Over the last several months, we’ve covered most of the extant material Prince recorded during a much shorter period in 1981: two full albums–one for himself, one for the Time–and the beginnings of a third project for the Hookers. Most artists would consider this more than enough to rest on their laurels for at least a year; but Prince created music as much for recreation and communication as he did for a vocation. One of the most famous stories from his early career is about the origins of “Strange Way of Saying I Love You”: a song he recorded, for all intents and purposes, as an apology to keyboardist Lisa Coleman.
Lisa, as we’ve noted, was the first non-local to join Prince’s band: she’d relocated from Los Angeles to prepare for the Dirty Mind tour in mid-1980. When the second leg of the tour ended the following year, she was still without a fixed abode of her own, so she moved in with Prince in Chanhassen. The arrangement worked for a while: during the recording of The Time, Lisa came in handy as Prince’s live-in session musician and part-time engineer. But at some point that year, she told Vulture, “he started talking to me about getting my own place and having my own life in Minneapolis. Like, Now you’re here, Lisa, so what are you gonna do? He was giving me a talking to about moving out, but I didn’t quite understand that was what the conversation was about. It just felt tense” (Marchese 2017).
After this awkward conversation, Lisa “went for a walk to think about what had happened.” Prince, meanwhile, processed in his own way–with music. An hour or two later, Lisa was having a drink in Chanhassen’s only bar when Prince’s studio tech Don Batts showed up. “He came over to me and said, ‘Prince wants to talk to you. He feels bad,’” she recalled. “So I went back to the house. Prince was down in the basement in the studio. He came out, gestured to me to come into the studio, and said, ‘I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings. I wrote you a song’” (Marchese 2017).
For a spur-of-the-moment creation like Lisa describes, “Strange Way of Saying I Love You”–also known as “Strange Way,” and (by Prince himself, naturally) as “Strange Way of Saying Love U”–is a surprisingly catchy little number. Driven by an almost carnivalesque keyboard bounce, its quasi-psychedelic pop feel could have fit right in on 1985’s Around the World in a Day; and its sing-song hook is an earworm that might have burrowed even deeper had it been polished for public consumption. Neither of these happened, of course: the song seems to have been intended purely for private purposes. But it nevertheless went on to become one of Prince’s best-known outtakes from the Controversy era, and was reportedly slated for inclusion on the cancelled second volume of Crystal Ball in late 2000.
Like “So Blue,” Prince’s earlier song-apology for his ex-manager Owen Husney, “Strange Way” takes an essentially platonic scenario and adds a dose of pop-friendly romance–particularly in the second verse, where Prince confesses, “Sometimes I really want you, baby, I want you sexually / But I don’t want our friendship relation to suffer, can’t you see.” But despite these embellishments, Lisa took the song in the spirit in which it was intended. “I was stunned,” she told Vulture. “Music was always how he communicated best” (Marchese 2017). Presumably, she was allowed to stay in his house at least a little longer.
Short post this week, so let me end with a quick update: new podcast on Friday, then hopefully next week we’ll finally wrap up the remaining loose ends from 1981! I’m also planning on reviewing Allen Beaulieu’s incredible new photo book Prince: Before the Rain in the next week or two. Check it out if you haven’t yet!
“Strange Way of Saying I Love You” YouTube