Alan Light has been a music journalist for some twenty years now. A senior editor at The Rolling Stone magazine and the founding music editor and editor-in-chief of Vibe, Light talks to Guardian 20 about his new book Let’s Go Crazy, on the late popstar Prince and that great milestone of his career, Purple Rain — the song, the album and the film.
Q. For how long did you research before actually getting down to write this book?
In some ways, I feel like I had been doing the research for this book since discovering Prince before Purple Rain was even released — his work has been a bit of a life-long obsession for me, and I was drawing on incidents and experiences that went back to my high school years. But in terms of specifically focusing on Let’s Go Crazy as an actual book, I worked on it (researching and writing) for about a year; it was a little more rushed than I might have liked, but I had to place a pretty strict deadline on myself to get it out in time for the album’s 30th anniversary.
Q. How many band members did you interview and how was the experience?
A. I met with three of the five members of the Revolution — Wendy, Lisa, and Dr. Fink. They were all great and all very generous with their time. I drove around Minneapolis (in a snow storm!) with Matt Fink, and he pointed out some of their old rehearsal spaces and residences, and we went to the First Avenue club together. Lisa and Wendy spent a long day with me at their studio in Los Angeles. Having seen them play back in the ’80s, and of course watched them on screen in the movie over and over again, it was certainly a thrill to have that time with them. I also met with or spoke to various other musicians who worked with Prince during the Purple Rain era, including Jill Jones, Dez Dickerson, and Susannah Melvoin.
Q. Did you personally meet Prince? How was the experience?
A. I had met and interviewed Prince numerous times over the years, for several lengthy magazine profiles, which I describe in the book. There’s no short why to describe what it was like — it really wasn’t like anything else, being with someone who had music coming out of them so constantly, and who truly constructed a world that allowed him to create anywhere at any time. I very much enjoyed my conversations with him — he was bright and funny, provocative and charming, and in some ways much more relatable than his image (for a guy who did multiple costume changes on days when he didn’t even have a show). There is nothing I’ve ever done that will compare with talking to him on stage during sound check, while he played guitar, or sitting on a piano bench with him as he played a new song. I feel privileged to have gotten that close to a genius.
“There may be a handful of records that I love more than ‘Purple Rain’, but I don’t think there’s any album that came out during my lifetime that I responded to as strongly in real time, as it was happening.”
Q. What made you write this book?
A. There may be a handful of records that I love more than Purple Rain, but I don’t think there’s any album that came out during my lifetime that I responded to as strongly in real time, as it was happening. I remember every moment of its release — from staying up to hear the first time “When Doves Cry” was being played on the radio to buying the album the day it came out or going to the movie theater the weekend that the film opened. It also happens that it came out during the summer between my high school graduation and my start at college, so it’s particularly vivid in my memory — seeing the movie over and over with my old friends, and then going back again and again with my new friends and really creating relationships that started with the movie. And then sleeping on the sidewalk in the snow with my best friend at the time to buy tickets for the tour. It was such a massive phenomenon, the one time that Prince was able to make unprecedented, daring music that also captured the whole world’s imagination — the rest of his career, he swung back and forth between being a stadium-filling pop star and being the world’s biggest cult artist, with a dedicated fan base that would follow him through his experiments, but for that project, he was able to do it all.
Q. Do you think Prince’s music managed to inspire and change an entire generation?
A. What I hope will stand as his greatest legacy is his absolute commitment to creative freedom, to the sense that being a true artist means constantly taking risks, never feeling like your direction should be determined by what anyone expects from you. This is someone who turned down his first offers of a record contract as a teenager because he insisted on having complete creative control. Think about his audacity in getting Purple Rain made — he was a kid with a couple of hits and no real mainstream “celebrity” presence, with no business making a feature film. But he told his managers to get him a movie deal or else he would fire them and find someone who could. He had a totally clear vision of what could translate his music to a huge audience, even as everyone around him had no idea what he was talking about. So I think that fearlessness, along with his absolute musical mastery, really did take him to heights that no one else could reach.
Q. Do you today’s musicians have the same influence on people as they did back in the day?
A. I think that the moment of 1984 when “Purple Rain” came out, along with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” really represents the moment when pop music got so big that its center couldn’t hold, and after that, it didn’t have the same kind of cultural impact. It was everyone’s first project after MTV took over and after “Thriller” showed that there was a different kind of scale you could aim for. Also, hip-hop was just starting to break through and polarise a big part of the audience. So different slices of pop were now bigger than the whole pie used to be. Certainly, musicians have opportunities now unlike anything they would have had before that — endorsements and clothing deals and digital platforms and business holdings that never were possible until those guys showed that a market could support multiple albums selling tens of millions of copies. But I think very few artists have the same kind of universal impact that acts like Prince and Michael Jackson were able to have at their peak.
Excerpt: How a song, an album and a movie together came to symbolise Prince’s life
Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the making of Purple Rain
by Alan Light
Simon and Schuster
Price: Rs 399
The stage is dark. A chord rings out.
It’s an unusual chord — a B flat suspended 2 with a D in the bass. A year from this night, the sound of that chord will be enough to drive audiences into hysteria. But right now, in this club, the crowd of 1,500 or so people listen quietly, because it’s the first time they are hearing the song that the chord introduces.
A spotlight comes up, revealing a young woman playing a purple guitar. She is dressed simply, in a white V-neck tank top, patterned miniskirt, and white, metal-studded, purpletrimmed high-top sneakers. Her asymmetrical haircut is very much on trend for 1983, the year this show is taking place. Wendy Melvoin, the girl holding the guitar, is just nineteen years old, and this is not only the first time she is performing this song in public, it is also her first appearance as the new guitarist in Prince’s band, the Revolution. So far tonight, they have played nine songs; this one is kicking off the encore.
She plays through a chord progression once, and the rest of the five-piece band falls in behind her. They go through the cycle again, and then again. The fifth time around, you can hear a second guitar coming from somewhere offstage. On the ninth instrumental go-round, Prince strides out, wrapped tightly in a purple trench coat. He plays a few fills, moves his head to the microphone as if he’s about to start singing, then pulls back again. Finally, three and a half minutes into the song, he begins his vocal, reciting more than singing the first line — “I never meant to cause you any sorrow . . .” The performance would yield what would soon become his signature recording and one of popular music’s greatest landmarks.
When he reaches the chorus, repeating the phrase “purple rain” six times, the crowd does not sing along. They have no idea how familiar those two words will soon become, or what impact they will turn out to have for the twenty-five-year-old man onstage in front of them. But it’s almost surreal to listen to this performance now, because while this thirteen-minute version of “Purple Rain” will later be edited, with some subtle overdubs and effects added, this very recording — the maiden voyage of the song — is clearly recognizable as the actual “Purple Rain,” in the final form that will be burned into a generation’s brain, from the vocal asides to the blistering, highspeed guitar solo to the final, shimmering piano coda. As the performance winds down, Prince says quietly to the audience, “We love you very, very much.”
In the audience, up in the club’s balcony, Albert Magnoli listens to Prince and the Revolution play the song. Magnoli, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, has just arrived in Minneapolis to begin work on Prince’s next project, a feature film based on the musician’s life, which will start shooting in a few months. He thinks that this grand, epic ballad might provide the climactic, anthemic moment for the movie, an element that he hadn’t yet found in the batch of new recordings and work tapes Prince had given him. After the set, Magnoli joins the singer backstage and asks about the song.
“You mean ‘Purple Rain’?” Prince says. “It’s really not done yet.” Magnoli tells him that he thinks this might be the key song they are missing for the film. Prince, the director recalls, considers that for a minute, and then says, “If that’s the song, can Purple Rain also be the title of the movie?”
This launch and christening of Purple Rain occurred on August 3, 1983, at the First Avenue club in downtown Minneapolis. The show — with tickets priced at $25 — was a benefit for the Minnesota Dance Theatre, where Prince has already started his band taking lessons in movement and rehearsing in preparation for the film. The sold-out concert, which raised $23,000 for the company, was his first appearance in his hometown since the tour that followed his breakthrough album, 1999, ended in April, during the course of which he reached the Top Ten on the album and singles charts for the first time, and made the hard-won leap to becoming an A-list pop star.
Excerpted from Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy, with the publisher’s permission