Matthew Miles Goodrich | Longreads | July 2018 | 11 minutes (2,837 words)
I came to inside a CAT scan machine. Not a revelation — I didn’t spring up and bang my bruised face against the cool metal of the medical marvel — but a recognition, a lugubrious return to my cognizance. I surmised I was in a hospital and, broken bones considered, that was a good place to be.
At least my trauma had a sense of humor. I couldn’t remember where I had been before landing inside the CAT scan machine, but I could tell you the song that had been rattling around my concussed head. It was Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
Inside the giant X-ray assessing the damage, I became aware that I was humming along to the song’s rhythmic chug. As the fog of my brain injury lifted, cueing the sharpening of the prickly sensations upon my skull, I eked the lyrics out of my memory: “Never meant to cause you any sorrow / never meant to cause you any pain.”
I cried the first time I heard “Purple Rain.” (This puts Prince in a broad category of musicians that runs the gamut from Television to Miles Davis to Taylor Swift.) It’s not only, in my opinion, Prince’s best song — a tough contest, to be sure, considering “Little Red Corvette” — but also one of the best songs ever written. That’s a rare achievement for a ballad, a genre whose slow-burning schmaltz tends to yank at the heartstrings rather than soar for the stars. “Purple Rain” does both, thanks to Prince’s lilting lyrics, addressing a hurt and harmed “you,” and that teasing, probing, undulating guitar solo. Prince carries us with him along every bent note, with the ebb and flow of a prom-night sway. “Purple Rain” is sad, tender, and triumphant, the sound of the most painful part of any relationship: the letting go.
“Purple Rain” is a letting go.
Price died on April 21, 2016, the same day I turned 23. He achieved a rare ubiquity in my adolescence: His iconography was everywhere and his music was nowhere. I knew he was once the “Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” the only satisfying pronunciation of the unpronounceable symbol that he performed under for a spate in the ’90s. His stare on the cover of “Purple Rain” — which has him festooned like some courtier draped around a fanged motorcycle as mist threatens to envelop him — told me everything I needed to know. Just as his career was fraught with disputes with record labels, making for spotty access to his albums in the post-Napster era, Prince’s stare was a diva’s: pouty, churlish, provocative, longing, damaged.
My first exposure to Prince came in high school. It was around the time I started playing guitar. Looking for a hero, I found a 2004 video of him, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, and others paying tribute to George Harrison at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, trading verses of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The version of the video I saw promised “the BEST guitar solo in music history.”
Prince’s histrionics begin after the final verse, his solo coloring the A minor chord with a chromatic descent. He takes a few bars, then a few more, barrelling over Petty’s attempts to steer the group back to the chorus. With his shirt unbuttoned to his midriff, Prince kneads the frets, thrusting the guitar into his groin and wielding its neck like a phallus. With each elongated note and ecstatic contortion of his lips, he scales a new climax, thrusting and weaving and longing. The panache with which he falls onto a cameraman only to rise again, still playing, would have been unworkable from any less of a showman, but Prince sells it with orgasmic euphoria. Harrison’s son beams at Prince from onstage. The band finishes. Prince tosses his instrument. The camera zooms out. The guitar goes up. It doesn’t come down.