A review of Prince: Purple Reign by Mick Wall

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Prince: Purple Reign
by Mick Wall
Hatchet Australia
ISBN:9781409169215, Paperback, Aug 2016, 256p, $32.99aud

I think most people my age can remember where they were when they watched the film Purple Rain. I don’t recall being very impressed at the time. I was somewhat obsessed with Kate Bush and David Bowie, but I wasn’t too keen on the overt theatrics of Prince and the sound was far too pop for my tastes. I still remember watching it with some Dominican friends, sitting in the bedroom while they straightened my hair with Jheri Curl. Though I remain unimpressed with the film, the music has grown on me dramatically over the years, and clearly I’m not the only one. There have been a number of books rushed out since Prince’s sudden death a few month ago. There have also been articles, books and revelations about Prince’s pain, his secret altruism, and his addiction to opioids. While Mick Wall’s book may seem a bit opportunistic, I don’t see anything wrong with catering to a public’s desire to read all. Wall hasn’t done his idol an injustice, and the portrait is one that does homage to Prince. It’s tempting to say that, at times, the prose is a bit purple:

There were no rules for Prince, no maps for him to follow drawn by other people. Just the steps up the ladder he so famously preached about, that he chose for himself. (9)

Wall has no particular insider knowledge other than being a deep fan who has written about Prince’s work over the years, having attended a few concerts, and much of the book is cobbled together from secondary sources like newspaper clippings, interviews, and public records. When Wall does actually bring his own experiences and perceptions into the book, the prose suddenly comes alive:

The show was suitably, overwhelmingly spectacular. Huge explosions of pyro, Prince in purple jacket sliding down a fireman’s pole onto the stage as the band threw their weight behind ‘Let’s Go Crazy’. The audience hypnotized as waterfalls of purple confetti tumbled from the rafters Everybody’s favourite Prince song seemed to be included, from obvious hits like ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Little Red Corvette’ and ‘1999’ to deeper cuts like ‘God’ and “father’s Song’, and some instrumental passages no one yet knew the names of. (97)

That said, Wall does uncover a fair amount of information about Prince’s early life in particular, his father’s stunted musical career, school years in Minneapolis,  interactions with siblings, and the experiences that shaped Prince’s later artistry. There is a clear progression shown through Prince’s musical development and Wall does a good job of exploring the songs in detail, showing off his experience as a rock critic. For example, Wall’s exploration of Around the World in a Day not only puts the work into its cultural context and cites a range of responses from other critics, but also explores the quality of the work in a way that helps illuminate it:

The album begins with the panoramic title track, the music drifting in like dawn mist at the start of what looks like it’s going to be a lovely day, all pan pipes and tambourines, Prince beseeching the world to ‘Open your heart, open your minds…’ There are vaguely Asian-sounding strings, light gospel voices and a drifting rhythm that even when Prince opens his throat and lets go still evokes a sense of bucolic ease and wonder. (107)

Though far from exhausting, the book moves through the release of each of Prince’s albums, his famous relationships, his name changes, religious conversion, and ultimately his untimely death. Throughout the book, Wall, who has called this book a tribute, presents a deep reverence that doesn’t really illuminate the man so much as the life that he lived. A bio by Wendy and Lisa, or one of Prince’s ex-wives would probably go deeper into the complex personality of Prince—something I suspect many of his fans would like to see. After reading this book, Prince remains enigmatic, and perhaps that’s part of the tribute. This is a man whose legacy was his music, an oeuvre that not only provided a platform that many of today’s most respected musicians have built their careers on, but one that continues to develop the more you listen to it. There’s so much more to listen to than simply the big hits, though those hits are far more complex than the instant pop accessibility of it would suggest.   Wall understands Prince’s music well, and if he doesn’t go deeply into his life, that’s probably exactly how the famously private Prince would have wanted it. Fans will take some comfort from Prince: Purple Reign, which provides a well-researched historical context for the music in a very easy to read, easy-on-the-eye book.