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Just to prove that I didn’t hate everything that came out of the 1980’s, I give you my review of Purple Rain.
There was no way with someone with my erotic inclinations could not have fallen in love with Purple Rain. When I first heard it in my teens, I reacted with immediate intensity to the song “Darling Nikki,” a near-perfect manifestation of the woman I wanted to be in adulthood (except I never consider fucking a way to “waste some time”). Purple Rain is still a great fuck-to album, and unlike many other attempts to merge music and sexuality, it deals honestly with the explosive dynamics of passion and possession, trying to reconcile those powerful feelings with the basic need to love and be loved. It captures the tension between fulfilling one’s desires and consideration for the other that is always a shifting balance in sophisticated, intimate relationships.
Enough verbiage. It’s fucking hot!
Purple Rain opens with a sermon, demonstrating up front one of the elements that will hold the whole thing together: Prince’s charisma. His sheer presence and passionate belief in his music allows him to take risks that few musicians attempt—and he gets away with them all. By the time he slips out of preacher mode and starts talking street, nailing that line, “In this life—you’re on your own,” I’ll follow that guy anywhere.
More importantly, the sermon sets into motion one of the currents of dramatic tension that drive Purple Rain: the co-existence of two sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary forms of passion—sexual desire and religious fervor. Americans have never been able to reconcile these two passions, threatening hell fire for those who give into sinful lust, contaminating erotic joy with lingering feelings of guilt and shame, and isolating their obsession with erotic imagery from their daily lives. However, the passions driving the religious and the sexual have more in common than the average person might assume, as comically validated by the frequent public revelations of hypocritical religious leaders caught in the act. The connection between religious and sexual behavior can been found in various historical traditions, often with an emphasis on the ecstatic aspect of pain and suffering. While whipping may be associated in the modern mind solely with sadomasochistic sex, using flagellation to induce a similar trance-like state has a long history in religious practice, from the Flagellants of the 13th Century to contemporary Good Friday processions that allow worshippers to submit themselves to flagellation in order to experience the ironic ecstasy of the suffering of Jesus.
One of the most vivid portrayals of this motif—so vivid it was banned in several countries—can be found in Ken Russell’s film The Devils. In one stunning scene, praying nun Vanessa Redgrave imagines herself a spectator of the slow procession to Golgotha; as she watches, the person bearing the cross transforms from Jesus into the local priest (Oliver Reed), and the nun enters the procession to kneel before the priest and lovingly suck his cock, while in real life she squeezes her crucifix so hard her hands bleed. Given Prince’s Christian orientation, obvious sexuality and tastes that lie on the kinky side of the ledger, this is a natural area for him to explore, which he does through various perspectives in Purple Rain.
So, yeah, I’m ready to follow him anywhere, and where he takes me is the song that fills the rest of the track, “Let’s Go Crazy.” The lyrics evoke a carpe diem philosophy that appealed to me then as much as it does now. If you’re going to play, fucking play! If you’re going to live, fucking live! Don’t hold back! The music is pure electric circus disciplined by the insistent dance beat until the closing guitar riff comes completely out of the blue to knock you on your ass. As an opening number it’s perfect, because it’s a showpiece for the talent and energy that runs through the album from beginning to end.
“Take Me with U” would have been a disaster in almost anyone else’s hands, because the song has serious “cute” potential. What saves it is Bobby Z’s drumming and the dual vocal with Prince and Appolonia Kotero, delivered with shared passion, causing the listener to get over any initial resistance and get into the groove of a fabulous love song. Equally fabulous is the slow dance number, “Beautiful Ones,” where Prince opens in falsetto to express deep vulnerability and builds to a harsh scream of frustration as he begins to face the cold reality that the love he desires may want someone else. I love the way this song expresses the core problem of human attraction: that the other person has a choice, no matter how much you may desire him or her. “Do you want him? Or do you want me? ‘Cause I want you!” expresses the helplessness we all have felt when we learn that the power of our desire is not enough to make someone else return that desire in kind.
“Computer Blue” is a thumping ass-kicker that in the story line of the movie is used to express Prince’s helplessness to stop the developing relationship between his girl and the other guy. Most Prince aficionados agree that this shorter version comes up limp when compared to the original unedited version that is three times as long. In the context of the album, the song is reduced to “the one before Darling Nikki,” which is unfortunate.
Then again, it doesn’t get any better than “Darling Nikki!” The dark and mysterious opening calls up images of dungeons and chains, then Prince begins to relay the story of the encounter in an almost off-hand, no-big-deal manner . . . at first.
I knew a girl named Nikki,
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend,
I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating in a magazine.
She said, “How’d you like to waste some time?”
And I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.
Prince’s vocal becomes more intense and expresses more awe as he is introduced to the castle,”so many devices” and Nikki in all her glory. You don’t need a movie to visualize the experience; Prince’s vocal transformation paints a memorable picture of the scene. In the last verse, his voice is submissive, spent and completely under the spell of the dominatrix, desperately frantic for more. He has found a new religion and a new focus for his desire to worship.
Way to get it done, Nikki!
To follow such a knock-your-socks-off performance with a song like “When Doves Cry” demonstrates the brilliance of Purple Rain and the deep talent of its creator. From that searing opening guitar riff, everything you hear is Prince, including the complex vocal arrangement. He also made the stunning choice to exclude the bass, something virtually unthinkable in a dance number, but a splendid decision that gives the song a stark and unique clarity without losing its danceable beat. One of the paradoxes of musical arrangement is that you often add more through subtraction, something I wish every home recording artist would adopt as a mantra to avoid the desire to keep adding more and more “cool sounds” to their mixes. I mean, what if Paul McCartney and George Martin had decided to add a glockenspiel or claves to “Eleanor Rigby?” Perish the thought! “When Doves Cry” also contains some of the most sensuous lyrics on the album:
Dream if you can a courtyard
An ocean of violets in bloom
Animals strike curious poses
They feel the heat
The heat between me and you
The disco-esque number “I Would Die for U” follows, a curious song open to multiple interpretations when considered in the context of Prince’s Christian beliefs. It’s not my personal favorite, but it’s a good fit for the record and its themes. I love the way it moves without pause into the faster “Baby I’m a Star,” ramping up the energy before the grand finale.
Now that the listening audience is completely hooked, Prince and his Revolution cohorts deepen the trance with the title track, a rare album-ending opus that actually exceeds expectations and one of the best since “A Day in the Life.” The steady, dirge-like rhythm gives Prince ample room to vary the cadence of the lyrics, which he does with an impeccable sense of timing, holding back any urge to force the melody to conform to previous patterns, but instead hitting the spots that heighten the dramatic effect. All through the relatively sparse arrangement that supports the verses you hear occasional hints of an electric guitar getting ready to explode at any moment, heightening the sense of anticipation. When that solo finally arrives, Prince avoids the temptation to let it all rip at first, but patiently establishes the theme before soaring into a signature lead guitar solo. As the long musical passage morphs into piano and strings, the feelings change to something more ambiguous, uncertain . . . the tension of the main themes remain unresolved instead of being wrapped up in a pretty little package for us. The struggle for the soul will continue.
Purple Rain is a masterpiece of dramatic, erotic tension. It is also represents one of those rare moments when popular taste and high art were in sync. I doubt that the public perceived the richness of the themes; most probably bought the album because it’s undeniably sexy and has some great dance numbers. Purple Rain is all that and more, for it deals with a near-universal conflict that continues to plague a good part of humanity: our desire for sex and the guilt associated with sexuality. Prince’s brilliant and honest treatment of that theme makes Purple Rain a timeless work of art.
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