I don’t know where you are in your Prince grieving process, but if you’re like me, you’ve probably accepted by now that we are indeed living in a Prince-less world. Which is not a better world by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it’s one where we still have his music (though it’d be nice if his music was a little more available on streaming services and whatnot). Luckily, I have a handful of his albums in my iTunes, and even a couple in physical format, and have been revisiting them while also trying to enjoy whatever other Prince I can get my hands on.
But right now, I’d say I’m in my “appreciation phase” of mourning. It’s a phase I similarly went through with the recent death of David Bowie, where after the initial heartbreak of this monumental loss, I found myself going back through his discography and being in awe of just how many great songs he wrote and recorded. And while there have been a fair number of songs that have popped up for me as being gems I’d never given their due (“Controversy” is one I’ve been majorly into), it’s become pretty apparent that the song “Purple Rain” is almost certainly Prince’s masterpiece.
Song: “Purple Rain” by Prince And The Revolution
Album: Purple Rain
Written By: Prince
My Relationship With This Song
I believe my first recollection of this song was seeing it in the issue of Rolling Stone that ranked the 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time, which I actually owned a copy of, and most certainly wore out while trying to hunt down each song on that list. Anyways, “Purple Rain” came in at 146, which seemed impressive for a song I’d never heard that was nonetheless by a pretty well-known pop artist. But I don’t believe I actually got around to listening to it until roughly after I got my driver’s license, since I can remember driving one of my parents’ cars to a Best Buy to pick up a copy of Purple Rain on CD, and listening to it on the way home. Fittingly, I remember it being quite rainy on that drive home, and I also wanna say I was driving my mom’s purple Ford Windstar. And since I recall traffic being pretty bad, I was able to make it all the way to the self-titled magnum opus that serves as the album’s finale.
Other than that, I can’t say I have a whole lot of other distinct memories of this song. This probably has to do with the fact that my Prince fandom started in the mid-00’s, a time when this superstar’s cultural significance had faded a bit. However, it did seem like every time Prince did show up in a more nationally visible way in the past decade or two — like his guitar solo at the 2004 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony or his triumphant performance at the 2007 Super Bowl — it was always a reminder that holy shit is this guy is still fucking incredible.
Really the only recent memory I have that pertains to myself and the song “Purple Rain” is when Top Ten Thursdays did our “Rain Songs” podcast, and this was one of my nominations for the list, as I declared it my favorite Prince song (which is about the most interesting thing I had to say about it). This choice was then reaffirmed as a pretty good one to stand by, as last year Pitchfork named “Purple Rain” the Best Song of The 1980’s, which I can’t really argue with. And of course, it’s one that’s become especially poignant with Prince’s recent passing, since it’s probably his most emotionally wrenching song, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a hard time not breaking down and weeping the first time I heard “Purple Rain” after finding out the terrible news.
Reasons Why I Love This Song
Those Opening Chords
I find the muddy-sounding nature of the opening four-chord pattern pretty appropriate, maybe even a little too appropriate. Like as if this song’s rain-like lyrical imagery wasn’t enough, with these guitar chords (maybe strummed by Prince, maybe by Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin), it’s like you’re already standing in the mucky muck, waiting to get dumped on. And dumped on you will inevitably get. As the song never deviates from these same four chords, but never needs to, since Prince knows exactly how to squeeze the maximum amount of emotion and beauty out of this song’s seemingly simple structure.
It’s Prince At His Most Naked
Prince had already dabbled in balladry at this point, most successfully on his then-recent album 1999, with songs like “Free” and “International Lover” being interspersed with all those irresistible party jams. Pretty much all of Prince’s early music (or at least what I’ve heard) seemed to revolve around women, whether it was in regard to kinky sex with them or to Prince’s own androgynous identification as not being a totally separate entity from them. And whenever these songs were directed at some theoretical woman, it was almost always as some sort of sly come-on. “Purple Rain” however, changed all that. Prince honestly sounds like he’s baring his soul here, admitting his mistakes and regrets, while in the process revealing that underneath all that confidence and bluster was an honest-to-God human being.
It Feels Like Gospel
I had never really made the gospel connection to Prince’s music until I was reminded of a quote from Miles Davis, where he said Prince’s music is like “the church for gay guys”. But maybe that’s because my connection to gospel music is pretty non-existent, since even though I grew up being raised somewhat religious, gospel was never a part of that, as “Come All Ye Faithful” was probably about the most exciting thing I’ve ever sung in church. Anyways, it’s hard to know exactly how much of Prince’s music was influenced by his relationship with God, since that of course is a very personal matter. But I would say probably a lot, as his interweaving of religion and sex as his main spiritual vessels are crucial to a lot of his music. And with its slowly building sing-along climax, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been taken somewhere otherworldly by the end of “Purple Rain”.
No one ever makes this claim, but I’m just gonna come out and say it. Prince is one of the greatest guitarists ever. He probably doesn’t get his deserved respect in this regard because I think most serious guitar-heads have a hard time taking a “pop star” seriously as musician. But it’s hard for me to think of another guitarist that was able to blend R&B/funk sensibilities with stadium rock epic-ness the way Prince did, and with a fair amount virtuostic prowess. “Purple Rain” however, relies less on technical show-off-ness (though Prince’s fingers fly up and down the fretboard quite a bit during this song), but more on that word I’ve been using a lot — emotion. Prince could make his guitar sing like a motherfucker, and over the course of “Purple Rain”‘s minute-plus guitar solo, it feels like he’s putting ever ounce of his almighty being into it.
It Lives On The Stage
Something I always forget about this song — even despite the fact that there are some obvious crowd noises towards the end of it — is that a lot of the version we’re familiar with was recorded live. The basic tracks for the song were recorded at a benefit concert at Prince’s Minneapolis home base, First Avenue, while he did some overdubs later to polish this beauty up. And this seems more than appropriate, because this is such a great live song. I’ve watched a lot of performances of “Purple Rain” in the past few days, many of them tributes — like Bruce Springsteen’s recent rendition and the impromptu version the touring company of The Color Purple sang the night of Prince’s death — and this song always brings the house down. A lot of it has to do with the song’s structure, as it builds and builds to this epic, all-encompassing climax. But however you want to look at it, it’s just an amazing display of Prince’s musical genius, as well as his incomparable talent as a performer. And just to prove my point, I’ll give you a taste of Prince performing this song in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s. It just kills every time:
Why I Will Continue To Love This Song
Because, as I mentioned earlier, it very well might be Prince’s masterpiece. That said, I don’t know if it’s necessarily the greatest example of what made Prince a singular talent, since that dude could bring the funk like nobody, which this song admittedly doesn’t. But I also probably wouldn’t necessarily say “Heroes” was the best David Bowie song by that standard, though it’s the one people latched on to in the wake of his death, and “Purple Rain” seems to be filling that same niche with this recently departed superstar. But I guess it just gets down to the fact that perhaps more than any other art form, music is based on emotion and expression. And it’s hard not to be deeply affected when you listen to that much emotion being expressed by an artist that was that beloved.