There are, it’s been advertised, 45 previously-unissued studio tracks on next month’s Super Deluxe Edition of Sign “O” the Times; and Warner Bros. appears to be hell-bent on issuing as many of them as possible to digital platforms before the box set’s release. By last Thursday’s surprise drop of an “early vocal run-through” of the album track “Forever in My Life,” I was starting to feel like I’d been opening all my Christmas presents early. But hey, it’s not like I have the self-control to not listen to a newly-unveiled Prince outtake as soon as it comes out, so let’s tear off that wrapping paper and get to it.
Whenever I explain why I’m writing about every Prince song in order–a hobby, believe it or not, that does still warrant explanation in some circles–one of my go-to lines is that Prince, almost uniquely in popular music, is an artist with effectively three or four different canons. There is of course the primary canon of the big ’80s hits (“1999,” “Kiss,” “Little Red Corvette,” basically all of Purple Rain), f0llowed by the subcanon of later singles, “deep cut” album tracks, and B-sides–the latter of which is large enough that we could potentially make it a subcanon all its own. But what makes Prince special is the fact that he also has a sub-subcanon–either his third or fourth, depending on how we count the above–which includes tracks that never saw official release, but are still treated with reverence by collectors and fans. Prince isn’t the only artist with a deep and multilayered catalogue, of course–Bob Dylan and Neil Young both come to mind as potential peers–but I would argue that he is the only artist whose “sub-subcanon” rivals the quality and notoriety of his “official” body of work. In short, for fans of rabbit holes (and I clearly am one), they don’t come any deeper than this.
For years, “Cosmic Day” was one of those fabled cuts languishing in the depths of the purple rabbit hole: one of many proverbial “holy grails.” Recorded on November 15, 1986, in the midst of the blur of activity that led to the Crystal Ball triple-LP and its truncated sibling, Sign “O” the Times, it was seemingly never intended for either project; like “Moonbeam Levels,” another fixture of Prince’s subterranean canon, it’s at once essential to the era in which it was recorded and wholly detached from it. But unlike “Moonbeam Levels,” it has also tantalized fans by staying out of the hands of most collectors, with only two-to-three-minute fragments in wide circulation–until, that is, yesterday’s release of the full recording in advance of Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe.
As has become tradition for Warner’s posthumous Prince collections, last month’s Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe announcement was accompanied by the release of a “new” song from the Vault. “Witness 4 the Prosecution (Version 1)” was recorded on March 14, 1986–one of the first recordings at Prince’s new home studio at Galpin Blvd. in Chanhassen, where he had moved in November of 1985. The stripped-down blues-rock number featured Prince on all instruments, including live drums and some decidedly Hendrixian guitar.
Lyrically, “Witness” finds Prince in a metaphorical courtroom, testifying against a “heinous love affair” in which he claims to be “guilty of nothin’ but always wantin’ you to be there.” “Whatever it is you think that I did,” he argues passionately, “You’re wrong, I wouldn’t even dare.” Susan Rogers, Prince’s home studio engineer from 1983–1987, told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine that the song was written “as a direct result” of his tumultuous relationship with Susannah Melvoin, his live-in partner at the time and the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy (Nilsen 1999 214). “He had gone further with her than anybody else,” Rogers recalled. “She was wearing his ring, he loved her and didn’t want to lose her, but he didn’t think that he could carry out his commitment. They were fighting a lot, and it was sort of over nothing” (195).