Note: This is the second of three projected posts on “Purple Rain”: a song of such monumental importance to Prince’s creative arc that I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. You can–and should–read the first part here.
Tickets for the August 3, 1983 show at First Avenue’s mainroom promised a “Very Special Guest,” in “A Special Benefit for the Minnesota Dance Theatre.” It didn’t take long for the identity of the “Very Special Guest” to come out; and the tickets–priced at $25, about five times the club’s typical rate, to benefit the MDT–sold out in just four days.
Prince had agreed to the show at the personal request of MDT’s founder and artistic director, Loyce Houlton. According to a Minneapolis Tribune writeup from the week of the concert, Houlton found out where Prince was rehearsing, “camped outside his door and when he emerged, asked him if he would do a benefit performance for the financially beleaguered dance company” (Renzetti 2016 “On this Day”). It wouldn’t have been hard to track him down: Prince and his band, along with protégés the Time and Vanity 6, had been taking private dance lessons from MDT choreographer John Command in preparation for their movie debut. But Houlton also had a personal connection from years earlier: According to her daughter Lise, who took over as MDT’s artistic director after her mother’s passing in 1995, a teenage Prince Rogers Nelson had briefly taken ballet lessons with Houlton as part of Minneapolis Public Schools’ 1970s Urban Arts Program.
With Prince on board, preparations for the show came together in a matter of weeks. “By default,” the task of production manager fell to Alan Leeds, who was less than a month into his new catch-all role as Prince’s “off-road road manager.” “Honestly, I was in over my head,” he confessed to journalist Alan Light (Light 4). Ticket sales had already put the club at its capacity of 1,200; but an influx of “last-minute guest lists from Prince and Warner Brothers” left the organizers with, “like, two hundred people we hadn’t anticipated, and no one knew where to put them in a small venue.” The night of the show, “The place was just absolutely packed to the rafters… Steve McClellan, who ran First Avenue, was afraid that the fire marshals were going to come and close us down” (5).
Luckily, no such thing happened, and the event went off without a hitch. According to a press release by MDT, the Wednesday evening show began at 8:30 with a selection of performances by members of the Dance Theatre, including Marius Petipa’s famous pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty and an original piece choreographed by Loyce Houlton to Prince’s own “D.M.S.R.” (see photo above). “Images of ballet point shoes and tutu’s [sic] contrasted with modern leaps, splits and contractions set [to] the ‘PRINCE’ beat,” the press release reads. Then, “At 11:00 ‘PRINCE’ went on to a sensational set of his hallmark music,” including a mix of “known hits and new songs highlighted by three costume changes” (Renzetti 2016 “On this Day”).
No one in the Prince camp–with the possible exception of Prince himself–knew just how historic this night would be. Even engineer David Z, who had been brought in to tape the show from a mobile recording truck rented from New York’s Record Plant, wasn’t sure if the recording was for Prince’s “own personal folly or if he was gonna use it for something.” “Nobody knew anything,” he told Minnesota Public Radio. “I kind of assumed it was going to be a record, but I didn’t know there was a movie being written” (Renzetti 2016 “On this Day”). The band was similarly kept in the dark: When keyboardist Dr. Fink found out the show was being recorded, for example, he “thought, ‘Oh, he’s recording this for posterity.’ He didn’t say to us, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re trying to capture this for the sound track’” (Light 6).
Even aside from the recording, the show was significant in at least one sense: It marked the live debut of new guitarist Wendy Melvoin, who had formally stepped into her role as replacement for Dez Dickerson in late spring. Melvoin–a childhood friend, and now long-term romantic partner, of keyboardist Lisa Coleman–was just 19 years old. “I was scared to death but I loved it,” she later recalled. “It was my make-or-break evening. Prince’s management were there to see if this new member was gonna work. All eyes were on this little girl just out of high school. But the extra pressure really made me go for it” (Nilsen 1999 129).
Indeed, the First Avenue show feels at times like a public audition for Melvoin–a classic Prince trial by fire. Her prominence in the circulating video of the performance is exceeded only by Prince’s own; she’s right there, grinning by his side for the finale of opener “Let’s Go Crazy,” strutting across the stage with him for the instrumental bridge of “I Would Die 4 U,” and standing back to back in matching fedoras for encore “D.M.S.R.” During “Computer Blue,” in a prim rehearsal of the infamous guitar-fellating moment from the Purple Rain movie, she drops to her knees beside Prince while he shreds his way through the first solo. She even symbolically picks up the torch from Dez and takes the iconic solo of “Little Red Corvette”–the one moment, incidentally, when the former axeman’s absence is truly felt, since Wendy by her own admission is more of a rhythm player than a soloist.
Along with the new band member, Prince also used the benefit show to debut some new songs–seven, to be precise, with five more familiar floor-fillers judiciously interspersed throughout. Thus, “Let’s Go Crazy” gives way to an energetic runthrough of hometown favorite “When You Were Mine”; the contemplative (but spellbinding) cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and the frenetic prog-punk of “Computer Blue” are followed by soon-to-be-hit single “Delirious”; the slow-burning “Electric Intercourse” is paired with a scintillating version of “Automatic”; and the one-two punch of “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star” is capped off by his biggest pop hit to date, “Little Red Corvette.”
The crowd’s reception of the new material was positive, if a little muted. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, First Avenue doorman Richard Luka remembered thinking, “Why isn’t [Prince] playing anything familiar here? What the hell’s this stuff?” (Johnson 2020). But there was also a growing sense that something magical was taking place: “I think what I remember most about that show was not so much watching [Prince,] but watching the people in the crowd reacting,” recalled Hugo Klaers, drummer for local New Wavers the Suburbs. “And how it was kind of like, you know, this guy goes really deep inside of people. It’s just his energy, his aura, all that. It just made me realize how much his music affected people” (Renzetti 2016 “On this Day”).
After Prince ended his main set with “Little Red Corvette,” Loyce Houlton took the stage. “My staff had ‘choreographed’ that I should go on stage and present Prince with a single purple rose,” she later wrote. “They told me to say nothing.” Instead, she stepped up to the microphone and proclaimed, “We don’t have a ‘Prince’ in Minnesota, we have a king.” Then, “Prince ran to me, and with a hug and kiss I gave him the rose” (Palmer 2016).
The moments that would follow are among the most pivotal in Prince’s career. From the darkened stage, the opening chords of another new song ring out. A spotlight appears on Wendy as she continues to play; then drummer Bobby Z joins in with an unshowy fill, cuing bassist Brown Mark and keyboardists Lisa and Fink. The band plays around the progression for almost four minutes while Prince, hovering at the margins of the stage, adds some stately lead guitar. At last, he strides up to the microphone–but he isn’t ready to start singing yet. In the circulating video, one can see him hesitate at the precipice: He steps back, looks out at the crowd, gathers himself for a few measures. Then, for the first time in front of an audience, Prince and the band soon to be officially known as the Revolution play “Purple Rain.”
Listening to the recording today, almost 40 years after it was captured from a mobile unit parked outside First Avenue, is an almost eerie experience: The single, live take is immediately recognizable as the basic track used for the Purple Rain album and film. There are differences, to be sure; the finished master adds overdubs (including an elegiac string arrangement) and trims the fat, cutting the lengthy instrumental intro down to less than 20 seconds and excising an entire third verse. But Prince’s vocal performance is effectively identical: He nails every word, every intonation, every note. If any “sweetening” took place after the fact, it’s undetectable to my (admittedly non-studio) ears.
The same can be said of his impassioned–and, according to Dr. Fink, largely improvised–guitar solo. “He wasn’t playing it exactly like he did it every time at rehearsal,” the keyboardist told Minnesota Public Radio (Johnson 2020). But the solo that flowed out of Prince that night, with just a few subtle edits, was the one that would sear itself into the collective memory: as iconic–and hummable–as Jimmy Page’s solo for “Stairway to Heaven.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the basic track is the sound of the crowd–or rather, the lack thereof. Listen to virtually any rendition of “Purple Rain” from after June of 1984, and the audience is inescapable: roaring in recognition over the opening chords, and singing along with the wordless, high-register melody of the conclusion–sometimes even before that part of the song (see, for example, the 1985 footage from Syracuse, above). But at First Avenue in 1983–with a few exceptions, notably the single, ebullient “woo!” let out by a listener after Prince’s “I know times are changin’”–one could almost hear a pin drop.
This sense of reserve was, at least in part, a response to the conditions in which the performance took place. The club was “so hot and so crowded,” recalled Heidi Vader, a fan who was in the crowd that night; and the song “seemed to go on forever. So the audience was–you know–listening. They were paying attention, but nobody was freaking out and excited” (Johnson 2020). Bobby Z minced fewer words: “It was pushing 90 degrees Fahrenheit and dense with cigarette smoke,” he told Classic Rock magazine. “It was a toxic environment.” At the same time, the soulful power ballad was a stark stylistic departure from the rest of the set: “It was so different for Prince,” Lisa Coleman remembered. “But it got to them by the end, and his guitar solo was so beautiful. I get chills thinking of it. I always kept my eyes on Prince, in case he needed something, but I could see the faces and wide eyes in the front. It was like a kid seeing Santa Claus” (Hasted 2019).
The inaugural performance of “Purple Rain” ended with the band hitting a final, sustained chord; Prince coaxed a few more wails out of his guitar, while Bobby rolled on the cymbals and Fink played a cascading piano line–a nifty little trick Lisa had taught him, “where the left hand is doing one part and the right hand is doing this other thing against it, in counterpoint” (Light 80). Both on the album and in the film, the moment is embellished by an ascending string melody and the sound of a cheering crowd. In person, the applause was sparse–so, when creating the final mix, David Z “cheated and put a crowd from the Minnesota Vikings in the audience track” (Johnson 2020). But there’s also a detail in the basic track that didn’t make it into the master: As the last chord fades away, Prince tells the crowd, “We love you very, very much.”
Minneapolis had plenty of reasons to love him back. The benefit concert allowed MDT to hit their funding goal, raising a total of $23,000 (about $60,000, adjusted for inflation); and Prince, for at least a little while longer, was still the Twin Cities’ best-kept secret. But, whether the audience knew it or not, the show–and “Purple Rain” in particular–marked a profound shift in the artist’s trajectory. Following their momentous performance, the band came back out for a second encore of “D.M.S.R.,” for which Prince stripped from his original stage outfit–a kind of futuristic, studded motorcycle jacket and matching trousers–down to his “Rude Boy” uniform of an open trenchcoat, legwarmers, and bikini briefs. “In many ways,” writes Hamish Whitta, it was the last we’d ever see of “this iteration of Prince. Everything to come in [the] future will be tinted in purple and looked at through the kaleidoscope of fame, fortune, and all the trappings that those entail” (Whitta 54).
Last but not least, for one particular member of the crowd at First Avenue, “Purple Rain” prompted an epiphany. Albert Magnoli had spent the past two months sifting through a box of what he estimated to be 100 of Prince’s songs while working on his rewrite of the movie’s screenplay. But, he recalled, he was still missing what he called “the anthem”: “that catalyst, in all of this journey–that song that releases [Prince’s character] finally to become the person [he] should become” (Johnson 2020). Prince, coy as ever, told him, “Maybe you’ll hear it one of these days” (Browne 2016).
On the night of August 3, Magnoli was watching from the club’s mezzanine when Prince played “Purple Rain.” “I knew in a few bars [i]t was the song,” the director told Rolling Stone. “I went downstairs and asked Prince after, ‘What is that song?’ He said, ‘I just wrote that with the band.’ I said, ‘That’s the song, the anthem song!’ He said, ‘Oh. It’s called “Purple Rain.” Can we name the movie after that?’” (Browne 2016). They could, and did; and in less than a year, the long, haunting, beautiful song Prince played that night would be a worldwide phenomenon.
Thanks, as always, for reading this second part of my triptych on “Purple Rain.” Next week, I’m taking a break to do something a little different: the long-awaited return of the D / M / S / R podcast, with an episode commemorating the 40th anniversary of the self-titled debut album by the Time. Then, I’ll be back to wrap up the trilogy by the end of July. See you soon!