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Ephemera, 1983 Patreon Exclusives

Patreon Exclusive Bonus Track: 1983 Piano Rehearsal

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.

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Ephemera, 1983

Velvet Kitty Cat

After unceremoniously ousting Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis from the Time, Prince tried to continue work on the group’s third album; somehow, though, the remaining members didn’t share his enthusiasm. According to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, on April 20, 1983–just two days after sending Jam and Lewis packing–he jammed on a new song called “Sleazy” with Morris Day on drums, Jesse Johnson on guitar, and himself on bass. “Using his old man/Jamie Starr… voice, Prince tried to work in elements from ‘Cloreen Bacon Skin,’” Tudahl writes; “but tensions were higher than usual,” and “it was obvious that none of them were completely committed to the track” (Tudahl 2018 74). The song, by all accounts, went unfinished.

Luckily, Prince wasn’t exactly short on side projects to write for; so he turned to Vanity 6, his other supporting act on the 1999 tour and prospective co-stars in his as-yet-untitled film project. During the 10-hour session at Los AngelesSunset Sound on April 20–alongside several takes of “Sleazy,” overdubs for “If the Kid Can’t Make You Come,” and another seemingly unfinished instrumental titled “My Love Belongs to You”–the ever-prolific artist found time to demo a new track for the girl group: an appropriately lithe, slinky little ditty called “Velvet Kitty Cat.”

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Ephemera, 1983

Cloreen Bacon Skin (Tricky)

The sessions for the Time’s third album began during an especially fraught period in their relationship with Prince. On March 21, 1983, just over a week before recording commenced at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, Prince left the band off the bill at New York’s Radio City Music Hall–an apparently calculated move to keep the spotlight on himself, and off his protégés. A week later, he’d repeat the snub at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre. Meanwhile, keyboardist Jimmy Jam and bassist Terry Lewis were on thin ice after missing their flight for a March 24 show in San Antonio. Once Prince discovered the reason for their absence–an unsanctioned Atlanta studio date producing the S.O.S. Band–it would spell the end of their tenure in the group.

Yet, even amidst all this interpersonal strife, there was still room for a little levity. And so it was that, on March 27–just one day before the Universal Amphitheatre show–Prince and the group’s frontman/studio drummer Morris Day cut “Cloreen Bacon Skin”: an improvised, 15-minute funk groove-cum-comedy sketch with a surprisingly long afterlife in the former’s body of work.

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Ice Cream Castle, 1984

Jungle Love

Prince, as was his wont, had already moved on to his next phase by the time the 1999 tour entered its final stretch in March 1983. The centerpiece of his master plan was, of course, the untitled film project that would become Purple Rain; but he also intended to cement his musical dominance with follow-up albums by the 1999-era “Triple Threat” of himself, the Time, and Vanity 6. Much as he had a year before, he focused on the Time first: booking a few days at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles before playing the Universal Amphitheatre and San Diego Sports Arena on March 28 and 29, respectively.

The Time’s first two albums had been cut primarily by Prince and singer/studio drummer Morris Day alone; for the new project, however, Prince allowed the rest of the band to take on a more active role. “They played on a lot of the stuff,” former Sunset Sound engineer Peggy McCreary told sessionographer Duane Tudahl–though Prince remained the unquestioned “leader of what was going on” (Tudahl 2018 64). The Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr was even willing to share songwriting duties, basing “Jungle Love” on an instrumental demo by guitarist Jesse Johnson.

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Ephemera, 1983

Katrina’s Paper Dolls

A little over a year after their first meeting in January 1982, Prince and Denise Matthews (better known as Vanity) had cultivated an image as pop music’s sexiest power couple: the royal bride and groom of his imminent purple reign. Early in 1983, the pair posed for fashion photographer Richard Avedon in a shot that would make the cover of Rolling Stone that April. Looking like mirror reflections–or incestuous twins–they fixed the camera with identical, kohl-blackened stares: she embracing him from behind, two fingers tucked suggestively down the front of his jeans. In the coming months, Prince would plan to take their relationship to an even larger venue, slating Vanity to play the leading lady in his forthcoming motion picture debut.

But there was trouble in paradise. The strong-willed couple clashed frequently–not least because Prince insisted on seeing other women at the same time as Matthews, including her Vanity 6 bandmate Susan Moonsie and his backing singer Jill Jones. A song inspired by their relationship from around this time, “Wonderful Ass,” pokes fun at the disconnect between their undeniable sexual chemistry and their equally undeniable emotional incompatibility: “My sensibilities you aggravate,” Prince croons, but “you got a wonderful ass.” Another, “Strange Relationship,” opts for a more trenchant self-critique: “Baby, I Just Can’t Stand 2 See U Happy / More Than That[,] I Hate 2 See U Sad.”

Jones, who shared a dressing room with Vanity 6 during the 1999 tour, recalled Prince giving a cassette tape with both songs on it to Matthews: “She’d play it before the show while me, Susan, and all of us [were] getting dressed,” she told sessionographer Duane Tudahl. “It wasn’t discreet.” Prince and Vanity, she added, actually did have a “Strange Relationship”: “It was really true that he didn’t want to see her happy and he didn’t want to see her sad. Because she started dating other people… and he got pissed. She was like, ‘I’m moving away from him. Fuck him. I’m really famous. People love me.’ So she was getting something and that was the only thing he had to yank her back in” (Tudahl 2018 40).