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Purple Rain, 1984

Purple Rain (Verse 1)

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…”

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Filling the Space

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 198088) 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.

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Prince Track by Track: “REVELATION”

Here it is: my last episode ever of Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast. All told, we recorded 36 of these things over the last 20 months, and it’s been a pleasure to both talk about some of my favorite songs and educate myself on some other songs I didn’t know as well. Thanks to Darren for taking a chance on me, a complete stranger who responded to his call for guests on Twitter almost two years ago. I think we went out on a pretty good note, if I do say so myself:

Prince Track by Track: “REVELATION”

If you just can’t get enough of listening to me ramble about Prince, I will hopefully be making some other podcast appearances in the near future; and of course, I still hope to put out another of my own one of these days. For now, though, you’ll just have to content yourself with reading me ramble about Prince. I’ll be doing some more of that very soon.

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Prince Track by Track: “LIKE A MACK”

Still working on that next Vanity 6 post, but in the meantime I have a few other things to share today. First up is my penultimate appearance on Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast, discussing one of Prince’s most embarrassing songs:

Prince Track by Track: “LIKE A MACK”

I’ll be back later this afternoon to share my review of Ultimate Rave–which, for Amazon users, appears to be on pretty deep discount today! If you’ve been waiting to buy it, now seems like a good time.

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Prince Track by Track: “My Medallion”

I’m still hoping to finish my next proper post by the end of the week–though I have to say that today I’m laid out in bed with what feels depressingly like the flu, which is not the most conducive state for quality or coherent writing. I can, however, crank out a quick post to publicize my latest guest appearance on Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast:

Prince Track by Track: “My Medallion”

I believe we have two more of these scheduled before the end of the month, so I’ll be posting them as they become available. Unless, of course, I’m dying, in which case, goodbye cruel world!