It’s been about two and a half years since news first broke of an official Prince documentary, to be produced by Netflix in collaboration with the artist’s estate. Since that time, the project has been mostly radio-silent–with the notable exceptions of the 2019 departure of original director, Ava DuVernay (13th), and her (still officially unconfirmed) replacement by Ezra Edelman (O.J.: Made in America) last year. So, I was intrigued to learn about Mr. Nelson on the North Side: another, independently-produced documentary which premiered online last weekend. If nothing else, the film’s focus on the beginnings of Prince’s life and artistic development in North Minneapolis promised to be an interesting change of pace–covering territory (both literal and figurative) that remains underexplored in Prince biographies across all media.
At this point, it’s customary to marvel at the sheer, staggering amount of music Prince recorded. His finished recordings number in the hundreds, if not the thousands: enough, to borrow a cliché that became ubiquitous after the Vault was cracked open in 2016, to fill an album a year for the next 100 years; or, to put it in more personally meaningful terms, enough to keep me working on this goddamn blog until roughly the end of my natural life. But the mind truly boggles when one considers that those “finished recordings” are only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface are hundreds more hours of rehearsals and rough sketches recorded for private use–only a fraction of which are ever likely to see the light of day.
By this reckoning, the solo piano rehearsal officially released in 2018 as Piano & A Microphone 1983 is not, in itself, remarkable; it’s just one of countless other “work tapes,” as former Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman describes them in her liner notes, by an artist for whom making music was an avocation as much as a vocation (Coleman 3). Prince Estate lead archivist Michael Howe told Newsweek that when he found the recording–a standard, consumer-grade TDK SA-60 cassette with two tracks, “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” and “Why the Butterflies,” listed in Prince’s handwriting–it was in a box with “[l]iterally thousands” of other tapes (Schonfeld 2018). But what it lacks in uniqueness, it makes up for in historical importance: capturing, with near-unrivaled intimacy, a snapshot of Prince’s creative process on the very cusp of the career-defining success of Purple Rain.
Amidst the flood of music Prince recorded in the lead-up to his 1984 magnum opus, Purple Rain, “My Love Belongs to You” barely registers as a ripple. A rough-hewn, seven-minute-long instrumental, it isn’t even the most fully-realized track from its recording date: April 20, 1983, a 10-hour session at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles that also produced “Velvet Kitty Cat,” overdubs for “If the Kid Can’t Make You Come,” and multiple takes of another studio jam called “Sleazy.” But my mission, quixotic as it may be, is to chronicle every circulating studio recording by Prince; and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my almost five years (!) of doing this, it’s that every recording by Prince has something to say about his musical development.
Since the release of the Originals compilation last summer, Prince fans have been treated to a reasonably steady stream of officially-released material from the Vault. What we hadn’t had in a while, though, was a good old-fashioned bootleg leak–at least until last week, when the long-rumored 1977 track “Neurotic Lover’s Bedroom” was made available to a wider circle of collectors, then promptly shared on unofficial streaming sites (where, at least as of this writing, it remains accessible).
This news was especially exciting to me, as “Neurotic Lover” has long been one of my “holy grail” songs based purely on its title (see also: “Vagina,” “Big Brass Bed,” and for entirely different reasons, “Bulgaria”). I could not, for the life of me, imagine what a song called “Neurotic Lover’s Bedroom”–much less “Neurotic Lover’s Baby’s Bedroom,” the more grammatically bewildering title by which it was originally identified–could sound like; all I knew was, with a name like that, it had to be something good.
I am pleased to report that “Neurotic Lover” has both utterly defeated and exceeded these expectations. Whatever I imagined this track to be–and, again, beyond knowing that it was the first song Prince recorded after his manager Owen Husney bought him a drum machine, I really had no idea–it definitely was not a six-minute-long, vaguely psychedelic Parliament–Funkadelic goof in which a deadpan 19-year-old Prince extols the virtues of erotic asphyxiation. And yet, here we are.
Most stories about Prince’s recording process have the same basic structure: A musical genius walks into the studio with an idea, works on it for the next 12-18 hours, then walks out with a finished track–which, more often than not, turns out to be a masterpiece. But they can’t all be winners, even for Prince. Sometimes, when “a song started to come together and he was getting more ideas, it was like his mood would be a little lighter, because he was happy with it,” longtime Sunset Sound engineer Peggy McCreary told sessionographer Duane Tudahl. But other times, “if it just wasn’t inspiring him enough to go further–if it didn’t move him–he would stop” (Tudahl 2019 28).