All Good Things They Say Never Last

As discussed on this site in September

I wasn’t able to get tickets to the Piano and a Microphone tour when it played the Paramount Theater in February, but when an Oracle Arena show was announced days later, there was no way I was going to miss it. We were discussing babysitting options for our eight-year-old son when my wife said, “We should just take the kid to the show. Prince isn’t getting any younger. What if this is the last time he comes around?”

This sounded ridiculous to me. Prince loved the Bay Area. He would be back soon and often. And I wasn’t 100% sure that he wasn’t getting younger. But the boy was doing well in his piano classes, and his sensitive ears weren’t ready for screaming guitars, so it seemed like a good fit for his first concert. I bought three tickets, and I am so glad I did.

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My $5 bootleg t-shirt purchased in the Cow Palace parking lot in 1985 shriveled after one washing, but at least it still fits an eight-year-old

That concert was one year ago today. Given the events of the last year, it’s hard to put this show into proper perspective. I’ll meet you back here in four years and we’ll discuss it with clearer eyes, okay? But for now…

I have seen Prince live 17 times, and only one could qualify as a disappointment: an abbreviated set in Concord in 1998. There was nothing wrong with Prince’s performance that night, and Chaka Khan was electric as an opener, but about an hour into Prince’s set, he started complaining about ankle pain. I remember exactly what I was thinking at the time: You’re an amazing dancer and guitar player, but I have no problem listening to you play the piano for the next few hours. Grab an ice pack, take a seat, and let’s all get comfortable.

He did not take me up on my telepathic and less-than-empathetic offer, and minutes later the show was over. But ever since then, I had wondered what a solo Prince-and-piano concert would be like. It took me more than 17 years to get my answer: dazzling.

The trade-off was considerable. The show lacked Prince’s legendary guitar skills, of course, and contained only a few flashes of dancing. Whether Prince was goofing with his band or challenging them to keep up, that onstage dynamic was always fascinating. What the fans got in return was a paradoxically intimate performance in a 20,000-seat venue, and an opportunity to focus on the underrated piano skills of a true virtuoso.

If you shuffled a stack of recent setlists, you might have trouble identifying this one as a piano-only show. It checks all the boxes you would expect from the full band. There were songs strongly associated with the guitar (“I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man,” “Purple Rain”). There were mega-hits (“Kiss,” ”Little Red Corvette”), crowd favorites (“If I Was Your Girlfriend,” ”The Beautiful Ones”), singalongs (“Cream,” ”Raspberry Beret”), protest songs (“Baltimore,” ”Dear Mr. Man”), old rarities (“Purple Music,” ”A Place In Heaven”), eclectic covers (“Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” ”Waiting In Vain”) and not-too-religious-to-still-be-a-little-naughty classics (“Dirty Mind,” ”Do Me, Baby”). There was local pandering (Steph Curry’s name was dropped in “Free Urself”), and the usual collection of snippets and medleys that make any Prince setlist an incomplete story. Beyond all that there was a staple of Prince concerts: logistical drama.

It’s not unusual for Prince to keep fans waiting outside while he fiddles around in soundcheck. But before this show, the doors had already opened when Prince decided something needed fixing. So, the 20,000 fans were banished to the meager concourses of Oracle Arena for a few hours. When you consider Prince’s long and active career of perfectionism (and other quirks), and add in all of the times he has followed a scheduled concert with an impromptu aftershow, I would imagine that more fans have spent more time waiting for Prince than for any other artist in history! It’s always a small price to pay, forgotten once the lights go down.

Eventually we were allowed to take our seats, and Prince began the show with “Wow.” With 3rdEyeGirl behind him, the restrained verses of “Wow” play against the thumping guitars of the chorus. On this night, the restraint played against the energy of a delirious crowd. That, and the conversational first verse, made this underappreciated gem a perfect opener.

Hello. How are U?
U’re lookin’ so fine. No, it’s true.
Remember the time we first met?
U think that was good? U ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

He stormed through a blistering set of 25 songs before taking his first break. The first act closed with a run pulled straight from the concert of my dreams: “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Starfish and Coffee,” “Paisley Park,” “Sometimes It Snows In April,” “Purple Rain,” “Black Sweat,” and “Kiss.” I’m not sure if I’d ever heard “Starfish and Coffee,” “Paisley Park,” or “Sometimes It Snows In April” live before. Prince’s third (!!) encore began with a medley of two more greats from 25-30 years ago that I’ve never heard live: “Thieves In The Temple” and “It.” He allowed himself one “cheat” by launching the sampled beat of “When Doves Cry,” a song that’s difficult to pull off live and isn’t played nearly as often as you might imagine.

Some songs were perfect for the piano setting of course, most notably “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” and “The Beautiful Ones,” which built to a delicious crescendo of shrieking and piano bench kicking. Piano instrumentals “Venus de Milo” and “Under The Cherry Moon” highlighted the incredible musicianship of the Parade era. Prince played the conclusion of “Under The Cherry Moon” four times in a row, hamming up his dissatisfaction with the results.

Seven weeks later, it was tough not to look back and dissect this show in search of clues or poignancy. What sort of physical condition was he in? He had a cane onstage, but he has used a cane as a prop for decades. He rode a tricked-out bicycle from the stage to the dressing room. Was biking somehow easier on his hips than walking, or was it just more Princely flair. Was the entire idea of a seated-at-the-piano tour born out of medical necessity, or did he have something to prove?

After Prince’s passing, a title like “A Place In Heaven” jumps out at me, a song that, if setlists.fm is to be believed, was recorded in 1986 and never performed live for 30 years. Prince has talked about learning to play “Over The Rainbow” as a young child, so it was a natural choice for a piano show, but still a poignant one. “Sometimes It Snows In April” is always heartbreaking; it’s just about unbearable to consider this performance just weeks before his April death. And given his cause of death, I cringe when I recall him singing the anti-drug lyrics from the 1982 rarity “Purple Music”:

Don’t need no reefer, don’t need cocaine
Purple Music does the same 2 my brain
And I’m high… so high…

There is no way you could look at that performance and think that Prince was in any way mentally impaired, however. His incomparable musicianship, stamina, and connection with the crowd were all too hard to fake. I believed Prince would live forever when I walked into Oracle that night, and I still believed this when I walked… enough of that… I’m not accomplishing anything here. Again, I still lack perspective on all of this.

***

The long show didn’t even begin until well after my son’s bedtime. Here’s a sentence I could never imagine writing in 1984: My eight-year-old began to fade somewhere in the middle of “Do Me, Baby.” When you’re too young and tired to process the lyrics, an acoustic “Do Me, Baby” is a bit of a lullaby, I suppose. As Prince began the glorious “Adore,” I reluctantly threw the kid over my shoulder and slowly began the walk up the stairs towards the concourse.

I paused at the top of the section; “Adore” is another favorite I’ve rarely heard live, and I couldn’t walk out just yet. And it was there that I heard the last words that Prince would ever sing to me.

4 all time I am with U, U are with me
U are with me
U are with me

Hurry Before It’s Too Late

Hello again. Personal and professional distractions put this blog (and six months of total Prince immersion) on hold for the fall. Just normal stuff. I did some travelling for work, I coached my kid’s soccer team, and I had a torrid affair with the Hamilton cast recording. Of course, like everyone else, I also got caught up in the ugliness of the election.

Take that election, add a particularly brutal avalanche of celebrity deaths, and the general consensus is “2016 was the worst.” You see it all over social media. But if you look past the “suck it, 2016!” posts and flip through the timelines, you will see plenty of joy, pride, laughter and love, as much as in any other year. People still graduated. They got married or had kids. They were promoted or lost weight or took amazing vacations or got a new Chewbacca mask. Kids and cats and Dolly Parton? Still adorable in 2016.

It brings to mind what I have always considered to be Prince’s most poignant lyric. For three minutes, “Sign O’ The Times” presented a 1987 that surpassed 2016 in terms of sheer bleakness. AIDS, gangs, drugs, killer hurricanes, and the threat of nuclear annihilation are the backdrop. Prince offers no solutions to these nightmares; he doesn’t sing “Just say no!” or “Vote for Gephardt!” or anything. Instead, he simply offers up this coda:

Sign o’ the times mess with yo mind
Hurry before it’s too late
Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby
We’ll call him Nate
If it’s a boy

Take care of your own business. Tend to your own joy. Fix what you can, and pray that Nate and his friends can figure out the rest. With apologies to AIDS and killer hurricanes, I would argue that this message is more relevant in 2016 than it was in 1987. I have spent many sleepless nights anxious over what the effects of this election will be in 2017. But I also lament what this election has wrought in 2016.

We are always experiencing personal growth, so on New Year’s Eve, we should always be able to look in a mirror and say, “I am at least a slighter better person than I was a year ago.” How many of us can say that this year? Beyond the obvious cases (violent protestors, literal Nazis), how many of us stepped way over the line during a political discussion? How many of us lost friends or became estranged from family members? How many of us betrayed our ideals or our sense of decency to defend a candidate? How many of us coexisted for decades knowing that half the population disagrees with our political stances, but suddenly felt our blood begin to boil at the sight of a rival bumper sticker? How many of us spent hours scouring the Internet for fuel to stoke our outrage, or for hit pieces with words like “destroy” or “eviscerate” in the title? This election dragged us all down with it; I am convinced that we are collectively worse human beings than we were a year ago.

And that’s where falling in love, getting married and having a baby (or otherwise taking care of ourselves and our loved ones) comes into play. No, none of this will end gun violence or global warming. (There’s probably an argument to be made that little Nate is only exacerbating global warming, but that’s besides the point.) Some problems can only be solved through sacrifice and bold action. But we’re headed in the wrong direction, and we won’t be able to solve any problems if we lose our humanity. We need to put our own oxygen masks on before assisting others.

Here’s to turning the tide in 2017, and to more “Love 4 One Another” in the new year.

Billy and Beyond

I wasn’t able to get tickets to the Piano and a Microphone tour when it played the Paramount Theater in February, but when an Oracle Arena show was announced days later, there was no way I was going to miss it. We were discussing babysitting options for our eight-year-old son when my wife said, “We should just take the kid to the show. Prince isn’t getting any younger. What if this is the last time he comes around?”

This sounded ridiculous to me. Prince loved the Bay Area. He would be back soon and often. And I wasn’t 100% sure that he wasn’t getting younger. But the boy was doing well in his piano classes, and his sensitive ears weren’t ready for screaming guitars, so it seemed like a good fit for his first concert. I bought three tickets, and I am so glad I did.

The wall-to-wall coverage of Prince’s death must have been difficult for my son to process. He could clearly see that Prince’s death meant a great deal to me. And just 41 days earlier, he saw this dynamic artist hold 17,000 people in the palm of his hand. He didn’t say much, but I did notice that his eyes would light up every time The Vault was mentioned. So much of the news must have been confusing to him, but The Vault is easy for a kid to grasp. It’s like the subject of a children’s book: a magical room overflowing with beautiful music and protected by a cartoonish bank vault door.

One day, out of the blue, my son said, “Dad, I don’t think they should release the music in The Vault. I don’t think Prince would have wanted that.”

It was a surprisingly thoughtful take on the situation, and I was proud of him. Any time a second grader shows concern for someone other than himself, it’s cause for celebration. Although on a certain level, I felt like I was sad enough about Prince already. My son being a moral irritant wasn’t helping matters.

Let’s face it; there’s nothing my kid can say that will change how I approach The Vault. I’m going to eagerly wish for music to be released, and when it’s released, I’m going to voraciously consume it. I’m Homer Simpson stealing cable, and I’ve got Lisa antagonizing me about it.

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Or maybe my son is the monkey in the Mr. Show sketch, taking the fun out of everything by asking why we’re going to blow up the moon.

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Galileo just asked why… he said, “why are you blowing up the moon?”

I adore the eight-year-old angel on my shoulder, but Spooky Electric is on my other shoulder, dropping some serious funk in my ear. He’s only ten seconds into “Possessed” and I’ve already forgotten my kid’s name. I have chosen not to question the release of music from The Vault. Thank you for your submission, but I am not accepting opinions to the contrary at this time.

**

Lest you think I am completely bereft of morals, there is something I’m losing sleep over: what to do about the glut of unreleased Prince material that has shown up on YouTube and elsewhere since April 21.

I can’t cling to my “who knows how Prince would have felt about this?” defense here. Prince’s thoughts on the subject were made abundantly clear by his actions. For years he spent considerable time and legal resources scrubbing this sort of stuff from YouTube.

On the other hand, YouTube’s version of “All My Dreams” sounds so much better than the ninth-generation copy I’ve had on cassette tape for two decades. Hmmm… I guess that’s not much of a moral justification. Let’s try again. The world must be at least a slightly better place now that millions of people have access to “In A Large Room With No Light.” Right?

**

And then there’s “Billy,” a scratchy recording of a Revolution rehearsal from 1984. You may know it as “Billy’s Sunglasses,” or you may not know it at all, as the song is simply a 51-minute jam, and I am not aware of it ever being played before or after this rehearsal. It starts with ten minutes of Prince noodling/shredding on guitar and ends with ten minutes of Prince goofing off and teaching the band the chord progression of “Strange Relationship.” Both of these stretches are intriguing, but in between them? A half-hour of magic.

Starting with a simple mid tempo blues-rock framework, the band eventually finds a groove based on a soaring little guitar riff. I heard this for the first time two months ago, but it is one of those pieces of music that feels like it has existed forever. Maybe my brain is processing it as a variation of an earlier or later groove released by Prince (or a song by an unrelated artist), but I am unable to consciously identify it as such. Regardless, it lifts my heart in a way that I can’t describe, and when the glorious guitar solos kick in, I am damn near in tears. Listening to this jam is easily the most joy I’ve derived from Prince’s music since his passing.

The lyrics (if you can call them that) are a series of bluesy riffs on, “Oh Billy, where’d you find them glasses?”  Presumably, these glasses:

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It’s a silly line, but Prince isn’t building a novelty song here. He doesn’t giggle through the lyrics or add much to the joke. It’s not thirty minutes of sunglasses jokes; it’s one sunglasses joke stretched over thirty minutes. Billy’s glasses are simply a placeholder as Prince tries to figure out what (if anything) this jam is going to become.

I am not a musician, and I’m sure my emotions are clouding my judgment here. But to my untrained ear, with a little effort (and a new set of lyrics), “Billy” could have become a legendary anthem. Replace “Oh, Billy” with “O, Jesus” and I can see this song as the closer on the Lovesexy Tour. (“O, Jesus, where’d you find them glasses?” Okay, it would still need a little work.) Regardless of the subject matter, this song would have slayed live. As if the guitars weren’t enough, at one point someone (Lisa?) drops in an arena-rock piano lick that would make the E. Street Band proud.

As it is, the jam became… nothing. Maybe at some point in the rehearsal, the band kicked something loose that ended up slightly influencing the released version of “Strange Relationship,” but that’s about it. You or I would have dropped to our knees and thanked our muse for sending us this once-in-a-lifetime groove, but Prince moved on to the next one and never looked back. As he sang on the extended version of “I Wish U Heaven”:

Take this beat, I don’t mind
I got plenty others, and they so fine

**

The contrarian view of The Vault pops up in quotes from insiders on occasion: “There’s a reason these songs were never released.” It’s implied that most of these songs were never good enough to make the cut, and I’m sure there are plenty of clunkers among the hundreds of studio recordings in The Vault. But I’ve heard more than enough to know that Prince had no problem burying a brilliant gem if he didn’t have an immediate use for it. And I’m hearing more every week. I’m hearing songs like “Billy,” which Prince never found a reason to release, and probably never even bothered to record in the studio.

Prince’s estate has a lot of fires to put out these days, but I’m sure that before long, they will have time to focus on copyright infringement, and they will start whacking these YouTube moles in earnest. They will probably end my YouTube binge before I make an ethical stand and do it myself. They will package some of these Vault tracks and sell them (undoctored, I hope, but that’s a topic for another day). I will give them all of my money. It will work out for all involved, particularly if my kid is off his high horse by then and I don’t have to hide the music from him.

Until then, what are your thoughts on tracks from The Vault leaking to YouTube and elsewhere? Let’s discuss it. On second thought, you all talk amongst yourselves. I’m going to be sitting over here with my headphones on…

Oh Billy, where’d you find them glasses?
Give up the info, now
Billy, Billy… where’d you find them glasses, now?
You know they’re the strangest glasses that I ever seen
I gotta get me some, Billy…

 

If I Have To Scream And Shout

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has fallen down some YouTube rabbit holes following Prince’s passing in April. There are amazing live performances out there encompassing every phase of his career, including many full-length concerts, but the clip I keep coming back to is only 31 seconds long. It’s simply a clip of Prince in Paisley Park, laying down a bass guitar fill for an extended version of “Partyman.”

It highlights his underrated abilities on the bass, of course, but more than anything, it makes me think about the hundreds of songs (released and unreleased) that Prince recorded solo over the years. The end result often sounds like a full band jamming, complete with a choir of background vocals. But as talented as Prince was, he couldn’t lay down a dozen different percussion, keyboard, guitar and vocal tracks at once. Having to repeatedly add tracks like this seems like drudgery on one hand, but on the other hand, just think of the countless moments of studio brilliance over the years that approach or surpass that “Partyman” bass fill.

And that brings me to Side Two of Purple Rain. (I discussed Side One last month.) When I daydream about what might be released from The Vault someday, my “white whale” almost certainly doesn’t exist: footage of Prince laying down all of the tracks to “When Doves Cry” on March 1, 1984 at Sunset Sound in Hollywood.

Dr. Fink claims that Prince set the recorder to half speed so he could lay down the final dazzling keyboard solo at a more reasonable tempo. What other tricks did he use?

How did he layer in the vocals? Were ad-libs dropped in individually, or did he run the entire track waiting for inspiration to strike? Of course, there are also questions that these videos couldn’t answer even if they existed, questions at the heart of the creative process. What makes an artist think “this sounds great, but it needs some groaning-in-key at 1:52 and 1:56”?

How much trial and error was involved with programming the drum machines? What did the infamous missing bass line sound like, and did Prince seem disinterested in it from the beginning? (As much has been written about Prince dropping the bass line, it’s not as if that decision left the track undistinguished on the low end. Is there a Prince song that’s more recognizable blasting in a truck three blocks away than “When Doves Cry?”)

More than anything, I’d like to see Prince recording the guitar solo that begins just as the radio edit is fading out. Although “solo” might not be the right word. As with much of Prince’s greatest guitar work, the guitar isn’t right up front in the mix, and it has to contend with vocals. It’s particularly hard to focus on the guitar track’s crescendo, as Prince is literally shrieking by that point. The guitar abruptly stops during the middle of the shrieks; in my mind, the guitar just gave up trying to compete and sulked out of the studio at that point.

(Moments after his shrieks subside, Prince beings singing “don’t cry, darling, don’t cry” as the song draws to a close. You don’t want me to cry? Don’t worry about me, sweetie. There’s someone in this room who has been barking in agony for the past minute, and it ain’t me.)

Lyrically, he was still in the same frustration mode he had been in since the back nine of 1999, but there’s a new level of maturity and introspection here. “Maybe I’m just too demanding” is a long way from “must be something in the water they drink.” His ability to build a lyrical framework around a turn of phrase (“I guess I should have…”, “what’s the matter with your…”, “you don’t have to be…”) is underappreciated, and he never found a more poetic and Princely framework than “dig if U will…”

I could go on for hours about this song, but we’re already deep into “dancing about architecture” territory. So let’s move on and… oh, wait… one more thing…

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…funkiest Rorschach test EVER!

***

The rest of the album was recorded live on August 3, 1983 at First Avenue. (Although overdubs were added, including some crowd noise from a football game, as the actual crowd didn’t know what to make of these new songs yet and didn’t make a lot of noise.) Side One meandered into more challenging and eclectic territory after an irresistible start, but Side Two would not let up.

On one hand, “I Would Die 4 U” feels like nothing more than an irresistible and disposable pop song, and it lacks the musical sophistication that marks much of the album. Still, like so many of Prince’s hits, it is also completely unique. I don’t remember ever hearing a song and thinking “this reminds me of ‘I Would Die 4 U’.”

I cannot describe just how happy this song made me in 1984. The clicking percussion track propels the song forward like a bicycle-chain, a little bit faster than a typical pop song, and I’m guessing the song’s pace had something to do with the giddiness I’d feel when I heard it. Or maybe the vocal flourishes were a factor. Prince decided that the song needed a “chicka chicka chicka” at 1:18, and history has proven him right. “All I really need” is a decent lyric, but Prince’s staccato interpretation (“oh oh AH AH really need”) brings a smile to my face every time.

Until recently, I didn’t think about the lyrics very much. In the context of the movie, “I Would Die 4 U” appears to be The Kid’s simple declaration of love and devotion to Apollonia, and the title is taken from a line The Kid’s father speaks to his mother in the film. Prince finds Apollonia in the crowd while performing the song and makes his “I Would Die 4 U” hand gesture. She responds with her patented “I Make Kiss 4 U” move.

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So, case closed: love song. (There are some very twisted circumstances surrounding the performance of this love song in the film, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Even if it’s a bit messianic for a love song, it’s still a love song. Quick litmus test for whether or not your song is messianic: does it contain the lyric “I’m your messiah”? Yes? Then it’s probably messianic.

Following Prince’s death, I (and others) have thought a lot about how the first lyrics he ever put on record in 1978 were the perfect start to a long relationship with his fans.

All of this and more
Is for you
With love, sincerity and deepest care
My life with you I’ll share

I kinda like the idea of it all being about me. Could “I Would Die 4 U” be about us fans as well? There are some lyrics that fit this interpretation. “I am something that you’ll never understand”? Check. “All I really need is to know that you believe”? Prince did ask us to take a leap of faith with almost every new release. He would change the lyrics in concert (“I’m not your lover; I’m not your friend” became “I’m not your lover, but I’ll be your friend” and “I’m your messiah” became “He’s your messiah”) in a way that made it feel like he was singing directly to his fans.

There’s a third explanation that, after a quick glance around the internet, I see that everyone in the world has already discovered. So let me be the last to tell you that “I Would Die 4 U” makes perfect sense if presented from the perspective of God (or Jesus or the Holy Trinity). And not just by using the forced “maybe if you bend 20% of the lyrics and ignore the other 80%” method that your pothead roommate used to employ in college. “Dude, if you open your mind, it’s obvious that ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ is really about how America helped Pinochet rise to power in Chile.” I mean, in a direct, literal way. None of the lyrics in “I Would Die 4 U” contradict this interpretation, and many of the lyrics fit perfectly, and not simply as metaphor. If this is a hidden meaning of the song, it is hiding in plain sight.

If you’re evil, I’ll forgive U…
I would die 4 U…
I am something that you’ll never comprehend…
I’m your messiah…
You’re just a sinner…
Make U good when U are bad…
All I really need is 2 know that U believe…

Some fans have broken this down even further, assigning each verse to a different part of the Holy Trinity. God is not a woman or man, and will forgive you if you’re evil. Jesus is not your lover or your friend; he’s your messiah. “All I really need is to know that you believe” is sung by The Holy Spirit. I have not been approached to rewrite the Bible (yet), but the Book of Psalms must have room for a pearl like…

not a human
I’m a dove
I’m your conscience
I am love.

Singing as the voice of God requires a healthy ego, but it’s not unheard of, and it does help a line like “I’m your messiah” go down a little easier. Food for thought.

And… we’re at the 8:51 mark of Side Two. I think I could use all of my allotted WordPress space on this album alone, but let’s keep this brief.

“I Would Die 4 U” flows seamlessly into “Baby I’m A Star” without a drop-off in BPM or energy. The mission statement now is “you’ll see what I’m all about, if I have to scream and shout” as Prince throws every vocal trick in the book at this jam. There are screams, shrieks, sighs, and what would become a favorite feature of Prince lyrics for me: brutal grammar.

Baby I’m a star
You might not know it now, baby,
But I are

If delivered with a “can you believe how impish I am?” wink, this would be insufferable. But Prince rarely cracks a smile or draws any extra attention to lyrics like this. I love it.

I only had one problem with “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m A Star,” and I’m sure I’m not alone here: it was too hard to separate these conjoined twins when making a mix tape. Not only was it difficult, it just felt wrong. They were meant to be together; it tore me apart to break them up.

righthere

Baby I’m A Star (weeping): Stay, “I Would Die 4 U”
I Would Die 4 U: I’ll… be… right… here, “Baby I’m A Star”

**

Between the “dearly beloved” sermon and the triumphant conclusion of “Baby I’m A Star,” it’s been a breathtaking musical journey. And before we have time to towel off, here comes the opening chord of “Purple Rain.” My word. I covered “Purple Rain” and the key role it played in creating this Prince fanatic in detail here, so let’s call it a day.

There are many magnificent Prince albums, and they all triumph in different ways. Few albums have been as audacious as Dirty Mind. You’ve never heard a sequence of sexy pop funk quite like Disc One of 1999Parade was brilliantly diverse and inventive. Lovesexy was focused thematically and had a sound all its own. Put a gun to my head…

4u

…and tell me I can only listen to one Prince album for the rest of my life, and I would probably choose Sign O’ The Times.

But there has never been an album quite like Purple Rain, and there never will be. The amount of musicianship, emotion, charisma and sweat that was poured into these 44 minutes is astounding, and it sold 20 million copies to boot. If Prince wanted the world to “see what he’s all about,” he succeeded like few ever have.

Shall We Begin?

Is there anything to say about the Purple Rain album that hasn’t already been said? Let’s see…

Listening to the album as a 14-year-old, I was struck by the fact that no song sounded like anything I had heard before. Only “Take Me With U” and “Baby I’m A Star” were even describable to me. They could at least be placed loosely into existing categories: the perfectly crafted pop duet and the celebratory funk jam. Everything else seemed to arrive from another planet. This must have made Warner Brothers nervous. “It’s like nothing else on the radio today” may sound great to rock critics, but it gives A&R executives heartburn.

Remarkably, these songs haven’t become any less unique over time. There is still only one “The Beautiful Ones,” one “Darling Nikki” and one “When Doves Cry.” These songs were not just unique; they were inimitable, no matter how hard ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons worked to master the opening riff of “When Doves Cry.” The songs all knew how to make an entrance, too. When any of these songs comes up on shuffle, I know everyone reading this can identify them in a second or two.

If you were faced with the impossible task of defining Prince by one song, you could do a lot worse than “Let’s Go Crazy,” which features many different facets of the artist. It’s a rock song, but it’s undeniably funky. It has the characteristics of a great pop song, but it breaks pop rules all throughout. It’s about Heaven. Or sex. Or living for the moment. Or drugs. Or death. Or mental health. Or partying. Or the rapture. Lyrically, it’s both straightforward (“in this life, you’re on your own”) and cryptic (“look for the purple banana”). Regardless of what your personal interpretation is, you’re out of breath when the song ends.

Follow up “Let’s Go Crazy” with the irresistible “Take Me With U” and you can clearly see the potential for a blockbuster album. But Prince did not take the easy road to 20 million record sales. The album had only nine tracks, and he closed out the first side of the album with three consecutive eclectic songs that weren’t radio-friendly. Slippery When Wet didn’t have a “The Beautiful Ones,” Like A Virgin didn’t have a “Computer Blue,” and Thriller most certainly didn’t have a “Darling Nikki.”

“The Beautiful Ones” builds on everything that made the second disc of 1999 so compelling: the Linn drum machine, the Oberheim synths, and the sexual/romantic frustration that violently swings from self-pity to rage. But it marks a huge leap forward in terms of execution, maturity and, in particular, restraint. The track is spacious; it has plenty of room for guitars, background vocals or anything else in Prince’s tool belt. By this point, he had learned that less can be more, however, and so many of his greatest moments (“When Doves Cry,” “Kiss,” “Sign O’ The Times”) would be defined as much by what is missing as by what is featured. This restraint builds the tension to an unbearable pitch in “The Beautiful Ones,” and when the impassioned vocals and guitar licks finally kick in, the payoff is exquisite.

The lyrics are straightforward for the most part, centered around the lines “is it him or is it me?” and “the beautiful ones, they hurt you every time.” Although the lyric that vaults the song towards its emotional conclusion (and the lyric that was broadcast to the crowd to introduce the song on the Purple Rain Tour) is “the beautiful ones, you always seem to lose.” I’ve always interpreted this lyric as a “I am okay; I just feel sorry for you” pivot, one that is hard to pull off when the relationship has literally floored you.

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“No, I’m not shrieking in agony and unable to stand… YOU’RE shrieking in agony and unable to stand!”

I’m probably exaggerating the significance of this lyric; maybe he just needed a rhyme for “confused.” Or maybe Prince himself is “the beautiful one” and he’s “singing to a mirror” a la “Cream.” His unfinished autobiography was tentatively titled The Beautiful Ones, for what it’s worth.

Then, all of sudden, Prince appeared in a gold-and-purple-striped pajama suit and told the crowd he was working on an upcoming memoir, which will be released next year by Spiegel & Grau. “It’s going to be called The Beautiful Ones,” he said, before asking the audience: “You all still read books, right?”

I miss that man more and more each day. But I digress…

There was no such restraint on “Computer Blue,” as Prince tossed a double album’s worth of guitar ideas at this track. At the heart of it is a lovely lyrical riff based on “Father’s Song,” which was written by Prince’s real-life father, and played on the piano by his onscreen father in Purple Rain. You may not hear people humming “Computer Blue” in line at the supermarket, but the song is a great example of Prince’s virtuosity on guitar.

For the casual fan, the first 14 seconds of the track have endured if nothing else. The opening drumbeat is infectious, and for 32 years, I’ve unconsciously rapped it out whenever I’ve knocked on a door. If you hear “bum, bum-bum, bum-bum-bum, bum-bum,” don’t worry, it’s just me. And, of course, the indulgent “is the water warm enough?” intro is burned into a lot of brains. If you go to the mall this afternoon and call out “Wendy?” as if you’re looking for a friend, at least one person will mutter “yes, Lisa” as they walk by.

As a 14-year-old, I found the robotic lesbian hygiene of “Computer Blue” strangely titillating. Which isn’t saying much: as a 14-year-old, I found pretty much everything strangely titillating. The matronly brassiere ads in the Sears catalog might as well have been Deep Throat. But shockingly, I didn’t find “Darling Nikki” to be particularly alluring.

Those of you who were around in 1984 remember how earthshaking “Darling Nikki” was. Before the internet, America wasn’t constantly distracted by new scandals and could really sink its teeth into a single impropriety. The shocking lyrics of “Darling Nikki” combined with the massive popularity of Purple Rain caused a huge uproar. It was as if Oliver North and Tammy Faye Bakker made a sex tape with a 2 Live Crew soundtrack, and it’s the reason we even know the phrase “Parental Advisory” today.

And somehow, I was unmoved. Prince has released a hundred sultry sex jams, and I’m sure there are a hundred more in The Vault. Most of them would make you blush even if they had no lyrics. By the time you hear the opening piano fill of “Do Me, Baby,” you know what you’re in for, assuming you had any doubts about a song called “Do Me, Baby” in the first place. But you wouldn’t turn the lights off, strike a candle, and play “Darling Nikki.” (Well, most of you wouldn’t.) The music is daring and brilliant, but it is intentionally cold and antiseptic to match the disturbing lyrics. And those lyrics left me more confused than aroused. I had questions.

Was Nikki looking at a magazine while she amused herself in the hotel lobby, or was she, um, using the magazine somehow? And why does she live in a castle? And wait… did Prince have to sign a waiver? Like the one my mom signed for me at the water park?

The ferocious stage-humping performance in Purple Rain probably didn’t help.

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Call me old fashioned, but in my day, we would at least take a venue out to dinner a few times before we made sweet, gentle love to it. While Prince was hammering away at the stage, I sat in the movie theater watching like…

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Digressing again. Sorry.

All in all, this is a stunningly challenging series of tracks at the heart of a blockbuster album, not even considering the backmasked prayer that concludes Side One. Side Two was just as remarkable, but exponentially more accessible. We’ll talk about it soon.

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My general plan for this blog is to discuss Prince albums in the order I consumed them, starting with late 1984 when I worked my way back from Purple Rain, finishing up For You just in time for the release of Around The World In A Day. So, if you’re scoring at home, think 6-5-4-3-2-1-7-8-9…

And if you are scoring at home, what are you listening to? “Scandalous”? “Insatiable”?

Anyway, one reason I’m bungling Prince’s chronology is to shine a light on those feverish months in 1984-1985, where nouveau Prince fans (and we were legion) were buried in mind-blowing content. There were six Prince albums to devour. There were three albums by The Time, there were albums by assorted 6s, there was an album by Sheila E. and another one on the way. Beyond all of that, random Prince songs would suddenly pop up on the radio, from the B-side “Erotic City” to the defiling of Sheena Easton: “Sugar Walls.”

It was hard to keep up with all of it, and apparently I didn’t, because I just learned of this 1985 recording today…

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This is relevant to my interests. Peak Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” afterglow Tina Turner, released a scathing live version of Prince’s “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” on her follow-up single to “Private Dancer.” She dances around some of the filthier lyrics (for example, she doesn’t profess a desire to fuck the taste out of your mouth, sincerely or otherwise), but it is still naughty as all hell. It contains all the sexuality of her big 1984 hits, but with giddy funkiness instead of melancholy.

The B-side was recorded live in Chicago in August 1984, but I am fascinated with the below version, filmed in February 1984 in Holland. It’s the last glimpse of Turner before she would complete her comeback and take over the world with the Private Dancer album in June; “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and friends aren’t on the setlist yet.

Before I found this, the only intersection between Prince and Tina Turner I could think of was Prince singing “Proud Mary” at the Super Bowl. I just checked the index of Matt Thorne’s “Prince,” and there are no listings between “Tucker, Ken” and “Twinz, The.” Am I missing something?

What would a collaboration have looked like? Prince made some amazing music with his female protégées in the Eighties, but none of them were even close to Turner in terms of gravity until Mavis Staples and Patti LaBelle came on board in 1989. I think she could have brought out the best in Prince, and at the very least, she could have made something out of one of my Prince-penned guilty pleasures, Deborah Allen’s “Telepathy.”

(Warning: this video contains toxic levels of Eighties.)

Was there a reason they never worked together? Perhaps Prince was offended that she sang “ooh-eee-koo-koo-sha-sha-yeah” instead of “ooh-eee-sha-sha-koo-koo-yeah” in her cover of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”? I mean, if you’re not going to respect the source material…