Label art for “Another Lonely Christmas,” the B-side of Prince”s 1984 “I Would Die 4 U” 12-inch single. (Warner Bros.)
To truly understand Prince, it is important to not just enjoy his music: it is vital to listen to it, study it, absorb it, and place it in the proper context of his life. Throughout Prince”s career, he often spoke in riddles and misdirection, laying the groundwork for confusion and contradiction, but his music, in its purest form, provided keys that unlocked his private thoughts and chronicled the highs and lows of his amazing career.
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It is impossible to describe Prince without using words like “genius” and “talented,” but it is also fairly common to add “mysterious,” “private,” and even “reclusive” because at the peak of his popularity he gave very few interviews, so people assumed they couldn”t understand him. That behavior functioned to maintain some mystery about him, but even if he was less than forthcoming about his life, there was one place that his words could be clearly heard.
According to Prince, “I”ve always been honest in my music.” Let”s go back to December 1984. Prince was in the middle of the biggest tour of his life and riding high on the success of Purple Rain. The movie and the album had been released earlier in the year and were so successful that few could imagine what it would be like to be Prince.
Prince was, in every aspect of his career, an artist — and like many in the arts, he enjoyed sharing his most recent works with the world because it best represented where he was at that moment, and at this moment in his life he was on a new spiritual path. However, the Purple Rain Tour was structured so that he was performing what people expected him to play. Many of these “new” songs were actually years old and had been recorded, rehearsed, filmed, edited, reviewed, revised, rehearsed again, and performed live in concert as a stage version of his movie. “I nearly had a nervous breakdown on the Purple Rain Tour because it was the same every night,” Prince explained to the Chicago Tribune. “It”s work to play the same songs the same way for 70 shows.” The tightly choreographed tour was proving to be frustratingly claustrophobic for him and that was reflected in his personal life, which found him withdrawing from the outside world with the exception of those closest to him in the eye of his storm. Prince was hungry for something new, even if that meant wrapping up the Purple Rain celebration prematurely. “We looked around and I knew we were lost,” Prince revealed to Paper Magazine. “There was no place to go but down. You can never satisfy the need after that.”
Prince had recently explained to his band and his management that after this tour, he was going to take some time off from the road so he could “look for the ladder,” a spiritual quest that can only be done privately. Few outside his core group understood that, despite having four more months left of the tour, he was secretly finished withPurple Rain and was ready to move on.
Instead of celebrating his new success, he had been spending his time creating the follow-up to Purple Rain, an album called Around the World in a Day. After a Christmas Eve matinee show in his hometown of Minneapolis, Prince spent the rest of the night and part of Christmas morning putting the final touches on the record, a collection of music that expressed this spiritual journey. Like the album itself, Prince”s world seemed filled with joy, regret, fresh love and conflicts — both internal and external — and the album”s lyrics projected hints of his isolation, with five of the nine tracks containing words like “loneliness,” “alone,” and “lonely.”
According to those around him, after he decided on the structure of the Around the World in a Day album, Prince spent Christmas at his home alone, probably using the quiet to recharge his batteries away from distractions. The following night he performed a song called “Another Lonely Christmas” during his show at the St. Paul Civic Center — right before playing “Purple Rain.” Although he”d recorded the seasonal track the previous February, the theme of the song, spending Christmas alone, seemed to accurately reflect his emotional state at that moment. This was the first and last time he performed the track for an audience.
Over the previous two years, Prince had grown from cult hero to international superstar, and along the way he had selectively invited a small circle of people into his life who shared his vision and helped him achieve his goals, but more than a few were left behind in the wake of his new success. Many of them had known him as far back as high school and felt able to voice their opinions directly to him, but as his fame grew he distanced himself from several of those who were influential to his music — including his former girlfriend Vanity, bandmate Dez Dickerson, his home engineer Don Batts, his childhood best friend Andre Cymone, and members of his protege band the Time, including Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Jesse Johnson, Monte Moir, and Morris Day.
As a result, Prince would be drawn closer to the ever-shrinking group of people he had chosen to know him intimately — not just physically but emotionally, which was likely the hardest part of himself to share. The reality was that once those who had been close to him were gone and contact between Prince and the outside world became limited, he would have to be even more selective about those who helped him create his music. “He became a little more paranoid with newer people coming in,” acknowledges Jill Jones. “He didn”t understand who to really trust. And as it progressed on, I think he had a harder time.”
“The amount of security at that time was over the top,” agrees the tour”s lighting director Roy Bennett. “This was the beginning of the negative side, because up to that point there was always this interrelationship between the band and the crew. Although the band still associated, it was just between Prince and everybody else, and all of a sudden a wall came up. He retreated quickly because he saw what was happening. He”s a complex man.”
During this period, Prince chose not to do interviews with the press, so his music spoke for him, allowing him another layer of privacy. All of this was by design resulting in the insulated world where his genius shined. “In order to write that much, and be that prolific, you must protect your psyche, because you go to this dangerous place, really easily and often,” explained his engineer Susan Rogers. “You put up a wall, and you tell your management, “Don”t let anyone approach me. Here”s the system that allows me to create. These are my people who I”m familiar with. These are my places.” That allows you to have a very long career, because you”ve figured out an armor to protect yourself.” Prince was never completely gregarious by nature and the white-hot spotlight that shined on him ended up isolating him even more. He withdrew from people to maintain his focus. Perhaps he recorded so many songs not just because he wrote so often, but maybe it was because he had so much to say and his songs were the avenue to conduct the conversation in the way he knew best.
Prince explained to El Pais in 1996: “When I write a song, it”s my spirit speaking.”
If you want to know Prince, put on some headphones and truly listen to the story he was telling. Even though he is gone, he left many of his most intimate thoughts waiting to be unlocked by someone willing to do the work.
As he himself said, “All my life is in my records.”
Duane Tudahl is a documentary director and producer and the author of the recently released Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions 1983-1984 (Rowman Littlefield publishing).