While shooting Purple Rain in the last two months of 1983, Prince had uncharacteristically little time to spend in the studio. But as production wound down in late December, he dove back in, returning to Sunset Sound to work on new material for his manifold projects. On December 27, he recorded the basic track for “The Glamorous Life”–originally intended for Apollonia 6, but later given to (and made famous by) Sheila E. The following day, he added vocals and cut another track that would end up on Sheila’s album, “Next Time Wipe the Lipstick Off Your Collar”; as well as a song yet to be released anywhere, “Blue Love.” The day after that, he completed his first version of “She’s Always in My Hair.” Finally, on December 31, he rang in the New Year with an enigmatic new number, listed on the studio work order as “The Dawn.”
As readers of Duane Tudahl’s Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions are no doubt aware, though, the last song Prince recorded in 1983 was not “The Dawn.” It was, in fact, “We Can Fuck,” a title deemed too explicit for an official Sunset Sound document; it would also be known by the euphemisms “Moral Majority” (not to be confused with the actual recording by that title) and, anecdotally, “Sex” (also not to be confused with the 1989 song later released as the B-side for “Scandalous”). But Prince clearly thought the dummy title was too good to waste on an act of self-censorship; because just a week later, on January 7-8, 1984, he recorded a new song bearing the same name.
“The Dawn”–the real one, not the bowdlerized “We Can Fuck”–is one of the few remaining mysteries from Prince’s most exhaustively chronicled era. Existing descriptions fail to capture what the song actually sounds like, in a “dancing about architecture” kind of way: Tudahl, for example, calls the 15-minute instrumental a “slow-paced 3/4 time track” which “contains elements from songs like ‘17 Days’ and would inspire songs like the instrumental version of ‘God’,” as well as tracks like “The Question of U” recorded around 1986’s Parade (Tudahl 2018 219). Meanwhile, circulating recordings from its appearances on the 2016 Piano & A Microphone tour are too brief to make much of an impression, beyond that it is indeed a beautiful, piano-led piece in the vein of “God,” “Venus de Milo,” et al.
Yet, underlying this mystery is the unshakeable sense that “The Dawn” holds the key to the next 15 years of Prince’s artistic development. Hardcore fans know that “the Dawn” was a potent theme for Prince, which emerged during the Purple Rain era and recurred for over a decade to come. Its first appearance was in the “breakdown” section of the extended “Computer Blue,” where Prince pleads, “Father, Father, the sun is gone / Father, Father, where is the Dawn?” That lyric would not appear in the final Purple Rain album or film; but the concept of “the Dawn” would, with the cryptic benediction, “May u live 2 see the dawn,” gracing both the liner notes and end credits (see above).
Dawn, of course, has a rich history in Christian theology: signifying both the original creation–God’s second act in the Book of Genesis, after giving form to the heavens and earth, is to bring light to the darkness–and the advent of the Kingdom of Heaven. Prince’s use of “the Dawn” is clearly steeped in this religious significance–the same eschatological underpinnings that had been part and parcel of his music since 1981’s “Annie Christian” and “The Second Coming.” But according to Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli, its appearance in the film’s credits also had a more worldly meaning, akin to the “James Bond Will Return” titles from the 007 films. “That’s what I wanted to do next with him: The Dawn,” he told Rolling Stone. “We had discussed doing a true musical–singing and dancing–a Broadway show on film… We were all excited about it” (Browne 2016).
Whether or not Prince already had it in mind for his next film project, “the Dawn” continued to crop up as a concept in his songwriting. When the aforementioned “17 Days” appeared as the B-side of “When Doves Cry,” it was with the lengthy subtitle, “the rain will come down, then U will have 2 choose. If U believe look 2 the dawn and U shall never lose.” His next B-side, “Erotic City,” took a more lascivious approach: slyly referencing both “The Dawn” and the song whose title it originally obscured with the line, “We can fuck until the dawn.”
Magnoli remembered his and Prince’s plans for The Dawn movie being curtailed by the Purple Rain tour; but available evidence places the project’s origins in early 1986, while Prince was in post-production on his second film, Under the Cherry Moon. According to Tony Christian of protégé group Mazarati, the film was conceived as “a black West Side Story” with “rival bands fighting [it] out” (Tudahl 2021 276). Magnoli, characteristically, had a more grandiose vision in mind: “I had basically created a fantastical city somewhere in the U.S., and in that city was police abuse, violence, crime… Good and evil would battle for supremacy” (Browne 2016). Whether the two concepts were related, or distinct projects using the same title, is anyone’s guess.
Tudahl identifies a number of songs from 1985 and 1986 that Prince considered for The Dawn project at one time or another, including “All My Dreams,” “Heaven,” “Others Here with Us,” “God is Everywhere,” “Crucial,” “The Cocoa Boys,” and “When the Dawn of the Morning Comes.” It’s unclear whether the song “The Dawn” was ever intended for the musical of the same name; though in June of 1985, Prince did give the track to bandmates Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, to update with horns and strings from the Fairlight CMI synthesizer. As far as we know, the song “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” recorded in July of 1986, was never earmarked for The Dawn; but when Prince sang the lines, “If A Night Falls And A Bomb Falls / Will Anybody See The Dawn,” the trope was so well-established that it didn’t matter.
The Dawn, as a discrete film concept, appears to have been a going concern for at least the rest of the 1980s. Both Under the Cherry Moon and 1987’s Sign “O” the Times concert film closed with the same “may u live 2 see the dawn” tease as Purple Rain; and when Magnoli took over as Prince’s manager in 1989 (a development that will surely warrant a post of its own someday), he announced it–along with Graffiti Bridge, a biopic of bluesman Robert Johnson, and another “‘street-oriented’ musical” known as Dark of the Moon–as one of the artist’s next four (!) films in development (Grein 1989). Unfortunately–or fortunately, depending on one’s feelings about Prince as a filmmaker–the disastrous commercial and critical reception of Graffiti Bridge in 1990 ensured that none of these other projects came to fruition. The Dawn was purportedly considered as an early title for the 1994 direct-to-video release 3 Chains o’ Gold; but in every other respect, the project was dead in the water.
At the same time that The Dawn was falling by the wayside as a film, however, it was only growing in significance as an idea. In 1993, after changing his name to the “Love Symbol,” the Artist Then-Formerly Known as Prince plotted a sprawling magnum opus, titled–you guessed it–The Dawn. It also never came out–though songs written for the project were scattered across his next several albums, including 1994’s Come, 1995’s The Gold Experience, 1996’s Chaos and Disorder, and 1998’s Crystal Ball. “The Dawn,” once a universal symbol of spiritual rebirth, now took on the deeply personal meaning of the Artist’s freedom from his contract with Warner Bros.; the hopeful, forward-looking “May u live 2 see the dawn” became the exaltatory present-tense of “Welcome 2 the dawn.” When the Artist was released from his recording contract in 1996, a recurring theme in his interviews was that the long-promised “Dawn” had finally arrived. “I’ve said the words in the past, ‘Welcome to the dawn,’ but I don’t even know if I knew what they meant,” he told Jim Walsh of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Now I do” (Walsh 1996).
Of course, it’s impossible to know what–if anything–all of this has to do with the long instrumental Prince recorded, and then shelved, in the first weeks of 1984. Maybe, as Tudahl surmises, he was simply recording incidental music for the film he’d just finished shooting, and gave it the same placeholder title he’d used for “We Can Fuck” as a bit of cheek. Maybe all of these extra layers of meaning would only come into play later, bringing retrospective weight to something straightforward and prosaic.
In the end, all we know is that Prince continued playing “The Dawn”: first in his solo piano sets on the Nude tour in 1990, and then, as noted above, on his Piano & A Microphone tour, during the last two months before his passing. Its reappearance after all those years, and during a period of unusual self-reflection for Prince, suggests that it held deeper significance than one would expect from just any 40-year-old melody. One day, I hope that we will all be able to hear “The Dawn” in its entirety; but I don’t expect even then for all its secrets to be revealed.