By Jason Kron, August 2019 Issue.
Any book that tries to get to the bottom of Prince’s mystery seems doomed to failure, even when it’s largely comprised of The Purple One’s own words. For someone so seemingly stoic, he sure liked to prank interviewers. He was fond of giving them responses that were either one word or riddles, making them dance or sing on the spot to determine whether they were worth his time, giving phone interviews while secretly in the same building as the reporters, etc. (all covered in this book). Similar to The X-Files, it seemed that any of Prince’s answers only created more questions. Musicphiles will be spending centuries trying to figure out what made him tick, how he was able to master so many instruments and write and record so many albums (39 in 40 years) and seem to do so with seemingly no regard for the outside world. While the discussions that comprise Prince: The Last Interview don’t answer any of these questions, they do a great job of conveying that he was the kind of over-the-top, earnestly weird genius that had never been born before and will never come again.
Featuring a forward by Hanif Abdurraquib (who released an incredible book earlier this year entitled Go Ahead in the Rain about the rap group A Tribe Called Quest), the interviews in this book range from an early feature in Prince’s high school paper (written in an endearingly simplistic form) to his final interview months before his death (which concludes with the eerie “Presumably he’s gone home, wherever that is.”). His progression is represented well in these articles, from an up-and-coming Minneapolis hotshot in the late ‘70s, to an eccentric ‘80s star, to an even more eccentric ‘90s star with an indecipherable symbol for a name, to a celibate Jehovah’s Witness whose religion led him to stop swearing or playing any of his hypersexual songs (and that’s a lot of songs).
It’s interesting to see enthusiasm from this famously soft-spoken character, whether he’s discussing his veganism with The Vegetarian Times, his beliefs in conspiracy theories such as chemtrails, or musicians such as James Brown and Chaka Khan who impacted his life. For a Prince superfan such as myself, this book couldn’t fail no matter what. But even if you’re somehow unfamiliar or have never had more than a passing interest in him, it’s worthwhile to delve into these entertaining discussions with someone who seemed so superhuman and so fictional.
John Waters is a legendary personality amongst the connoisseurs of crassness, someone who makes a life out of fantastical filth while still being the most well-dressed and well-read person in the room. (His most famous quote may be, “If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”) After 40 years as a filmmaker, which concluded with 2004’s A Dirty Shame, Waters has turned his energy toward memoirs and spoken-word performances, where the loudness of his carefree personality is even more direct. I’ve read physical copies of some of his books and listened to audio versions of others, and the latter are definitely the way to go with his work, as his words reach their fullest effect when spoken with his voice (this book being no exception).
His newest book Mr. Know-It-All has a little of everything one would expect from Mr. Waters. The first section goes over behind-the-scenes info about most of his movies chronologically, and this may not be of much interest to someone who hasn’t seen his films, but you’re probably a Waters fan if you’re considering reading this book in the first place.
The book’s personal stories are surprisingly touching, such as when he discusses his friendship with and admiration for Andy Warhol, or when he brings up the deaths of his parents, his brother, and his close friend and collaborator Divine (the drag queen star of most of his early films). Death is a recurring theme in the book, at one point he even expresses fear of his impending demise. But in typical form, he also treats the subject with a lot of oddball humor. The strongest part of the book by far is the closing chapter “Grim Reaper,” where he ponders his funeral service, the afterlife, and his belief that his zombie corpse will return to the streets of Baltimore. It is simultaneously bizarre and beautiful.
Considering his roots as a filmmaker who has thrived on making some of the most offensive movies ever made, it makes sense that Mr. Know-It-All is full of grueling moments, tidbits best avoided by the easily offended. But once again, you’re probably picking up the book because you know and enjoy his work, and if you can handle Pink Flamingos, you probably have a high tolerance for the repulsive. It’s this dichotomy between the appalling and the whimsical that has come to define Waters’ movies and his charm, something that this book displays proudly, something that explains the lines at his meet-and-greets, where fans flock just to see what it’s like to be near someone who radiates so much X-rated magic.
Jared Yates Sexton’s The Man They Wanted Me To Be is a fitting book for these times, an age where the world’s most bigoted, most macho white men have become empowered by their president to come out of hiding and hate freely, causing a needed reaction on the opposing side against toxic masculinity. Many men on the left who believed themselves to be effeminate and enlightened have realized that they’re a big part of the problem, that they unconsciously carry the influence of the patriarchy, that they still exhibit thoughts and actions linked to the idea of “being a man” (closed-off emotions, the need to prove oneself through work and providing, etc.). Sexton challenges men on all sides of the political spectrum to recognize these thought patterns and try to move past them for the betterment of society.
The Man They Wanted Me To Be outlines the history of this mentality, how men are trained to try living up to unattainable ideals of masculinity, and when they fail in this pursuit, they express their frustrations in the form of inexcusable abuse against their families, friends and themselves. Sexton eloquently argues that this male anger is misdirected, that this fury should really be directed toward the masculine archetype that makes them and the non-white-males around them miserable.
This book outlines how the World War II era’s “greatest generation” created identities revolving around labor, how white males immersed in the patriarchal system felt left behind when integration and industrial progress became more prominent, leading to their support of those politicians who would stump that progress. As Sexton points out at length, there is an obvious link between this mentality and the rise of Trump, as white males latched onto a man who embodied all the traditional traits of what it means to “be a man”, and who, like them, is clearly riddled with traditionally unmasculine traits such as fear and insecurity.
Sexton’s book is largely a memoir as well, as he writes at length about his father and step-fathers, people who lived their lives feeling self-destructively inadequate due to what they considered to be their shortcomings as soldiers, providers, etc. For a long time, the pressure of living up to what Sexton thought he needed to prove was causing him to seriously contemplate suicide. With the help of therapy (which our culture deems “unmanly”), he was able to escape from the grasp of toxic masculinity enough to gain the perspective to write a beautiful book about it. As he repeatedly points out in this writing, trying to overcome this societal brainwashing will be a lifelong battle. But as younger generations move past gender conformity and challenge the ideals of the old guard, Sexton states that there is hope.