While Prince was starting work on the album that would become Dirty Mind, 19-year-old Lisa Coleman was in Los Angeles, working on the shipping dock of a documentary film company and teaching classical piano part-time. Lisa, born in the San Fernando Valley in 1960, was as much a product of L.A. as Prince was of Minneapolis. Her father, Gary L. Coleman, was a percussionist for the legendary session team the Wrecking Crew, with credits most notably including the Beach Boys’ 1966 single “Good Vibrations.” When she was 12 years old, Lisa played keyboard in a bubblegum pop band, Waldorf Salad, alongside her younger brother David, older sister Debbie, and another Wrecking Crew kid: Jonathan Melvoin, whose own younger sister, Wendy, would form the other half of Lisa’s longest-lasting creative partnership. The band was a little like the Partridge Family, Lisa later told journalist Neal Karlen, except “we all actually played our instruments” (Karlen 1986). As a teenager, Lisa attended Hollywood High and appeared in a bit part as a teenage pianist in the 1975 made-for-TV drama Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, starring Linda Blair and Mark Hamill.
According to the official narrative, it was 1979 when Lisa heard from a friend in the offices of Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli that Prince was looking for a new keyboardist. But this date seems off, for a couple of reasons: first, because in 1979 Gayle Chapman was still very much a part of Prince’s band, and there are no other accounts from that period to suggest she was being replaced; and second, because Steve Fargnoli wasn’t made a partner in Cavallo’s and Ruffalo’s firm until 1980. Whatever the year, however, Lisa submitted a tape, and was summoned to Prince’s home in Orono, Minnesota for an in-person audition. “When I got to Prince’s house,” she told Karlen, “he sent me downstairs and said he was going to change clothes. There was a piano down there, and I just started playing, trying to relax. I got the feeling he was eaves-dropping at the top of the stairs, so I whipped out my best Mozart. He finally came back downstairs, picked up his guitar, and we started jamming. From the first chord, we hit it off” (Karlen 1986).
Lisa didn’t necessarily enter the Prince camp as a fan; Wendy Melvoin, by that time Coleman’s girlfriend, recalled that when she found out Lisa would be playing with Prince, “I was like, ‘Oh shit, does she even know who she’s playing with?’ The answer was absolutely no.” But she quickly bonded with her new employer over shared musical influences: Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Stevie Wonder, and especially Joni Mitchell (Turman 2017). “Lisa is like my sister,” Prince later reflected in a separate interview with Karlen. “She’ll play what the average person won’t. She’ll press two notes with one finger so the chord is a lot larger, things like that. She’s more abstract. She’s into Joni Mitchell, too” (Karlen 1985).
There was also, per usual with Prince, a little light hazing to break in the relationship. Most infamously, he threw his youngest recruit into the deep end with a guest vocal spot on “Head,” the very song that had been a sticking point for her predecessor. “Gayle Chapman quit because the material of the Dirty Mind period got 2 strong 4 her,” he later wrote in his unpublished liner notes for The Hits collection. “Prince figured if Lisa could sing the lyrics to [‘H]ead[’] she could handle anything” (Dash 2016). She handled it with aplomb, of course: injecting an air of ironic detachment in her vocal delivery that subtly undermined and complicated the song’s Penthouse Forum-worthy narrative.
It’s less clear whether “Lisa,” a well-known outtake recorded in the summer of 1980, was another part of Coleman’s “initiation” into the band; there are, after all, a lot of “other girls named Lisa,” as Coleman observed to biographer Matt Thorne (Thorne 2016). But it seems too much of a coincidence that, within months of Coleman’s arrival in Minnesota, Prince just happened to record a bouncy, jocular, keyboard-driven song about wooing a woman named Lisa away from her “man.” The lyrics are exactly the kind of thing a devoted prankster like Prince would sing to make the new girl blush: “Lisa, I know you’re nasty,” he proclaims, assuring her that “some day, some way, we’ll be together.” It’s entirely possible, too, that Prince knew the real Lisa was gay–which would make “Lisa” a kind of lighter, less vicious sister song to his previous album’s “Bambi.”
Even if Coleman didn’t directly inspire “Lisa,” she does seem to have been present for its creation. Thorne reports that Lisa “remembers the song as being recorded at a soundcheck” (Thorne 2016), but its stripped-down arrangement and use of programmed rather than live drums has all the hallmarks of a solo recording. More likely, Lisa was simply there in the North Arm Drive home studio while Prince was recording. In a 2008 interview with the Tampa Bay Times, she recalled the days when she first moved out to Minneapolis: “I stayed in his house for a while and we’d just be in the studio all the time, and sometimes I’d be the one punching [him] in or whatever. That was a lot of good stuff” (Tampa 2008).
As is the case with many of his unreleased recordings, it’s unclear exactly what project Prince had in mind when he wrote “Lisa.” Maybe nothing: for Prince, music-making was as much an act of recreation–and communication–as it was an art form. But with its dark, undulating synthesizers and robotic drum machine rhythm, the song would have stuck out like a sore thumb on the wiry, guitar-driven Dirty Mind. Instead, “Lisa” points the way forward to the kind of electronic music we’d later hear on and around the 1999 album, with tracks like “Drive Me Wild,” “Purple Music,” and “All the Critics Love U in New York.” In other words, even in the midst of engineering his second big reinvention, Prince already had a third one on deck. Like he says in the song, “let’s go.”