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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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Reviews

Review: MPLS Sound

Since Prince passed away a little over five years ago, an urgent topic of conversation for aging dorks like myself has been how “we” can keep his memory alive for future generations. And yet, in all of the endless discussions I’ve participated in since 2016, somehow I can’t recall “publish a young adult graphic novel about his impact on the Minneapolis music scene” ever coming up. Now, after reading MPLS Sound, I’m wondering how we all could have missed something so obvious.

MPLS Sound is not a comic “about” Prince–which may be the most brilliant thing about it. Instead, it tells the fictional story of Theresa Booker, who shares some key character traits with Prince–a lower-middle-class upbringing in segregated Minneapolis, a frustrated musician father, a steely determination and drive–with the added wrinkles that come with being a Black woman in a music industry dominated by White men. Prince is certainly present, serving by turns as an inspiration, benefactor, and antagonist for Theresa’s band, Starchild; but it’s Theresa with whom the book’s target audience will identify most readily. Putting her in the lead also allows writers Joseph P. Illidge and Hannibal Tatu to address more topical issues of sexism and colorism: asking the pointed question of how much space there was for a fuller-bodied, darker-skinned Black woman in even a post-Prince Minneapolis.

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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).

Categories
Ephemera, 1983

Modernaire

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.

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Vanity 6, 1982

Drive Me Wild

Much as he had with his first backing group, Prince wanted each member of Vanity 6 to have a well-defined persona; but where the band dynamic held at least a veneer of egalitarianism, his vision for the girl group was unfettered by matters of subjectivity or nuance. He thus drew their characters straight out of porno archetypes: Vanity, the sensitive harlot whose tough exterior masks a heart of gold; Brenda, the chain-smoking, no-nonsense madam figure; and Susan, the jailbait. Only 18 at the time of their debut, the group’s youngest member shaved off two more years in early interviews–another trick borrowed from Prince’s early career–while projecting an aura of fetishized, all-too-corruptible innocence.

At the core of this dirty-schoolgirl persona was “Drive Me Wild,” another of the handful of songs originally recorded for the proto-Vanity 6 Hookers project in 1981. The story goes that Susan had written the song herself, and recited the lyrics to Prince in a chance meeting at a Minneapolis nightclub (one, apparently, that served teenagers). “He was just standing there drinking orange juice and we started talking,” she told Jet magazine. “I told him that I wrote songs, then gave him a sample of my lyrics: ‘Ooh, look at me. I’m a Cadillac. I’m a brand new convertible child, I’ve never been driven. You’re the first. Come on baby; drive me wild’” (Jet 1983 60).