Just two weeks after beginning “Take Me with U”–and a little less than three months after finishing “Sex Shooter”–Prince had nearly enough material for a full album by Apollonia 6; the only thing missing was a feature for the group’s third member, Susan Moonsie. According to Brenda Bennett, the oversight may have been deliberate: “Susan and Prince were fighting,” she told sessionographer Duane Tudahl (Tudahl 2018 255). So, never one to shy away from a passive-aggressive slight, on February 5, 1984, His Royal Badness dashed off “Ooo She She Wa Wa” with zero input from his protégée and on-and-off paramour.
Note: I was just over 1,800 words into the post you’re about to read when I finally admitted defeat; there is, quite simply, no way that I can fit everything I have to say about “Purple Rain” into a single, digestible piece of writing. So, in the grand tradition of my “Controversy” three-parter from 2018, I’m splitting it into chapters. The first, and likely longest, will talk about the song’s composition; the second will go into detail about its debut performance at First Avenue on August 3, 1983; and the third will delve into the final recording that appears on the Purple Rain album and film. There will probably also be a coda of some kind discussing the song’s impressive (and ongoing) afterlife. Basically, just think of July 2021 as my unofficial “Purple Rain” month–and, for the next several weeks, sit back and let me guide u through the purple rain.
It’s a sweltering August night at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Prince and his band have just returned to the stage for the first encore of their benefit show for the Minnesota Dance Theatre: the local dance company and school, located just up the street at 6th and Hennepin, where the musicians have been taking dance and movement classes to prepare for their imminent feature film debut. Moments earlier, MDT founder and artistic director Loyce Houlton thanked Prince with a hug, declaring, “We don’t have a ‘Prince’ in Minnesota, we have a king.” Before that, Prince had run the group through a fierce 10-song set: sprinkling a handful of crowd-pleasers amongst the largely new material, and ending with the biggest crowd-pleaser of all, his Number 6 pop hit “Little Red Corvette.”
No one in the sold-out crowd of around 1,500 recognizes the chords that now ring out from the darkened stage. Even the film’s director, Albert Magnoli, hasn’t heard the song before; it wasn’t among the tapes he’d reviewed to prepare for his draft of the screenplay. But the chords–played by 19-year-old guitarist Wendy Melvoin, in her first public performance with Prince–are immediately attention-grabbing: rich and colorful and uniquely voiced, somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.
A spotlight shines on Wendy as she continues to play, her purple Rickenbacker 330 echoed by her partner Lisa Coleman playing the same progression on electric piano. Prince begins to solo around the edges of the progression; he paces the stage, walking out to the edge of the crowd as he plays, then slings his “Madcat” Telecaster around his back and makes his way to the microphone at center stage. He holds the mic for an instant and backs away, as if suddenly overwhelmed. Then, he steps back to the mic and begins to sing: “I never meant 2 cause u any sorrow…”
With Albert Magnoli on board as director, preparations for Prince’s film debut finally began in earnest. The artist’s new rehearsal space on Highway 7 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota became the epicenter for a “flurry of activity from morning ’til night,” recalled Brenda Bennett of side project Vanity 6 (Bellaire 2015). Along with a stage setup and recording console, “the Warehouse” also included a small wardrobe department for Vaughn Terry and Louis Wells: costume designers, best known for their work with Earth, Wind & Fire, who had joined the Prince camp during the 1999 tour and would be instrumental in crafting his iconic Purple Rain-era look.
Soon, Terry and Wells would be joined by another familiar face: tour manager Alan Leeds, whose capable handling of the inter- and intra-band tensions during the latter months of the 1999 tour led to his being rehired to help coordinate the film’s production. “I got a call from [manager Steve] Fargnoli sometime in July, offering me the gig to come to Minneapolis,” Leeds told journalist Alan Light. “And I said, ‘Well, what’s the gig? Are you going back on the road?’ ‘Not right away. We’re going to make a movie first.’ I go, ‘Okay, you need me to come there because you’re making a movie? First of all, I don’t believe you’re making a movie. Second, why do you need me to make a movie? I don’t make movies.’ He said, ‘We got three bands: we got Prince and his guys that you tour managed, we got Morris [Day] and the Time, we got Vanity 6. They’re all in the movie. Everybody’s taking acting lessons, everybody’s taking dance lessons, and everybody’s rehearsing new music. We need an off-road road manager to coordinate all this stuff.’ ‘Okay, Steven–you’re really making a movie? Get the fuck outta here!’” (Light 2014 82-83).
Leeds wasn’t the only one surprised by the sudden increase in scale. As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled, “For the longest time, we would talk about [the film] like, ‘We’re gonna make the best cult movie, it’s gonna be cool, we’re just gonna put it out there and see who responds to it.’ Then Al Magnoli came and actually kind of connected with Prince, and Al was the one who was like, ‘If we’re gonna make a movie, why don’t we make it a hit movie? It seems like we’ve got all the parts here. Let’s not just make some artsy movie, just for fun’” (Light 2014 91).
In aiming for a “hit,” however, Prince faced the inevitable temptation to sand away some of his rougher edges. Guitarist Wendy Melvoin, who had been a fan before she joined Prince’s band, recalled being disappointed by the new material at rehearsal: “The songs weren’t as funky to me,” she told Light. “They were pop songs; they were definitely watered down.” Coleman remembered Prince himself poking fun at his newfound populist tendencies: “He would imitate an old granny, like, ‘You could make Granny dance to this one,’ but then I think he was just like, ‘We’re leaning it too far to the granny; we still need danger’” (Light 2014 77).
I wasn’t planning on posting anything today; my next “proper” post, on “I Would Die 4 U,” won’t be finished until next week, and I usually save my year-in-review posts for the actual anniversary of the blog in June. But it suddenly hit me that the five-year anniversary of Prince’s passing on April 21, 2016, demands more than just business as usual; and so here are what I fully intend to be my brief (yeah, right) thoughts on the subject.
Prince and I were on a break at the beginning of 2016. To be honest, we were usually on a break. I took what I would call an orthodox critical perspective on Prince, or what hardcore fans might recognize as the Questlove school of thought: I considered his “peak” era (roughly 1980–88) to be among the most incredible, groundbreaking music ever recorded, while his later work alternately underwhelmed, baffled, and only occasionally moved me. My first deep dive into his catalogue, during college, happened to coincide with 2004’s Musicology album and tour; so I followed him in real time for a few years, but fell off by the end of the decade. Years later, 2014’s ART OFFICIAL AGE pulled me back in–only for 2015’s HITnRUN Phase One, and a wasted free trial for TIDAL, to push me back out with a quickness. I distinctly remember driving to my job at IKEA (!) in Northern Virginia when the announcement of the Baltimore “Rally 4 Peace” came on the radio, and I was struck with the sudden urge to pull over and try to get tickets; but I was broke (IKEA, remember), and anyway Prince toured every couple of years. I’d catch him next time.
That’s the thing about Prince: There was always a next time–until, of course, there wasn’t. His passing, a little less than a year after I skipped the Baltimore show, threw into sharp relief just how much I’d taken him for granted. And I think that’s why I felt his absence so acutely: more than any other public figure–even David Bowie, whose own death just three months earlier felt in retrospect like a dress rehearsal for the main event; more even, I should probably be ashamed to say, than many of my own family members. Within hours of hearing the terrible news on April 21, I was making my way through his albums from beginning to end–catching up on everything I’d missed, or simply glossed over, when he was still here and his music felt like an infinitely renewable resource. Within days, I had started to write this very blog.
I’ve shared before that Dance / Music / Sex / Romance began as part sustained writing project, part act of public mourning. Five years later, though, I no longer think “mourning” is the right word. Prince’s death was a shock and a tragedy, no doubt; but his life was almost impossibly rich, lived to the fullest extent and only ever on his own terms. I understand and respect that for many fans, April 21 will always be an occasion for grief; but for me–someone who never knew Prince and, frankly, didn’t appreciate him enough while he was with us–I feel that the best thing I can do is to celebrate his work, to keep it alive in whatever small way I can.
In the past five years, I’ve also found myself focusing less on what we lost on April 21, 2016, and more on what we gained. This project–but really, Prince–has introduced me to dozens of people from around the world. Some I now consider friends; some are people whose work I’ve admired and who are now, unexpectedly, in my orbit; some are people whose work I didn’t know before, but now value greatly. The sad truth is that I probably wouldn’t have met any of them if Prince were still here. And while I obviously would have preferred for us to meet under different circumstances, I’d be hard-pressed to trade their presence in my life for anything.
When Prince died five years ago today, he left a space for the rest of us to fill. D / M / S / R remains my way of filling that space. It is, in the grand scheme of things, an insignificant one: The real measure of Prince’s legacy is in something like his funding of Black Lives Matter, the movement which effectively made possible yesterday’s historic guilty verdict for the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. But there’s also something to be said for giving his music the sustained, exhaustive critical examination it deserves; and, while I’m far from the only person doing this, I’m proud to be among their number. Five years ago, I stopped taking Prince for granted; now, I’m spending as many years as it takes encouraging others to do the same.
“The MUSIC segues into a fierce BEAT.
The CROWD lets out a ROAR! Prince
strips off his guitar, streaks center-
stage. The Band launches into ‘Baby,
I’m A Star.’
“…And the CROWD laughing, dancing,
shouting and loving. The CLUB is ALIVE!
“And the MUSIC continues…forever…”Draft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
In the spring of 1983, Prince’s contract with managers Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli was up for renewal. They had, on the face of it, little reason to worry: the 1999 tour was selling out arenas, “Little Red Corvette” was in the Top 10 of the pop charts, and 1999 was well on its way to Platinum certification by the RIAA. By the end of April, Prince would make the cover of Rolling Stone: a coveted opportunity for which his managers had netted a Richard Avedon photo shoot without granting an interview. “I thought we did an incredible job, we had a creative relationship, I’m sure he’s gonna sign another contract,” Bob Cavallo later told music journalist Alan Light. But Prince sent his main handler, Steve Fargnoli, back to Cavallo with a surprising ultimatum: “he won’t sign with us again unless we get him a movie” (Light 51).