Categories
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…”

Categories
Ephemera, 1983

Katrina’s Paper Dolls

A little over a year after their first meeting in January 1982, Prince and Denise Matthews (better known as Vanity) had cultivated an image as pop music’s sexiest power couple: the royal bride and groom of his imminent purple reign. Early in 1983, the pair posed for fashion photographer Richard Avedon in a shot that would make the cover of Rolling Stone that April. Looking like mirror reflections–or incestuous twins–they fixed the camera with identical, kohl-blackened stares: she embracing him from behind, two fingers tucked suggestively down the front of his jeans. In the coming months, Prince would plan to take their relationship to an even larger venue, slating Vanity to play the leading lady in his forthcoming motion picture debut.

But there was trouble in paradise. The strong-willed couple clashed frequently–not least because Prince insisted on seeing other women at the same time as Matthews, including her Vanity 6 bandmate Susan Moonsie and his backing singer Jill Jones. A song inspired by their relationship from around this time, “Wonderful Ass,” pokes fun at the disconnect between their undeniable sexual chemistry and their equally undeniable emotional incompatibility: “My sensibilities you aggravate,” Prince croons, but “you got a wonderful ass.” Another, “Strange Relationship,” opts for a more trenchant self-critique: “Baby, I Just Can’t Stand 2 See U Happy / More Than That[,] I Hate 2 See U Sad.”

Jones, who shared a dressing room with Vanity 6 during the 1999 tour, recalled Prince giving a cassette tape with both songs on it to Matthews: “She’d play it before the show while me, Susan, and all of us [were] getting dressed,” she told sessionographer Duane Tudahl. “It wasn’t discreet.” Prince and Vanity, she added, actually did have a “Strange Relationship”: “It was really true that he didn’t want to see her happy and he didn’t want to see her sad. Because she started dating other people… and he got pissed. She was like, ‘I’m moving away from him. Fuck him. I’m really famous. People love me.’ So she was getting something and that was the only thing he had to yank her back in” (Tudahl 2018 40).

Categories
Alternate Timelines

The Dawn: How Prince’s Troubled Followup to 1999 Almost Became His Feature Film Debut

Note: I confess that this piece, a Patreon commission from Darling Nisi, has been a long time coming–so long, in fact, that I’m pretty sure I already owe her a second commission now. Part of the reason why I took so long are the same, much-discussed reasons why I took so long for everything over the past eight months or so; but part of the reason is because her request to imagine a circa-1984 Prince without Purple Rain required a lot of thought. No Purple Rain–which I took to mean the movie as well as the album–means no “When Doves Cry,” “The Beautiful Ones,” or pivot to Top 40 success; it also means no Paisley Park (the recording complex or the vanity record label), no massive renogotiated contract (and thus no “Slave”-era faceoff) with Warner Bros., and no comeback album and greatest-hits tour conveniently timed to the 20th anniversary. So large does Prince’s first film and sixth album loom over the rest of his career, in fact, that I didn’t even try to do justice to every change its absence would have wrought; this may be the first alternate timeline I will have to revisit in the future, just so I can fully think through what the ’90s or 2000s would have looked like to a Prince detached from both the expectations and the opportunities afforded him by Purple Rain.

In inventing an alternative followup to 1999, I ended up setting a few rules for myself: First, I limited myself to the existing timeline of songs recorded between January 1983 and March 1984, so the imaginary album could feasibly share a release date with the real one. Second, I wouldn’t use any track known to have been composed specifically for the movie–so, again, no “When Doves Cry” or “The Beautiful Ones”; I technically could have used “Purple Rain,” but that seemed to go against the spirit of the exercise, so I didn’t. Third, and finally, I tried to make my fake album as distinct from the real one as possible: if what set Purple Rain apart from 1999 was its concision and pop-friendliness, then my alternate-universe version would be more even more sprawling and idiosyncratic than its predecessor. Obviously, the album I reverse-engineered from existing recordings is no replacement for an actual, cohesive project produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince; but I do think it’s a fun listen (and yes, I did make a version I could actually listen to).

As always, I will end with the disclaimer that everything after this introduction is completely made up and just for fun, all Photoshops are crudely and hastily done, and all resemblances to actual persons living or dead are, if not coincidental, certainly not to be taken seriously.

Categories
Reviews

Review: Purple Rain, Deluxe Expanded Edition

I have to admit: it feels a little surreal to be writing about the deluxe edition (or “Deluxe Expanded edition,” as the case may be) of Purple Rain. This is a project I’ve been anticipating, conservatively speaking, since it was first announced over three years ago; more accurately, though, it’s something I’ve dreamed about for decades, since those not-so-distant days when the likelihood of Prince and Warner Bros. coming to an agreement over expanded reissues seemed to fall somewhere between the proverbial flying pigs and the proverbial Hell freezing over. So, I’ll admit, my perspective is biased: for me, the fact that this thing exists is in itself a kind of miracle. Any complaints I might have are colored indelibly by the knowledge that the last official collection of vintage Prince outtakes, 1998’s Crystal Ball, is older than many artists’ full discographies. Bands have formed, made it big, broken up, and reunited between now and the last time we got a peek inside the Vault; I think it’s important not to lose sight of that.

It is, of course, also important to call out the collection for its missteps, something I’ve seen many on social media doing. The most egregious of these, from my perspective, is the failure to credit Jill Jones for her backing vocals on “We Can Fuck”: whether made out of malice or plain sloppiness, it’s a damning omission. There are also the unavoidable track-listing quibbles that emerge any time the boundlessness of fan expectations come into contact with the restraints of physical media. Where, for example, is Prince’s version of “Wednesday,” or “G-Spot”–both songs known to have been considered for the Purple Rain album? Where is that extended version of “17 Days” that allegedly exists? And did anyone really need all of those single edits on Disc 3? If nothing else, the imperfections of the deluxe Purple Rain are a timely reminder that hardcore fans still need a healthy ecosystem of bootlegs beyond what’s made available to the mass market; indeed, as if to underscore that point, a trio of outtakes leaked the same day as the official release, including “Wednesday” and a version of “Our Destiny” with the aforementioned Jones on lead vocals. They’re well worth a listen (though, for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t trade them for any of the tracks currently on the deluxe edition).

Yet, as important as bootlegs are, we still need official releases–and, for all its imperfections, this remains the best official archival release of Prince’s music to date. Leaving aside the question of what’s not on Disc 2, let’s reflect on what is: a full-length version of “The Dance Electric,” sounding better than on any circulating recording I’ve heard; “Love and Sex,” a storied outtake previously unheard by the vast majority of collectors; the extended “Hallway Speech” version of “Computer Blue,” again sounding better than ever; the studio version of “Electric Intercourse,” which until this year even the most respected Prince experts didn’t know existed. Not every track is an auditory gem: “Our Destiny,” “Roadhouse Garden,” and “Velvet Kitty Cat,” as many have observed, seem to come from the same, slightly hissy sources as the unofficial recordings that leaked last year. But the versions of “Possessed” and “We Can Fuck” here–hell, “We Can Fuck” alone!–are well worth the $25 current asking price on Amazon. Throw in a great-sounding “Wonderful Ass,” the extremely rare “Katrina’s Paper Dolls,” and an extended, almost Vangelis-esque “Father’s Song,” and we have an impressive overview of the scope of Prince’s musical output in 1983 and 1984. It may not be enough to placate the most hardcore fans and collectors, but it comes as close as any mass-market product can be expected to.

And, let’s face it: like Prince 4Ever before it, this package isn’t really for “us.” The people reading this blog, or posting on prince.org or any of the innumerable fan groups on Facebook, don’t need to be sold on Prince’s genius: quite frankly, they don’t need to buy another copy of Purple Rain, the new remaster of which sounds good (particularly on a phone or in the car), but is hardly essential. There is, however, a market for this collection, and I think it’s well-served overall. People who love the album Purple Rain, but haven’t heard any of the outtakes, are poised to have their mind blown by Disc 2; hell, there are some people who haven’t heard the 12″ version of “Erotic City,” and that’s mind-blowing in itself. And while I respect the fact that a lot of paisley heads still covet their VHS copies of Prince and the Revolution: Live!, let’s keep in mind that there are also multiple generations of fans for whom it’s a whole new experience–and, while the video remaster isn’t ideal, it’s still completely watchable, and a great addition to the set.

I’m not trying to be a corporate Pollyanna here–far from it, I’m a realist. And I also remember the first time I heard “Possessed,” and was transformed from a casual Prince fan into the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic who writes blog posts about all of his circulating recordings. This new edition of Purple Rain is going to cause that transformation in a lot more people (though, hopefully, not all of them will start blogs–I don’t need the competition). And if we want access to more Prince music, an expanded fanbase–one that is both wide and deep–should be important to everyone.

That’s why I recommend anyone reading this post to support, on some level, the release of Purple Rain deluxe. Obviously, no one should spend money on anything they don’t want to. If you don’t care about the single edits–and really, who can blame you?–go for the “regular” deluxe instead of the “Deluxe Expanded.” If you want some of the bonus tracks but not all, download the individual MP3s. Or, hell, stream them via your service of choice–whatever fraction of a penny NPG Records is paid per stream is still better than nothing. But whatever you decide, the sad truth of our capitalist society is that art, especially popular art, can’t exist on merit alone. If you want more of Prince’s catalogue to receive the archival treatment it deserves–even if you’re disappointed by this first attempt–then on some level, you’re going to have to vote with your dollar and support what we have. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great first step.

If you want to support this blog–which, in defiance of our capitalist society, does exist on merit alone–you can buy the Deluxe Expanded edition of Purple Rain (or anything else!) using my Amazon links.