Having sold Bob Cavallo on his vision for the film that would become Purple Rain, Albert Magnoli’s next task was to fly to Minnesota and plead his case to the movie’s star. From the moment he arrived, however, he faced resistance from an unlikely source: “Steve Fargnoli, one of Prince’s managers, met me when I got off the plane,” Magnoli recalled to Rolling Stone’s David Browne. Claiming that they had already made a commitment to William Blinn’s version of the script, “Steve said, ‘Kid–that story you told Bob? I don’t want to hear a word of it. You’re here to tow the line’” (Browne 2016).
Undeterred, when Prince showed up that night to discuss the film, Magnoli gave him the same pitch he’d given to Cavallo–this time, adding a new wrinkle: “Suddenly I saw the violence, the dysfunctional relationship with his mother, his father as a musician writing music and hiding it in a box.” Prince, surprised, sent away Fargnoli and his bodyguard, “Big Chick” Huntsberry, and took the director for a drive outside the city in his BMW. “I realized later we were driving to a cornfield and it was totally dark because there were no lights,” Magnoli recalled. “He was quiet and I was quiet. He asked me, ‘Do you know me?’ I said no. ‘Do you know my music?’ I said, ‘Just “1999.”’ And he said, ‘Then how is it that you essentially tell me my story without knowing me?’” (Browne 2016).
It is, of course, wise to take this tale with a grain of salt; Magnoli, while an undeniably skilled raconteur, has a tendency toward self-aggrandizement. Besides, it’s well documented that both Prince’s original treatment and Blinn’s draft screenplay dealt extensively with the main character’s family trauma, long before Magnoli had entered the picture. But even if his uncanny ability to sniff out an Oedipal struggle has been oversold, there was clearly something about the hotshot young filmmaker that impressed his future star. The morning after their heart to heart in the BMW, Magnoli was at Prince’s purple house in Chanhassen, amassing a stack of cassettes and lyric sheets to prepare for his rewrite of the script.
Somewhere in the estimated 100 songs Magnoli took back with him to Los Angeles was “I Would Die 4 U”: a razor-sharp slice of synth-gospel inspired, the director claimed, by a real event from Prince’s childhood. “Prince told me that his father had said one time, ‘I would die for you,’” Magnoli recalled to sessionographer Duane Tudahl. “I think that he mentioned that to me; it was in the song, and somehow I knew that this was something they had visited a long time ago” (Tudahl 2018 96). Whether this was something Prince actually shared or more of the director’s famous intuition, the line made it into Magnoli’s draft of Purple Rain, capping off a scene in which the Kid’s parents burst into his bedroom in the middle of a violent domestic dispute.
To Magnoli’s credit, the scene bears a strong resemblance to one Prince recounts in his unfinished 2016 memoir: “One night eye remember hearing them arguing & it got physical,” he writes. “At some point my mother crashed in2 my bedroom and grabbed me. She was crying but managed a smile & said, ‘Tell Ur father 2 b nice 2 me.’ She held me up as a buffer so that he wouldn’t fight with her anymore” (Prince 2019 97). What isn’t supported by the memoir–nor, for that matter, in the finished movie–is the sexually-charged moment Magnoli writes between Prince and his mother, where she gives him one of her earrings and draws a beauty mark on her face to match his, turning them into mirror images. But here, too, there’s a curious intimacy: It’s the only scene in the screenplay where Prince’s real-life childhood nickname, “Skipper,” is used.
Still, if “I Would Die 4 U” was specifically inspired by Prince’s tumultuous home life, it isn’t immediately evident from the lyrics, which are more concerned with a different kind of Father–not to mention a Son, and a Holy Spirit. Like “Baby I’m a Star,” the song with which it’s linked both on the Purple Rain album and in the film, “I Would Die 4 U” has a relatively long history. A circulating recording of a soundcheck at the San Francisco (now Bill Graham) Civic Auditorium on February 15, 1982, captures Prince running through an early version of the song with his band. The arrangement is stripped down, with Dez Dickerson’s jagged rhythm guitar adding a punk-inspired edge; but the basic structure, melody, and lyrics are already intact. And those lyrics–at least according to Dickerson–are evidence of Prince’s burgeoning messianism. “It’s not a very cloaked lyric,” he told cultural critic Touré. “It says what it says. He’s saying he is Jesus” (Touré 114).
Of course, it isn’t really that simple: As Nick DeRiso argues for Diffuser, Prince is also making a solid case for himself as the other two-thirds of the Holy Trinity. In the first verse, DeRiso writes, Prince “plays the role of God, beginning the song with a theme of forgiveness–no matter the transgression”: “If you’re evil I’ll forgive u by & by.” By the second verse, he continues, Prince’s role has shifted from the Father to the Son, with a reference to “Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy”: “no need 2 worry / no need 2 cry / I’m your messiah and you’re the reason why.” Finally, he concludes, the song’s bridge sees Prince both “morphing into a dove, as the Holy Spirit does in the New Testament,” and identifying himself as the conscience, “an inner voice often associated with the third element of the Triune”: “I’m not a human / I am a dove / I am your conscious [sic] / I am love” (DeRiso 2017).
Amidst all this religious imagery is another line that points back to Prince’s earthly father–or at least, the version of him that would appear in Purple Rain, portrayed by veteran actor Clarence Williams III. In the first verse, before Prince-as-God promises unconditional forgiveness, he absolves himself of two curiously specific sins, singing, “I’ll never beat u / I’ll never lie.” The latter line seems to be another Biblical allusion: In Numbers 23:19, God says through the prophet Balaam, “God is not a man, that He should lie.” But I don’t know of any basis in scripture for the former (and besides, if we’re talking about the Old Testament God, He’s pretty famously pro-beating). In the film, however, the line resonates immediately–both with the aforementioned scene of the Kid’s father abusing his mother, and with the following scene, in which the Kid follows in his father’s footsteps and slaps Apollonia.
In fact, as writer and friend of the blog Erica Thompson observed in her 2020 Twitter thread on the song, the pivotal scene between the Kid’s parents works in a number of references to the lyrics of “I Would Die 4 U.” Along with the father’s obvious use of the title phrase, there’s also his admonition of the mother as “a goddamned sinner” (“You’re just a sinner / I am told”) and his defeated plea, “I could make you happy… if you just believed in me” (“I’ll make u happy when you’re sad… All I really need is 2 know that u believe”). It’s no coincidence that, when the Kid performs the song at the end of the film, Magnoli crosscuts it with shots of him making amends with his father: visiting the hospital where he is convalescing from a suicide attempt, and picking up the sheets of his music he’d strewn around in an earlier emotional episode.
There is, to be fair, some danger in conflating Magnoli’s artistic interpretation with reality–something Prince was always quick to remind critics who asked if he had really experienced abuse as a child. But there’s also a clear consistency between the character of the father in Purple Rain and the one in Prince’s original film treatment: “a wise but stubborn[,] God-fearing man” with a “bad habit” of “quoting scripture from the Good Book” while “bloody[ing] his wife’s face” (Prince 2019 219). And, while his aforementioned memoir only describes one instance of his parents “getting physical,” he otherwise writes about his real father in remarkably similar terms to the fictional one: as a man “who loved the Bible & had a keen sense of morality & class,” but little tolerance for his wife’s human frailties (99). It thus doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that, with “I Would Die 4 U,” Prince was tacitly–even subconsciously–contrasting the flawed, conditional love of his earthly father with the divine, unconditional love of his Heavenly one. As he writes in his memoir, seemingly apropos of nothing, “Some secrets r so dark they have 2 b turned in2 song 1st b4 one can even begin 2 unpack them” (97).
Whatever dark secrets Prince had buried in “I Would Die 4 U,” they were already in place when he brought the song in to the Warehouse, his new rehearsal space on 6651 Highway 7 in St. Louis Park. Drummer Bobby Z, who grew up in the suburb, remembered the Warehouse as “an auto parts store” from his childhood (Revolution 14); other accounts describe it, more eccentrically, as a former pet food storage facility. Either way, it was “a big, empty industrial space with cement walls,” Bobby recalled to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “The building had absolutely no design” (Nilsen 1999 124). In June of 1983, after having the place cleaned out and given a personal touch of “heavy black theater curtains hung on all of the four large walls,” Prince commenced rehearsals for the songs that would become Purple Rain (Revolution 14).
The first documented session at the Warehouse took place on June 15, with “I Would Die 4 U” among the tracks rehearsed. As the song’s arrangement took shape, keyboardist Dr. Fink struggled with its pulsating synth-bassline, which Prince wanted him to play manually. “I could pull it off, but it was not easy,” Fink told Vibe’s Keith Murphy. “And sometimes I would get off rhythm a little bit because you had to be so spot on, and you had to play it with two hands! So Prince says, ‘Well, Matt, why can’t you play it with one hand and play the chords with the other hand?’ And I said, ‘You try it.’ But neither one of us could do it” (Tudahl 2018 96). In the end, audio technician Don Batts jury-rigged a basic sequencer that allowed Bobby Z to trigger the bassline during live performances, freeing up both of Fink’s hands to play the chords.
Exactly seven weeks later, both the song and Batts’ sequencer made their live debut at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Shrouded in darkness after an electrifying version of “Automatic,” Prince introduced the new tune and counted it off; then the newly-christened Revolution sprang to life, sequenced drums and synths thrumming away like a futuristic locomotive. The resulting performance is pure contained energy: just two verses, the chorus and lead line, a repeated guitar figure, and a bridge that releases abruptly into the next song, “Baby I’m a Star.”
Watching the circulating footage from First Avenue, it’s striking to notice how little Prince moves during this inaugural performance. He sings the first two verses rooted to the microphone, punctuating the chorus with a series of rapid-fire hand movements: gesturing to himself with his thumb for “I would,” pointing an index finger to the heavens for “die,” holding up four fingers for “4,” and finally pointing out to the crowd for “U.” During the guitar break, he and new bandmate Wendy Melvoin take a few tentative, synchronized steps across the stage together. He’s more animated on the bridge, snapping his fingers and moving from side to side as he sings; by and large, however, he seems to be saving his energy for the more physically demanding “Baby I’m a Star.”
By contrast, the performance of “I Would Die 4 U” in Purple Rain–mimed on the same stage and, with a little studio sweetening, to the same backing track–pulls out all the stops. The Kid cues the song with a 180-degree spin and a dramatic point to Dr. Fink (who, in a concession to movie magic, is shown playing the sequenced keyboard part with his hands). He performs choreographed steps to the instrumental introduction and into the first verse, shifting his weight from one leg to the other as he sings the opening lines: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” During the second verse, he briefly shares his microphone with Wendy, who struts in from across the stage in silk jacket, panties, and garters. For the guitar break–now gussied up with extra layers of synths–he kicks off an intricate series of steps, poses, and spins in time to the music. As he sings the chorus again, he starts up the hand gestures from the original First Avenue show, leaving them for the crowd and the rest of the band to carry on while he spins another 900 degrees and stops on a dime.
Then, at last, the coup de grâce: Locking eyes with Apollonia in the crowd, the Kid flirtatiously licks his finger and runs it through his hair, sidesteps across the stage, whirls around in a circle, jumps and touches his toes while still in the air, drops to one knee with his hands in a prayer pose, spins like a top, and drops back down into a splits. The camera cuts to a closer shot while he grins directly into the lens, shattering the fourth wall into a million pieces. Suddenly, he’s back up on his feet: rapidly shimmying across the stage while he runs his hands up and down his crotch, through his hair, across his tongue, and back to his crotch again. The motion continues until he finally makes it to center stage and turns his back to the viewer; framed in a tight close-up, he shakes his ass while the floodlight in Bobby’s bass drum springs to life. One more spin to face the audience, freeze frame… and the movie still isn’t over, because there’s a whole other song’s worth of showboating to go.
And, much like that other song, the only option for “I Would Die 4 U” after its big-screen debut was to grow even bigger and bolder. An extended jam–recorded during tour rehearsals with opening act Sheila E and her backing band on October 25, 1984, and later edited down for the 12″ single–stretches the song to more than 10 times its original length. It should feel excessive–and, okay, it kind of is. Mostly, though, the sheer boundlessness of the groove causes it to take on the contours of an ecstatic religious experience.
Unlike the 1983 master, the 1984 jam builds gradually: beginning with Prince’s count-off, followed by a false start, then another count-off. Bobby triggers the electric drum pattern, while gang vocals pick up the chant from the end of the movie performance. Prince cues Wendy on rhythm guitar; Sheila joins in on percussion, followed by Lisa Coleman with a frenetic keyboard part. Eddie M and Miko Weaver drop in on Prince’s command, adding a new saxophone line and another layer of rhythm guitar, respectively. Prince cues the chorus, and the wall of sound builds up to a series of timbale solos by Sheila. Finally, at just about the point where the original recording would come to its end, Prince calls out, “Song!”, and the expanded Revolution launches into the more familiar arrangement from the album and movie. By the time Fink hits his closing glissando, there’s still over 26 minutes left to go.
Truth be told, the uncut rehearsal version of “I Would Die 4 U” starts to sag around the halfway point, around the time Prince asks Lisa for “summa them spacey chords” and the band meanders into listless jazz-odyssey territory. Luckily for listeners with less patience for freeform jazz excursions, the 10-minute 12″ edit cuts an awful lot of fat: preserving the jam’s best moments–most notably the part at 6:46 when Eddie’s euphoric sax solo sends Prince’s vocals soaring further and further into the stratosphere–even as it sacrifices the 30-minute version’s transcendent scope.
For those in even more of a hurry, the song’s music video–shot live at Prince and the Revolution’s November 20 performance at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland–truncates the extended version to an economical 4:45 (see above). The video is most notable for capturing the sole live performance of the 1984 arrangement: For the rest of the Purple Rain tour, Prince stuck to a more faithful recreation of the album version–albeit one that retained his revision of the line, “I’m your messiah and you’re the reason why,” to the humbler, “He’s your messiah.”
In any of these forms, the extended “I Would Die 4 U” offered fans an early peek at Prince’s gift for arranging on the fly during rehearsal: molding the groove in real time like a potter at his wheel, with the band as his clay. But it’s the album version, recorded in front of its very first audience on August 3, 1983, that has achieved immortality. That’s the version that was released as a single in November 1984 and peaked at Number 8 on the pop charts in February 1985, giving Prince his fourth consecutive Top 10 hit. It’s the version that popped up in the setlist of almost every greatest-hits tour for the rest of Prince’s life–right up until his final full performance, in Atlanta on April 14, 2016. And it’s the version, for better or worse, that continues to spawn posthumous tributes by artists from Swedish synth-poppers Little Dragon to L.A. pop-rockers HAIM to noted bandana-wearer Justin Timberlake.
More, perhaps, than any other song in Prince’s catalogue, “I Would Die 4 U” has transcended its original meaning to become something bigger than all of us. It’s evident in the way those opening lines, “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand,” have taken on new significance for generations of queer and gender-nonconforming listeners: turning what is essentially a traditional statement on the ineffability of God into a radically reimagined statement on the ineffability of the self. “I Would Die 4 U” is no longer just about Prince, the Kid, Jesus, or the dads of any of the above; it’s about all those things, and more besides. As Wendy Melvoin writes in the liner notes for the 2017 expanded edition of Purple Rain, “If you listen carefully to the lyrics now after [Prince’s] death, it’s almost unspeakable the heartache and grace you feel coming from him” (Revolution 22). Turns out, that messiah complex wasn’t far from the truth.
Thanks, all, for your patience as I took even longer than I warned on this one. I’ll be back with “Darling Nikki” in a couple of weeks.
(Thanks to penny_serenade on Genius for identifying Numbers 23:19 as a likely reference for the “I’ll never lie” line. Also, for more on “I Would Die 4 U” and the Bible–complete with specific verses!–check out the aforementioned Erica Thompson on Jason Breininger’s Press Rewind podcast last year.)