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Press Rewind: “When Doves Cry”

As we all continue to figure out how to get through this pandemic with some level of normalcy, please feel free to spend a little over an hour with me and Jason Breininger (not in the same room, thankfully) as we go in-depth on “When Doves Cry” for his Press Rewind podcast:

Press Rewind: “When Doves Cry”

Listening back, it strikes me how much these lyrics are about touching and other forms of physical intimacy, and how wildly different those concepts sound today than they did 36 years (or two weeks) ago. May we all look forward to a day when “the sweat of your body covers me” conjures images of more than just COVID-19-spreading droplets. In the meantime, stay safe (and stay home).

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

No Call U

The months after Jill Jones joined Prince’s orbit were “one crazy blur,” she recalled in a recently-published interview with writer Miles Marshall Lewis. From the “spring of ‘82 all the way until July, we were pretty much in the studio daily,” working on the Time and Vanity 6 projects alongside his own fifth album. “And who knew what was going to end up where, with who, what. I was just ready for the ride” (Lewis 2020 “Part 1”). Initially, her role was strictly as a backing vocalist: providing support on the 1999 album and tour for both Prince and Vanity 6. But the Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr had grander plans: namely, turning his newest protégée into a star in her own right.

Not all of these plans went off without a hitch. Jones resisted Prince’s overtures to change her name to Elektra, after the recently-introduced Marvel Comics character; a decade later, that moniker would of course find a more willing beneficiary in Carmen Electra, née Tara Leigh Patrick (Lewis 2020 “Part 2”). But she did allow him to give her a makeover inspired by prototypical blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe: “Prince said I looked like every girl with long brown hair and I needed something to stand out,” she told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics. “He said, ‘When Vanity walks in a room, people know she’s a star. You need your own thing’” (Gonzales 2018 66).

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1999, 1982

Lady Cab Driver (Rearrange)

Of the 11 songs that would eventually make their way onto Prince’s fifth album, “Lady Cab Driver” appears to have had the longest gestation period. The song was completed at Sunset Sound on July 7, 1982, the day after “Moonbeam Levels”; but, as the recent Super Deluxe Edition of 1999 revealed, its seeds had been planted during a break in the Controversy tour over half a year earlier on December 8, 1981, in the form of a different song called “Rearrange.”

According to an interview with sessionographer Duane Tudahl for the Minneapolis Public Radio podcast The Story of 1999, “Rearrange” was long known to researchers by its title alone: “it was one of those songs that we’d heard existed, but I didn’t think it was actually a song,” Tudahl told host Andrea Swensson. “I thought it was just some shuffling of his stuff”–a studio note indicating a literal rearrangement of tapes. As it turned out, of course, it was real–though it was also little more than an admittedly funky sketch: a stark, mid-paced groove with a slick rhythm guitar hook similar to the Time track “The Stick.”

Given this similarity–not to mention Prince’s guitar solo, which plays neatly to Jesse Johnson’s combustive style–it seems likely that “Rearrange” was at least provisionally mooted for that group. But this is just speculation; ultimately, says Tudahl, we “don’t know whether it was intended for 1999, whether he was searching for a voice for 1999, or whether he was saying, ‘I gotta record another Time album soon.’ But either way it was something that was not planned. He just thought, ‘I’m in the studio, I gotta record… This is what I’m gonna do’” (Swensson 2019 Episode 2).

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

Moonbeam Levels (The New Master)

Note: Incredibly, it’s been just over three years since I first wrote about “Moonbeam Levels” for dance / music / sex / romance. That post focused on the song’s status as the first posthumously-released track from Prince’s Vault, and was colored by the then-recent passings of both Prince and David Bowie, who I still consider to be an unsung source of inspiration for the song. You can still read that version if you want; but here is what I now consider to be the official d / m / s / r take on “Moonbeam Levels.”

In early July 1982, after spending the latter half of the spring back home in Minnesota, Prince returned to Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. His goal, almost certainly, was to finish the album that would become 1999. But in typical fashion, he overshot that goal: instead, launching himself into the stratosphere with the fittingly extraterrestrial outtake “Moonbeam Levels.”

In some ways, “Moonbeam Levels” feels very much of a piece with the other songs Prince was recording in mid-1982. Like many of the tracks that would end up on 1999, it opens with a prominent Linn LM-1 beat: in this case, the mechanical pulse of a bass drum, punctuated by a hiss of synthesized exhaust. To this futuristic foundation, Prince adds Blade Runner synth pads and lyrics evoking space travel: his narrator fantasizes about “a nice condo overlookin’ the rings of Saturn” and asks for the titular “moonbeam levels,” a poetic turn of phrase that conjures up images of interplanetary transmissions and cosmic rays. Meanwhile, the ever-present threat of annihilation looms: Prince imagines a never-written novel with the capsule summary, “Boy loses girl in a rainstorm, nuclear World War III,” his pet themes of personal and global apocalypse summed up in a single, devastating line. The whole package feels custom-built for precisely the kind of science-fiction pop-funk epic Prince had spent the past six months assembling piece by piece.

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

Lust U Always (Divinity)

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 coauthor 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.”