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…”
At this point, it’s customary to marvel at the sheer, staggering amount of music Prince recorded. His finished recordings number in the hundreds, if not the thousands: enough, to borrow a cliché that became ubiquitous after the Vault was cracked open in 2016, to fill an album a year for the next 100 years; or, to put it in more personally meaningful terms, enough to keep me working on this goddamn blog until roughly the end of my natural life. But the mind truly boggles when one considers that those “finished recordings” are only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface are hundreds more hours of rehearsals and rough sketches recorded for private use–only a fraction of which are ever likely to see the light of day.
By this reckoning, the solo piano rehearsal officially released in 2018 as Piano & A Microphone 1983 is not, in itself, remarkable; it’s just one of countless other “work tapes,” as former Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman describes them in her liner notes, by an artist for whom making music was an avocation as much as a vocation (Coleman 3). Prince Estate lead archivist Michael Howe told Newsweek that when he found the recording–a standard, consumer-grade TDK SA-60 cassette with two tracks, “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” and “Why the Butterflies,” listed in Prince’s handwriting–it was in a box with “[l]iterally thousands” of other tapes (Schonfeld 2018). But what it lacks in uniqueness, it makes up for in historical importance: capturing, with near-unrivaled intimacy, a snapshot of Prince’s creative process on the very cusp of the career-defining success of Purple Rain.
Way back in February of 2020, I asked Darling Nisi and Harold Pride to record a third episode in our series of in-depth retrospectives on Prince’s albums, this one for the 40th anniversary of 1980’s Dirty Mind. The podcast was intended to predate De Angela Duff’s DM40GB30 symposium, which in those simpler times was still scheduled to be held in-person at New York University.
Well, you know what happened next: DM40GB30 was delayed, then went virtual, while I slipped into a pandemic-related depression fog that only lifted, appropriately enough, after I participated in the virtual symposium back in June. Meanwhile, the podcast continued to lavish in the D / M / S / R Vault (a.k.a. the “Documents” folder on my computer) until the end of last month, when I was promptly reminded of just how laborious a task editing a three-hour podcast recording can be.
Now, the wait is finally over: the D / M / S / R podcast is back, in all its wildly self-indulgent glory. I want to thank everyone for their patience, and assure you that there won’t be a two-year wait before the next episode; in fact, I’d recommend you go ahead and use one of the links above to subscribe on your podcast service of choice using one of the links above, because I’m aiming to put out one of these bad boys (i.e., podcasts, not necessarily review episodes) per month. As always, let me know what you think, and feel free to leave a review on your podcast provider if you’re so inclined.
Note: Please be advised that this post contains frank and uncensored discussion of lyrics which explicitly reference sexual assault.
There are any number of reasons why Prince may have left a given song in the Vault. There were, of course, the spatial limitations of recorded media: by 1982, Prince was producing more music than could be accommodated on two 12-inch sides of vinyl–hence why 1999 ended up as a double album, and why his singles increasingly came backed with non-LP B-sides. There were instances where a certain song may have been deemed too similar to another that ended up making the cut on the album: see, for example, “Turn It Up,” which some believe was left off 1999 in favor of “Delirious.” There was also an even simpler explanation, per Prince himself: “If any track is unreleased, it’s because it’s not done,” he reportedly told Dan Piepenbring, the co-author of his unfinished memoir, in 2016 (Prince 2019 16).
The particular song Prince was discussing with Piepenbring was “Extraloveable,” a widely-bootlegged track recorded at the beginning of April 1982 and not officially released until 2011. Taking Prince at his word that the song wasn’t “done” until Andy Allo rapped on it, I won’t write about it until we get to that point in our chronology; but I will posit a theory that there was another reason why it didn’t see the light of day. As anyone who’s heard the original version can attest, the song takes a turn in the last minute and a half or so. After six minutes of gently cajoling the listener to take a bath with him, Prince suddenly becomes menacing: “I’m on the verge of rape,” he grunts, repeating himself for good measure. A blast of discordant synthesizer noise takes over the mix, as if the song itself has begun to malfunction. “I’m sorry,” Prince intones in his detached android voice over the ongoing din, “but I’m just gonna have to rape you. Now are you going to get into the tub, or do I have to drag you? Don’t make me drag you.”
Prince was obviously no stranger to aberrant expressions of sexuality at this point in his career: on “Horny Toad,” he had imagined himself as an obscene phone caller, a groper, and a stalker; perhaps most notably, “Sister” had described an incestuous relationship of dubious consent. But the former song was obviously played for laughs, while the latter crucially depicted Prince as the victim of abuse, not the perpetrator. Interrupting an exuberant, sexy frolic to outright threaten sexual violence was clearly a bridge too far, even in the thick of Prince’s “Rude Boy” era. Which makes it all the more surprising that he did it again with another unreleased track recorded in the same year, “Lust U Always.”