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.
“The MUSIC segues into a fierce BEAT.
The CROWD lets out a ROAR! Prince
strips off his guitar, streaks center-
stage. The Band launches into ‘Baby,
I’m A Star.’
“…And the CROWD laughing, dancing,
shouting and loving. The CLUB is ALIVE!
“And the MUSIC continues…forever…”Draft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
In the spring of 1983, Prince’s contract with managers Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli was up for renewal. They had, on the face of it, little reason to worry: the 1999 tour was selling out arenas, “Little Red Corvette” was in the Top 10 of the pop charts, and 1999 was well on its way to Platinum certification by the RIAA. By the end of April, Prince would make the cover of Rolling Stone: a coveted opportunity for which his managers had netted a Richard Avedon photo shoot without granting an interview. “I thought we did an incredible job, we had a creative relationship, I’m sure he’s gonna sign another contract,” Bob Cavallo later told music journalist Alan Light. But Prince sent his main handler, Steve Fargnoli, back to Cavallo with a surprising ultimatum: “he won’t sign with us again unless we get him a movie” (Light 51).
While Prince was starting work on the album that would become Dirty Mind, 19-year-old Lisa Coleman was in Los Angeles, working on the shipping dock of a documentary film company and teaching classical piano part-time. Lisa, born in the San Fernando Valley in 1960, was as much a product of L.A. as Prince was of Minneapolis. Her father, Gary L. Coleman, was a percussionist for the legendary session team the Wrecking Crew, with credits most notably including the Beach Boys’ 1966 single “Good Vibrations.” When she was 12 years old, Lisa played keyboard in a bubblegum pop band, Waldorf Salad, alongside her younger brother David, older sister Debbie, and another Wrecking Crew kid: Jonathan Melvoin, whose own younger sister, Wendy, would form the other half of Lisa’s longest-lasting creative partnership. The band was a little like the Partridge Family, Lisa later told journalist Neal Karlen, except “we all actually played our instruments” (Karlen 1986). As a teenager, Lisa attended Hollywood High and appeared in a bit part as a teenage pianist in the 1975 made-for-TV drama Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, starring Linda Blair and Mark Hamill.
According to the official narrative, it was 1979 when Lisa heard from a friend in the offices of Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli that Prince was looking for a new keyboardist. But this date seems off, for a couple of reasons: first, because in 1979 Gayle Chapman was still very much a part of Prince’s band, and there are no other accounts from that period to suggest she was being replaced; and second, because Steve Fargnoli wasn’t made a partner in Cavallo’s and Ruffalo’s firm until 1980. Whatever the year, however, Lisa submitted a tape, and was summoned to Prince’s home in Orono, Minnesota for an in-person audition. “When I got to Prince’s house,” she told Karlen, “he sent me downstairs and said he was going to change clothes. There was a piano down there, and I just started playing, trying to relax. I got the feeling he was eaves-dropping at the top of the stairs, so I whipped out my best Mozart. He finally came back downstairs, picked up his guitar, and we started jamming. From the first chord, we hit it off” (Karlen 1986).
Note: Just in case there is any confusion, the below is entirely made up, albeit with perhaps an excess of dedication to historical plausibility. See my previous “Alternate Timeline” post on For You for a better explanation of the concept. And have fun!
The late 1970s and early 1980s punk scene in Minneapolis and St. Paul played host to a number of noteworthy groups: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Suburbs. But none were as eclectic, or as underrated, as the multi-racial, gender- and genre-bending act known as the Rebels. A far cry from a conventional “punk” band, the Rebels were a motley crew of disaffected Northside funksters, suburban bar-band escapees, and even a few seasoned pros, whose wild live performances made them the first group from the Twin Cities underground to be signed by a major label. Their self-titled 1980 debut for Warner Bros. was both critically acclaimed and hugely influential for a generation of genre-agnostic musical provocateurs, but internal tensions kept them from fulfilling their full potential. Still, almost four decades later, the mark of the Rebels remains evident across the contemporary pop landscape, from alternative rock to electronic music and hip-hop.