Note: This is my third and last post on “Purple Rain”: a song of such monumental importance to Prince’s creative arc that I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. If you haven’t already, please read Parts 1 and 2 first.
Like he did for the other tracks recorded at First Avenue, Prince spent time in Los Angeles in August and September 1983, adding polish to “Purple Rain.” What’s most remarkable in retrospect, however, is how little polish it seemed to need. Duane Tudahl’s definitive studio tome, Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984, chronicles a staggering 11 dates spent on overdubs and mixing for “Baby I’m a Star”; meanwhile, the song that provided the title for Prince’s make-or-break album and film was wrapped up in only five.
The most notable addition was the new string part, played by violin/violist Ilene “Novi” Novog and cellists Suzie Katayama and David Coleman. Both Novog and Coleman were familiar faces to Prince: The former had played the viola solo on the Time’s “Chili Sauce” back in April, while the latter was none other than the younger brother of keyboardist Lisa. According to the junior Coleman, his presence on the track was a spur-of-the-moment decision: “Out of the blue, my sister calls me from Sunset Sound and said that they were doing some strings for a Prince song right now with Novi and Suzie and we think a third string player would groove better,” he recalled to Tudahl. “So I ran through some scales and ran right down to the studio” (Tudahl 2018 136-137).
Arrangement for the overdubs was led by Lisa, who played through each part on piano for the players to learn by ear; “we’d go through the song and punch in our string parts,” David recalled (Tudahl 2018 137). Prince, sitting beside Lisa at the piano, approved the parts as they went along. The final arrangement lends an exquisitely airy sense of space to the track–particularly on the coda, where the strings play a yearning minor-key countermelody against Dr. Fink’s tinkling piano part, creating an effect more akin to the minimalist compositions of Philip Glass than your typical Top 40 aspirant. Prince was clearly enamored with the sound: He would also task Lisa with writing string arrangements for “Baby I’m a Star” and “Computer Blue” (the latter of which wouldn’t make it onto the final album), as well as later tracks like “Raspberry Beret” and the unreleased “Our Destiny” (eventually recycled into the intro for “The Ladder” on 1985’s Around the World in a Day), before ultimately striking up a partnership with arranger Clare Fischer that lasted from late 1984 until Fischer’s death in 2012.
The other changes to “Purple Rain” were largely addition by subtraction. As mentioned previously, Prince trimmed the almost four-minute-long instrumental intro from the original live take down to just four bars, taking up less than 20 seconds; he also made some subtle cuts and overdubs to smooth over the rough edges of his guitar solo. Most notably, after tinkering unsuccessfully with the lyrics for months, he axed the song’s third verse entirely.
At the First Avenue show, the ill-fated verse went, “Honey, I don’t want your money, no, no, no / I don’t even think I want your love / If I wanted either one, baby, I’d take me some money and buy it / I want the heavy stuff / I want the purple rain.” The lines, as Anil Dash observes, were “passionately delivered,” but “vague”; their whole conceit of Prince wanting neither money nor love, but being able to buy the latter with the former, felt contradictory and underdeveloped (Dash 2014). So, he made the cut–and, significantly for an artist revered for his extended outtakes, no one seems to miss the deleted verse. As Lisa later put it, “it was a different spirit and it didn’t belong in the song” (Hann 2017). Prince apparently agreed: In his literally hundreds of performances of the song after September 1983, he’d never sing those lyrics again.
The final transformation was down to director Albert Magnoli, who dutifully wove the song throughout his screenplay for the film that would share its name. “Purple Rain” first appears in the film as an instrumental “Slow Groove” recorded by the fictional versions of Lisa Coleman and guitarist Wendy Melvoin–an invention that, together with the real-life Wendy and Lisa’s influence on the arrangement, no doubt fueled misconceptions of the song’s authorship. Prince’s character spends most of the movie alternately ignoring or, through a cone puppet surrogate, belittling his bandmates’ creative output; at one point, he walks in on Lisa and Wendy rehearsing the song by themselves and registers his displeasure (Lisa’s response–a sarcastic riff on the opening organ chord of “Let’s Go Crazy,” with the declaration, “There’s something else… our music”–is her character’s best line by a mile). It’s only after the Kid reaches his lowest point that we see him seriously listening to the song; “Purple Rain” thus becomes the motif through which the film traces his emotional journey.
That journey reaches its end in what we might call the last true narrative scene of Purple Rain (the triumphal performances of “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star” that follow are pretty much entirely extranarrative spectacle). Resplendent in his Louis Wells-designed royal purple trenchcoat and frilled shirt, custom-made white Cloud guitar cradled in his arms, the Kid walks silently out onto the First Avenue stage–the same stage where, months earlier, Prince had debuted the song in real life. In an apparent recreation of that performance, the Kid paces, turns, and approaches the microphone. He rakes his doe eyes across the crowd; Magnoli cuts to a series of closeups of individual audience members, staring back up at him expectantly. Finally, the Kid clears his throat and speaks: “I’d like to dedicate this to my father, Francis L. It’s a song the girls in the band wrote, Lisa and Wendy.” For the first time, he turns to face Wendy, whose expression makes it clear that the announcement was a surprise. She, Lisa, and the Kid share a meaningful glance, then Wendy begins to play.
The climactic performance of “Purple Rain” is as arresting as any of the other musical sequences in the film that shares its title; but for once, the Kid isn’t the exclusive focal point. Instead, Magnoli’s camera alternates between the emotions on the Kid’s face as he sings, and those of the audience as they watch his performance. As the song unfolds, the shots framing the Kid grow gradually wider, while the crowd shots grow closer. When the Kid calls out, “You know what I’m singin’ about up here, c’mon and raise your hand,” the camera pulls back so we can see the audience doing just that (see below). Finally, as the Kid plays his earth-shaking solo, Magnoli cuts to a closeup of Billy Sparks, the club owner who earlier told the Kid that “nobody digs [his] music but [him]self.”
As the coda of “Purple Rain” plays, the Kid flees the stage–an echo of the earlier scene when, after playing “Darling Nikki,” he stormed backstage and took out his anger on the dressing room walls. This time, though, just as he’s about to rev up his motorcycle and drive away, he hears the crowd cheering. After struggling for the entire film, onstage and off, to bridge the gap between himself and the people around him, it’s this song that enables him to connect.
The narrative Magnoli wove around “Purple Rain” did more than just create a satisfying emotional climax for his film; it also, arguably, gave a wider range of listeners a way into the song itself. To be sure, even without an accompanying storyline, the passion in Prince’s performance would be evident to anyone with ears; but as lighters-aloft refrains go, “Purple rain, purple rain” is undeniably a little on the cryptic side. Magnoli grounds this mysterious, vaguely religious imagery in something recognizably human: A troubled soul finding redemption through music. “Purple Rain” was already a great song; but on the big screen, it became an anthem.
Warner Bros. released “Purple Rain” on September 26, 1984, as the third single from the album of the same title. Its performance on the charts fell slightly short of the previous two singles, “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” both of which reached Number 1 on the Hot 100; instead, it “only” hit Number 2, kept out of the top spot by English pop duo Wham! and their chirpily infectious “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” But the song, and Prince, remained ubiquitous. At the 12th annual American Music Awards on January 28, 1985–where Prince took home awards for Favorite Pop/Rock Album, Favorite Soul/R&B Album, and (for “When Doves Cry”) Favorite Soul/R&B Song–he and backing band the Revolution brought down the house with a performance that Billboard later described as “the most iconic… in the show’s 45-year history” (Rolli 2017). And of course, every one of the 98 dates on the Purple Rain tour ended with an encore of the title song, with performances stretching to upwards of 20 minutes.
Already, though, the ubiquity was beginning to take its toll. “In some ways Purple Rain scared me,” Prince later admitted. “It’s my albatross and it’ll be hanging around my neck as long as I’m making music” (Hoskyns 2006). By the second half of the tour in early 1985, he was chafing against the expectations of bringing “the Kid” back to life night after night: “I was doing the 75th Purple Rain show, doing the same thing over and over,” he told writer Touré in 1998. “And I just lost it. I said: ‘I can’t do it!’” (Touré 1998). In crafting his genre-defying anthem–the culmination of half a decade of striving for crossover success–Prince had also built for himself the one box from which he could never truly escape.
“What if I don’t want to sing ‘Purple Rain’ every time I go on stage? The fans don’t want that either.”O(+>, 1995
“LENO: So which song will you miss the most? Which song do you say, ‘I said I’m not gonna play that, but I feel bad’?
“PRINCE: Probably ‘Purple Rain.’”Interview on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, 2004
It’s Super Bowl Sunday, February 4, 2007, in Miami. Prince and his band are about to take the field at Dolphin Stadium for the halftime show; but a torrential downpour has hit South Florida, with no sign of letting up. Three days earlier, the backing group and dancers–accompanied by the Florida A&M University marching band–had played a full dress rehearsal, which was taped for broadcast in case of an emergency on the day of the show; but Prince himself had declined to play guitar or sing, opting instead to make sure that the rest of the performance was perfect. Now, with the rain still coming down and only minutes to showtime, he has no option but to play. Charles Coplin, the show’s executive producer, calls backstage to make sure Prince is all right. The response: “He wants to know if you can make it rain harder.”
Prince had tried time and time again to escape from the shadow of “Purple Rain.” In 1986, he’d ended his performance at Yokohama Stadium–and the tenure of the Revolution–by smashing his guitars, including the original white Cloud made famous in the movie. Less than a year later, though, he was back with a new band, playing “Purple Rain” on the Sign “O” the Times tour. In 1993, embroiled in a bitter contractual dispute with his record label Warner Bros., he’d tried to replace the song: writing a new anthem, “Gold,” that attempted to simulate past glories from its colorful theme to its epic guitar solo. It didn’t take; by the Love 4 One Another tour in early 1997, “Purple Rain” had once again replaced “Gold” in the setlist. In 2002, he’d famously warned audiences on the One Nite Alone… tour, “For those of you who expected to get your Purple Rain on, you’re in the wrong house”; but he was already back to playing the song again when the tour hit Europe later that year.
Now, at Dolphin Stadium in the pouring rain, Prince is no longer trying to escape; instead, he’s leaning in. He makes “Purple Rain” the climax of a 12-minute set spanning nearly 40 years of rock and roll history: from Creedence Clearwater Revival via Ike & Tina Turner, to Bob Dylan via Jimi Hendrix, to Queen and the Foo Fighters. The performance of his own signature song is similarly referential. When he kicks over his microphone stand mid-solo, it echoes a corresponding moment from the AMAs 22 years earlier; in this instant, writes Anil Dash, we see Prince as an “elder statesman update and revisit a milestone of his ascendance as an artist in his 20s” (Dash 2021). As he plays, the rain comes down harder than ever. Shining in the stage lights, it almost looks purple.
I know of at least a few Prince fans who would, given the choice, never listen to “Purple Rain” again. It’s a position I understand intellectually–especially since 2016, when the song became the first port of call for artists seeking to eulogize its departed writer, including (to name just a few) Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Eric Clapton, Jennifer Hudson, Boy George, Dwight Yoakam, Kelly Clarkson, Amanda Palmer, and even Corey Taylor of Halloween-masked metal act Slipknot. Still, while I get the impetus to shrug off “Purple Rain” as an overrated sop for casual fans, I ultimately can’t relate. It may not be in my personal top 10 (or 20), but its power can’t be denied: It’s Prince’s contribution to the Great American Songbook, a modern-day standard that transcends (almost) all categories of generation, genre, and taste.
And I think, in the end, Prince understood that, too. Try as he might to shrug off the “albatross” that was “Purple Rain,” it moved listeners like no other song in his catalogue; and he clearly took relish in the effect it had on his audiences. It isn’t lost on me that the coda of “Purple Rain” was the last thing Prince played in a formal concert setting during his lifetime: part of a medley with “The Beautiful Ones” and “Diamonds and Pearls” at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on April 14, 2016. One of the last things he heard before leaving the stage that night, a week to the day before his untimely death, was the sound of his own melody being sung back to him.