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D / M / S / R Year Six in Review

Already? Are you kidding me? Even more than usual, this anniversary really snuck up on me, and, fair warning, you’ve caught me in a philosophical mood. So let’s get the cold, factual analysis out of the way first.

I’m actually pleasantly surprised to look back at my progress since our last anniversary post: a total of 15 proper song posts to last year’s 12, plus one bonus post on “Hot Summer.” Technically, that’s only about half my pure output from 2020-2021; but it was more focused on the actual “mission” of this project, which was my main goal. I’m happy to say that I finished two “chapters” this year:

Ephemera, 1983
Ice Cream Castle, 1984

I also technically doubled my podcast output from the previous year–which is, to be fair, slightly less impressive when you consider that last year I only managed one:

40 Years of The Time: A Conversation with Darling Nisi and Harold Pride

All the Critics Love U: A Conversation with Jack Riedy, Author of Electric Word Life

Okay, now here comes the philosophical part, so feel free to check out. Every year, I say that I’m no longer sweating my progress (or lack thereof), and every year I (mostly) mean it; but I’d also be lying if I said that I don’t occasionally feel like a funky Sisyphus rolling a (purple) rock up the hill. No sane person commits to writing an extensive mini-essay about every Prince song ever released (and some not released); if 2016 me had had the foresight to think through the scope beyond, “well, Chris O’Leary did Bowie in about seven years, so I should be able to do Prince in 10, right?”, we would not be having this conversation today. For better or worse, I made the decision to launch this blog with my signature cocktail of impulsiveness, all-or-nothing thinking, and complete disregard for quaint notions like “practicality” and “audience.”

Put in those terms, D / M / S / R has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. The audience I’ve built here is the largest and most dedicated of any project I’ve ever done. I’ve made friends from around the world I never would have met otherwise. I’m pretty sure Jill Jones liked one of my tweets. I’m living the dream! But as I look forward to a third year stranded in the Purple Rain era (“Baby I’m a Star” was published in July 2020!), it can be hard to remember that.

I don’t bring all this up to throw myself a pity party, or even to fish for validation, but just for the sake of transparency. I also want to share my intended path forward. The obvious answer is “pick up the pace,” and I really am trying to do just that. But I’m also highly resistant to the mindset that quality critical writing is just “content” that can be manufactured and pushed out on a rigid schedule. To set some internal goals for myself, I’ve looked ahead and determined that if I put out roughly one song post every two weeks, I’ll be finished with Purple Rain by the end of March. The specific song order is still subject to change, but as a bonus, my projected schedule also has me posting “Another Lonely Christmas” in mid-December, and you know I can’t resist a good holiday tie-in. Can I make this happen? Frankly, I have no idea! But I’m going to try.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m still spending almost three years on the Purple Rain era alone–and that’s being generous and counting Around the World in a Day as its own “era.” At this rate, Sign “O” the Times could easily be a five-year project. In my first year-in-review post five years ago(!), I jokingly projected an end date of 2036. I think it’s time to formally say that that is an optimistic estimate. And obviously, in a project of this scope, there’s always the danger that I might never finish at all; sometimes I feel a little like Sufjan Stevens, “promising” 50 concept albums about each of the U.S. states and then throwing in the towel after two.

I know a lot of people would tell me, yes, you dumbass, of course you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Just pack it in and write a fucking book. Or at least adjust your scope! Literally no one asked you to do this! And I’m not gonna lie, those thoughts have crossed my mind, many times, in the last few years. But whenever I think about changing course, it feels like a defeat. Part of what attracts me to this project is its sheer, absurd scope. Lots of folks, talented ones, have done amazing, ambitious, discography-spanning Prince projects; but no one else is arrogant or self-destructive enough to do this. If I wanted to do something reasonable and achievable, I would have shopped some sample chapters to an agent. Or learned to code.

In conclusion, here is my promise: I’m going to keep doing this until I no longer have the passion for it, whether that’s tomorrow (don’t worry, it won’t be tomorrow), in 2036, or on my deathbed. I will keep experimenting and trying to find a pace that is sustainable, but won’t lead to me spending a full decade on Emancipation. I will, at minimum, get us out of fucking Purple Rain as fast as I possibly can. And I hope that you’ll keep reading. In the weeks and months to come, I will be putting out some fun stuff, including a new, hopefully low-effort idea that should (fingers crossed) breathe some life into my Patreon offerings. Moments of self-doubt aside, I’m feeling inspired and grateful to be part of such a warm, gracious, and generous community. Thanks for reading, and see you soon!

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Ephemera, 1983

Wednesday

From its original treatment, the story of Purple Rain had always revolved around three characters: Prince (a.k.a. “the Kid”), Morris, and Vanity (later replaced by Apollonia). Yet, in the early stages of production, Prince and director Albert Magnoli envisioned a broader depiction of the Minneapolis music scene, with subplots for the various supporting players. There was even talk of the accompanying album including tracks from associated artists, along the lines of the later Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. In the end, of course, this ensemble version of Purple Rain was not to be; the final album and film are both unambiguously Prince’s show. But Magnoli’s draft screenplay made plenty of time for one supporting player in particular: “Jill,” the First Avenue waitress played by Prince’s real-life backing singer and paramour, Jill Jones.

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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

Computer Blue

Of the six new, original songs Prince debuted at First Avenue on August 3, 1983, three–“I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and “Purple Rain”–were sourced directly from the concert recording for his upcoming album and film. A fourth, “Let’s Go Crazy,” was re-recorded in short order at the Warehouse rehearsal space; while a fifth, “Electric Intercourse,” never saw official release in Prince’s lifetime. But it was the sixth–a cerebral punk-funk workout called “Computer Blue”–that would occupy Prince for the rest of the month, with weeks of overdubs spanning both Minnesota and Los Angeles.

The genesis of “Computer Blue” was in the intensive rehearsals at the Warehouse in summer of 1983. As keyboardist Dr. Fink recalls in the Purple Rain expanded edition liner notes, “We were jamming at rehearsal one day and I started to play a synthesizer bass part along with the groove. It happened to catch Prince’s ear, so he had our sound man record the jam.” The band continued to work on the song and, according to drummer Bobby Z, had it “just about fully rehearsed” when Prince threw another element into the works: a lyrical guitar solo based on a melody by his father, John L. Nelson, later to be dubbed “Father’s Song” (Revolution 20).

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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.