What does it sound like?:
One evening in January 1983, more than a year before his breakthrough album and movie, Purple Rain, Prince sat down at his piano and spent forty minutes entertaining himself. He sang some new songs and some old ones, including a couple of covers. An engineer captured it on a cassette tape. It’s such an intimate recording, you can almost hear his heart beating, feel the heat of his breath and sense the whirr of electricity in his brain.
The record company bill this as a ‘rehearsal’ but Prince is toying with these songs. He’s moulding them, shaping them, stretching them to their limits. Sometimes, he bashes them about and other times he treats them with tenderness. He uses his voice and his piano as a single whole instrument, stomping his feet, pounding his fists on the keys. His vocals jump from falsetto to sotto voce, the rhythms following suit. He’s utterly committed to these performances. Even though many of the songs are mere sketches, he oozes passion. He is consumed by the desire to make the music work.
17 Days, ultimately the B side of When Doves Cry, is plaintive and percussive, a work in progress. He impersonates the rhythm section with his mouth. You can feel his imagination hearing it as a dance number, despite the emotional heartbreak at its core. There follows a whisper of Purple Rain, just two lines and a nascent melody and a brief take of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, a song he returned to twenty years later.
Mary Don’t You Weep sounds alternately like a child about to burst into tears or a grief stricken giant of a man whose moans of angry defiance originate in the very bowels of the earth. Strange Relationship starts as funky, moves through blues and soft balladry until breaking into some jazz. It took him four years to decide on its ultimate direction. International Lover, the only song he’d previously recorded, longs wistfully for a time lost to the past.
Prince never released a studio version of the last three songs. Wednesday, once pencilled in as track five for Purple Rain, is so fragile, about a man on the edge, one can barely breath for its two minutes. Cold Coffee And Cocaine is effectively a demo for The Time. Sung in his “Jamie Starr” alter ego voice, Prince wearies of his lover, improvising his disgust on the spot. The finale, Why The Butterflies sounds as though Prince is feeling his way to its heart, its lyric sketchy, the melody wispy and elusive. It could be a song for his mother.
Piano And A Microphone 1983 captures Prince on the cusp of fame, inquisitive, playful, confident and supremely talented. It’s well worth a listen.
What does it all *mean*?
Prince’s legacy may be in safe hands after all. Two anthologies, teasing digital download singles and a Purple Rain box overflowing with extras might have suggested a rapacious desire to make money. However, this release is not primarily a cash cow. It shines such a revealing light on Prince’s genius, it enables fans to feel incredibly close to the man himself.
Goes well with…
Warm, all encompassing headphones and muted lighting. Bear in mind a tragedy occurred, otherwise we wouldn’t be hearing these performances at all.
Might suit people who like…
Prince Rogers Nelson.