(Featured Image: Sam Cooke by Michael Ochs, 1959.)
In late 1979, an interview with Prince appeared in the African American teen magazine Right On! The interviewer, Cynthia Horner, was one of the up-and-coming artist’s earliest champions in the media, yet even she was not spared the usual quirks of his interactions with the press; to her growing exasperation, Prince spent most of the article deflecting her questions with flirtatious evasions. But then, just as Horner seemed about to give up and asked him the hoariest teen-mag question in the book–does he have a girlfriend?–Prince gave a response that feels disarmingly real: “I had one but she left me. I wrote some songs about it on the album.” At her expression of disbelief–“Do you know how many young ladies would love to fill her shoes?”–he replied, “That’s why she left me” (Horner 1979).
It’s perhaps a tribute to Prince’s growing facility as a pop songwriter in 1979 that I never suspected the songs of love and heartbreak on his second album were inspired by real women; they feel much too universal in their vagueness, like the dozens of songs for imaginary girls by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And yet, Prince suggested to Horner–and the various biographies agree–that several of his songs from around this period were inspired by his early girlfriend, Kim Upsher. Upsher, you might recall, was probably Prince’s first “serious” relationship; when he moved into his house on France Avenue in Edina, she was the one who helped decorate and made it feel like a home, rather than a glorified studio space. Due to the deliberate fudging of Prince’s age around this time, she’s often assumed to have been his high-school sweetheart; biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, however, have clarified that they didn’t begin dating until around the time he signed to Warner Bros.–though he did apparently nurse an intense crush for her in high school, while she was seeing his close friend Paul Mitchell (Hahn 2017).
By early 1979, in any case, Upsher was out of the picture–though she did stay in Prince’s orbit, later making a cameo in the Purple Rain film (see above). The reason, Prince alluded to Horner, was his wandering eye: a recurring theme, as we’ll see, in his relationships with women. And, since there’s aural evidence of him writing love songs and necking in the studio with at least one other woman around this time, it’s clear that her jealousy was not unfounded. But the breakup with Upsher appeared to have inspired some genuine feelings of regret and loss in Prince. There’s a little of her, presumably, in the melancholic undertones of “With You” and the wronged-man complaints of “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”; there are even some poorly-sourced speculations that Prince channeled his post-breakup rage (and, presumably, a fair bit of creative license) into “Bambi.” But arguably the most compelling of the songs that seem to be written about Upsher was the album’s third and final U.S. single, “Still Waiting.”
Like the previous album’s “So Blue,” “Still Waiting” is at heart a vintage late ’50s/early ’60s R&B song, in the vein of artists like Sam Cooke or early Marvin Gaye. This time, however, Prince eschews any overt eccentricities in his arrangement: no acoustic guitar, phased bell trees, or proggy bass synth noodling here. He still doesn’t sound fully comfortable in a rootsy mode; the Nashville-style piano and whining, pedal-steel-like synthesizers feel self-conscious, like a semi-ironic pastiche of country music. But you can nevertheless hear a lot of the Prince who would soon record masterfully stripped-down entries in the style, including 1980’s “Gotta Broken Heart Again” and 1982’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”
And, like those later songs, “Still Waiting” works in large part because its lyrical themes suit the conventions of the genre. Heartbreak is the bread and butter of country and soul music alike; Prince employs these well-worn tropes with lines so note-perfect they seem almost timeless: “All my friends tell me / About the loves they’ve had / Can’t they see what they’re doing to me? / It makes me feel so bad / ‘Cause I’m so alone / And brokenhearted / It ain’t like my life is ended / But more like it never started.” He ends the song in classic blues fashion, as lonely and unfulfilled as he was at the beginning: “still waiting” for the love he desires to “come around.”
Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that Prince was too good at writing these kinds of songs. “Still Waiting” feels like a slick genre pastiche, but it also appears to have come from a real place emotionally; among Prince’s talents, and his curses, was the ability to write songs so polished that they obscured his real-life pain. I remember back in 2014 when he released his then-new song “The Breakdown”; I, a longtime fan whose interest in new Prince music was at a low ebb, was left unmoved (there’s actually an embarrassing writeup of the track you can read from the early days of my other blog, Dystopian Dance Party). The song felt to me like an empty simulacrum of a heartbreak song: its reference to getting intoxicated and “waking up in places that you would never believe” was such a cliché–not to mention out of character, coming from a notorious teetotaler like Prince.
I was, of course, wrong about “The Breakdown” on pretty much every level. In a rare admission of vulnerability, Prince would later tell Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt that the song came from a “sensitive…nude” place; “You could touch it and it would just hurt instantly” (Hiatt 2016). And of course, his shocking death in early 2016 revealed a crippling dependency on narcotic painkillers, which he had managed to conceal from all but his closest inner circle until it finally took his life. In a weird way, I still feel guilty for dismissing “The Breakdown” as just another lovelorn Prince ballad; and I wonder how many other songs I wrote off as bloodless exercises in craft were actually revealing something of his soul.
As far as “Still Waiting” is concerned, Prince’s performances were most revealing in concert: a setting in which, biographer Matt Thorne notes, the track served as early evidence of his ability “to completely transform a song,” becoming “increasingly baroque and bizarre” in the process (Thorne 2016). At his much-bootlegged First Avenue show from March 8, 1982, for example, Prince performed the song with his one-time protégée, Sue Ann Carwell, on backing vocals. Carwell’s strong, soulful voice underlines the song’s old-school sensibilities; but Prince’s blacker-than-black comic ad-lib, confessing that he had just killed his girlfriend because “she made me wait for that love too long,” stands out as an example of the dark, violent undercurrent in this period of his work. But even such an off-hand, off-color comment demonstrates its own kind of artistic growth: by 1982, rather than merely paying tribute to vintage R&B, Prince was fully exploring the boundaries, making soul music weirder and angrier than even Marvin Gaye could have managed.
And perhaps that’s why Prince performed “Still Waiting” only seldom in the years since then. Once he’d fully found his voice, he had no shortage of vessels with which to tweak the conventions of gospel-based Rhythm & Blues; this early attempt was effectively rendered obsolete. But today, I think “Still Waiting” is still worth remembering: as quite possibly the finest ballad on Prince, but also–and more importantly–as one of those precious moments when his cool, assured mask slipped, and we got a glimpse at the man underneath.
Next week, we wrap up Prince’s second album with what might actually be my dark-horse pick for favorite song. I hope to see you all then!