So, yeah. Prince.
I know. He did stuff before Purple Rain and a whole lot of stuff after Purple Rain. He was more than his music.
But I want to talk about Purple Rain because … well …
I’ve always had this weird relationship to Prince and his music. If you’re reading this on my site, you can tell from my picture that I’m a white guy of an age to be around when he was bursting onto the scene. This meant that my real introduction to him was primarily through MTV and songs like “1999” and “Little Red Corvette”. I can add that I was in the middle (or toward the end) of growing up in Louisville, Kentucky—in other words, somewhere around the Mason Dixon line. I went to middle school in an all white public district, but when I went to high school I was lucky enough to be among the first group of kids to be bused to an integrated high school. By the time Prince was getting noticed I was in college, though.
I remember seeing (and hearing) “1999” and thinking it was an okay pop song, but seeing (and hearing) “Little Red Corvette” as something … more. Sure, it was sexual, what pop song isn’t eh? But it was clearly more overt than most. And it was bigger in ways I could feel but that I never thought to analyze back then. Looking at it now, you can see how it all works together, how the piece is about sex, yes, but it’s about what it means to be young and know you’re naïve, but not be able to do a damned thing about it except charge ahead and figure it out on the run. The sound is hollow and distant in places that accentuate the point, the production coarse and sharp at others. The look of the video is lush—pure Prince, of course. Prince’s performance, too … I mean … it was like David Bowie on Viagra, except Viagra hadn’t been invented, yet.
And the poetry. Geez Louise … go Google the lyrics. Read them and (assuming you’ve heard the song) do your best to block the music that will inevitably come into your head. The pictures they can create are remarkable. “Little Red Corvette” sounds like a lewder version of something Bruce Springsteen might have penned.
The whole thing—the package of it all—is a tightrope act, perfectly balanced.
In retrospect, this is the song that first turned my head Prince’s way.
But, and I need to say this, there were problems.
How to put it politely. Okay. Well. There is no way to put it politely, so let me just charge ahead.
As I remember that time, young men I ran with were quite culturally split on whether it was “acceptable” to be a fan of Prince, and I ran with a wide array of folks so I ran into all of the groups. The cliques were all there. I mostly hung with the Stones/Beatles/Who folks, (who I related to well). There were the Zep, Aerosmith, Bad Company 70s metal/rock folks. There were the Lou Reed/VU punkers, the Doors guys, and the southern rockers.
You might note that none of these cultures are folks you immediately connect to either the music or anything else about Prince—especially in the 80s. Since I wasn’t big into creating conflict, mostly I just shut my trap at times. But the full truth is that I wasn’t sure who Prince was at all, so even if I could have pretended to be enlightened, I probably wouldn’t have known what to say about him. The closest comparison was Bowie or maybe James Brown, but even those were way off.
I don’t want to overstate any of this. I don’t want this to be all about where I came from—but, of course, it was about culture to a degree and it would be disingenuous of me to leave out the extreme angst that Prince’s work caused in some of the circles I ran with. It was a confusing time—as they all are—and a culture’s art is important to it. I belonged to the young, white male culture, and the lines of inclusion weren’t as oft-tread then as they are now. It was, for example, not particularly cool for some people to like Fleetwood Mac [too girly], or Peter Frampton [too girly], or Dan Fogelberg [too girly] … perhaps you get the drift.
Regardless, Prince was well beyond the edge of both the ethnic and androgyny lines for acceptance in some of the gangs I hung with (repeat on the some).
So, I enjoyed some of what Prince did in the early days, but I didn’t really pay him much attention one way or the other. What he was wasn’t as obvious to me at the time.
Then came Purple Rain (which I am listening to again as I write this).
It wasn’t just the title song. Every piece was startling. Lisa and I had met by then and we got that album, and we both played the crap out of it. It’s brilliant. Where the movie is bloatware, the album is surgical. Where the movie is over-wrought, the album is comprehensive in its focus on youth and love and the desire to be something important, to want to love something, to want to understand what it means to be alive.
Side One: “Let’s Go Crazy” (poppy, dance-y, but with a sharp-edged guitar that spoke of what was coming as Prince gathered the kids around to talk about This Thing Called Life), “Take Me With U” (a little sweet for my tastes, but more interesting on many listens), “The Beautiful Ones” (perhaps one of the most under-rated pieces here, a story of longing so pure as to overwhelm the ability to deal with it), “Computer Blue” (lyrically simple, but musically complex, in which things go wrong), and then closing with the notorious “Darling Nikki” (which you really don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to get, right?)
The entire first side was something any young person on the face of the earth could listen to and understand somewhere deep inside them. It was a brilliant opening. All alone, it would be ear-popping.
Then we get to Side Two.
“When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die For U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and then, of course, the title song.
The first three run us through the story. They build off the angst of side one to allow a guy to come to some tenuous, uneasy essence of what it might mean to be a real person, achieving real things, and being someone who is true to oneself as well as others. Each piece is, alone, artistically interesting. But the three together carve a path that makes them important to be seen together. In that way, they stand as testimony to the idea that the album as an art form should always exist.
Finally, there’s “Purple Rain.”
I remember driving to a store or somewhere all by myself. We lived in Louisville, and it was a warm day. I arrived at a fairly empty parking lot when the title song came on the radio, and I decided to just sit there while it played. The song was huge. Monstrous. Pulsing with every emotion you deal with in this thing called life. As I heard it, the rest of the album dropped into my head. Is the song pretentious? Maybe. Okay, sure. But that’s what art is at its core, isn’t it? Pretentious, presumptuous, and impossible to dismiss.
Then Prince played his guitar—unleashing perhaps one of the most amazing solos ever recorded.
By itself, “Purple Rain” is iconic. In context of the story told in the album, it’s heartrendingly beautiful. If you let it, the ideas behind this album will bring you to your knees, and it’s this song that makes it do that.
That day, when the song was over, I shut of the radio and for several minutes I just sat in my car.
I don’t want to over-state this. I don’t want to be too hyperbolic.
An artist can only do so much without the help of the person who is their audience, and the moment around that person—but there are some artists that change everything. As I look back on that time of my life, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that I never really looked at the world exactly the same way after Purple Rain.
I only wish I would have realized it more fully at the time.