Wednesday, June 25th, marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Prince and The Revolution’s Purple Rain. In honor of this, Deadshirt presents an entire week of art and essays that explore and celebrate one of the greatest albums of all time. Dig, if you will.
By Andrew Ihla
Prince is no stranger to apocalypse. From “1999” to “7” and beyond, the End of All Things has been a frequent well of inspiration for The Purple One. It makes sense, given that his wheelhouse is blending sexual ecstasy, funky partying, and the awesome power of God. What better venue for these elements to converge than the moment when all of humanity simultaneously passes into the afterlife?
“Purple Rain” is perhaps the most powerful chapter in Prince’s Book of Revelations. As the title track of the album, a single released to draw crowds to theaters in the summer of 1984, and an expression of what The Kid learns in the context of the film, it’s a song that serves many purposes. Even the phrase “Purple Rain” was everywhere thirty years ago, as the artist who would later be formerly known as Prince conquered box offices, record stores, airwaves, and concert venues at the height of his paisley powers. But in the midst of this pop culture typhoon, it never truly became clear to many of His Royal Funkiness’ adoring subjects just what the title meant, literally speaking. What is the Purple Rain?
To answer that question, we must return to the beginning and take in the album as a whole work. “Purple Rain” is about the peace we can find when we let our conceptions of earthly relationships be broken down by the power of the afterworld. The lyrics are deceptively simple, and to really give them context, we have to see them as the conclusion of a journey that begins with “Let’s Go Crazy”.
Our hero is a man who finds himself at the gates of Heaven, receiving the now-iconic opening sermon, a eulogy for all of humanity. He is promised that “the afterworld, a world of never-ending happiness,” is in store for him, but before he can enter, he is asked to consider the emotional hang-ups that have been plaguing his corporeal existence. “We’re all gonna die,” he is reminded, “and when we do, what’s it all 4?” Before he can enter the Great Party in the Sky, he needs to look back and come to terms with his own downfall.
In a flurry of synth and strings, he flashes back to the way he viewed love in his youth. “Take Me With U” sets the tone for the young man’s early relationships. He’s naively optimistic when it comes to romance, but the easygoing tone of the chorus (“I don’t care where we go/don’t care what we do”) is undercut by an element of paranoia that creeps in as the song continues (“just don’t break up the connection”). He doesn’t realize that it may be his own possessiveness that drives the object of his affection into the arms of another.
In “The Beautiful Ones,” our hero casts blame outwards for love lost. He demands to know, “Is it him or is it me?,” demonstrating again his inability to share the attentions of his would-be lover. “U make me so confused,” he confesses, devastated because he can’t see where things have gone wrong. Emotionally spent, he turns to a clinically logical way to find love, as “Computer Blue” finds him traversing the strange waters of technologically-aided romance. Is the water warm enough? Perhaps not. Dismayed to find a continued lack of satisfaction, he reasons that “there must be something wrong with the machinery.”
This severing of all emotional connection brings him face to face with the epitome of loveless sensuality. “Darling Nikki” reveals an encounter far removed from the wide-eyed romance and idyllic strings of “Take Me With U,” as the down ‘n’ dirty, almost garage-rock guitars strip away the last of the lush arrangements that had begun to disappear with “Computer Blue.” “Her lovin’ will kick your behind,” our hero warns, as the most intense one-night stand in pop music history leaves him feeling lost and violated, at his lowest ebb. The song’s backmasked coda, when played forward, finds Prince crooning “Hello, how are you?/I’m fine ‘cuz I know that the Lord is coming soon/Coming, coming soon.” With nowhere else to turn, our hero has finally looked toward the divine, and though the message is unclear to his clouded mind, he’s received a vision of the peace that will come when the Earth passes away. A deleted final verse, present in the album’s lyric book, confirms that this foreshadowing is intentional: “Sometimes the world’s a storm/One day soon the storm will pass/And all will be bright and peaceful/No more tears or pain/If U believe, look 2 the dawn/and fearlessly bathe in the purple rain.”
The flashback ends as the album flips to Side B, and our hero similarly reaches a turning point. “When Doves Cry” builds slowly out of the sonic rubble left by “Darling Nikki”, devoid of bass and constructed with the sparest melodies on the album. This is the moment when our hero begins to realize that all his problems began within his own heart. “Maybe I’m just 2 demanding,” he confesses, finally understanding that his formative years have left him incapable of building truly selfless relationships.
The doves of Heaven weep as they watch him confront his demons, and at last reward him for striving toward redemption by teaching him what love should be. “I’m not a human, I’m a dove/I’m your conscience, I am love,” reveals the voice of “I Would Die 4 U,” as it shows him the self-sacrificing nature of God. Our hero sees now the divine pattern humans should follow in how they treat each other. Armed with this new worldview, he charges into “Baby I’m a Star,” a celebration of his triumph over despair. “My luck’s gonna change tonight,” he declares. “There’s gotta be a better life.”
Now the journey comes full circle as our hero turns back to the pearly gates that have been looming since the opening organ chords of “Let’s Go Crazy.” The organ comes back, softer now, as “Purple Rain” begins, and he realizes he’s not alone; all the people he has loved, all the people he has hurt, are here with him now. The red fires of the world they’ve left in ruins and the blue skies of the land where you can always see the sun, day or night, clash in the violet sky over this place in between, as a cleansing rain falls on the congregation.
Before they can enter that world of never-ending happiness, he has to share what he has learned and make amends. He clarifies his intentions and owns up to the damage he’s caused, declaring that he “never meant 2 cause U any sorrow, never meant 2 cause U any pain.” He’s not demanding anything anymore, insisting that he only wants to see them underneath the purple rain. He encourages them all to let go of earthly notions as he has.
Honey, I know times r changing
It’s time we all reach out 4 something new
U say U want a leader, but U can’t seem 2 make up your mind
I think U better close it and let me guide U 2 the purple rain
The sins of the old world have passed away, and now all are one, and each person sees the other for who they truly are. The hang-ups and complications that plague our worldly relationships mean nothing here, as they are washed away and all are purified in the waters of the purple rain.
The song is the grand thesis statement behind the artistic phenomenon that was and is Purple Rain. Its message is dramatized in the motion picture, elaborated upon on the album, and glamorized in the spectacle of The Artist’s live shows and public persona. But its purest statement is there in the closing track, where Prince lays down some direct lyrics and lets his guitar do the rest. It’s a reminder that, in this life, things are much harder than the afterworld. That if you go crazy, punch a higher floor, and bathe in the purple rain, De-elevator ain’t gonna bring you down. Believe in someone who would die 4 U, and remember that He’s coming, He’s coming, He’s coming, and U will live 2 see the dawn.
Dan McDaid is a comics artist and writer based in Scotland. He began his career writing and providing art for an acclaimed run on the Doctor Who comic in DWM and has since worked for DC Comics, Oni Press, IDW and, most recently, Dark Horse, providing the artwork for Joe Casey’s Catalyst Comix and Tommy Lee Edwards’ Vandroid, a psychedelic homage to eighties video nasties.
Andrew Ihla is a writer who lives in Fargo, North Dakota. His upcoming projects include Paradoxicals with artist Joe Hunter, a sci-fi/comedy/romance comic engorged with Prince references. You can follow Andrew on Twitter and tumblr. He also curates a secondary, Gremlins 2: The New Batch-based tumblr, if you’re into that. Really.
Read more from 30 Purple Years, our tribute to Prince’s Purple Rain!