What Writers Can Learn From “Purple Rain”
I’ve listened to Prince’s Purple Rain album in its entirety on exactly two occasions, both 12-hour car rides. The first was when I was 14 and driving with my family on our annual trek to Pittsburgh. (Because that’s where all my extended family was, not because we were desperate for chipped ham.) It was my older sister’s tape, and while I listened exclusively to heavy metal, I decided to jam the stupid thing in my Panasonic Walkman-knockoff and hear what everyone was so goddamn excited about. We didn’t know, in primitive 1984, to call this hate-listening.
And it killed me. On a twelve-hour ride, I listened only to that one tape, over and over. I’d fall asleep to it, wake up a half-hour later, flip it and start it again. One thing: The very first time, it’d been spooled to start on Side 2, so all my life I’ve thought that Purple Rain starts with “When Doves Cry” and ends with “Darling Nikki.” And yet it worked for me.
I don’t know what captivated 14-year-old metalhead me about this album. I only know that I listened to it all the way to Pittsburgh and then I was done with it. Not in a negative way, but in the way that felt important and transformative. It had changed me, and I became a much more open-minded listener after that.
The second time was last week, when me wife and me kids were taking the twelve-hour drive to a place we own in Prince Edward Island, Canada. My wife and I were driving in three-hour shifts, and I awoke from a nap (in the passenger seat) to find that “Let’s Go Crazy,” which had been soundtracking what felt like a four-hour dream, was actually playing on Spotify.
I’d heard songs from Purple Rain over the years — duh — but hadn’t listened to the album since my Pittsburgh trip. My first thoughts? That album sounds like work. Not laborious to listen to at all — I mean you can hear the sweat in that thing. There are so many ideas and so much incredible musicianship, and yet it all comes together so perfectly. You have no doubt the finished Purple Rain sounds exactly like it did in Prince’s head, and any writer knows how rare a thing that is. (Note: I originally wrote part of that last line as Prince’s Head, which would surely have changed sitcoms in the 90s.)
- Go big or go home. I don’t mean write about Big Themes, as Misters Wolfe and Franzen would have you do. Because fuck both those guys. You write what you want, cookie. But do write it THE MOST that you can write it. Prince, on Purple Rain, sounds like a guy who’s got both nothing and everything to lose. There’s not a moment where he lets himself, or the listener, off easy. Not a moment where he’s not swinging for the fences. Even on the quieter songs, there are a million fascinating things going on, yet it never sounds busy or cluttered.
- Be all you can be. This is the Army’s slogan, of course, but I’d rather hang it on Prince. Who else could have made Purple Rain? NO ONE. Who else could have made the thing you’re working on? Eight other writers? Fix that. Where’s the YOU in what you’re writing? Where are your concerns, your hopes and terrors, your voice, your quirks? Get those in there, or what’s the point of writing? Why not just hand someone another author’s more interesting book?
- Make interesting choices. Speaking of quirks, listen to “When Doves Cry,” but imagine you’re hearing it for the first time. Holy shit, right? There’s no bass, barely any instrumentation, it’s a dance track in a minor key, and there’s nothing resembling a traditional hook. It’s nearly atonal. And the single sold 2 million copies. That song was everywhere in 1984. Prince took a chance, he listened to his gut, and it paid off — not because it made a bunch of money, but because people responded to this weird thing that only Prince could have made. Someone is out there, waiting for the thing only you can make.
- Structure is crucial. Ah, but you have to make it good. There’s the rub. You have to make a thing people will want to follow from page to page, chapter to chapter. “When Doves Cry” violates a bunch of “rules” of hit singledom, but it also hews to a very traditional structure. It rhymes, it has verses and choruses, it has a beginning, middle, and an end. It even has a guitar solo in the middle, like every other song in 1984. And because he used these core elements, Prince was able to get away with his crazy stylistic choices. The rest of the Purple Rain album follows suit, and if you start (ahem, 14-year-old me) with “Let’s Go Crazy” and end with “Purple Rain,” you can see the sequencing — the structuring of the album — is flawless, ending with one of the biggest, most cathartic songs in pop history.*
- Don’t be afraid to look dumb. Look at that album cover. It’s ridiculous. Yet does Prince look ashamed? He does not look ashamed. He’s looking out at you, saying, “Yeah, I’m on a motorcycle in a pirate shirt and waistcoat. Yeah, the border is my mom’s good spring tablecloth. What of it? I made a goddamned masterpiece here that you can also throw on at a party. What have you done?” I know too many writers, both published and un-, who seem humble or even vaguely embarrassed about what they do. Life is short, guys. Don’t just be quietly proud of what you make, be obnoxious about it. You get on that purple motorcycle, you tease up that hair, you wet down that tiny mustache, and you say, “Get on, Apollonia, and let’s go ride by the river or whatever.” Be, I am saying, YOUR OWN PRINCE.
Now: What’s your Purple Rain? What’s the album that does it all for you and moves you beyond mere listenership**? Lemme know in the comments.
*Do try the album “my” way, though. To begin on “When Doves Cry” and end on “Darling Nikki” still feels completely natural to me, and offers a whole different read to the album. I mean, “Purple Rain” leads into the exact midpoint of the record, which in a novel is usually where things have fallen apart so completely it all seems hopeless (and thus will require big adjustments on the characters’ parts), or where things are so perfect and great that nothing could ever tear it all apart!!! (And yet, underneath, something is still not right.) And then, rather than the big, showy catharsis of the title track, we end on “Darling Nikki,” which starts off whimsical and carnival-like, but which, in its own way, revs up to become a monster in its own right. Plus you end the album on the backwards-talking. Win-win!
** Other entries in this category for me: Highway 61 Revisited, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, West of Rome, Beggar’s Banquet, New Day Rising.