I was ten years old at the time and my babysitter brought this strange looking album to the house featuring a longhaired black man straddling a wicked motorcycle on the cover (so cool, debonair and quite unlike anything I had seen before). That album, 'Purple Rain', was a slick, sleek canvas of sexuality, romance and heartache. From the opening track, 'Let's Go Crazy', to the climactic 'Baby I'm A Star', I was entranced: lost in the lush guitar solo on 'Computer Blue'; spellbound by 'The Beautiful Ones', still capable of reducing me to inconsolable weeping; the melodic majesty of 'When Doves Cry', and Prince's plaintive yearning for a better world, for a better self; and the sardonic, nasty (and dirty), 'Darling Nikki'.
The latter incensed my father, and I had no idea why at the time. Prince sang: 'I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine', and my father said: 'charming'. Given that he had already burned the cover to Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'Relax' by throwing it into the coal-fire, it seems that my father sought to protect the family from unsavoury images of leather, tights and a scantily clad duo entwined in a strange embrace. And sex. A certain brand of sex. Sexy sex. Remember, this was before the Internet, before online pornography became easy to access at the push of a button. The only way children of the 80s could access 'blue movies' - 'blueys' in the vernacular of the time -- was by accident, usually 'discovered' in a parental underwear drawer alongside a copy of The Joy of Sex. (If we couldn't find films, then pencil drawings would have to do.)
But 'Purple Rain', I learned, was the soundtrack to a film, also starring Prince. Upon its release on VHS, I scarpered to the local video store and parted with an entire 50p to rent it out for the evening. I watched it with my father who again expressed his opprobrium at 'Darling Nikki' ('charming'). But when Apollonia Six took to the stage to sing 'Sex Shooter', shedding their cloaks to reveal stockings and suspenders, my father had had enough and turned it off. 'You're too young' he said and that was that. Purple Rain had been censored in the family home until it was screened on TV and I secretly recorded it and hid the offending tape by labelling it as something else.
Following news of Prince's untimely death last week, I re-watched 'Purple Rain' and was reminded how music and film can often function as a conduit to the past. Following other musical excursions into cinema, such as Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' and The Who's 'Tommy', Prince's first cinematic outing, his best by far - 'Under the Cherry Moon' and 'Graffiti Bridge' not even in the same ball-park - I was struck by the sheer tragedy of the film, a reading that I certainly would not have been sophisticated enough to understand as a youth. Of course, it is rather difficult, if not nigh on impossible, to be objective about such re-viewings and re-visitations. 'Purple Rain' was such a fundamental part of my formative years that I cannot forgive any bias. But the film packs a powerful, emotional punch that resonated much stronger today than it ever did 'way back when'.
I watched it with my partner who had never seen it before (I know, I know, don't get me started). Not only does the film ooze sexuality, but it is also a tragic tale about domestic violence and the sins of the father becoming the curse of the son.
Prince's character, known only as 'The Kid', arrives home on various occasions only to learn that his father has beaten his wife for the umpteenth time. In one particular scene, Prince finds his mother sitting in tears by the side of the road. Prince angrily storms through the house searching for his father ('answer me motherfucker!') until he hears a mournful piano echoing throughout the house. His father, also a musician, and a failed one at that, finishes the tune and sits at the piano, hands trembling as he tries to light a cigarette. 'Do you have a girlfriend?' asks 'The Kid's' father, Francis L:
The Kid: 'Yeah, I got a girl'.
Francis: 'You gonna get married?'
The Kid: 'I don't know'.
Francis: 'Never get married'.
At this point in the film, The Kid doesn't actually have a girlfriend. In a memorable scene, The Kid strikes his girlfriend, Apollonia, across the face as a reaction to her news that she's going to join Morris' band (Morris Day of The Time being Prince's nemesis in the film). 'You're just jealous!' she exclaims, heartbroken. It is an especially striking scene and my partner was shocked at the violence against women in the film.
To be sure, women are often treated badly in 'Purple Rain'. But it's the representation of men that is under the microscope here, a crisis of masculinity. In a later scene, The Kid arrives home, again to find that his parents have been at it (although to be fair, Prince's onscreen mother is the victim). The Kid searches for his father. Again. But, this time, instead of hearing the sorrowful whisperings of a piano, we hear a gun-shot. Francis L attempts suicide, not only to escape a tragic relationship, but to escape himself.
In the following scene, The Kid has prophetic visions of what will come to pass if he is doomed to repeat his father's mistakes, a path which he has been dangerously walking thus far. This harrowing scene offers an inside view on what is going on in The Kid's psychology: a coiled rope; a chalk outline where his father lay; a vision of himself hanging by a noose at the foot of the stairs. Here, The Kid is faced with his father's sins and sees the same future for himself. 'Like father, like son', says the manager of music venue, Fifth Avenue.
'Purple Rain' is a tragedy. It is a complex film hiding in plain sight as an extended music video; a morality tale about domestic abuse and the human condition; and a warning to men, to sons and fathers.
I remember Purple Rain and what it meant to me as a child and what it means to me now.
I remember Prince: controversial, shocking, brilliant, eccentric.
I remember Prince: sexy, daring, provocative, innovative.
I remember Prince: prolific, artistic, virtuosic, musician.
I remember Prince.