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Prince: 'Piano and a Microphone 1983' (A Review)

A Review of the Purple One's Intimate Outtake Performances

Prince said it himself: "I will not be here when the vault is opened." Sure enough, Piano & A Microphone was released by the NPG Records/Warner Bros. presses, and my dearly purple beloved is not here. It will be three years he's been gone, this April. Can you believe it? The painful reminder of his death resonates within the numerous Facebook groups and Instagram tribute pages. His former colleagues and bandmates constantly recollect and get together to jam and honor him. Even his ex-wife, Mayte, showed us she's still got the moves to match the grooves.

We, the fans, are torn between wanting to respect his wishes, and heeding the call of the ominous prediction—there is a treasure trove of unreleased music in his vault, and he isn't alive to make the decision whether to release it or not. Suddenly, mega-fans are experts at what he said, and we're all in the wrong for being curious about anything contained/wanting a release. Rants be damned, are we really "feeding into the greed" of his living family and WB by wanting whatever is being offered?

I've seen the arguments on Facebook and the famous time and time again–"it's disrespectful," "it's not what he wanted," and something along the lines of "this should not be." This fans out into arguments about opinions being like buttholes, which usually rises and becomes a wall of flame wars and who's a "true fan." Yet as the arguments die and revive themselves, is this the kind of atmosphere Prince wanted?

We can argue about who's a "true fan" all day long. There are things I don't know, songs I don't particularly like, and unlike Prince, I still eat meat. I'm not a perfect fan by any means, but I feel blessed and closer to him for hearing this new material. We didn't have to have anything, and Tidal could have been the exclusive hub. Enter: Piano & A Microphone: 1983.

Let's call a thing a thing: this is a series of nine tracks that appear to be rehearsals, brainstorm sessions, or flat out Prince just tickling the ivories to have a good time. It's "polished" in the sense that a majority of songs ("International Lover," "Strange Relationship," "Purple Rain") kind of sound like their final products, and a familiar listener can sing along. They're "raw" in a way that's straightforward. This isn't a concert, this isn't something that sounds like it's meant for tracks—it's Prince creating outlines for future reference.

[Track One] '17 Days'

With most of Prince's songs, you'll come to find that he wrote them years before their actual release. They're older than we think they are, and this one is no exception. Granted it was released as a Purple Rain-era song, this track gives life to what would someday become a beloved-B side and ode to the lovesick and tormented for decades. This is Prince warming up. This is him deciding how he wants the song to sound, how fast it should be, and as he scats and goes "do-do-do-dododododooo," he's plotting out the bass, drums, and the other instrumental arrangements in his head. It holds a lot of the strong familiarity of the tune that many finally heard in 1984, in all its polished glory.

[Track Two] 'Purple Rain'

Even the baby steps of this song are beautiful. This is the bias of a fan/aspiring writer speaking: Prince is placing his heart and soul into what would someday become one of his better-known songs. I know that as fans, we oftentimes roll our eyes when the less familiar mention Purple Rain, but the passion behind its beginnings becomes a kind of indescribable, slightly haunting glimpse into what the future held. There's a lot of familiarity with the tone and some of the lyrics, and it reminds me of how many artists tend to go off-course with live versions of treasured pieces. As short as this track is, it's a look into the ongoing framework of this beloved song. Perhaps he was practicing for his First Avenue recording in August of the same year. With a mind like his, who knows just how many times this song was transformed and re-arranged.

[Track Three] 'A Case of You'

There's a lot of history behind this song, and it actually starts with Joni Mitchell. It was written around 1970, was first performed in October of that year (at a Greenpeace benefit concert), and formally recorded in 1971 for the album Blue. Her version is alleged to be about Leonard Cohen. It's a smooth, folksy song. Sad, beautiful, and something to listen to over and over again. I regret not ever knowing it was originally her song. It's lovely in a soft way that aches for a long-lost relationship.

In passing, I'd heard Prince perform it on a track somebody posted online some years ago. It was always written as "A Case of U." This version is from 2002, from the One Nite Alone (Solo Piano and Voice...) album. His version is a cover, with the lyrics re-arranged. It's a song that I've heard, but never gave it the love that it deserved. It's easy to get wrapped up in a lot of his music and miss the gems from the NPG Music Club days, as well as the many remixes and extended song versions that we know of. In this version, he's at his piano (and later added the other instruments and soundboard edits) accompanied by John Blackwell on drums.

The 1983 version: Who knew it existed? This version was recorded in August of 1983. It's so similar to the 2002 version, but is way shorter, at one minute and forty seconds. This is pretty much a taste of what was to come nineteen years later. It just goes to show that he spent a lot of time creating and honing his ideas. Some may be spur of the moment, while others may be as old as his career itself.

[Track Four] 'Mary Don't You Weep'

I originally heard this song on the Funkatopia App in June of 2018. I'm up in a hot attic room, wiping down the walls of my dusty childhood home, and then I hear "There's a posthumous Prince album on the way this fall, and here's a preview..." At this point, I was on the fence about releasing what was in the already-opened vault. Curious to know, but hoping that it respected what Prince wanted. Yet when I heard this song, I immediately felt like Prince was taking us to church.

For Black folks, that means somebody's really hittin' the keys, is bringing the soul, and has God in their heart. Even from a Buddhist standpoint, I can appreciate Prince's love of God. This is something that was intimate, personal, and seemed like an unending testimony of faith. I've heard many people cover "Mary Don't You Weep," in a variety of slow paces. He takes it up a notch, moving the listener to rock and possibly hum along. I'm not here to preach anyone's gospel, but some of my earliest days were in the church. I will always appreciate the beauty and talent that comes from Gospel singers, and their music. In this case, Prince uses his intimate practice space to warm those deeply rooted chops up, and possibly find his center by paying homage to both God and the various Black gospel groups/choirs he's personally fond of.

Then, of course, we leave the presence of the holy song and go back to the realm of R&B. He gives us a taste of "Strange Relationship," smoothly weaving in and out of a sacred place of God and a missing lover.

[Track Five] 'Strange Relationship'

I thought it originated during/around the Sign O' The Times Era. We soon discover that this song was not so young, but rather a refined tune first recorded in March of 1983. This version brings all the familiarity of the 1986/1987 version, with only a few slight changes. Tempo, the feeling--all there. He ad-libs some parts, but this is yet another glimpse into the birth of songs before we truly know them. He transforms them, he adds spice and the technology of the time. On this track, we're witnessing the process of creation. These are the roots of Strange Relationship.

[Track Six] 'International Lover'

By 1983, this song had already been recorded and published. It's from his 1999 album. All I can say is this: vibe with this track. Perhaps it's the floor plan for a future performance where he was planning on playing a randomized version of the original song. Whatever the case may be, it's a sensual journey tied up in the arms of Do me, Baby, towards the latter half of the song. Prince intimately vocalizes and scats until the end, straight into the next track. 

[Track Seven] 'Wednesday'

A short little tune originally meant for Jill Jones in the Purple Rain movie. This version features only Prince and was recorded in October of 1983. His voice is soft in the beginning, with the lyrics barely audible. This turns into a few minutes of a jazzy instrumental, leading off to Cold Coffee & Cocaine.

[Track Eight] 'Cold Coffee & Cocaine'

With a title like this, one has to wonder what kind of free-form Jazz tune is about to play. Those of us who are naughty nellies know of this track from the Purple Rush Volume 5 album. Prince's alter ego Jamie Starr jams on the piano in this five minute and 34-second version. The 1983 Piano & A Microphone version appears to be cut from the same cloth, coming in at five minutes and 14 seconds.

Which one came first--Purple Rush or the official album version? What appears to be different in both versions of this funky, up-tempo jam appears to be not very much. More funk? More of Jamie's sass, perhaps. Maybe some tone changing, digital editing, and sound enhancements. Purple Rush sounds like the original bootleg. I know one thing, I wouldn't want to eat at some lady's house either, if all she gave me was cold coffee and hard drugs. "Oh Lawd" indeed! This is Prince/Jamie jamming. Adlibs, piano riffs, upbeat Blues.

[Track Nine] 'Why the Butterflies'

"...What's this strange feeling?" asks Prince. I love the rehearsal mode of this album. I dig the vibe of this track. Was he mulling over a song yet to come? Where would he have put it? It's simple in the way that it's just him saying "mama" and "butterflies" with a few other short sentences here and there. The melody moves swiftly and directly, mimicking the feelings of nervousness woven into the message. Perhaps it was a personal journal entry-turned-song that Prince was rolling around. It's interesting because it could literally mean anything. "Mama" is a term of endearment for friends, lovers, and older women you see as mothers. It's a term given to....mothers!

I suppose it all depends on how deeply you want to look into the song. With a mind as brilliant, mysterious, and intricate as Prince's, the answer could be as obvious as what we have at face value, or as complex as your friendly neighborhood conspiracy theorist on YouTube would like to spin it. Embrace it with as much subjectivity (or objectivity) as you'd like, serve over ice.

After I gave the album a listen, I raced to Facebook to see the reviews of fellow fans. For this, I always come prepared. Where I loved the glimpse into his craft, others hated it. "This is a forced release", stated a fan who says the album was probably never meant for release. "...garbage record", griped another fan who bitterly critiqued the album in the replies. The complaints went on and on. They always do. Some of us will never be happy, closely guarding the dignity of his estate with extreme judgment.

I personally enjoyed this album. I took it for what it was worth and wasn't expecting something polished. I anticipated rehearsal rawness but expected brilliance. I knew what to expect and chose to bask in the talent of his piano and vocal skills, not the extended editing and engineering that would obviously be in place, had this been more than an outtake album. Oh to have been the luckiest fly on walls of his studio space. But alas, I did not exist until Summer of 1985. By then, Around The World In A Day was his latest. I'd like to imagine that my mother went to the local record store, put some giant 80's headphones to her belly, and let me hear a few tracks.

I suppose that I appreciated the tracks of Piano & A Microphone... more, because I knew they were edited to a certain clean degree, but not so edited that we didn't hear each song in its free and flowing format. This was a glimpse into a part of his world that some people may not have ever heard. You stick around long enough, you get to hear outtakes from torrents and fan pages. You get to hear this and that on YouTube. There's more than one way to find live takes from tours, and outtakes from the studio. It hurts to know that what was presented on this particular album wasn't good enough for some fans. We all want to protect his legacy, but when does it stop being protection, and when does it become outright pretentious behavior?

I'm no music connoisseur. I can only say that I love Prince's music, and miss him dearly. I was ready for this album, I love what it is, and I will treasure it. I suggest that listeners curious, new, and the old seasoned bunch come with an open mind. Cast aside what you think you may know about Prince's wishes, and give it a shot. It's thirty-four minutes of a genius who was on his way to creating an iconic album, and even more iconic tour. This was him at his candid best, just exercising the muscles of what made him great--timeless talent.

Rating: 10/10

About the author: Veronica W. is a Senior at UT Martin, an aspiring writer, and the night owl who embraces 3 AM like it was her own precious flesh and blood. She writes poems for the tortured Millennial soul, collects FunkoPop dolls, and drinks LaCroix water on purpose. If you've enjoyed her work, please consider making a small donation.

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