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.

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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…

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…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.

I Am Also The World!

After the American Music Awards in January 1985, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson led a group of over 40 musicians (and also La Toya Jackson) in recording “We Are The World” to raise money for African famine relief under the name USA for Africa. We take star-studded tributes and fundraisers for granted these days, but in terms of sheer wattage and media hype, none of them can hold a candle to USA for Africa. This was a “just stand in the back and look pretty, Harry Belafonte and Smokey Robinson – we don’t have any lines for you to sing” collection of talent.

The biggest pop stars to miss the recording session were Madonna and Prince. I don’t know why Madonna wasn’t there, and I’m not going to bother to look it up. The fact that most people don’t know is a sign that most people don’t care. And if Prince had decided to leave the club at 2:00 AM instead of 3:00 AM that morning, no one would have cared about his absence for long either.

But in the wee hours of the morning, one of Prince’s bodyguards punched a photographer outside a club and wound up in jail, and the optics were bad: Prince partying all night while the rest of the industry was “checking their egos at the door.”

There are many different accounts of the night’s events, but this excerpt from Alan Light’s book quotes several people in Prince’s inner circle and seems to present things fairly. A few of the more incriminating rumors are refuted (some sources reported that Prince was a last-minute no-show; Light makes it clear that Prince never offered to sing), but Prince comes off as tone deaf at best, ignoring his managers Albert Fargnoli and Alan Leeds:

Dude, the eyes are on you, okay? You just cleaned up. The two biggest things on the planet tonight are this recording session and you, and everybody is going to want to know why that’s not one thing. So take your awards and keep your ass in the hotel. You cannot run the clubs the way you usually do, with two bodyguards, chasing girls. Not tonight, not while this is going on.

For a few weeks, Prince was pilloried in the media, from the Los Angeles Times to Saturday Night Live

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I am also the world!
I am also the children!
I am the one who had to bail them out
Now ain’t that giving?

Still, once the smoke cleared, there wasn’t much of a scandal here. Prince himself didn’t punch anybody, and it’s clear that “We Are The World” didn’t need him. The quote from an organizer that made the rounds at the time (“The effort would have been much more marketable with Prince’s participation”) is tough to swallow. There have been few things in history more marketable than “We Are The World.” It was the biggest selling single of the entire decade. It can be argued that Prince raised more money for USA for Africa by contributing an unreleased track (“4 The Tears In Your Eyes”) to the We Are The World album than he could have by singing a dozen words or less on the single. (I know I wouldn’t have bought the album if not for the Prince track.)

Beyond that, it’s clear that Prince didn’t need “We Are The World” either. Today it’s hard to believe that “We Are The World” was the biggest selling single of the 1980s. When you hear “Raspberry Beret” or “Money For Nothing,” it’s easy to imagine that it’s 1985 again. When you hear “We Are The World,” you… wait, you never hear “We Are The World”! Half of the remaining FM stations in this country blast eighties hits all day, but “We Are The World” gets in the mix about as often as “The Curly Shuffle.”

The song raised a lot of money and awareness, and every successful celebrity fundraiser that followed owes a debt to it. But musically, the song has not endured, and it does not rank among the best work of just about anyone on that stage. I would guess that in 2016, most young adults aren’t very familiar with the song. Time hasn’t been kind to the lyrics either; they range from self-absorbed (“We’re saving our own lives!”) to clunky (“It’s time to lend a hand to life”). “As God has shown us, by turning stone to bread” is a nice enough sentiment, although, reached for comment, God simply stated, “No, I didn’t.” (There is no biblical basis for that lyric.)

There are many theories to explain Prince’s absence, ranging from shyness to arrogance, but Wendy Melvoin’s claim that “he thought the song… was horrible” is a believable one. Would Prince’s vocal on the best-selling single of the decade have even warranted a mention in his obituary? Probably not.

The subtitle to the excerpt from Light’s book is “At the apex of his success, Prince made a high-profile decision that damaged his reputation for years.” Manager Bob Cavallo boldly states, “I believe that moment is what made people ambivalent about his greatness” and that it took two decades for Prince to live it down.

Yes, it’s true that Prince would never again experience the white-hot superstardom of Purple Rain. I don’t believe that anyone else has, either. But I don’t think “We Are The World” had anything to do with it. A month before Prince made that “high-profile decision,” he made a conscious decision to float back to earth. He put the finishing touches on Around The World In A Day, an album with the implied subtitle “Thanks, But I’m Done With The White-Hot Superstardom Of Purple Rain.”

To me, the only lasting legacy of Prince’s “We Are The World” scandal is the song “Hello,” and I’ll have more to say about that B-side later in the week.

Working Up A Black Sweat

“I’ve got three acts. I don’t need four. I mean, what would you do in my position?”

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“Um… I would fire Dez Dickerson & the Modernaires. I can’t believe we’re even having this discussion. You do realize I wrote every song that these four acts play, right?”

Or at least that’s what I thought The Kid should have told Billy. Prince’s character in Purple Rain was believable as a Troubled Misfit, but as an Underdog just trying to hold on to a nightclub gig?

Sure, Prince lore does feature one classic underdog story. In November of 1981, 90,000 rock fans showed up to the L.A. Coliseum for a show featuring The Rolling Stones, J. Geils Band, George Thorogood, and a tiny unknown black man wearing high heels and a thong singing “Jack U Off.” What could go wrong?

“Jack U Off” was an aggressively heterosexual come on, mind you, although as bassist Brown Mark explains…

When you talk about street lingo, where I come from, guys don’t jack girls off. I don’t think Prince understood that—Prince was in his own world.

If you are guessing that the Los Angeles crowd reacted to Prince singing “I’ll jack you off” by breaking into discussion groups to ponder how sexual slang varies among different regions and cultures, you are mistaken. They didn’t know what to make of Prince to begin with, and “Jack U Off” was the last straw. They chased him off the stage in a torrent of verbal and literal garbage. To Prince’s credit, he showed up again two days later to face the same ordeal.

Prince was taken from us much too soon as it is, but I look at a picture like this…

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…and I’m grateful that he wasn’t taken 35 years earlier.

So, The Kid as an underdog might have worked if the antagonists in Purple Rain were racist homophobes, but by the time the movie was shot, “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” were burning up the charts, and Prince was clearly oozing otherworldly talent over every frame of the film. You’re trying to tell me that he can’t cut it at First Avenue, portrayed in the movie as a multiracial, androgynous Wonderland? His days as an underdog were clearly behind him.

Or were they?

On August 3, 1983, Prince and the Revolution were at the top of their game, producing the live tracks that would anchor the Purple Rain album/film during a landmark First Avenue gig. But just 17 days later, before shooting for the movie began, Prince would be humbled in Los Angeles once again, when James Brown called Michael Jackson and then Prince to the stage.

Jackson performs for only 31 seconds, but it’s a transcendent performance nonetheless, an all-time “leave ’em wanting more” move. You could show that 31 seconds to a baby or a Martian and they would know they were looking at a superstar. After setting the bar high, Jackson spends the next 31 seconds pleading with Brown to call Prince up too.

Some may say Prince’s performance got off on the wrong foot when he was carried to the stage on the back of his massive bodyguard, Big Chick Huntsberry. I would disagree. I think it’s a perfect way for the diminutive Prince to make an entrance, and if a director ever wants to make a smaller, personal film about Prince’s world, they could do a lot worse than exploring the relationship between Prince and Big Chick.

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But things soon go downhill, as Prince commandeers a (left-handed?) guitar and is unable to accomplish much with it. He salvages the appearance with a solid double “microphone between the legs” move, he preens a bit, and then he takes a bow, leading to perhaps the most relatable moment of his career. Have you ever been mildly embarrassed and tried to exit a party without calling any extra attention to yourself? I certainly remember what that’s like. It feels something like…

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“Okay, this isn’t my night, but that wasn’t so bad. The guitar bit flopped, and it kills me to be shown up by Michael Jackson, but who cares… it’s not like anyone with a computer will be able to watch this performance on demand in 30 years. I just need to finish my bow and quietly exit past this sturdy lamppost and I can forget all about this.”

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“This is not my night. What kind of lamppost collapses when a hundred-pound man lightly places a hand on it? Actually, why is there a lamppost here in the first place? That’s okay. Be cool. Just help push the lamppost back up, and as long as it doesn’t break…”

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“This is not my night.”

This serves as a reminder that not everything came easy to Prince. And while we are all familiar with the many contrasts of Prince’s persona (black/white, male/female, sacred/profane), there is one more dichotomy that stood out to me: the enigmatic Genius who floats on a magic cloud of talent and charisma versus the Human.

With the exception of the Rolling Stones story, all Prince lore serves the Genius theory. He wrote his first song when he was seven. He played all 27 instruments on his first album. He wrote and recorded so much music that there are “thousands” of unreleased songs in The Vault. The idea of Prince as a savant is explored in detail at Daily Grail, with quotes like this one from keyboardist Morris Hayes:

I was just one of those church cats that played music by ear, so at first it was very difficult for me to keep up. We wouldn’t just learn one song, we’d learn a string of songs, and when we’d come back the next day I’d forget some. I remember he pulled me to the side and said, “Are you a genius, Morris?” I said no. “O.K., then write it down. I don’t write it down ‘cause I’m a genius. I’ve got a million of ‘em, and I can remember. But unless you’re a genius, write it down.”

People who encountered Prince often tell stories of him mysteriously appearing or disappearing, a reputation Prince played with when making his Twitter debut in 2013.

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I suppose there is one other humanizing story in Prince lore. Wikipedia states that Prince had epilepsy as a child. I think we can all relate to this, because illness doesn’t care how gifted you are…

My mother told me one day I walked in to her and said, “Mom, I’m not going to be sick anymore,” and she said, “Why?” and I said, “Because an angel told me so.”

Oh. Never mind.

In early 2004, Prince opened the Grammys with Beyoncé, was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame (before destroying it with one of the greatest guitar solos ever), and launched his Musicology tour. From that point on, every time I saw Prince perform in person or on screen, his brilliance was seemingly effortless. “I’m working up a black sweat!” he sang in 2005, but it never looked like he was working or sweating. It was like Michael Jackson’s 31 seconds in 1983, except for 12 consecutive years. And it’s why I thought he might live forever.

Ironically, when he was at his peak in the eighties, he usually did appear to be a fallible human working up a black sweat. He was more like the other man on that 1983 stage, the “hardest working man in show business.” His most successful tours financially (Purple Rain) and critically (Lovesexy) were scripted affairs that required a lot from Prince (multiple instruments, a wild range of vocal styles, costume changes, and a fair amount of acting), but left little space for him to improvise and let his genius flow naturally. If you saw a two-hour show in 1985, you might think, “That was amazing; he left everything he had on that stage.” If you saw a three-hour show in 2011, you might think, “That was amazing; I bet he could have played for another three hours.”

Throughout his career, I would sometimes use his physical appearance as shorthand for whether we were looking at the Human or the Genius. If he looked constrained by too much lace or too many accessories, he was struggling with something (his record company? stardom? God?). If he looked comfortable, he was invincible on stage.

This action figure wrapped in eight layers of lace at the 1985 Grammys?

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He was working something out, and while his performance of “Baby I’m A Star” was fabulous, it was Human. He left a puddle of sweat on that stage. An extra layer of lace knocked over the microphone stand…

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…and then Prince clocked himself with the microphone in his haste to pick it up. (What is it about L.A.?)

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He somehow managed to belt out the first lyric of the song (“Hey!”) at the exact moment that the microphone tried to kill him, and he never looked back. It was an admirably professional moment, and the performance was ultimately brilliant. But it was human.

A year later, this guy was comfortable and confident, and his performances were unbridled orgies of natural ability.

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Prince has been gone for three months now, and this photo is 30 years old. But regardless, he just stole your girl.

The guy on the cover of the Lovesexy tour book was a troubled human…

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…but the guy at the Super Bowl fluttered into Dolphin Stadium on the wings of doves and exceedingly funky angels.

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This is reductive bullshit, of course. The times when we were able to see Prince’s flop sweat, he was still a once-in-a-lifetime talent. And when the genius seemed to be flowing through him with ease, he was still working his ass off. He could knock things over in his pajamas, or dazzle when he was BeDazzled. He would do his best to look cool when he was struggling, and when he was in the zone, he might draw attention to imperfections. I saw him do that in Oakland just weeks before his death, making an exaggerated “that’s not quite right” face as he repeated the last measures of “Under The Cherry Moon” on the piano three or four times. (They all sounded perfect to me, for what it’s worth.)

Bruce Springsteen is a much more prolific songwriter than people give him credit for (he’s got his own vault of unreleased material), and he was considered somewhat of a guitar prodigy as a teenager. But if you were to ask his fans to describe him in one word, few would say “talented.” His relationship with his fans is based on letting them see him sweat.

As a Springsteen fan, you would think I would appreciate seeing Prince sweat as well. But while I am certain that the internal conflicts behind his more human performances also fueled some of his greatest records, I must admit that I grew quite attached to the Genius on stage. I saw this infallible man perform eight times over the past dozen years and it was breathtaking every time.

What about you? Do you ever consider the Human and the Genius separately, or do you always see the complete picture? Were your favorite Prince performances sweaty or sublime?

Either way, I don’t care how many lampposts The Kid knocks over… Billy should just fire Dez and move on, no?

I Love The 80S

When recently writing about seeing Purple Rain for the first time and deciphering the backwards lyrics in “Darling Nikki,” I overlooked the common thread between these two stories: a cheap little Toshiba RT80S boombox.

Purple Rain was a visual marvel. The fashion alone was unlike anything we had ever seen. And beyond that, The Kid’s bedroom and dressing room (and for that matter, his motorcycle) were esoteric pieces of art that filled every inch of the screen with the film’s unique aesthetic.

Needless to say, while this 14-year-old from the suburbs was mesmerized, I found it hard to relate to Prince’s sexy purple paisley world. I mean, just look at this screen shot:

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I sat in the movie theater thinking that between the ruffles and the candles and the lace and the dippy dippy wave of his ‘do, there’s nothing in this film that reminds me of my… wait! That’s my Toshiba RT-80S boombox! The one in my bedroom, right next to my Mickey Mouse record player! I was just listing to Air Supply’s Greatest Hits on that boombox yesterday!

(As an aside, yeah, I’m sure you have fond memories of your 80s boomboxes, too, but mine actually had “80S” in the model number. Checkmate.)

It was only a quick glimpse, so I desperately wanted to get a closer look at the stereo to confirm it was the same one I had. C’mon, Kid, don’t you think you were being a little hard on Wendy and Lisa? Don’t listen to your terrifying hand puppet. You do need those girls and their stupid music. Just play their tape, will ya?

And, to my delight, he did…

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It’s hard to explain how thrilling it was to see my personal artifact in this universe. I wouldn’t have been any more stunned or tickled if Chewbacca had been wearing my Little League uniform in Return Of The Jedi. I didn’t want to get greedy, but I was hoping for at least one more shot of the boombox. And sure enough, a few seconds later, the film cut away from The Kid listening to Wendy and Lisa’s tape to the tape player itself…

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Huh? That ain’t Lake Minnetonka, and that ain’t my Toshiba RT-80S. And while we’re at it, did someone just turn out the lights in the dressing room? Good job, guys… you were this close to the Acadamy Award for Best Picture.

That’s probably a clip from a scene taking place in The Kid’s candlelit bedroom, but this glitch was exciting to me in its own right. We didn’t have the internet around to track continuity errors back then, so for years I took a bizarre pride in knowing this useless piece of trivia. I even felt a tiny twinge of pride when I discovered that as of today, Boomboxgate still hasn’t been mentioned on IMDB’s Purple Rain Goofs page.

The boombox would move around a bit during the film, as a portable stereo is wont to do. It’s visible in the corner of the screen when Prince first makes out with Apollonia, but for some reason I was distracted at the time and didn’t notice it in the theater.

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It makes a final appearance in my favorite scene of the film, where a grieving Kid keeps rewinding and replaying Wendy and Lisa’s “Slow Groove” before playing it on the piano himself.

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Any thoughts on 80s boomboxes? Continuity errors? Chewbacca? Post ’em in the comments.

Hi kids! How are U?

As discussed earlier, the “Purple Rain” guitar solo on the big screen made me an instant Prince fanatic as a 14-year-old in the summer of 1984. Being a Prince fan has never been boring, but it was never less boring than in the summer of 1984. Over the next year, I would devour Prince’s five pre-Purple Rain albums, as well as his Purple Rain follow up. I would attend my first Prince concert. I would get glimpses into a secret world of B-sides and other rarities. There was the “We Are The World” controversy and the Tipper Gore firestorm; Prince was constantly in the news.

That was all just around the corner, but to start with, all I had was the Purple Rain soundtrack. I spent the rest of the summer listening to my Purple Rain cassette over and over, absolutely dissecting those 43 minutes and 54 seconds. I tried to isolate all of the instrumental and vocal tracks in “When Doves Cry,” particularly in the last two minutes of the song, the emotional climax that didn’t make the radio edit. What is Prince doing exactly, and how is he doing it? I reveled in little hidden treats, like the faint harmonizing as “Take Me With U” fades. But like millions of others who listened to the soundtrack that summer, I was obsessed with the end of Side 1 more than anything. What, if anything, was Prince saying at the end of “Darling Nikki”?

As Tipper Gore’s least favorite song screeched to a halt, the cold funk rock is replaced by some calming natural sounds and some exceedingly odd vocals. One line sounded kinda like an advertisement for dishwashing liquid to me, and another like a Three Stooges sound effect, but of course, any attempt to decipher this vocal was a waste of time. It was almost certainly a recording of Prince played backwards. In the days of MP3 shuffling, you might not have heard this in years, but I bet it’s still imprinted on your brain. Sing along if you remember the words.

Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah…
Ooohhhhh-ooh-oh-ose. Ay-muh! Ay-muk!
Oooohhh-ooh-ose
It must be Dawn™ on her hands
Ooh-wah nah-suhk nyock!
Nyuk!
Ooh-ooh-ee-ah yah. Ooh-uhhh-la!

Those fans who had the vinyl LP could simply spin the record backwards to decipher the message, but I didn’t know anyone who had the LP. Besides, this was my turntable in 1984.

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Oh, don’t jump down my throat, audiophiles. If you were born in the sixties or seventies, you had that turntable too.

But the point is, backmasking was largely associated with Satanism at the time. And if Prince had no problem singing the lyrics to “Darling Nikki,” what kind of ghastly lyrics would he feel the need to disguise? Whatever it was, did I really want Mickey Mouse to be staring at me when I heard it?

Hail Satan, kids!
Kill your parents, kids!

(Mickey didn’t stop me from laboring to hear “it’s fun to smoke marijuana” while spinning the 45 of “Another One Bites The Dust” backwards a few years earlier, but I think I’m veering off course here.)

So, I had no vinyl LP, and I had no Internet. If I wanted to know what Prince was saying, I would have to decipher the message myself.

My first idea was to make a copy of the song, open up the cassette, cut out the relevant section of tape, and then splice the tape back together so that “Darling Nikki” was reversed. (By the way, if “Reverse Darling Nikki” isn’t a sexual position, it should be.) In retrospect, this seems like a foolproof plan and an amusing little project. But at the time, I had a certain reverence for the humble cassette tape, and had little confidence in my ability to take one apart, rearrange it, and successfully put it back together. Would I have to buy special tape, or could I splice with just a little piece of Scotch tape? There would be X-Acto blades involved, and tiny screwdrivers, and clumsy adolescent fingers. Maybe I could ask my father for assistance (“Dad, I can’t quite make out what Satan is trying to tell me at the end of this pornographic song… little help?”), or maybe not.

My only other idea involved the fact that if I hit REWIND on my little Toshiba boombox while PLAY was already depressed, you could hear the tape playing in reverse at a decent volume, although it was at about 10x speed so it was unintelligible. I sprang into action. What if I played the song using FAST FORWARD while recording it on my sister’s boombox, and then played this new recording in high-speed reverse? Good idea, dummy, now you’re hearing it in reverse at 100x speed. I experimented like this for the better part of the afternoon. I was excited, so I measured once and cut a few dozen times. I won’t bore you with the details of my many failures.

I was just about to give up when I discovered that if I hit RECORD, PLAY and FAST FORWARD at the same time, my Toshiba would at least appear to record at high speed. And if it was recording at high speed, when played back at normal speed, the track should sound slow, right? And if that slow track was played at high speed in reverse? It was worth a shot. I played “Darling Nikki” on my sister’s boombox while doing the proto Ctrl-Alt-Delete move on my Toshiba.

When it was finished, I held down PLAY and REWIND and heard… nothing. Maybe the FAST FORWARD button being depressed had rendered the stereo unable to record. Or maybe it degraded the sound and I should turn up the volume just in case. I cranked it up to full volume, and one second later…

Hello.

I nearly wet myself. My improvised recording method had not degraded the sound at all; remarkably, it was perfectly clear, if a little fast. More importantly, it was loud, and I jumped when I heard it, my finger slipping off the REWIND button. This resulted in “hello” being played again, backwards, at a super slow speed and at ear-splitting volume. It was terrifying, frankly. I hit STOP and waited a few minutes for my heart to stop pounding before turning the volume down and trying again.

Hello
How are U?

Fine, Satan; that’s nice of you to ask. The conversational tone seemed anticlimactic, but oddly appropriate. After trying so hard to make contact, it was gratifying to receive a cordial welcome. There have been people working in the SETI program for decades who would kill to hear a simple “Hello, how are U?” Anyway, let’s start over…

Hello
How are U?
I’m fine
‘Cause I know that the Lord is coming soon
Coming, coming soon
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…

And that was that.

When the smoke cleared, all that was left was the most straightforward religious message on a Prince album since the Lord’s Prayer appeared in “Controversy.” In both cases, the delivery was subversive and unsettling, regardless of the content. The Lord’s Prayer was recited earnestly, but wedged between Prince questioning his sexuality and pining for mass nudity. His latest message of salvation was presented at the end of one of his most lascivious songs using a technique associated with the occult. Things were never quite as they seemed in the land of Prince; he always defied simple interpretation. Needless to say, this only added to my fascination.

Now that I was a certified audio engineer, I applied my new technique to “Baby I’m A Star,” where some unintelligible lyrics could be faintly heard in the beginning of the song and again at the end. When played backwards, you could hear a female voice (Wendy?) saying something along the lines of…

Like, what the fuck do they know?
All their taste is in their mouth
Really, what the fuck do they know?
Come on, baby
Let’s go crazy!

I clearly didn’t analyze this as much as “Darling Nikki,” because only after typing out these words 32 years later did I get the weird little “they have no taste” joke. At the time, I just assumed it was vaguely dirty.

Do you remember when you first heard the deciphered messages on the Purple Rain soundtrack?

Who wore it best?

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Change, if U will, my diaper