Dig If You Will the Picture is clearly a book that had to be written. The author, Ben Greenman, has loved Prince since 1982, when Greenman was a kid and 1999 was new, and he has an uncanny knowledge of all aspects of Prince’s music. It is clearly a book that must have been a joy to write. When parsing lyrics as thoroughly as Greenman parses them leads to comparisons with Plato, Milton, Blake, Homer, Proust, Dickinson – to name only a few of the greats name-dropped in this book – it’s easy to imagine that the author was having a lot of fun spinning and weaving the dense details of his argument.
“This could indeed be poetry.”
Whether or not this all adds up to a fun reading experience, or even a very enlightening one, is another question. My guess is that only a very few people will find this work a page-turner – probably not to include fans who hunger for new insight into Prince the person. The definitive biography of Prince is yet to be written. In the meantime, efforts to illuminate his soul through his music can only be imperfect, however heartfelt. It’s been done before, though perhaps not with so much devotion. The reader, however, is left longing for some sharp music-loving investigative journalist, or maybe an academic with a poetic soul and a knowledge of funk, to apply him- or herself to the task.
To be fair, the book’s subtitle is clear enough about what to expect from the book: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince. It’s all about the music. Although man and music can, of course, never be separated, this is not a biography, and it isn’t meant to be. I have to confess that I never even looked at the subtitle before I bought the book. The main title is what hooked me. Although I always liked Prince – and like many people, fell in love with him only with Purple Rain the movie – I never had much appreciation for his lyrics, being utterly swept away by the music alone.
But seeing “Dig if you will the picture” separated from the melody, elevated and framed on a book jacket, made me think this could indeed be poetry, and curious to see what other insights the book might contain. One thing the book has given me: a deeper appreciation for the lyrics and the fluid philosophies they suggest – although I don’t believe that Plato, Milton, Blake, Homer, Proust, or Dickinson have much to worry about in comparison. When my favorite part of the book is its discography addendum — and I do love it – that probably says it all.
“My favorite part of the book is its discography addendum — and I do love it.”
What should a biography do, then? I find myself wanting to know more about Prince the 57-year-old man, riddled with pain, struggling with the divide between his religious instincts and his need for pills. I want to know more about Prince the bulldozer of marital houses, Prince the Svengali, Prince the shy and dreamy teenage basketball player. I want to connect to a man whose genius I can never hope to understand, but whose flaws and sins and sorrows so utterly belong to me. This is what great biography does, and lovers of Prince are still waiting.