Now that Prince has played the Super Bowl it is hard to remember back to when he was still a fringe force. Sure, 'Little Red Corvette' and '1999' were smash hits but there remained an element of oddity to his presence. He pouted at the camera and stroked his guitar lasciviously but who the hell was this guy?
We were about to find out.
Nowadays it is common to see major musicians appear in the movies. It is almost like product placement. Britney, Pink, Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, Lindsay, Harry Connick, Jr., J-Lo, Madonna, Dwight Yoakam, Tim MacGraw, Jewel-zegger, Ludacris, Ice Cube, Aaliyah, Queen Latifah, Eve, the list goes on and on.
Some reach for star turns, others try to find small parts in serious films, but the line between the music business and the movie business has never been more blurred.
But in 1984? MTV was still this giant baby, drooling all over us and crapping its pants on a regular basis. They barely played black musicians. The videos consisted of leotards and bizarre face makeup and sound stages. My parents refused to get cable TV, god love 'em, so I longed after MTV like a shipwrecked sailor staring at a distant freighter that I couldn't possibly signal.
Again, not to harp too much on the societal differences but without an Internet we didn't have too much warning. All of a sudden 'Purple Rain' was coming soon to a theater near you. Rated R. I was 15.
I remember seeing the video for 'When Doves Cry' first. Prince is in a bubble bath with flower petals. He insists on slowly climbing out of the tub. The groans of the song kick in and you get the uncomfortable feeling that you are looking in on someones porn collection. Interesting that they chose this song to kick off the airplay as it is a truly bizarre tune. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
Somehow I got in to see this film. There were tits. Prince rode a little teeny motorcycle around and brooded in sequins. Symbolism ran rampant. Occasionally he would take to the stage and OBLITERATE it. The audacity of the whole thing was apparent to me even as my adolescent hormones raged for full control. My brain, while addled by blood loss, was still well aware that some cultural shift was happening. It was as if the rest of the country was one giant teen hormone as well, sighing in relief that someone was finally coming right out and admitting how horny they were.
Now to the music which is of course astonishing.
It opens with 'Let's Go Crazy' and the song itself invites insanity. A tightly wound little top spinning on a perfectly polished floor, it gallops along without effort until that guitar solo explodes it and then the top becomes a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the diamond studded mirror of a pimped out Cadillac.
'Take Me With You' lays it on the line and adds a layer of romance to the sheer cock rock of 'Let's Go Crazy'. It sounds vaguely feminine but Prince isn't afraid to let the girl wear the pants in the family so all we know is the intense longing that infuses the music with an almost tragic eroticism.
'The Beautiful Ones' starts to veer off into surrealistic territory. The keyboard figure that drives this song is a curlicue of obsession. It folds over and over on top of itself until Prince can no longer take it and he must scream out over the top of it and tear it down with the roar of his guitar. The universal pain of wondering whether you will be chosen by the one you crave gives this song an epic sweep that raises the stakes considerably.
Next up is 'Computer Blue' and it is an oddly prescient little ditty. Computers at this point were still off the radar of most folks every day lives. In comparing himself to these distant glamorous machines Prince carves an even stranger place out for himself in our consciousness. He barely seems human by this point, what with the metallic nature of his clothing, his other-worldly talent, and his deliberately obscure lyrics. At least, obscure until the next song.
One cannot overstate the effect that 'Darling Nikki' had on the young male population of this great country of ours. Prince had the balls to create a hotel lobby for us, one that had a girl sitting in it pleasuring herself with a magazine. The vaguely nasty tone seems to come out of his inability to trust lil' ol' Appolonia but the adult layer of twisted lust went right over all of our heads, pun intended. There she still is for all time, unconcerned with time or place, using whatever she has at her disposal to get the fuck off.
Now we come to 'When Doves Cry', the spark that set the tinderbox aflame. Apparently the album was ready to go to press and Prince pulled it back in order to make one change. He erased the bass line on this track. Go ahead and take a new listen. Once you notice the lack you realize how essential that space is to the effect of the song. It gives it that strange ethereal quality, that sense of alienness, of even alienation from itself, of OTHER.
Prince is about to put the album into a higher gear, revving the engine up for the home stretch. I liken this stage of the album to a flurry of fireworks right before the grand finale.
'I Would Die 4 U' is a perfect pop song, upbeat but not glib, intense but melodic, intricate but simple. Also, it is proof positive that Prince was ahead of his time. He was already texting.
After the insane variety that we've been happy witnesses to by this point in the album, can you blame Prince Rogers Nelson for taking a moment to brag? The joyous self-affirmation of 'Baby, I'm A Star' is well earned and it allows us the chance to agree. The darkness of the album falls away for a moment and Prince does indeed seem to be a light from the heavens, showing us the way. All we have to do is look up and there he is.
Lastly, 'Purple Rain', the title track. And if ever a title track deserved to be a title track then this surely is it. From the very first chord it is clear the kind of ride we are in for. And Prince doesn't disappoint, drawing every ounce of drama and tension into and then out of this song in moments of total release and abandon. It is 8 minutes and 41 seconds long and every inch an anthem.
Up til 'Purple Rain', we'd all been staring at a void. Bob Dylan, Prince's fellow Minnesotan, said a hard rain was gonna fall and it finally did. What he didn't say was that the rain would be purple and it would break its fall with a twirl and a split.