Dearly Beloved


Purple Rain – Prince

Setting out to review Purple Rain reminds me why I never wanted to be a critic. What do a critic’s words matter against a masterpiece? If I found myself in that unfortunate position in 1984, I can imagine the review I’d be tempted to write: “Just listen to it. Loud. Preferably with enough room to dance.”

In fact, that’s all I really want to say now. But I guess I’ll say a little more.

In earlier blogs, I mentioned how hard it was to open up to music that I’ve heard thousands of times. This is less difficult with Prince. I’m still discovering new, thrilling aspects to Purple Rain, one of the first albums I can remember asking my parents to buy me. There’s the immense, dynamic range of Prince’s voice throughout, especially on the somewhat-lesser played “The Beautiful Ones,” where he goes from a whisper to a truly jaw-dropping scream that rivals any punk or metal band I’ve ever heard, while still remaining somehow soulful.

There’s not a dud on here, something I can’t really say about any Michael Jackson album, or possibly any other Prince album, either. The songwriting is stellar, the band smokes, and the singing is truly out-of-this-world good. It’s an album that makes me wonder if modern, computer-driven music can ever match the raw emotion, swagger, and sex that infuse every single damn song.

Of course, it’s a top-notch recording using what was probably the finest technology of the time, but it still manages to sound like a band performing live. Miraculously, three of the songs were recorded live, with overdubs and edits added later, including the title song, putting it in what must be a short list of definitive recordings done (mostly) live (offhand, I can only think of that one Peter Frampton album, Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” and a bunch of those Johnny Cash songs from prison).

1984 sure was an interesting year. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was #1 for nearly the first half of the year, and Purple Rain stayed on top for the second. The passing of the torch seemed symbolic of what was happening with music. Jackson’s songs set the playing field, and Prince’s unhinged sexuality took it to the next level. For living proof of this, if you haven’t already, watch the infamous video in which James Brown calls Michael Jackson to the stage:

MJ sings a touching little “I Love You,” ditty, and then shakes his skinny hips, moonwalks, etc, basic Michael-shtick, entertaining, but safe. Then he convinces the Godfather to call up Prince, who rides in on the shoulders of a beefy white guy, presumably his bodyguard. He then plays a few licks on the guitar, uses it as a cock-substitute, takes off his top, makes some kind of animal wail into the mic, and then swings back into the crowd, knocking over a fake lamp post as he goes.

This was pretty much the kind of havoc Prince reeked on polite society at the time. The song “Darling Nikki” and its mention of “masturbating with a magazine” was a primary factor in the “adult-content” labeling of records. Personally, when the album came out, I wasn’t quite old enough to understand the lyric, imagining that she’d have to roll the magazine up to use it properly. Nor did I know (until I just read it now) that the concept behind “Purple Rain” was apocalyptic: blood (red) in the sky (blue) makes purple rain. Duh. This makes me love the album even more.

The only critical thing I can really say is that the movie hasn’t aged quite as well. As much as Prince championed female musicians, his character in the movie doesn’t treat them too well. And his acting was never great. But the performances, including Morris Day and the Time… those are still pretty amazing.

A few years before he died, I finally got to see Prince live. He was playing a series of shows at the Forum in Inglewood, CA in order to help save it from bankruptcy. He played at least four shows a week for a month or more, twenty bucks for the majority of tickets. Word was he’d play multiple encores, then leave for up to an hour or more, and possibly come back to jam more. Sure enough, he did just that. The energy he put into every facet of performing for those three-plus hours was truly remarkable.

And he did it all in platform heels. God bless Prince.

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