“Y’all still read books, right?” Prince asked from the balcony of Manhattan’s Avenue Club on Friday night, knowing what the jubilant response would be from the crowd of publishing folks, journalists and VIPs gathered below.
The evening’s occasion was the announcement that Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House publishing, had purchased the rights to the enigmatic 57-year-old music legend’s memoir, which is expected sometime in 2017.
In short, improvised remarks, Prince said, “the working title is ‘The Beautiful Ones’,” after one of the song of his 1984 hit album, Purple Rain, and that he is being assisted in the endeavor by “by brother Dan.” (According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, this is Dan Piepenbring, an editor at The Paris Review.)
Spiegel & Grau’s executive editor Chris Jackson, who has previously overseen such noted biographical works by African-American authors as Jay Z‘s Decoded and Ta-Nehesi Coates’ award-winning Between the World and Me, is helming the project.
The evening closed with a unique 30-minute performance, with Prince behind a DJ-style set-up cuing and mixing his own songs, then singing them live, from mega-hits such as “When Doves Cry” to album cuts like 1983’s “All the Critics Love You in New York,” which kept its sly meaning but changed its perspective on this night.
Prince showed up a little after 9 p.m. in a shiny, golden suit and spoke for about five minutes. He briefly addresses the seeds of the memoir (“the good people of Random House made me an offer that I could not refuse”) and what it might contain (“from my first memory to the Super Bowl [at which he performed in 2007]”); he spoke of his new hairdo (inspired, he said, by the singer-activist Harry Belafonte, one of the VIPs in attendance) and, most randomly, offered a “heartfelt apology” to the stage-hands and union members he may have disrespected through the years, saying the show could not go on without them.
He then told the crowd that he was going to go home and change “and then come back to dance with you,” leaving the audience in the capable hands of the DJ, Pam The Funkstress (of Bay Area’s KBLX and Oakland funk-rap group, The Coup), who proceeded to play a heady selection of funk and soul jams for the awaiting crowd that was in an increasingly festive, Friday night mood.
Reports and stray clips from Prince’s current “Piano and a Microphone Tour,” which features the artist in a solo environment, have suggested that he may be in a mood to reminisce. A YouTube clip posted last month from the Melbourne Arts Center, and quickly taken down, showed Prince performing a version of “Little Red Corvette,” while eulogizing his old protégé, the singer Vanity (real name: Denise Katrina Matthews), who died on February 15.
Just before 11:00 p.m., in a brand new outfit featuring a sky-blue pants and a furry vest, Prince was back on another part of the balcony, with an accompanying dancer. And what had previously appeared to be an electric piano and mic set-up was revealed as a DJ or a live-MPC rig. Prince pressed play on “Hot Thing,” and began singing the still wonderfully grimy electro-funk cut from his 1987 album Sign O’ The Times, (altering one lyric about “going to the Random House ball”), before transitioning to that album’s deeply reflective title track.
For approximately the next 30 minutes, Prince took the party on a funhouse ride through his catalog, with a rapt audience trying to keep up, singing along to most every word. The artist cut up drum-machine patterns (heavy on the “Sign” beat”), while cuing up eight and sixteen-bar asides of tracks that spanned his illustrious career.
“So many hits!” he continuously exclaimed, even when focusing on tracks from his classic ’80s period that were actually not hits at all, songs like “DMSR,” “Forever in My Life,” and “Shockadelica.” He closed with the vamping funk of “Let’s Work,” a single from the 1981 album Controversy, an apropos note from someone who has some writing to do over the next year.