At this point, it’s customary to marvel at the sheer, staggering amount of music Prince recorded. His finished recordings number in the hundreds, if not the thousands: enough, to borrow a cliché that became ubiquitous after the Vault was cracked open in 2016, to fill an album a year for the next 100 years; or, to put it in more personally meaningful terms, enough to keep me working on this goddamn blog until roughly the end of my natural life. But the mind truly boggles when one considers that those “finished recordings” are only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface are hundreds more hours of rehearsals and rough sketches recorded for private use–only a fraction of which are ever likely to see the light of day.
By this reckoning, the solo piano rehearsal officially released in 2018 as Piano & A Microphone 1983 is not, in itself, remarkable; it’s just one of countless other “work tapes,” as former Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman describes them in her liner notes, by an artist for whom making music was an avocation as much as a vocation (Coleman 3). Prince Estate lead archivist Michael Howe told Newsweek that when he found the recording–a standard, consumer-grade TDK SA-60 cassette with two tracks, “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” and “Why the Butterflies,” listed in Prince’s handwriting–it was in a box with “[l]iterally thousands” of other tapes (Schonfeld 2018). But what it lacks in uniqueness, it makes up for in historical importance: capturing, with near-unrivaled intimacy, a snapshot of Prince’s creative process on the very cusp of the career-defining success of Purple Rain.
There is, however, some debate over precisely where on that cusp Prince was standing. The official line, as shared in a Billboard magazine interview with Howe, is that he recorded the tape in spring of 1983, “just months after a paralyzing Minnesota winter” (Lynch 2018). This, if nothing else, would help explain the sniffles audible throughout the rehearsal. Meanwhile, Prince Vault estimates that the session took place in August; while sessionographer Duane Tudahl puts it as late as October, shortly before shooting commenced on the Purple Rain film.
One of the reasons why Piano & A Microphone 1983 is so difficult to date is because, for the people who were around at the time, it’s almost harder to recall a moment when Prince wasn’t rehearsing. Don Batts, his home studio engineer from 1980 to mid-1983, may not remember the exact session, but he recorded enough like it to have a name for them: “I call them ‘refs,’” he writes in his liner notes. “These are sometimes crude and quick recordings of an idea on tape, around which Prince would then build the finished multi-track recording” (Batts 2). Susan Rogers, who would take Batts’ place as engineer later that July, has concurred: Prince “didn’t demo songs,” she told U.K. music magazine Uncut. “If he had an idea he would go straight to the piano–sometimes the guitar, but mostly the piano–and record” (Richards 2018).
The piano in question was a Yamaha CP-70 electric grand, which Batts had installed in the living room of Prince’s home at 9401 Kiowa Trail, by a picture window overlooking Lake Riley. In her own liner notes to Piano & A Microphone 1983, Prince’s then-girlfriend Jill Jones recalls laying “under the piano listening for hours as he would just play anything. Anything at all… It was not odd to wake up in the middle of the night only to hear the music and go find him sitting barefoot at the piano playing a song” (Jones 2018 8). When he played, Jones told Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “It was just really serene and peaceful, and you could see the lake. It was really, really pretty” (Bream 2018).
On this particular occasion–whenever it might have been–Prince sat down at the piano and rolled tape. The first sound on the recording is the artist’s voice, instructing the engineer to adjust his “echo.” Seconds later, he’s launched into a brisk, bluesy minor-key groove, stomping his foot on the floor to keep time. Without missing a beat, he asks Batts to turn the lights down. His request presumably granted, he leans into the microphone and rasps, “Good God!” in a voice that channels James Brown by way of Jamie Starr.
Prince, Coleman writes in her liner notes, “played the piano like he was playing WITH it. A cat toying with a mouse. When he played funk, gospel, or rhythm stuff, his body started moving before his hands hit the keys! He would stomp his foot and grunt in the spaces. He could hear the whole conversation and his groove was unbeatable” (Coleman 3). For the first side of the tape in particular, what she describes is exactly what we hear: Prince in conversation with himself, darting from one song to the next in a kind of loose, free-associative medley. The format is superficially similar to the solo piano sets he’d begun playing on the 1999 tour; but without an audience to play against, the effect is decidedly more intimate, less a dialogue than a pure stream of consciousness.
He begins with “17 Days,” a track widely believed to have emerged from a Revolution rehearsal in August (hence, presumably, Prince Vault’s and Tudahl’s later estimates of the session date). It’s possible that this version captures the song in an embryonic state, before Prince worked on it with the band; more likely, however, it’s as Coleman surmises, and this is him feeling his way through the group composition: “Spending some time with it on his own… getting closer to it and getting it in his body” (Coleman 3). Either way, it’s a marked departure from the final version released as the B-side of “When Doves Cry”: stripping away the song’s psychedelic soul to reveal its raw blues core, and throwing its resemblance with “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” into sharp relief.
Prince sings the two verses and refrain, then starts to stretch out and improvise: taking flight with an expansive, jazzy solo, before touching back down with a restless variation on the main riff. He returns to the second verse, but the lyrics are rendered coarser, grittier. “The main drag is knowing that / You’re holding someone else tight” now becomes, “Oh, it’s a drag, baby, and I know / [You’re h]oldin’ another n**** tight”–a rare use of the “N-word” during his crossover era, reminiscent of the in-group ad-libs (e.g., “when I saw all the pictures of the Negroes / That were there before me”) he would pepper into his shows in majority-Black cities like Detroit. He continues to vamp for another minute or so, briefly toying with the bassline and a few stray lyrics from the Time’s “The Bird.” Then, just as abruptly as it began, the groove dissipates into the soft, lyrical opening notes of “Purple Rain.”
If Prince Vault is right, and the tape that became Piano & A Microphone 1983 was recorded in August, it was likely after Prince debuted “Purple Rain” (and recorded its basic track) at First Avenue on August 3. If, on the other hand, Tudahl is right, and the tape was recorded in October, then it had already been cemented as the title track of the upcoming album and film. Either way, though, “Purple Rain” still hadn’t become “Purple Rain”; and hearing Prince skim across the surface of his most famous song, unburdened by the weight of legacy and audience expectations, makes for one of the recording’s most arresting moments.
After a single verse and chorus, “Purple Rain” dissolves into another ballad (and another song from the First Avenue show), Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” The song, from Mitchell’s own career-defining 1971 album Blue, was a fixture of the Revolution’s 1983 rehearsals, according to Coleman; Jones also writes about listening to the song with Prince “on long drives through Minneapolis on cloudy dreary days on some mix tape he had put together” (Jones 2018 8). As he always did when covering the song, here he discards the first verse, opening instead with the evocative–and decidedly Princeian–lines from the second: “Oh, I am a lonely painter / I live in a box of paints / I’m frightened by the devil / And I’m drawn to those ones who ain’t afraid.” His delivery is soft and a little indistinct, favoring feel over lyrical fidelity; when he reaches the chorus (“Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine”), a gospel growl sneaks into his voice, placing Mitchell’s Catholic imagery into direct conversation with the sounds of the Black church.
From there, it’s only a slight stretch to the next song on the tape, “Mary Don’t You Weep.” An African American spiritual dating back to the 19th century, “Mary” was first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1915, and later reinterpreted by artists including Lead Belly, the Caravans, the Swan Silvertones, the Soul Stirrers (with Sam Cooke on lead vocals), Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio, James Brown and the Famous Flames, and Aretha Franklin. Its lyrics, a blend of the New Testament story of Lazarus and the Old Testament story of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt, made for a potent song of protest during slavery and the Civil Rights Movement–not to mention, the only cultural product to inspire both a Simon and Garfunkel song (1970’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and a James Baldwin book (1963’s The Fire Next Time).
Prince’s version is less reverent than most. Gone are the references to Lazarus and the Pharoah’s army; instead, following in the footsteps of Brown’s secularized “Oh Baby Don’t You Weep,” Prince consoles the titular Mary because he’s “got a bad, bad feeling [her] man ain’t coming home.” His chief lyrical innovation is an absurd claim that Mary’s sister, Martha, “cook[s] the greatest omelettes in the world.” Yet, despite the relative shallowness of the words, Prince’s “Mary” still works on a musical level, signifying his deep roots in the Black gospel tradition. He sells the song–breakfast food and all–with nearly every weapon in his vocal arsenal: from plaintive falsetto to mournful moans and ecstatic squalls. The performance is so stirring that it’s easy to see why Spike Lee made prominent use of the recording in his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, even if the lyrics don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Twice during his performance of “Mary,” Prince sprinkles in the opening line from his then-recent composition “Strange Relationship”: “I Guess U Know Me Well, I Don’t Like Winter.” It makes sense, then, that he would double back for a fuller rendition–albeit one that, like the earlier “Purple Rain,” is mostly content to sketch in the outlines. He sings through the first verse and half of the refrain; abandons the vocal for a dissonant, percussive piano solo; then dips back in for a loose take of what would eventually become the third verse (“Isn’t It A Shame This Ain’t A Movie…”). After another, mumbled refrain, he breaks into a melody that won’t make it into the final version, singing, “You been gone too long.” Then he starts to improvise again, alternating between funky, staccato grooves and sweeping, melodic passages.
In the end, the melodic side wins out, and Prince settles on a run-through of “International Lover,” the closing track from his most recent album. His rendition here strips the song to its barest essentials, removing even the “seduction 747” that is the original version’s central conceit. As music writer Daniel Bromfield has pointed out, the changes Prince makes are almost entirely through subtraction, as if he’s writing a blackout poem from his own lyrics. The result is almost eerily spare: a “bloated farce,” Bromfield writes, “rendered as a puppy-dog paean.” Midway through, the lyrics trail off entirely and Prince begins to croon wordlessly, singing a melody that sounds–unless my ears deceive me–an awful lot like the bridge to “Sometimes It Snows in April.”
The first side of the tape ends with “Wednesday,” a song reportedly written for Jill Jones’ character to sing in Purple Rain. Jones would record her own version on October 24: changing the rather jarring line, “Contemplating suicide from 12 o’clock ’til two,” to the lighter, “I contemplated your embrace.” This rendition, likely recorded before Jones’, retains the suicide line; combined with Prince’s muted vocal, it gives the song a hushed, sepulchral tone. He ends the tune with a delicate, minor-key coda, which cuts abruptly into a simple, one-chord vamp. “You wanna flip it over?” he asks Batts.
By the time the music resumes, Jamie Starr has taken over the session. Like much of Prince’s material as his pimp alter ego, “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” sounds improvised. Over a frenetic piano line, Prince-as-Starr riffs on the scenario of a one-night stand gone comically wrong: “This the last time, baby / I eat over your place,” he grimaces. “All I get is this cup of cold coffee and cocaine / And yo’ ugly face.” At one point, he pauses and asks aloud, “Let’s see, what rhymes with ‘house’?” The answer (a “black mouse”) isn’t likely to win any songwriting prizes, but it gets the job done.
For all its spontaneity, “Cold Coffee” had at least two sources of inspiration. According to Tudahl, the title phrase came out of a jam from September, during which Prince was “trying to write a new song for the Time” (Tudahl 2018 191). The drug reference was likely a pointed one: both the Time’s Morris Day and prospective leading lady Vanity had started using cocaine around this time, causing tensions with the teetotal Prince. Jill Jones, meanwhile, seems to have been the muse for the song’s second verse (the one with the house and the mouse). In her liner notes, she recalls Prince staying the night at her Minneapolis apartment: “it was a dump really,” she writes. “He allowed Jamie Starr to do the talking about that and I almost never heard the end of it” (Jones 2018 8).
At last, having worked Mr. Starr out of his system, Prince returns to the one-chord vamp he’d started and abandoned before the tape flip. The song that follows is another seemingly spontaneous creation; but where “Cold Coffee” aimed for the ridiculous, “Why the Butterflies” targets (and achieves) the sublime. Prince’s playing and singing both grow quiet and halting, each note a tiny vignette. His fragile falsetto finds the melody slowly, as if he were feeling his way through a darkened room. Words hang in the air like unformed thoughts, almost pre-syntax: “Mama, mama / What’s this strange, strange…” The sentence never resolves, but doubles back on itself. When he finally completes his question, it’s become a different one entirely: the enigmatic, “Why the butterflies?”
Lisa Coleman has suggested that “Butterflies” is a “seed” for the maternal themes later explored in “When Doves Cry.” “He sings out to his mother and he says, ‘Why the butterflies,’ and it just reminds me of ‘you’ve got the butterflies all tied up…’” she told Billboard. “It’s like, ‘Oh! That was on your mind for awhile’” (Graff 2018). Jill Jones alludes to another, “sexual” meaning in her liner notes; she doesn’t elaborate, but one imagines there are enough sexualized butterflies in Prince’s work to hazard a guess (Jones 2018 8). If there’s a particular insect that “Butterflies” evokes, though, it’s the inkblot from a Rorschach test. Its meanings are suggestive, not prescriptive; a blank for the listener to fill in.
“Butterflies” ends suddenly, with a final, crashing chord and one last, whispered, “Why the butterflies?” The silence afterwards feels endless. What are we to make of it? Was this a songwriting session, or a primal therapy exercise? And how, exactly, did we get to these shivering heights from a song like “Cold Coffee & Cocaine”?
The answer, of course, is that we don’t have to make anything of it. Prince never intended for this tape to be heard by the public–a fact acknowledged, with varying degrees of sheepishness, in pretty much every review of Piano & A Microphone 1983. Somehow, though, I’m not sold on the idea that listening to it is an uncomfortable or voyeuristic experience. Even for an audience of one, Prince is still performing; and the performance, breathtakingly intimate though it may be, ultimately obscures more than it reveals. We don’t know if he’s writing these songs or practicing them; brainstorming ideas for the Purple Rain soundtrack, or simply working out the stress of an increasingly grueling schedule. And we–or I, anyway–don’t particularly want to know.
Music lovers–the kind you and I are; the kind who spend years writing about minutiae, and/or pay a monthly fee to read about it–want to hear everything their favorite artist recorded. We hear a story about Michael Howe finding a box full of 8,000 cassettes, and we despair that we’ll probably never get to hear 7,900 of them. But there’s also another, looming fear, that one day we’ll reach the bottom of the barrel; that the unfathomable depths we see in Prince’s work are, in the end, all too fathomable. If this 38-year-old recording can tell us anything, it’s that we don’t have to worry: There are still depths enough to last a lifetime.