“That’s the kind of artist we’re dealing with here”: Stereo Embers Interviews Alan Light, the Author of “Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of ‘Purple Rain'”

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One of our foremost music critics, Alan Light was a senior editor at Rolling Stone, founding music editor and editor in chief of Vibe, and editor in chief of Spin magazine.

Light’s also the author of two of the best music books in recent memory: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” and Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain.

Let’s Go Crazy – which comes out today, December 9, 2014, on Atria Books – exemplifies everything that makes Light’s books so successful. As Light told us, “I’ve realized that I enjoy starting with a focused subject, something finite, and then looking at the ways in which it opens up into something larger, and how its reception/success/trajectory reflects something in the culture.”

That is, Light’s focus on Purple Rain – as a song, an album, a film, and a cultural milestone – is the cornerstone of what makes Let’s Go Crazy such a strong book and one of the best books on Prince you’ll ever read.

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Light leaves no stone unturned in his description of how Purple Rain came into being. He finds its roots in Prince’s first albums – the five records that preceded it – and puts you as a reader in the moment of the making of the album and film. This method makes for exciting reading about Prince and all of the decisions that he had to make in order for Purple Rain to come to fruition and for him to leap into the mainstream. To give one example, Prince had to “reinvent” himself as a psychedelic guitar god fronting a band, The Revolution, that could appeal to black and white audiences alike. But, most of all, Prince had to take a tremendous risk in making Purple Rain the movie and album that he wanted them to be, naysayers be damned.

But Light never sees Prince and Purple Rain in a vacuum. He broadens his discussion to discuss Prince in terms of the other “Big Three” artists of the mid-1980s – Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen. He also considers the album and film in terms of its political and social impact. Along the way, he humanizes his arguments by throwing in some cool personal anecdotes about his Prince fandom.

It was an honor to talk to Light about all things Purple Rain. Dearly beloved, please enjoy our interview.

SEM: Thank you, Alan, for talking to us today. Your previous book was The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”. Your new book is Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain. What’s the connecting point between the two projects?

AL: Aside from the fact that they were both (coincidentally, I guess) released in 1984, I guess that “Hallelujah” and Purple Rain are connected because they stand as the best-known and defining piece of work for their creators. I think it’s safe to say that most people would think of those projects as the first thing they associate with Leonard Cohen and with Prince. And for me, I’ve realized that I enjoy starting with a focused subject, something finite, and then looking at the ways in which it opens up into something larger, and how its reception/success/trajectory reflects something in the culture.

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SEM: When did you first hear Prince and what attracted to you to his music?

AL: Not exactly sure when I first heard his music, but it was certainly in high school – my friends and I were big fans before 1999, saw him on that tour…What attracted me was that his music seemed to encompass everything that I loved about all different styles of pop music – the rock energy, the funk propulsion, the wild guitar solos, the rebellious sexuality, songs that jammed and jams that were songs. It was everything I was drawn to, all in one place.

SEM: One of the great strengths of Let’s Go Crazy is that it provides a critical biography of Prince through Around the World in a Day, the follow-up album to Purple Rain. What are some of the indications on Prince’s first two albums – For You and Prince – of the talent that would come to fruition on Dirty Mind?

AL: The first two albums almost felt like a lab experiment for Prince’s talent. With For You, you could feel him trying (too hard) to fit everything in, to show all that he was capable of in one shot, and it felt too tight, not enough room to breathe. The part that he was still struggling to learn at that young age, I think, was the production side – he was determined to do it all himself, but wasn’t yet able to translate that to the recordings effectively. The second album was an enormous step forward, in both the songwriting and the feel of the tracks. Songs like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “I Feel For You,” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” were starting to establish that Prince could create a sound that was entirely his own, and that he was beginning to feel comfortable pulling the different elements together. After that, the next few albums were a quantum leap into a stratosphere that very few artists have ever matched.

SEM: Brian Wilson has famously said something like, “I’m not a genius; I’m just a guy who works hard.” What about Prince? Do you consider him a “genius”? And, if so, where does this “genius” make its first appearance?

AL: It’s an odd word, but I do think that Prince certainly has genius in him. I have never been around anyone who just constantly has music pouring out of him, and who has constructed a universe around him that allows him to create anytime, anywhere. There are clearly glimpses of that on the first few records, when he’s writing, producing, and playing all instruments himself at a level that I’d say only Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney have attained. By the time we hit Dirty Mind, of course, the songwriting catches up with the raw ability, and then I think we’re clearly watching a genius at work.

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SEM: On the first five albums – everything from For You to 1999 – Prince, with a few exceptions, performed all the vocals and instruments. Why did he change course with Purple Rain and record with a backing band, The Revolution?

AL: He had flirted with the idea of a band, off and on, for the previous few albums. Dirty Mind featured a photo of the touring band on the inner sleeve, and included some contributions from the other musicians. Then when that album didn’t sell as well as he hoped, he backed off and made Controversy a fully solo project. On 1999, he actually wrote “and the Revolution” in small letters on the album cover, starting to tease the idea, and had some vocals and solos from some of the band on the record. But I think he understood that to deliver the impact he wanted with Purple Rain, the image of him as a badass guitar player fronting a real band was something that would resonate much stronger with rock fans than the image of the mad funk genius. From all accounts, his original vision of the Purple Rain story was much more focused on the band; he felt that dynamic was more interesting than just his own story. But the magic of Purple Rain was that it was both the most personal/intimate thing he ever did, the closest he let us in even if it wasn’t a documentary, and also that there was a sense of collaboration, both with the band and with the team of advisors, managers, etc around him. After its success, he never really allowed other creative forces into his process the same way again.

SEM: How did writing for and recording with a band change Prince’s sound as he moved from 1999 to Purple Rain?

AL: Obviously, it put his guitar front and center and gave the whole thing more of a rock and roll feel. 1999 was primarily a dance album – an incredible, revolutionary one that left a massive impact – but it wasn’t aiming for the same kind of universal, genre-blurring crossover that Purple Rain was shooting for.

SEM: Are there any 1999 songs that forecast what he did on Purple Rain?

AL: I suppose Dez Dickerson’s guitar solo in “Little Red Corvette” was a key moment, which introduced Prince’s music to more rock kids. “Free” was the kind of big, roof-raising ballad (rather than the slow-jam sex ballads like “Do Me, Baby” or “International Lover”) that he perfected with “Purple Rain.” Hearing the female vocals on “1999” and some of the other songs was starting to create the interplay and dynamic that would be accentuated on the Purple Rain songs.

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SEM: You write very eloquently in the book about the four major pop superstars of the mid-1980s: Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen. What did these four musicians have in common that made them so successful?

AL: I think you have to look very closely at that moment in 1984 when Purple Rain came out – for everyone, it was when they released their first projects after Thriller, and their first projects after MTV had been picked up nationwide and demonstrated its real promotional power. The whole scale of pop music had changed, and each of these four monumental artists went after that new sense of possibility in very strategic ways.

SEM: How were they different from each other, apart from their obvious stylistic differences?

AL: Yikes, that could be a book unto itself! I think Springsteen was interested in how to take the themes he was working with, about class struggle and friendships and honor, and see if he could really make them connect on a grand scale. Michael Jackson, of course, was in the great tradition of pure entertainers, irresistible dancers and pure pop craftsmen. Madonna was breaking ground in sexual aggressiveness, setting trends in fashion, creating a new kind of female pop star and aesthetic. Prince, in some ways, crosses all of these descriptions – his was the most expansive vision, and I think for the Purple Rain moment, he appealed across all genres…rock, R&B, dance, pop audiences all responded to him.

SEM: Of course, Prince was the only one of the “Big Four” to make a major motion picture. Why was 1983 the right time for Prince to start thinking that a film like Purple Rain could work? He definitely wasn’t a household name at that point…

AL: Any answer to that really comes with the benefit of hindsight. The truth is that it made no sense at all for him to make a feature film at that point. He had one-and-a-half pop hits, a limited crossover audience, he didn’t do any press. And yet he went to his managers and said, get me a feature film or I’ll fire you and find someone who can. It led to making a movie with a first-time director, first-time producers, a cast who had mostly never acted before, shooting in Minneapolis in the winter. None of that should lead to a successful movie. But Prince had a vision, an unwavering sense that this was the moment to utilize his mystery and to capture a new phase in his music – he saw something that no one else could see.

SEM: You point out in the book that the music charts were very segregated at the time. Would you explain how this segregation worked and how Purple Rain as an album and a film challenged it?

AL: That transformation – like so many things – really starts with Thriller. Immediately before that album broke through, the pop charts truly were the most segregated they had been in many years. But after Michael Jackson took over the world, and MTV started to integrate their playlist more, things started to change, and more music by black artists was appearing on Top 40/pop stations. One thing that is coincidental, but kind of amazing, is that “Little Red Corvette” and “Beat It” – both of which could be considered R&B songs with rock guitar solos – were released as singles in the same week! That’s definitely a transitional moment of some sort. But anyway, things had opened up enough that “When Doves Cry” was the first single ahead of Purple Rain, and it got to Number One the week that the soundtrack album came out, and that, in turn, hit Number One just as the movie was opening – and Prince became the first person ever to be at the top of the singles, album, and film charts at the same time!

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SEM: Why did Prince, with a few exceptions, choose the untrained actors in his band, The Time, and Apollonia 6 to appear in the film?

AL: He really wanted to capture the sense of the scene that was happening in Minneapolis, and the community that he was building around himself. The idea that it blurred documentary/reality with a fictionalized story – feeling authentic but blurring the question of what was true and what just felt true – seems like it was really appealing to him. That was the way he always conceived and presented the film, and it doesn’t seem that there was ever any consideration of using real/outside actors for any of the musicians’ roles.

SEM: Without giving too much of your book away, would you please give a preview of the rigorous training sessions that Prince put the three bands through to prepare for the film?

AL: He really went at the idea of making a movie like a drill sergeant – that’s the way that everyone around him talks about his approach, that it was highly disciplined, focused, and incredibly driven. So one of the first things he did was insist that all the musicians take acting and dance classes in the months that led up to filming (which some of the band members were more enthusiastic about than others). Those around him say that he was really interested in, and had read books about, the old-school Hollywood studio system, and so this kind of training apparently seemed to him like the kind of thing that you would do to get everyone prepared to go in front of the cameras.

SEM: I’ve read Touré’s book on Prince. Do you agree with him that Purple Rain has a “soft-porn aesthetic”?

AL: I think, for better or worse, one of the things you remember about the movie is the sexuality. On the one hand (as Chris Rock says in the book), the sex scenes or Apollonia topless by “Lake Minnetonka” were definitely something that got fans, especially young fans, excited about the movie. On the other hand, as Wendy Melvoin says, the love scenes are some of the least convincing acting in the film. But sex had always been a strong part of Prince’s image and subject matter, so it was certainly to be expected, and it does infuse much of the overall feeling of Purple Rain.

SEM: Let’s talk about the song “Purple Rain.” Why was it such a departure for Prince – and why did it have such crossover appeal?

AL: He really set out to write a big, arena-scale power ballad. As Matt Fink tells it, the 1999 tour had been following Bob Seger into a lot of Midwestern arenas, and one day Prince asked him why he thought Seger had such a big following. Fink said that it was largely because of Seger’s anthemic ballads, and maybe Prince should try to write one of those. The result was “Purple Rain” – which, by the way, Prince initially took a step further, and asked Stevie Nicks if she would write the lyrics to the song. (She replied that it felt much too big and epic for her to take away from him, and he really should write his own words to this one.) Of course, the end result exceeds even what Prince’s initial target was – while the chords and structure begin from a very classic, accessible, almost country-music style, the voicings and arrangement, and then that incredible vocal and guitar solo, make it much more than just a generic rock ballad.

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SEM: What makes “When Doves Cry” such a masterpiece and, in your opinion, the best song ever written?

AL: Just to be clear – I don’t say that I think it’s the best song ever written; the story I tell in the book is about the time I appeared on some silly VH1 show where the panelists nominated their choices (in this episode, for best song ever) and then the audience voted on the winner. “When Doves Cry” was one of my three nominations, but it was the studio audience, whoever they were, who chose it for Number One.

That said, it’s an incredible song, to me still the finest thing he’s ever done. From the very first time I heard it come over the radio – having stayed up until midnight, cassette recorder at the ready, for the premiere on Cincinnati’s R&B station – it did not sound like anything else. That crazy, industrial grinding of the guitar; the perfect counter-melody on the keyboards; the strange tension in the vocal, and those mysterious images in the lyrics all added up to an astonishing piece of music. And remember, it came out two months before the movie did, so all of the things that drew from the narrative and the characters had to stand completely on their own. I didn’t notice the fact that it didn’t have a bass line at first, which obviously adds to that sense of being just slightly off, but it was clear that this was a huge achievement.

SEM: What are some of your other favorite tracks on Purple Rain and why?

AL: As Chris Rock says, there’s no bad song on Purple Rain – he told me something like “People say Thriller is the greatest album of all time, but there’s no ‘Baby Be Mine’ on Purple Rain.” There’s just not an ounce of fat on it – the range is perfectly balanced, it shows everything Prince was capable of without ever getting too sprawling or self-indulgent.

I do love “The Beautiful Ones,” just a fantastic ballad and unbelievable vocal. I will never get tired of “Let’s Go Crazy” – especially the 12-inch, which keeps in the jamming that we see in the film (including the dissonant piano part that Prince plays with his feet). “Computer Blue” is pretty amazing, weird, New Wave-y. And I just can’t ever believe that the recording of “Purple Rain” that we all know and love really is the very first time they played the song, in Wendy’s very first show with the band, mostly untouched. That is such an incredible tribute to the precision and discipline of Prince’s bands, and how hard he worked them so that they were already at a level of perfection before they ever hit a stage.

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SEM: Finally, in your honest opinion, what’s the better record – Purple Rain or Sign ‘O’ the Times? Which one would you put in the time capsule as Prince’s greatest LP?

AL: You ask the right question. If I have to choose one Prince album to live with for the rest of my life, it’s Sign ‘O’ the Times. It certainly has more sprawl and feels much looser than Purple Rain, but it feels like you could never get all the way to the bottom of it. But if it’s at that level musically, it also never really connected commercially (some very bad decisions about singles, double album, didn’t tour in the US, etc), and so it doesn’t have anything close to the cultural resonance of Purple Rain. And I gotta say, there are some days when I might take 1999 over both of them. That’s the kind of artist we’re dealing with here.