not a straight, traditional biography, but rather, a segmented personal essay that employs criticism as a wedge to pry open relevant biographical detail. Which is to say if you're looking for dirt, sensationalism or lurid sexual detail, you'll need to look elsewhere. Greenman didn't set out to tell you exactly what happened in the Paisley Park elevator on that tragic morning in April of 2016, but rather to cast some light on just how a prodigiously talented, relentlessly driven and seemingly abundantly, disciplined man might've ended up there, alone.
A self-described Prince obsessive, Greenman knows the music cold, and part of the joy of "Dig" will be, for the fan only aware of "Purple Rain" and "1999," the author's thorough familiarity with the rest of the abundant catalog. "Purple Rain" was, in many ways, an anomaly in Prince's career – an album that, if he didn’t downplay its creator's thematic concerns (the love-sex dichotomy, theories of gender, conflicted spirituality) certainly couched them in a commercially palatable context. So Greenman doesn't spend any more time on it than, say, a late-career masterpiece such as "The Rainbow Children" or "Art Official Age."
Witness Greenman, as he employs the b-side curio "How Come U Don’t Call me Anymore" as a means to discuss the relationship between an artist and his fans.
"In 'Being and Nothingness,' Jean-Paul Sartre proposed that absence was not simply the state of being missing but the state of being missing meaningfully .'I shall not say that Aga-Khan or the Sultan of Morocco is absent from this apartment,' he wrote, 'but I say that Pierre, who usually lives here, is absent for a quarter of an hour.' Pierre's absence is a nothingness, a not-being-there not just in fact … but in consciousness. During the eighties and nineties, I often experienced this nothingness with regard to artists I depended upon."
This last bit is telling, for it differentiates Greenman from the horde of aloof critics who view an artist's work as something separate from themselves. Prince is an artist Greenman depends upon, and so, he takes that artist's ruminations on sex, God and race seriously. He also understands the toll that being a depended-upon artist took on the man – yes, despite the genius, this was merely a man – born Prince Rogers Nelson.
Being as talented and prolific as Prince was – "more than forty officially released studio records, including two double albums, one triple album, and one quadruple album," as Greenman points out, to say nothing of the untold hours and hours of unreleased albums, songs and studio jams filling the infamous Prince vault – required hard work and immense discipline. It also meant that the work came first – before the primacy of enduring romantic relationships, before well-maintained friendships, and ultimately, we might infer, before care of the body that housed the genius.
Of course, it is ultimately far more interesting to learn that, for example, Prince was an ardent and well-educated fan of the work of Joni Mitchell and Todd Rundgren than it is to get the skinny on who he slept with and how often. Because Greenman understands this, his book feels like a gift for those of us who, like the author, considered Prince to be an artist we depended upon.
Jeff Miers is the News' Pop Music Critic