Monday, September 10

Piano & A Microphone 1983

And we're back, just in time to talk about the impending candy 4 U...

Piano & A Microphone 1983

The first truly new-to-most release from the storied Vault.  This was a solo piano rehearsal recorded at Prince's Kiowa Trail home in Chanhassen in 1983, one of the very few years of his career that he didn't release an album under any of his many properties.  No doubt you've heard some chatter somewhere about some hardcore Prince fanatic being upset by this release.  The arguments do have merit, but they tend to come off with an entitled air of "I've already got that on a bootleg."  Let's table that for a moment.  For now, let's focus on the fact that material from The Vault is actually hitting the market in an official capacity and not as filler on a re-issue.

Mary Don't You Weep

Though recorded in a studio, this album fits better into the world of live albums.  The solo piano and vocal format requires a different approach to the performance, arrangement, dynamics, and sentiment.  Gone is the resigned depression from "17 Days," replaced by an almost manic and pleading desperation.  "Purple Rain" had not been formalized in the way we've come to know it, and so more liberties are taken during its all-too-brief appearance.  If you worry about these just being mellow takes of the songs you already know and love, they are going to be different enough to warrant checking out.
Listen 2 "17 Days" from Piano & A Microphone 1983 here.

An odd continuity stretches through the tracks of this release, almost as if it were a snapshot of where Prince was at the time and the ideas he was playing with for the immediate future.  A cover of "A Case Of You" by Joni Mitchell, one of his great influences, appears in an abbreviated form of how it would be played on the Purple Rain tour.  "Strange Relationship" was inspired by his relationship with Denise Matthews, better known as Vanity.  "17 Days" was originally meant to be part of Vanity 6's repertoire, with blond bombshell Brenda Bennett singing lead.  "Purple Rain" became the title for some movie he was making.  The only song that had been released to the public at the time was "International Lover," and even then it was buried on Side D of 1999.

In case you are somehow unaware, "Mary Don't You Weep" is a spiritual that pre-dates the Civil War and has been recorded by a variety of artists, from Peter Seger to Aretha Franklin.  Its inclusion in this medley is curious.  Prince had yet to face any real friction with Warner Bros., and so had yet to perceive his relationship to the label in slave terms, so taking it there is unlikely.  Is there any significance to the tune segueing from "A Case Of You" or being mixed with "Strange Relationship" ?  It could be that it was merely a song he enjoyed for personal reasons.  If the liner notes to the set don't offer any insight, we may never know if there was any real intention behind it.

Side A of the LP ends with the relatively unknown "Wednesday."  For those that aren't aware, this was going to be sung by Jill Jones in Purple Rain.  When her waitress character's entire subplot was cut from the film, this song got the ax with it.  After the way she was snubbed in the credits and acknowledgements in Purple Rain Deluxe, I'm actually surprised to see Jill Jones listed as a contributor to the liner notes for Piano & A Microphone 1983.  Ever quick to speak her mind and stand up for herself, she shared the version of "Wednesday" recorded for Purple Rain on social media along with her displeasure within days of the release of Purple Rain Deluxe.

Wednesday [Jill Jones vocals]
This is part of someone's random mix of tracks, although they are from the same era.
Let it play, or bookmark it for later.

Side B (the last two tracks if you end up with the CD or digital version) is going to be entirely new to most.  "Cold Coffee & Cocaine" evokes the stage persona he had been crafting with Morris Day for The Time, and many speculate that it was an idea intended for them.  Don't read anything into the cocaine mention, it was likely picked for the alliteration of the 'hard c.'  "Why The Butterflies?" was known as "Mama" for many years in the bootleg community.  Prince says 'Mama' over and over as he builds the groove, so many traders just assumed that to be a reasonable title.  Were both of these stream-of-consciousness improvisations or were they seeds of ideas to be returned to later?  Either way, neither is known to have resurfaced.



The Deluxe Treatment

For those interested in more, a deluxe version is going to be made available that will include an 180-gram LP, a CD [with different disc art than the standard CD release], and a 12" book of liner notes provided by Lisa Coleman, Jill Jones, and one of Prince's earliest engineers, Don Batts.  Susan Rogers picked up where Batts left off, so it will be interesting to read the difference in perspectives.  I don't foresee any revelations coming from Lisa or Jill, but only because neither one have been all that shy about sharing memories.  They knew Prince, lived with Prince, and spent days in the trenches with him before the rest of the world knew him as a superstar.  Lisa may usually choose her words more carefully, and Jill may speak more from emotion, but both have been on the record many times about this era.

A curiosity that the Fam community has always had regarding this set of music was whether or not it was leading somewhere.  Was this just an aimless rehearsal or a warm-up for something else?  Were these tunes strung together through some sort of premeditation or was Prince merely playing what came to mind?  From the music historian perspective, this could be one of the greatest insights into his early creative process as we're likely to get.  Prince was once asked to share how he wrote his music, but declined to explain because he felt it was too personal.  For Prince, anything could inspire a song.  A sound, a phrase, a name, a melody, an image... inspirado came in every form; to define it would never have done it justice anyway.

The photos used in tandem with Piano & A Microphone 1983 were taken by photographer Allen Beaulieu.  Beaulieu's work captured the bulk of iconic images from those early years, so it would feel off had it been some other image.  You might also consider checking out his photography book, Before The Rain.

The cover image has been the source of other criticism from the fan community because modern photo editing techniques have been used to lighten the image, making his right shoulder and arm appear a bit unnatural.  While I prefer the original, unaltered, darker images that used to float around the web, the lightened photos set the tone for the music just as well.

Nothing Compares 2 U
the original '84 arrangement with Prince vocals

And That Says What?

This album is going to give us a window into Prince's creative process that many would never have heard otherwise.  Two covers, three insights into what songs sounded like in their early stages, one deep cut, and three unreleased tracks... why would this not excite the fan base?  There are a number of reasons.  Among them, is a feeling of bait and switch.  Granted, that feeling is based on the connecting of dots that weren't necessarily there, but 'a new album' was teased in conjunction with the Nothing Compares 2 U single that dropped to coincide with Record Store Day in the spring of 2018.  No details were given, just that something would be coming.  Many assumed that this was the lead single serving as a preview of that set.  They were wrong.

Chief among the issues many have with it is the already-existing availability.  The material collected here was among the easiest bootleg material to come across, with at least specific three bootleg releases known by name.  Once it was actually announced, most of the low-hanging fruit sources disappeared.  The tracks may have been ordered differently or vary in quality, but they are virtually the same.  The unspoken fear is that the estate is going to just legitimize existing bootlegs; TIDAL has already done so on a couple occasions.  Like with 3 Nights Live In Miami 1994, featuring Prince on the cover with four band members who had left the NPG a while before the shows collected there.  I'm not condoning the bootleg labels, nor do I want to attack them; they simply exist and have for the majority of his career, and so should be a minor consideration.  But that's a much larger conversation for another time.

Piano & A Microphone Tour
Opening Video

Then there's the title.  Piano & A Microphone was the name of Prince's final tour, one that he had dropped more than a few hints that a planned live release would document.  The talking points lead the narrative towards his career going full circle, that it ended as it began.  But this was recorded around 7 years into it, depending on when you start counting from.  At the very least, Prince had five albums loose in the world by this recording; eight if you count albums by The Time and Vanity 6 that he masterminded and played the majority of.

Most importantly, though, Prince's unreleased catalog was vast.  For every one song he released, there was at least one that he didn't.  At least.  His critics have always claimed that Prince over-sold the amount of work in The Vault based on nothing more than a knowledge of how things are typically done with other artists.  But Prince was not like other artists, he once claimed to have a goal of recording a song everyday.  Averaged out over a 40 year career, taking into account that there were surely days he was nowhere near a recording studio and the numerous documented days where a whole albums-worth of material was cut to tape ... the actual potential for the number of compositions to be safely in 5-digit number-land becomes real.  Having a second consecutive posthumous release feature "Purple Rain" and "17 Days" as the opening volley places a huge emphasis on the Purple Rain era.  Warner Bros. may only have the rights to just under half of his career, it would just be nice if they jumped around a bit more within what they do have.

Strange Relationship / Prince and the Revolution
April 7, 1985 [soundcheck]: Miami, FL - Orange Bowl

Troy Carter and his team not having the intimate knowledge of the catalog that many of us in the Fam community do is both a blessing and a curse.  It's a blessing because they listen to the works with fresh ears, appreciating each performance for its brilliance as they come to it; we often compare it to the memory of another recording that has endeared itself in our minds and don't appreciate what is in front of us.  It's a curse because they don't know what else is in there if they haven't gotten to it yet.  Presumably, they are researching everything as they go - which is going to slow the process down considerably.  Carter really seems to care about the music, and, more importantly, respecting the man that made it.  This may not be the album the devoted fan base was hoping for, but it is certainly not a bad choice.  Piano & A Microphone 1983 just confirms to the rest of the world what we have known for decades.

Legacy

There's not really much to share in the way of a legacy for this one.  As far as the history goes, this was just a rehearsal that was put to tape.  Four of the songs had yet to be released, but the improvisational nature of his performance here betrays the notion that he was working through any arrangement ideas.

A Case Of You [f. John Blackwell]
One Nite Alone... (2002) and A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (2004)

"A Case Of You" made appearances in his set throughout the years.  In 2001, Prince went into the studio with John Blackwell to lay down a take that wound up on 2002's One Nite Alone... album.  Even if "Mary Don't You Weep" didn't make it into the live show at the time, he would pull it out sporadically during the last half of the '90's.  Those performances were also, until recently, rather easy to find.


Having become friends with Troy Carter, the director invited the former Spotify head to a private screening of his upcoming joint, BlacKkKlansman.  Among the finishing touches it still needed was a moving song to end on.  Spike hadn't invited Carter over with idea of asking him for suggestions, but he had one, anyway.  While going through the Vault material, Troy had recently come across Prince by himself at a piano playing an introspective rendition of "Mary Don't You Weep."  Spike felt like it was too perfect to be a coincidence, hinting that it was orchestrated by purple hands from the great beyond.


Mary Don't You Weep
Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman video for the song.

Recently, there was a casting call looking for actors to shoot a proper video for "Mary Don't You Weep." Sharon Nelson has already taken to Twitter to make sure the public is aware that the she and the other heirs to Prince's Estate aren't behind it because of where the creative direction is originating: Comerica and Warner Bros.  If there are other issues at play or whether or not the heirs are unified on this stance remains to be seen.




Parting Reflections...

Whatever else, this musical time capsule is a worthy addition to the official catalog.  Listen to this whole record, then "Cause And Effect."  It's not hard to imagine Prince writing the second verse while remembering moments like this from around the beginning of his career.  Simply put, Prince gives a great performance here.  Piano & A Microphone 1983 is a testament to how much of himself was invested in every note he played, regardless of the audience or destination of the recording.

For the casual listener, the one mainly familiar with Prince's guitar heroics, you are in for a treat.  For the long time listener who has delved beyond the accepted commercial catalog, there will be no surprises here.  Though there's buzz around it, it falls into a category of releases that typically only appeals to the already faithful fan base: the live album.  I'm sure it will be streamed like crazy and the digital market is ever unpredictable, but don't expect physical copies to move in the same quantities as 4Ever or Purple Rain Deluxe.

Kiss [excerpt]
March 4, 2016: Oakland, CA - Oracle Arena

Personally, I feel this would have been fantastic as a Record Store Day release:  limited physical copies initially, then make it available digitally for everyone else after the fact.  It feels a bit off as a main course, and may have been better suited as bonus material.  That said, it's hard to see what it would have made sense to be paired with.  1999 doesn't feel right, nor does Purple Rain.  As part of an anthology collection focusing on his home studio recordings while living on Kiowa Trail, maybe?  It's also not even the only studio recording of a solo piano medley from that era out there, so a collection of piano rehearsals wouldn't have been inconceivable.