Though it was a major boon for his own development as a songwriter and producer, for the rest of his band, Prince’s agreement to collaborate privately with Chris Moon went over about as well as you might expect. Curiously, Moon remembers Morris Day taking the snub hardest: “he was a pretty flamboyant, outrageous, strong personality even back then,” he told biographer Matt Thorne, “so I think it struck him as difficult that the quietest person in the band had been picked over him, the front man” (Thorne 2016). Morris, of course, was the group’s drummer, not the “front man”; it’s unclear whether Moon was speaking figuratively, or confusing him for someone else.
In any case, the rest of Shampayne served Prince with an ultimatum: Moonsound, or the band. He chose Moonsound, of course–but his version of the story suggests that the decision wasn’t just about ditching his friends at the earliest opportunity. In Prince’s telling, it was his trip to New York in the autumn of 1976 that caused the rift, and it was symptomatic of a larger gap in ambition between himself and his bandmates. “I asked them all what they wanted to do, ‘Do you want to stay here, or do you want to go to New York?’” he explained to Musician magazine’s Barbara Graustark in 1981. “No one wanted to do it. They liked their lifestyle, I guess. I don’t think they really liked the idea of me trying to manipulate the band so much. I was always trying to get us to do something different, and I was always teamed up on for that. Like, in an argument or something like that, or a fight, or whatever…it was always me against them” (Graustark 116-117).
It’s unlikely that the breakup of Grand Central/Shampayne was the inspiration for Prince’s 1976 composition “Leaving for New York”–at least, not in the literal sense. Like most of his writing from this period, the lyrics explicitly concern themselves with a romantic relationship: Prince’s character is off to the big city, leaving his girlfriend behind, but promises to take with him “the memories of when we made love / And all the other lovely feelings that we share.” Typical of Prince, he also notes that the girl must regret “giving up [her] virginity” to him. Frank sexual references aside, however, it’s easy to read between the lines and detect some of Prince’s feelings as an ambitious young man on the cusp of leaving his band, the closest thing he had at that point to a home and family: “Though I said I’d never leave you / This is something that I must do / But I never will forget you / Unless you forget to come into my dream.” Those lyrics could have been addressed to Morris and André Anderson, just as easily as to one of his dream girls.
Whatever “Leaving for New York” is about, musically it is among Prince’s most sophisticated early works. The delicate, ever-shifting melody and impressionistic lyrics–including, it’s been noted, the first recorded use of Prince’s favored words “purple,” “rain,” and “dawn”–are the strongest indications to date of Joni Mitchell’s influence on his songwriting. You can also hear, in the song’s unusual, jazzy chord structure, an influence from much closer to home: Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, who inspired a similar strain in his later work with tracks like the aptly-named “Father’s Song” and “Under the Cherry Moon.” Of course, like many of the tunes we’ve discussed so far, “Leaving for New York” is clearly the work of a young, inexperienced songwriter. The lyrics are trite, the melodic movements feel grafted together, and the song as a whole seems unfinished; the last minute or so is just wordless scatting over a piano vamp. But something about the performance and the haunting, melancholy mood it evokes is far greater than the sum of its parts. Prince, an 18-year-old who’d barely set foot outside Minneapolis at the time of recording, manages to vividly depict the nostalgic, romanticized, almost entirely imaginary New York that (I happen to know from experience) dwells in the hearts of all creative types from the Midwest.
Prince is believed to have recorded “Leaving for New York” both at the Anderson home and at Moonsound, but only the earlier home recording is circulating. Listen closely to the previously-discussed Moonsound “piano intro,” however, and it sounds quite a bit like the first few seconds of this song–though why a false start would be available in place of a full recording is anyone’s guess. Intriguingly, too, Prince never seemed to revisit “Leaving for New York” after he actually, well, left for New York. It’s likely that he just didn’t see much commercial potential in the song; as we’ll see, he would fail to attract any serious label attention with his first demo tape, so his next set of recordings would focus on songs with sharper pop hooks. But it’s also possible that, like many other Midwestern kids who went to New York to chase their dreams, he found that the big city wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It’s certainly interesting to note that Prince, the same guy who effectively broke up his band with the demand that they all pack up and go to the coast with him, would spend most of the next 40 years clinging tenaciously to his home in Minneapolis, forcing the rest of the music industry to come to him.
In the summer of 1976, however, New York unquestionably represented an escape and an opportunity for Prince. “I was ready for anything,” he told Graustark. “I felt disgusted with my life in Minneapolis” (Graustark 118). And, even in its imperfect, possibly incomplete early form, “Leaving for New York” is a gem: a revealing window into the mind of a teenage prodigy yearning for something more, and willing to leave behind his band and his hometown to get it.
Later this week: more on Prince’s demo, and the song that would become For You’s prettiest ballad.
(This post was slightly edited to “correct” the spelling of Shampayne.)