Ben Greenman loves talking Prince. Even if you don’t think “Little Red Corvette” is a perfect song (he does). Even if “1999” isn’t your favorite Prince album (it’s his). Even if you can’t get enough of “Graffiti Bridge” (he can).
The author and New Yorker contributor has just published a new book about the pop star — who died in April 2016 of an opioid overdose — and he hopes it reminds fans of the breathtaking scope and virtuosity of the artist’s astonishing body of work.
Oh, and he’s happy to argue best songs, too.
“I hope his fans move through the music in this book in that spirit,” says Greenman, who appears May 26 at Books & Books in Coral Gables to talk about “Dig If You Will The Picture: Funk, Sex, God & Genius in the Music of Prince” (Holt, $28). “If there’s someone out there who thinks ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ is underrated, I want to hear that argument.”
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A diehard Prince fan since he bought “1999” at a Peaches Records store as a kid in Miami, Greenman hadn’t thought of writing about Prince until the musician died last April. When his agent suggested the idea, he worried about capitalizing on a tragedy.
Then he realized he could do something positive: turn fans who’d drifted away back to the last third of Prince’s prolific career.
“I bought every record,” says Greenman, who co-wrote “Mo’ Meta Blues” with Questlove and memoirs with George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. “The fans with me in the 1980s, that group narrowed and narrowed. That happens with any artist — Springsteen, Neil Young, anybody who remains prolific. Fans fall off because nothing is ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ or ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ Nothing was ‘Purple Rain’ or ‘Sign O’ the Times’ or ‘Lovesexy.’ But Prince pursued a consistent set of themes over the course of his career. By ’87, ’88, ’89, they were in place: sex and spirituality and identity. It was really interesting to go back and listen again.”
“Dig If You Will The Picture” delves into those themes and more, with some biographical detail. But the book isn’t a biography, though Greenman touches on the singer’s personal life, including his marriages and the death of his infant son in 1996. Instead, Greenman analyzes Prince’s songs and albums; his relationship with collaborators and his hometown of Minneapolis; his prodigious talent at all aspects of the music business; the trailblazing way he smashed boundaries of gender, race and culture; and his prolific production (he released more than 40 studio records, and that’s not even counting what’s unreleased).
As for Prince’s legacy? It goes beyond the great music for Greenman.
“I think it’s a certain bravery,” he says. “People ask who his heirs are musically. It’s tough to answer. Not many people did what he did: wrote, played, produced, sang and performed, everything at the top level. Most artists have part of it — they’re great songwriters but maybe not transfixing performers. I was thinking of him watching the “Twin Peaks” revival. ... you have ideas. Some are bad and some are good, and you put them out and that’s what art is. Prince did a lot of bad work, not in a crass way, but not everything rises to the level of ‘Little Red Corvette.’ But that’s good in a way. You can see the experiments. You can see his new faith in being a Jehovah’s Witness. You can see when he’s angry at the label, when he’s tired and uninspired. It’s all there in the music.”
And like all fans, Greenman wonders what might have been.
“What would happen musically if he’d lived, if he had gotten clean? What type of music would he have made? Would he have remarried a younger woman and had a child? He would have looked for inspiration in whatever life experiences he had. But we lost out on at least 20 years of music.”
If You Go
Who: Ben Greenman and ‘Dig If You Will The Picture’
When: 8 p.m. May 26
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Ben Greenman on Prince
On Prince’s legendary 2007 Super Bowl performance in Miami: “We think of him as a significant artist with songs like ‘The Beautiful Ones’ and ‘Sign O’ The Times,’ serious, emotional, political songs, but what a sense of humor he had! He was a Jehovah’s Witness at the Super Bowl time, but he slyly worked in that phallic guitar. If you’re a performer you’re never unaware of what the audience might want.”
Perfect songs (besides “Little Red Corvette”): “ ‘Kiss,’ even though he had so much inadvertent help on it. He wrote it for a side band that changed and rearranged it, then he took it back. ‘Sign O’ The Times,’ like ‘Kiss,’ because of the lessons it taught him that he later forgot — take things out. He did it on ‘When Doves Cry,’ too. Sometimes songs that are more and more sparse are stronger.”
On his favorite Prince albums: “ ‘1999’ is a tasting menu for everything he could do, and it starts with two of his best pop songs (the title track and “Little Red Corvette”). And I love ‘Lovesexy.’ ”
The album he loves that you don’t even know about: “ ‘Art Official Age.’ It’s his last proper record and really one of the finest records he did since his heyday. Very moving in a kind of subdued way, autobiographical about being in his 50s and lonely and on the road and not connecting with people.”
Albums he doesn’t like: “Diamonds and Pearls” (aside from “Cream” and “Gett Off”) and “Graffiti Bridge”: “I don’t think I’ll ever like ‘Graffiti Bridge.’ I think that song is just bad.”
On whether “Purple Rain” is Prince’s best album: “He wanted a higher level of fame. He was crossing paths with people like Bob Seger, and those people were selling more records. He didn’t fully understand why he wasn’t. People said, ‘They’re doing this kind of thing,’ and he said, ‘I can do that,’ and made ‘Purple Rain.’ It’s perfect in its own way.” [A remastered, multi-disc “Purple Rain” with previously unreleased songs is coming June 23.]