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…
…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.
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.
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 1999. Parade was brilliantly diverse and inventive. Lovesexy was focused thematically and had a sound all its own. Put a gun to my head…
…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.