Pur­ple Reign

The post­hu­mous re­lease of a lost record­ing of­fers a rare glimpse at Prince’s cre­ative process. But does it be­tray the artist?

Newsweek International - - CULTURE - by ZACH SCHON­FELD @zzzza­aaac­c­c­chhh

“Can you turn the lights down?” With that re­quest to an en­gi­neer, a 24-year-old Prince sat down at a pi­ano in his home stu­dio and, in a sin­gle, 34-minute take, de­liv­ered po­tent sketches of songs that would de­fine the golden age of his ca­reer. He sang three fu­ture clas­sics in em­bry­onic form (in­clud­ing a lit­tle over a minute of “Pur­ple Rain”), two cov­ers (one a Joni Mitchell song) and three gems that would never sur­face in com­pleted form.

It was 1983, and af­ter the one-twothree punch of Dirty Mind, Con­tro­versy and 1999, Prince was al­ready a sin­gu­lar star, one who held noth­ing back. “Even when there’s no au­di­ence in front of him, he was emot­ing in a way that many artists save for play­ing an arena,” says Michael Howe, chief archivist for the Prince es­tate, of the record­ing. “He was just ab­so­lutely com­mit­ted to con­vey­ing emo­tion.”

For over three decades, the re­sult­ing TDK-SA-60 cas­sette tape sat un­touched in Prince’s mas­sive Pais­ley Park vault. (“Lit­er­ally thou­sands of cas­settes” of un­re­leased ma­te­rial, says Howe.) Now, it has been re­leased as Prince’s first post­hu­mous al­bum, ti­tled Pi­ano & a Mi­cro­phone 1983.

Aside from the year, it’s un­clear when the tape was recorded; it might have been in Jan­uary 1983, when Prince was at home be­tween two legs of the 1999 tour, or Oc­to­ber, shortly be­fore he be­gan film­ing Pur­ple Rain. Prince was then liv­ing in Chan­has­sen, Min­nesota, and would record— often through the night—in his Kiowa Trail home stu­dio. (Pais­ley Park wouldn’t be built un­til 1986.)

Pi­ano & a Mi­cro­phone of­fers an un­usu­ally in­ti­mate glimpse at the process of a no­to­ri­ously guarded artist. We hear Prince’s in­struc­tions to Don Batts, his per­sonal record­ing en­gi­neer at the time. We hear his foot tap­ping on the floor as he plays pi­ano. We hear an early ver­sion of “Strange Re­la­tion­ship” (re­port­edly in­spired by Prince’s re­la­tion­ship with Denise Matthews, known as Van­ity), which wouldn’t sur­face un­til 1987, on Sign o’ the Times.

And we hear that tan­ta­liz­ing sliver of what would be­come his sig­na­ture song. “I don’t know any doc­u­mented piece of ‘Pur­ple Rain’ that oc­curred be­fore this,” says Howe. But the ver­sion of “17 Days,” the beloved B-side to his No. 1, 1984 hit “When Doves Cry,” sounds re­mark­ably re­al­ized.

“A Case of You,” the Mitchell cover, was one he’d re­turn to through­out his ca­reer, in­clud­ing dur­ing his fi­nal tour, in 2016. His backup vo­cal­ist and then-girl­friend, Jill Jones, writes in the Pi­ano liner notes of Prince play­ing the song “on long drives through Min­neapo­lis on cloudy, dreary days.” The sec­ond cover, “Mary Don’t You Weep,” dates back to the an­te­bel­lum era; Spike Lee used Prince’s ver­sion in

his lat­est film, Blackkklans­man.

One of the un­heard orig­i­nals, the sacy “Cold Cof­fee & Co­caine,” finds Prince singing in the voice of Jamie Starr, the trash-talk­ing al­ter ego he’d as­sume dur­ing play­ful mo­ments in the stu­dio. “My sus­pi­cion is that the song was in­tended for Mor­ris Day to record with [his band] the Time,” says Howe. “But it never hap­pened. This is the only ver­sion that ex­ists.”

The unan­swer­able ques­tion is whether Prince would have wanted the tape to be heard; he didn’t leave a will or in­struc­tions re­gard­ing un­re­leased ma­te­rial. What we do know is that he was deeply pro­tec­tive of his work and im­age—a per­fec­tion­ist who never re­leased any­thing quite as raw or can­did as what you hear on Pi­ano. While the al­bum has daz­zled crit­ics and fans, it has also sparked heated de­bate on the Prince.org fo­rum, where many in­sist it dis­re­gards the artist’s wishes. Sev­eral re­view­ers wrote of the un­com­fort­able ten­sion of lis­ten­ing with plea­sure to some­thing the artist might not have wanted them to hear. (The A.V. Club de­scribed it as verg­ing “on post­mortem voyeurism.”)

Re­spect for Prince’s wishes “is the No. 1 item when dis­cussing any­thing that would be con­tem­plated for re­lease,” in­sists Howe. “We would never re­lease any­thing that’s not of the high­est ab­so­lute artis­tic cal­iber.”

Given Pi­ano’s strong sales (cur­rently in the top 15 al­bums list at Ama­zon) and unan­i­mous raves, Howe says more trea­sures from the ar­chive will be re­leased. “We’re in a lot of dis­cus­sions about what might or might not emerge. His out­takes and the things he left be­hind are, in many cases, bet­ter than an­other artist’s very best work,” he says of an ar­chive of ma­te­rial that could fill a sec­ond ca­reer. “It was like an af­ter­thought for him.”

PI­ANO MAN “The things he left be­hind are, in many cases, bet­ter than an­other artist’s best work,” says Prince’s archivist.

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