Be Outrageously Generous in December

Prince gives his all on stage at the Rosemont Horizon 35 years ago this month, on December 9, 1984, in Rosemont, Illinois. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Wire Image)

In the years when Prince was alive, the dearth of information about him made it clear that many of those surrounding him (okay, all of them) had been sworn to secrecy or had signed non-disclosure agreements, or simply KNEW how pissed Prince would be if they spoke publically about him. But in the years since he passed away, the floodgates have opened. It took a while — they didn’t open on day one, but what started as a trickle is today a rush of books and podcasts and media interviews If you try to consume all of the information spilling forth from former Prince bandmates, girlfriends, employees, managers and more, it can feel like you’re trying unsuccessfully to drink from a fire hose. In fact, just by reading GQ Magazine alone, in recent years, you could learn that he smelled like lavender and called people on the phone using French or British accents, or that he had a perfectly shaped, androgynous bottom (although, ahem, we didn’t need an insider to enlighten us to this Princely reality). The stories have become so plentiful that it’s possible to recognize patterns and categorize them: Prince the late-in-life mentor; Prince the employer who pushed you past your limits; Prince the ultimate musician; Prince the tremendous hard worker who didn’t eat, didn’t sleep and when it came to output, put everyone else to shame.

Of all these, there’s one category of stories that still takes me by surprise: Prince the philanthropist. For as much of a Prince fan as I’ve been, I did not realize the extent of his giving while he was alive.

“Prince spent his entire career privately supporting causes that were near and dear to his heart,” wrote Tony Kiene in a 2016 article for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. “Upon his death, however, the expansive scope and impact of his charitable activities started to come to light, mostly from accounts of those who’d previously been sworn to secrecy.”

What a little positive publicity about Prince’s charitable giving might have done for his image! Sometimes it felt he could never get out of his own way when it came out the public relations thing. Since his death, there’s been a halo effect when it comes to Prince’s public image. But back in the 1990s, the story was different. Much, much different.

Writer Chris Heath said of interviewing Prince for a 1991 Details magazine profile, “The man I talked to on the phone was smart, polite, charismatic, and playful, but it’s another man—the people watcher, the one who doesn’t say hello, the narcissist who’s so into himself all he needs is mirrors and foot servants—that so many people imagine being the real Prince.”

Here’s the truth of the real Prince: According to Kiene’s article, Prince was a financial force behind organizations such as #YesWeCode, Green For All, Youth 2 Leaders, and Powerhouse. Kiene writes, “As (Van) Jones told CNN … “There are people who have solar panels on their houses right now in Oakland, Ca., that don’t know Prince paid for them.”

While Prince’s giving reached all over this country, in his home state of Minnesota, Prince gave not only to Urban Ventures — the organization for which I’m raising funds this month — but also, according to Kiene, the Prep Network of Schools, The Bridge for Youth, Circle of Discipline, and a fund to support the victims of the I-35W bridge collapse tragedy.

Prince was a doer. That’s one thing I know for sure after attempting to live like him. I packed a ton of activity into each month and honestly, I began to remember that this is how I used to live when I was young. There is something to keeping things moving. One of the few things that very much stuck with me from his memoir, “The Beautiful Ones,” was written by Dan Piepenbring, his co-writer. Prince was excited to be a writer and seize the narrative of his own life, Piepenbring wrote, adding:

He said he was finished with making music, making records. “I’m sick of playing the guitar, at least for now. I like the piano, but I hate the thought of picking up the guitar.” What he really wanted to do was write. “I want to write lots of books. It’s all up here,” he said, pointing to his temple. That’s why he wanted to talk to writers and to work with a publisher. “I want my first book to be better than my first album. I like my first album, but …” he trailed off. “I’m a lot smarter than I was then.”

If you’re reading this, you still have a chance to seize your own narrative. Why not make giving an essential part of it? I’m excited to follow Prince’s generous lead in December.

Who’s in Your Band?

Prince and his band on April 11, 1983 in Chicago, Illinois, the last tour date of the “1999” Tour. (Paul Natkin/Image Direct)

As November opened, I intended to take the month’s theme of “form a band” literally. Well, nearly literally: Although I wasn’t auditioning drummers and bass players, I was extending myself in a concerted effort to connect with writers, editors, agents, bookstore owners, publicists — anyone with even a peripheral interest in this crazy business they call book publishing. Along the same lines as young Prince looking to get a record deal, I decided to see if I could make progress toward a goal of getting “Crazy Amazing: The Year of Living Like Prince” published as a book one day. (I was well aware that I would not fully accomplish this goal in a month’s time as Prince did with his own memoir deal: I’m not that crazy amazing!).

But by mid-month, my definition of “band” has broadened. The idea of a band grew to mean more than a team of people working together to get things done. A “band” also encompassed the idea of a group of like-minded individuals, like Robin Hood and his Merry Men on their quest to steal from the rich and give to the poor. Forming a band can be, as writer and psychologist Timothy Leary put it, an exhortation to go and “find the others.”

Whether seeking out a band to achieve a purpose or simply finding the others, Job One this month was to make a concerted effort to get connected with publishing peers. This isn’t as easy as it might seem. We writers don’t sit in an office from 9-5, surrounded by other helpful writers. So, I did what I’ve done every time I’ve been stuck this year: The Obvious. In this case, the obvious entailed attending a weekend writing conference hosted by Minneapolis’ Loft Literary Center. While there, a friendly agent mentioned a “MN Publishing” meetup to be held in a couple of weeks’ time. In the spirit of going where I’m invited, I happily showed up at Moon Palace Books on Saturday morning and wound up being introduced to a bunch of great people. The gathering was free writer’s therapy and within an hour, I was able to clear up a nagging question about what genre my book should be (a major nagging question, to be honest) that had kept me up at night and stymied me as to my next step. While I never saw myself as a memoirist, someone I’d met at the writing conference had made a compelling argument that “The Year of Living Like Prince” was a memoir. Which of course, it is — in part. I’d always envisioned my book as a work of prescriptive nonfiction. Also, “memoir” screams “undressing in public” in my mind (not that I haven’t done my share of that this year and not that I won’t continue to do it). So, I breathed a sigh of relief when a potential recipe of 30 percent memoir, 70 percent nonfiction was suggested. I marveled at how easy and angst-free it was to simply ask a question of others, rather than tormenting myself for nights on end. Why don’t I ask for help more often? Argh! (Bangs head against wall).

To explore the kinship aspect of finding a band, I picked up the book, “A Tribe Called Bliss: Break Through Superficial Friendships, Create Real Relationships, Reach Your Highest Potential,” by Lori Harder. And speaking of books, I sought out another aspect of publishing — the reader — by joining our neighborhood book club. As a writer, it’s eye-opening to hear how readers digest books. (Bonus: Wine with friends and neighborhood updates!).

In the midst of this frenzy of band-forming activity, I headed to New York for work because, like most writers, I have a day job. And there, perched high up in an office tower, a realization struck. For those pursuing a corporate career, there’s a clear path laid out for you. While of course there are twists and turns along the way, overall, there’s a sense of structure. It’s comforting to know what’s expected and I can see why many people prefer the corporate life to an entrepreneurial or artistic life. But when you’re a musician like Prince, the only ladder to climb is the one he sings of in 1986’s “Around the World in a Day” album, where he sings of the difficult steps that must be taken to achieve salvation. Unlike the climb from manager to director and vice president, Prince couldn’t replicate someone else’s journey. So while someone might give Prince advice about when to hire or fire a manager, when to tour or how quickly to produce albums, the truth is, no one can tell you, except you.

As a writer, everyone’s financial situation is different (perhaps you can afford to hire a web designer to build your author website). Everyone’s skills are varied (maybe you have web design skills of your own). But what isn’t different is our need for a band. After this month of meeting my fellow Midwestern writers, I’m struck by their collegiality and humbled by their generosity. And I’m more convinced than ever that every writer needs a band.

And now, I’d like to introduce you to three band members who have been instrumental in helping to grow Living Like Prince.

Here are my “Living Like Prince” band members

Mary O’Donohue is a dear friend from my years in Chicago. Her latest venture (after moving to Nashville) is as founder of Authors in Media. Mary has proven to be an invaluable team member and was instrumental in helping come up with the right words to describe this crazy project in its early days, and in getting me onto television (here too!) and into print.

Clara Tomaz is another Chicago friend (I sense a pattern forming here). Clara is an artist and filmmaker who owns a wonderful company that produces movies for companies and organizations and family histories. Clara lent her talents to my website, creating the header and the “about me” video, as well as using her artistic talents to create this stunning piece of artwork.

Painting by Clara Tomaz. You can follow her artwork here.

And here’s the final, and vital, member of my team. Sommer is a double doodle. (Yes, double doodles are a thing. You take a mini goldendoodle and put it together with a mini labradoodle, and voila: You’ve got yourself a double doodle).

Sommer (and chipmunk).

Sommer lies with her head on my lap while I write, or naps on the bed behind my desk, ever alert for a sighting of the neighbor’s cat, which likes to hunt in the little duck pond at the edge of our back yard.

In my future plans, I’ll have a photographer and a web designer and in due time, an agent and a freelance editor, along with an editor at my publishing house. All in due time.

Your Spiritual Journey Is a “Grand Progression”

Digital painting of Prince in the “Graffiti Bridge” era by NYAO.

An early theme of “Graffiti Bridge,” Prince’s spiritually-oriented 1990 movie, was the search for what Prince called “the grand progression.” When a progression of 17 guitar chords was played, it would cause the mystical Graffiti Bridge to appear. While there was a literal Graffiti Bridge in nearby Eden Prairie that had been used by Vietnam War protestors to share messages of peace, in the movie “Graffiti Bridge,” the bridge was a physical manifestation of a spiritual state of mind.

The unreleased ballad, “The Grand Progression,” was written for the movie but ultimately eschewed in favor of “Still Would Stand All Time” (you can hear “The Grand Progression” by searching YouTube for it). The song is filled with a yearning for union, of both the sexual and spiritual kind. In the concept of a grand progression, Prince expresses the mystical aspect of the musical harmonies that had been mathematized as far back as 500 b.c. by Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Like Pythagoras, Prince was exploring the mathematical aspect of music in the concept of a grand progression, but Prince added another dimension: He was also expressing music’s effect on the human spirit.

As I pilgrimaged through October, Prince’s idea of a grand progression took on new meaning. I began to see every step of my spiritual journey as a chord in “The Grand Progression.” Each step moves us forward in a journey to get closer to our higher self. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned the grand progression as mystical musical staircase that leads us into a higher level of consciousness, and at the end of our lives, back into the arms of God.

What I’ve learned this month is that spiritual journeys are built on trust. You must be willing to let go of the comfort of one step to move to the next level. You must trust that there will always be another step on which your foot will land safely. And like an improvising musician, you must trust that in releasing one chord, the next will come.

If you see life as The Police did when they sang, “We are spirits in the material world,” then it follows that life by definition is a spiritual journey, one travelled by your spirit, carried within your body for the purpose of having an earthly experience. And if we listen to one of Prince’s spiritual teachers, author Betty Eadie, what we are here on Earth to do is to grow our spirits through serving God — “Love God” — and serving each other — “Love4OneAnother.” We’ve all heard the old saying, “You can’t take it with you.” Well, there’s one thing we do take with us, according to Eadie: When we leave our bodies, our spiritual growth during this lifetime is what we take back to heaven.

Tomorrow, we turn a page on the calendar to a new month and a fresh start. Tune in for the announcement of November’s theme!