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.
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…”
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.
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).