Note: This is the second of three projected posts on “Purple Rain”: a song of such monumental importance to Prince’s creative arc that I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. You can–and should–read the first part here.
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…”
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).
(1) Black Screen
“SOUND under: MUSIC building in INTENSITY as–”
“Dearly belov’edDraft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing
William Blinn submitted two drafts of Dreams–the working title for Prince’s feature film debut–in May of 1983. There wouldn’t be a third: Blinn’s main gig as Executive Producer of the Fame TV series had been renewed, and he no longer had time to spare. Still, Prince’s management deemed the script good enough to shop: Bob Cavallo recalled thinking, “It’s a little TV, it’s a little square… but it’s a good idea, and I figured the director will rewrite it anyway” (Light 67).
But therein lay the rub: even with a screenplay in hand, Cavallo still couldn’t find a director. After a few dead ends, an industry contact recommended he see an early cut of Reckless: a steamy youth drama by first-time director James Foley about a romance between a motorcycle-riding rebel (Aidan Quinn) and a cheerleader from the other side of the tracks (Daryl Hannah). “I go to screen this movie and I’m the only one in the theater,” Cavallo recalled to journalist Alan Light. “I see it, I walk out, and a young man comes up to me and says, ‘What did you think?’ I said, ‘Well, I thought it was pretty good, and that’s really all I thought. I thought the editing was good.’ He’s like, ‘Really? Good. I did that’” (Light 67).
The third annual Minnesota Music Awards were held on May 16, 1983, at the Carlton Celebrity Dinner Theater in Bloomington. Prince took home six awards himself–Musician of the Year, Band of the Year, Best Male Vocalist, Best Record Producer (for 1999), 45 or EP of the Year (for “Little Red Corvette”), and Album of the Year (for 1999)–plus, by proxy, Best “R&B, Soul, Ethnic” Band for the Time. According to Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, he spent most of the evening backstage, watching the Motown 25 special on TV.
Finally, wrote Bream, “the local hero” made his grand entrance: “parad[ing] down the center aisle in a banana-colored satin suit” with bodyguard “Big Chick” Huntsberry in tow. He handed his awards to Chick, “thanked Minnesota for its support,” and brought out his band–along with Vanity 6 and the Time’s Morris Day and Jesse Johnson–for a 10-minute version of “D.M.S.R.” played “on borrowed equipment” (Bream 1984). Dez Dickerson, despite having put in his notice earlier that spring, was in his usual spot on lead guitar; it was the last time he and Prince would share a stage.