“I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand”
Okay, I think that’s one of the best opening lines of any pop song ever. Up until I heard Prince sing those words in 1984, I’d been convinced that Morrissey was the only person who really and truly understood me. I even wrote him and told him so ( still waiting for a response). This song changed all that.
I didn’t really get into Prince until the 1999 album came out which, as hardcore fans go, is kinda late. At the time I had a secret crush on this guy I went to school with named Manuel who had pretty eyes, an eternally serious expression and was a talented artist. I would daydream about him for hours on the train every day while my 1999 cassette played in an endless loop on my Walkman…or at least I did for a little while, until I had my epiphany. Well, not a sudden one, maybe it was more of a realization over time, which was that my affection for him was solely based on his slight resemblance to Prince in the “Little Red Corvette” video. Why was I wasting time on the middle man (Manuel) when it was Prince I was actually in love with ?
“You were only fooling yourself girl…”
And so pretty soon, upon that inner acknowledgment, it was all about Prince and I wanted more. When the release of Purple Rain was announced a year later, both album and movie, I could, not, wait.
“When Doves Cry” was the first single released off the album and…I didn’t like it. I know, I know, I have no excuse for myself other than to say I’d grown up listening to ELO records and wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to appreciate its genius at the time. What I liked was big swooping synthesizers, a lot of big orchestral junk, and whale sized hooks and…that was it. ELO provided that plus cardboard spaceships inside the albums.
Of course as it turned out, Prince had something up his sleeve.
I bought the album the week it came out and for some inexplicable reason, never removed the shrink wrap, I just opened the slit to remove the record. And tragically there it remains to this day, hanging desperately off the sleeve, baggy, wrinkled and distended, being kept alive for no other reason than “well I’ve had it this long why get rid of it now”.
And yes, the record store was actually called “Slipped Disc”.
See Photo Exhibit A below :
Let go, and let God…no,no, I just can’t.
The Song: On side 2, right after Doves it appeared. Layers of big fat synth. A radiant hook. And the lyrics, oh man. “I Would Die 4 U” dammit. I loved everything about it. It did all those things a brilliant song is supposed to do, made you feel overwhelmed, exposed, sick and like you were starring in your own epic movie…and maybe made you feel like you were actually cool because it made all your desperate thoughts sound positively valiant and beautiful. It ticked all the boxes and I played it over and over and over again.
The Words: There are 2 ways you can interpret the lyrical content, as in it’s either Prince talking or it’s, well you know, “Him”, Jesus…of course with any genius pop song, it’s your voice too ( in this case it’s you at your most histrionic, self-important, and love consumed). I’d like to say something noble like I always hear it as Jesus’s voice, but no…It’s only ever Prince or uh, me.
The Movie: “Someone” was very excited to see Purple Rain, so much so that “someone” insisted on seeing it the day it was released at a theater some distance from their town. I went with a friend, and no expectations to that first afternoon showing and from the moment Prince mounted that motorcycle in his heels, I was with him. I felt an ecstatic energy in me every time a song started. When people laughed at some scenes that were clearly not meant to be funny, I took it personally, felt protective of him, thought “God, what is wrong with you people”. He wasn’t a joke, they just didn’t get it; “I am something that you’ll never comprehend”.
Yes. I really thought this. I know.
Anyway, how much did I love the movie ? Well I went to see it again the next day alone.
Our union was sealed ( Prince and me).
April 2016: The first weekend after Prince died, screenings of Purple Rain were scheduled all over the U.S. I bought tickets thinking it would be the perfect way to mourn with other Prince fans. I pictured scenes akin to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with everyone singing, reciting dialogue affectionately back to the screen and spontaneously dancing in the aisles to “Let’s Go Crazy”…but it wasn’t like that. Not at all. Apart from some brief laughter during the early scene where Prince sidles up behind Apollonia, in his giant fly sunglasses and plays hard to get, it was a pretty somber event.
And 2 things were abundantly clear since I’d seen it years before in my initial fog of infatuation :
1. The acting was wooden and occasionally really terrible
2. It’s pretty misogynistic
That’s usually how it is when you see a movie you loved when you were young years later through more mature and maybe cynical eyes i.e. it’s never as good as you thought it was and maybe, not good at all.
…but despite all that, there was also a revelation, which was that the live performances were absolutely transcendent.
Up on a giant screen in the dark they were more beautiful and stirring than I ever remembered. As in you couldn’t believe what you were hearing or that this guy was ever real. And while Purple Rain, the song, triggered waves of tears and audible sniffles all over the theater from its opening notes, “I Would Die 4 U” was the one that I fell apart to.
When the song starts, we see him onstage, and after a minute cut to a scene where Prince is in the basement cleaning up the rage inspired mess he made, gathering strewn sheet music and all of sudden finds the earring he gave Apollonia, that she threw at him during an argument ( justifiably I might add) on the floor. He gently fondles it, smirks ( see lead photo above, that’s a freakin’ smirk) and tosses it backward with laser accuracy to Apollonia, who it turns out is actually there with him because they made up.
I cried through the whole song. Even that corny scene. Crying over his death but mostly thinking about how much this song meant to me as a teen/loser/geek who didn’t know who the fuck I was, if I mattered or if I was ever going to fit into this world or be understood. “I’m not human, I’m a dove, I’m your conscious, I am love”. Yeah.
And while there’d been no singing or aisle dancing, at the end of the movie, everyone applauded for several minutes for this miraculous guy we got to experience in real time.
Sometimes I can hear “I Would Die 4 U” and feel fine, wash dishes or whatever…but other times it’s tears. Still, to this day. It’s never been “Purple Rain”, it’s always been this.
Last year, I got on a ladder with a handful of crumbling colored chalk and wrote out the lyrics on a bumpy wall at Rough Trade in Brooklyn. A tribute to Prince of course, the one who created it, but also to the damn song itself…and for the infinite amounts of unconditional love it gave me when I needed it.
Oh yeah, here’s the song in all it’s glory: