Ephemera, 1979-1981


“Broken” feels like Prince having fun, taking his new piano-recording capabilities for a test drive.

Despite a strong start on the East Coast, the Dirty Mind tour lost its momentum when it hit the Southern states. Dates in Charleston, Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, and Memphis saw disappointing ticket sales, failing to attract the mainstream R&B audience who had seen Prince open for Rick James earlier in 1980. Only in Detroit–where he, astonishingly, nearly sold out the 12,000-seat Cobo Hall–was Prince building a substantial audience.

Meanwhile, according to drummer Bobby Z, the album sales just “kind of sat” (Nilsen 1999 74). The machinations of P.R. mastermind Howard Bloom, brought on by Prince’s management at the beginning of December, had not yet taken hold. After a final date at Chicago’s Uptown Theatre (no relation), the tour ground to a halt; and, for the third time in his brief career, Prince was sent back to Minneapolis to lick his wounds.

Outside the house on Kiowa Trail in 1983; photo stolen from Neon Rendezvous.

As usual, though, Prince’s way of “licking his wounds” was to throw himself back into his music. He spent the first two months of 1981 recording at his new home studio, 9401 Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen, Minnesota. A two-story ranch located on Lake Riley, the Kiowa Trail house was certainly a step up from Prince’s previous home in Orono. As his longtime collaborator David “Z” Rivkin later recalled to writer Jake Brown, there was “a big control room, pretty much full blown,” in the basement. The recording itself took place in isolated rooms, “more like small booths,” adjoining the control room; but Prince also wired a Yamaha CP-70 electric grand piano in the upstairs living room (Brown 2010).

At least two songs that we know of were recorded at Kiowa Trail in this period: “Commercial,” which remains unreleased, and “Broken,” a deceptively upbeat Rhythm & Blues raveup that took full advantage of the aforementioned grand piano. Indeed, the studio version of “Broken” feels like a deliberate showcase for the instrument; it’s arguably the most piano-oriented Prince song since “Leaving for New York” in 1976. Beginning with some quick, bluesy improvisation, the song quickly shifts into ballad mode, with a gorgeous, ascendant flourish emerging from underneath the opening lyric: “Until you come back to me, there’ll be nothing left to say.” The piano disappears for the first verse, which Prince sings a cappella, accompanied by his own “fingasnaps” (another “instrument” he’d left on the shelf since the For You days). But it quickly returns–along with some drums, bass, guitar, and synthesized organ–for the rousing, fast-paced chorus, and doesn’t let up until the tongue-in-cheek canned-piano-jazz ending.

Like “So Blue,” “Still Waiting,” and “Gotta Broken Heart Again” before it, “Broken” is a clear homage to the R&B and soul music of Prince’s early childhood. More than in those earlier songs, however, here he seems to be poking some gentle fun at the tradition and its attendant clichés. The lyrics are a clear extension of “Broken Heart”’s breakup narrative–right down to the opening line, a barely-altered adaptation of the other song’s somber finale. But once it gets going, the arrangement becomes nothing short of joyous; and that’s not even mentioning the second chorus, which for maximum cheekiness drops an earlier reference to “sweet love” in favor of the much less euphemistic “sweet pussy.”

In other words, “Broken” feels more than anything like Prince having fun: first in the studio, taking his new piano-recording capabilities for a test drive, and then on stage, where the song took its overt role as an extended coda to “Gotta Broken Heart Again,” with room for the band to work out (see video above). The gleeful keyboard lines were left to Lisa and Dr. Fink; the rockabilly guitar solo was handled by Dez Dickerson; the “oh, oh, baby” breakdown was turned into a full-band call-and-response. Prince, meanwhile, took the opportunity to dance–not in the effortless, balletic way he’d dance later in the 1980s, but winningly nevertheless.

As fun as it clearly was, however, “Broken” didn’t last long in the Prince canon. It’s only known to have been performed at a handful of dates in March 1981: chiefly, Sam’s in Minneapolis on the 9th and a second show at the Ritz in New York on the 22nd. It’s unclear why, exactly, “Broken” was never returned from its early retirement; perhaps, as Prince Vault speculates, Prince considered it to be too close in style to later songs like “Jack U Off.” But in any case, it was a memorable part of the Dirty Mind setlist while it lasted–and a hell of a way to break in a new home studio.

Next time, we’ll talk about another short-lived outtake from the Dirty Mind era, and the beginning of a much-longer relationship with the Twin Cities’ most famous rock venue.

(This post was updated to correct my description of the piano in Prince’s home studio; it was in fact an electric grand piano, not an acoustic. Thank you to rkipp683 in the comments for giving me this correction… oh, three years before I got around to making it.)

By Zach

Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. Arguably best known as the author of Dance / Music / Sex / Romance, a song-by-song chronological blog about the music of Prince.

5 replies on “Broken”

Life lesson from Prince: Don’t let the turkeys get you down, keep on keepin’ on! Now the mysterious question: What drove this guy in his single-minded perseverance and march to stunning achievement? Was it survival, genetics, brain wiring,savant talent, neurosis, divine intervention? Maybe nobody ever really knew, or will know, but this aspect of his personality always convinced me that no way did he intentionally overdose. Peace and love!

It really is incredible–I never thought about it like that until I wrote it down, but he really faced an uphill battle early on–so many setbacks and stalled opportunities. I’ve been facing some professional setbacks the last few weeks, and I’m struck by how tempting it’s been to just give up, so this is a timely reality check. Not that there are really any parallels between me and Prince, obviously–I could just use some of his tenacity!

Hi Zack, amazing blog and many thanks from a first-time commenter who’s catching up with the last few entries. Just one fellow musician’s note about the piano here: It’s a Yamaha CP-80 electric grand piano (meaning it had acoustic strings but also electric pickups for amplification and / or recording purposes, similar in architecture to the way electric guitars work). That’s how he was able to “wire it up” for recording without having to mic it up in his home. A few years later that piano sound would become (in)famous in the hands of Peter Gabriel (“In Your Eyes”) and his bandmates in Genesis contemporaneously (“Turn It On Again”).

Wow, I came here to make this exact edit, only to belatedly realize you gave me this correction three years ago! Thank you (and sorry I ignored it for so long)!

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