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Ephemera, 1984 Lacunae

Lacuna: The Dawn

While shooting Purple Rain in the last two months of 1983, Prince had uncharacteristically little time to spend in the studio. But as production wound down in late December, he dove back in, returning to Sunset Sound to work on new material for his manifold projects. On December 27, he recorded the basic track for “The Glamorous Life”–originally intended for Apollonia 6, but later given to (and made famous by) Sheila E. The following day, he added vocals and cut another track that would end up on Sheila’s album, “Next Time Wipe the Lipstick Off Your Collar”; as well as a song yet to be released anywhere, “Blue Love.” The day after that, he completed his first version of “She’s Always in My Hair.” Finally, on December 31, he rang in the New Year with an enigmatic new number, listed on the studio work order as “The Dawn.”

As readers of Duane Tudahl’s Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions are no doubt aware, though, the last song Prince recorded in 1983 was not “The Dawn.” It was, in fact, “We Can Fuck,” a title deemed too explicit for an official Sunset Sound document; it would also be known by the euphemisms “Moral Majority” (not to be confused with the actual recording by that title) and, anecdotally, “Sex” (also not to be confused with the 1989 song later released as the B-side for “Scandalous”). But Prince clearly thought the dummy title was too good to waste on an act of self-censorship; because just a week later, on January 7-8, 1984, he recorded a new song bearing the same name.

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Ephemera, 1983

Father’s Song

Director Albert Magnoli liked to call Purple Rain an “emotional biography” of Prince: An impressionistic mélange of the star’s pet themes, anxieties, and obsessions, true to its subject in spirit if not in every detail. And of all the themes, anxieties, and obsessions Prince brought to the film, none loomed larger than his father, John L. Nelson.

John Lewis Nelson was born on June 29, 1916 in Cotton Valley, Webster Parish, Louisiana, the youngest child of farmers Clarence Allen and Carrie Nelson (née Jenkins). Not long after his birth, John’s parents divorced; the reason, according to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, was because Clarence had become involved with another woman (Hahn 2017 50). By the 1920 census, writes historian Kristen Zschomler, Carrie was remarried to a man named Charles Ikner and living in Webster Parish with three-year-old John and his siblings: James (born 1915), Ruby (born 1908), Olivia (born 1904), and Gertrude (born 1903) (Zschomler 9). By 1930, she was widowed, and had traveled north with Gertrude, Ruby, and their husbands and children to a rented home in Southside Minneapolis, near where Olivia had settled with her husband, Edward Mason Lewis. The now-teenaged John likely followed between 1930 and 1935 (10).

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Purple Rain, 1984

The Beautiful Ones

On August 1, 1983, Albert Magnoli arrived in Minneapolis to finish his revised screenplay for Purple Rain. He spent his first week in town interviewing the prospective cast members, including Prince’s band, the Time, and Vanity 6, to mine their real-life relationships for dramatic potential. As he explained to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, “My research was for me to sit down and say, ‘Okay, I have a scene I’m developing between you, Wendy, Lisa, and Prince, and you’re very angry at him. And you’re in the dressing room and you’re about to go on and you want to know if he hear[d] your music. Give me what you feel like?’ And they start, ‘Oh well, yeah that happens all the time!’ So all their shit comes up because they’ve been in that with him” (Tudahl 2018 117).

The director supplemented his research by sitting in on band rehearsals and attending the August 3 First Avenue performance where the film’s title song received its debut. Mostly, though, he wrote: spending his days in a motel room drafting in longhand, “from seven to seven… with a ruler and pencil, on paper. Then a secretary would come in and type everything up from that day in script form” (Light 2014 91). By the end of the month, when Magnoli flew back to Los Angeles to finish editing James Foley’s Reckless, his first draft was complete.

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Purple Rain, 1984

Purple Rain (Verse 3)

Note: This is my third and last post on “Purple Rain”: a song of such monumental importance to Prince’s creative arc that I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. If you haven’t already, please read Parts 1 and 2 first.

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Purple Rain, 1984

I Would Die 4 U

Having sold Bob Cavallo on his vision for the film that would become Purple Rain, Albert Magnoli’s next task was to fly to Minnesota and plead his case to the movie’s star. From the moment he arrived, however, he faced resistance from an unlikely source: “Steve Fargnoli, one of Prince’s managers, met me when I got off the plane,” Magnoli recalled to Rolling Stone’s David Browne. Claiming that they had already made a commitment to William Blinn’s version of the script, “Steve said, ‘Kid–that story you told Bob? I don’t want to hear a word of it. You’re here to tow the line’” (Browne 2016).

Undeterred, when Prince showed up that night to discuss the film, Magnoli gave him the same pitch he’d given to Cavallo–this time, adding a new wrinkle: “Suddenly I saw the violence, the dysfunctional relationship with his mother, his father as a musician writing music and hiding it in a box.” Prince, surprised, sent away Fargnoli and his bodyguard, “Big Chick” Huntsberry, and took the director for a drive outside the city in his BMW. “I realized later we were driving to a cornfield and it was totally dark because there were no lights,” Magnoli recalled. “He was quiet and I was quiet. He asked me, ‘Do you know me?’ I said no. ‘Do you know my music?’ I said, ‘Just “1999.”’ And he said, ‘Then how is it that you essentially tell me my story without knowing me?’” (Browne 2016).