Review: History: Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks Ronin Ro
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You could say that all you ever needed to know about Prince is contained in his film Purple Rain. This semi-autobiograph-ical musical opus from 1984 depicts a young Minneapolis musician called 'The Kid' riding around town on a motorbike in preposterous outfits, charming nubile young women and trying to escape his parents warring at home.
He finally reveals his all-conquering creative genius when he is reconciled with his band and unleashes a water-spurting guitar.
While eye-poppingly gauche and often unintentionally reminiscent of a comic strip, it is also brilliantly of the moment. It pinpoints the time when 26-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson transcended the compartmentalisation of the 1970s' music scene to unfurl his unique and beguiling colours.
It shows just how potent and transfixing the music he was making was, mixing new-wave programmed drum beats, Jimi Hendrix guitar licks and George Clinton funk surrealism.
But while this may have been the high point of Prince's fame and record sales, his career has continued full-throttle over the last decades, with dozens more record releases, record-company battles, personal upheavals, and, in the last few years, a kind of rehabilitation in the public eye where the now 53-year-old has become one of the most sought-after live performers, crowned by his 21 nights at London's O2 in 2007.
These are the two phases the music journalist Ronin Ro attempts to breach in his comprehensive account of Prince's career.
After Purple Rain there was the predictable hubris of ridiculous self-directed films, tours on the themes of Ulysses and nightclubs filled with busts of the artist.
Ro is a fastidious detective, carefully accounting for Prince's near-inhuman creative output, producing albums at such a rate they started to lose their commercial appeal.
More interestingly, he suggests that Prince's pivotal war with Warner records in the 1990s was born out of truculence rather than a far-sighted desire to emancipate pop stars from unfair record contracts.
Most of the time, you feel Ro has more sympathy with the record executives, who stood by their raging star even as he painted a slave symbol on his face and erased his name in the misguided hope it would create a legal escape route for him.
Indeed, at many times you start to sympathise with the journalist Erin Anderson, who interviewed Prince in 2001 and came away so disenchanted she wanted to throw away all her tapes of him.
Ro has had less access than her to his subject -- and it shows. His facts may be in the right order, but there is a lack of empathy for the man who has inspired so many loyal and obsessive fans.
This coolness of tone works fine when Ro is wading through the reams of personal colour already out there about Prince's early life, but it leaves you bewildered in the later years.
It is shocking when out of nowhere you find Prince collapsed in his studio after taking an overdose of sleeping pills and drinking four bottles of wine, because Ro has only ever noted him being abstemious.
Similarly, just before both his parents die, you are told how close he is to them, despite their making scant appearances beyond Prince's childhood in Ro's account.
After spending most of the book revelling in Prince's productivity but not mustering much enthusiasm for his music, the epilogue, in which Ro gushes about Prince "finally finding peace" and eulogising his relationship with the American supermarket chain Target, appears so bizarre that it could have been written by the man himself.
This biography may be as frustratingly elusive and alienating as Prince has often been, but it lacks any of the unpredictable brilliance and musical richness that have made him so appealing.