As I write this MTV has cleared their schedule to show nothing but Prince videos. Since Prince was there at the creation, it is entirely appropriate. MTV launched in August, 1981, and immediately influenced the pop charts and the music taste of the entire nation. After Michael Jackson’s 11-minute video for “Thriller”, directed by John Landis, elevated the music video to the level of cinematic art, the next logical step was music video inspired feature. Then came Purple Rain, which made $70 million at the box office and produced mega hit videos for “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy”.
There are many, many people who can recount His Purple Majesty’s history much better than I. All I can do at this sad juncture is share a couple of stories about what Prince and his music meant to me, in the hopes that you can find some resonance with your own experience.
I can’t say that Prince began my interest in music, but seeing Purple Rain crystalized my desire to play in a band, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I dreamed of being up on a stage in a smoky, sweaty club like First Avenue, because Prince made it look so cool, and feel so transcendent.
I bought the cassette of Sign O’ The Times in my small town’s record store. As I drove aimlessly and alone around town listening to the album for the first time, a thunderstorm blew up. In my mind, the dark clouds gathering and the electric feeling in the air right before the first thunderclap hits has always been inseparable from those songs.
There was a girl at my high school who was impossibly beautiful and graceful. She was popular, and I was a geek, but we ended up spending a lot of time together because I was in the marching band, she was in the dance corps. We became friends, and like ever other heterosexual guy at school, I harbored a secret crush on her. Improbably, we ended up going out a few time as senior year wound down, even though her popular friends wouldn’t have anything to do with me. On one of those dates, we talked about how people pretended to like certain music and wear certain clothes because the popular kids did it, and they thought it would make them popular. And she confessed to me that she did that, too, and the reason she wanted to go out with me was because I was a Prince fan. “Prince is the only thing I know for certain I like,” she said.
In the Memphis of 1995, I was in an arty punk band called Pisshorse. We got a chance to open for the (first) Neighborhood Texture Jam farewell show at Antenna club. It was our custom to work up one cover song for every show, and play it only once. For that show, we punked up “Darling Nikki”. Antenna audiences were notoriously cranky and difficult, and we had played there a couple of time, but never a really good show. We played the first half of our set to a full, but completely indifferent house. Hey, at least they weren’t throwing stuff, I thought. Then, we stared “Darling Nikki”. About halfway through the first verse, some guy standing at the bar in the back of the room let out a holler that cut through the silence of the room. I could see waves of recognition flow through the crowd, and by the time we got to the final chorus, we had them in the palms of our hand, and kept them there for the rest of the set. The one night I was a star at Antenna, it was because of Prince.
Finally, Feburary 4, 2007: The day of Prince’s legendary Super Bowl performance was the day after my wedding. My wife and I rolled into our hotel right before the game started and watched Prince on a tiny TV on our honeymoon bed. Then our team won the Super Bowl. It was a good day.
Prince’s Super Bowl performance must rank among the most historically significant live performances of all time. I’d include on that list The Beatles at the Star Club in Hamburg; the night James Brown saved Boston from rioting on April 4, 1968; Hendrix at Monterey Pop; The Stones at Altamont; The Ramones at the Roundhouse in London on July 4, 1976, when the men and women who created English punk got their first taste of the real stuff. And there’s one more by Prince on that list: On August 3, 1983, Prince played a benefit at First Avenue for the Dance Theater of Minneapolis. He took the opportunity to debut a new band, The Revolution, and three new songs: “I Would Die 4 U”, “Baby I’m A Star”, and “Purple Rain”. It was that live recording of “Purple Rain” that Prince would take into the studio and, with a little editing and few choice overdubs, became the classic song that we all know. Prince has been notoriously stingy with his music online, and the video shot that night has popped up online periodically ever since, only to be taken down. This afternoon, after the news broke, someone posted it again on YouTube. It might get taken down, but for now, here it is, unedited, raw: The first time anyone in the world heard “Purple Rain”.
UPDATE: It looks like Warner Brothers got the "Purple Rain" video taken down, so here's some excellent video of Prince live in 1982.