When Purple Rain Came Falling Down
At the apex of his success, Prince made a high-profile decision that damaged his reputation for years
Following the success of the Purple Rain film and soundtrack—which made Prince the first person in US history to have the number one album, single, and movie in the country simultaneously—anticipation for the tour was at a fever pitch. Ultimately, Prince and the Revolution would perform just shy of a hundred shows in five months, from late 1984 into the spring of 1985, selling 1.7 million tickets.
Initially, the mood surrounding the tour was triumphant. “At first, everybody was sharing the quest,” says tour manager Alan Leeds. But soon enough, Prince was ready to move on to his next project, and he started lashing out at those around him. “Things started cracking during the tour,” according to Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin.
“I was doing the seventy-fifth Purple Rain show, doing the same thing over and over,” Prince would later say. “And I just lost it… I knew I had to get away from all that. I couldn’t play the game.” He abruptly cut off the tour, never taking it overseas, and quickly released the Around the World in a Day album, stopping the momentum of Purple Rain in its tracks.
In this excerpt from the upcoming Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain (Atria), author Alan Light describes the unraveling of the tour, including the very high-profile low point that damaged Prince’s reputation for years.
To those close to him, Prince was starting to display signs of his usual restlessness. “He was bored,” says Melvoin. “He gave it everything onstage, and he was always in that. But he was gone, he was uninterested, and he had moved on.”
“I think he kind of took things for granted for a minute there,” says Revolution keyboard player Lisa Coleman “and he’d never done that before.”
“Creatively, he was over it,” says Alan Leeds. “I’m sure it was fun playing the music for a while, but this is a guy who never stopped rehearsing, so they were all tired of playing the songs long before the tour started—they’d been playing them every day in rehearsals for a year, and the crew had been hearing them every day for a year.
“Also, there was a decision made to basically replicate the movie as much as possible. For the sake of the audience, that’s what you had to do; it’s what you were selling. A no-brainer. But what it also meant was a very constricting set, because the show was so theatrical, it left no room for spontaneity—in wardrobe, in choreography, or in the music. All the theatrical aspects of it made for a great production, but essentially it was a Broadway play with no give or take, with the exception of the encores, where he could stretch out. We paid a lot of overtime in a lot of buildings, because the only time of the night when he had any fun was the encores, which could go on for hours.”
One stunning example of the high points was the second night in Atlanta. Prince is in a buoyant mood, stopping and starting the Revolution like they were one of James Brown’s finest bands. He turns somersaults, brings out Jerome Benton to dance the Bird with him, and repeatedly teases a final exit during the encore, driving the audience further and further into a frenzy. “Chalk one up for the Kid!” he crows. “Now who gonna mess with us?” He may have been getting tired of the routine, but he could still whip himself and his musicians into something near perfection.
In the Los Angeles Times, though, Robert Hilburn—the respected critic who had conducted the final interview with Prince before Prince’s self-imposed media silence—skewered the show for its more staged aspects. “Prince became a near-parody of himself, pandering to the audience’s fascination with his sexy persona,” he wrote, expressing his concern that “Prince’s lame sexual posturing on the Purple Rain tour meant he was becoming the Bo Derek of rock.”
Nor was any of the touring party prepared for the security issues and general madness that would explode in each city they hit. “Your privacy level goes away,” says the Revolution’s other keyboardist, Matt (“Doctor”) Fink, “and you can’t get out of the hotel or you’re in a restaurant surrounded by people—they find out you’re there. We were in a mall in Atlanta, and Bruce Springsteen was hanging out that day in the mall, too, at the same time. He was incognito; he looked like a bum. We ran into him: ‘Hey, Bruce, how you doing, man?’ And then we went into a restaurant and somebody knew it was us and spread the word, and the next thing you know, there was a crowd outside blocking the door to get out of the restaurant. So that freaked me out.”
“Prince always acted as if ‘this is really going to blow up,’ but I don’t think even he thought about what that meant, how did that translate into day-to-day existence,” says Leeds. “The old-school in me only saw that within the parameters of the traditional music business—‘Okay, he’s gonna have a huge album, it’s gonna cross over, and we’re gonna play arenas.’ But not this, not closing motels and city streets.
“We’re in D.C., staying at the Watergate, and Prince, as his habit was, had his hair styled—we’d find a salon that he could then rent out for the day, chase all the employees out, pay them off, and put newspaper in the windows and privatize it for an hour so he’d have the facilities. But somehow the word leaked—maybe the proprietor leaked it, because he’s no fool—and I’m sitting in the hotel with Gwen, my wife, who was my assistant on the tour, and somebody called and said, ‘You got the TV on? Well, turn on channel whatever,’ and it’s like every local station in D.C. had their trucks in front of the salon and Wisconsin Avenue was closed down. The police had closed the street, because the people had come out of every building and clogged the streets and the sidewalks! So, no, nobody anticipated that, nobody really thought that that’s what it was going to mean.”
As the new year of 1985 dawned, Prince also had to add a new round of performances and appearances to his schedule, since Purple Rain was nominated for a battery of awards. The album would win two Grammys—for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group and Best Album or Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or a Television Special—and, more incredibly, an Oscar for Best Original Song Score. (Apollonia Kotero later recalled that one night, after watching the Purple Rain dailies, she told Prince, “‘You know you’re going to get an Oscar for this movie—not for the acting, but for the music.’ He… slid off his chair, joking around, and said, ‘You think so?’ ”)
Each of these shows offered a new opportunity for Prince to make an international impression, which he took full advantage of. At the Grammys, his onstage entourage included a little person. At the Brit Awards, hulking bodyguard Big Chick joined him onstage. Prince wore a pink feather boa, and his entire acceptance speech was “All thanks to God. Good night.” When his name was announced at the Academy Awards, he grabbed Melvoin and Coleman, bringing them to the podium and handing off his trophy for Melvoin to hold.
“Of course, with Prince every TV appearance had to have something amazing or weird or shocking to stick out, so that’s what we would start focusing on at sound checks,” says Coleman. “We’d work out how to play ‘Baby I’m a Star’ or whatever on the next awards show. He put his energy into that—and I think he was having a great time. He had everything at his fingertips, and he started really planting a lot of seeds and he was riding high. He was pretty confident about everything—almost too cocky, in a lot of ways, and he kind of burst the bubble a little bit. Like, ‘I can do anything,’ ‘Muthafuckas will buy anything.’
“He had these personalities, and he could just get mean. There was a part of Prince that we called Steve, and that was the guy that you could bum around with.”
“That’s the guy you spent the night with, and ate grapes and went to the grocery store with, and he was adorable,” says Wendy Melvoin.
“He’d buy ice cream cones and wore sneakers,” says Coleman, “but the next minute, he’d be like ‘Hey, muthafuckas — ’ ” “He’d be fucking George Jefferson. And you’d be like, ‘Oh, God.’”
“I knew at that point that it was the beginning of the end,” says Susannah Melvoin. “He had found the thing that was going to throw him into the stratosphere of stardom, but also that he couldn’t stop. He became more moody, more superstitious, more compelled to keep his image solid and not break the mold, and that became confining. It’s hard to live on a day-to-day basis that way. He had to live and breathe this character, and it was like, ‘Who the fuck is that guy?’ Sometimes it could be really scary.”
Things came to a head on January 28, following the American Music Awards in Los Angeles, at which Prince was nominated for ten awards (Sheila E. had two nominations, and the Time picked up one, as well). A few days earlier, “Take Me with U” had been released as a single, the final single from Purple Rain; it was also the only one with another track from the album, an edit of “Baby I’m a Star,” as the B-side, and the only one to fall short of the Top Ten, peaking at number 25.
The night of the AMAs that year was a historic moment in the music business, when dozens of the world’s top recording artists, rather than going to parties or back on their tour buses after the ceremony, headed to Hollywood’s A&M studios to record the song “We Are the World” to benefit African relief efforts. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, produced by Quincy Jones, and featuring the voices of such legends as Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and Bruce Springsteen, the song would become the fastest-selling single in U.S. history and serve as the climactic moment of the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia in July.
Prince had, of course, been approached to participate, but he passed and proposed a different kind of contribution to the project. “I was with Prince one day at his home studio, just the two of us,” says Susan Rogers, who engineered Purple Rain and Prince’s next few albums, “and he got a call from Quincy Jones asking him to come be part of ‘We Are the World.’ I only hear Prince’s side of the conversation—I was in the control room waiting—but he declined it. It was a long conversation, and Prince said, ‘Can I play guitar on it?’ And they said no, and he ultimately said, ‘Okay, well, can I send Sheila?’ And he sent Sheila. Then he said, ‘If there’s going to be an album, can I do a song for the album?’ And evidently they said yes.”
At the awards show, it was a whirlwind of logistics and scheduling; everyone was buzzing about what was planned for later in the evening. “They kept us so cloistered that a lot of information never would get to us,” says Coleman, “so I don’t remember even knowing about ‘We Are the World’ until that day, when everybody was talking about it backstage. Like, ‘We’ll see you tonight, right?’ And I was like, ‘What are they talking about?’”
“Prince was pissed,” says Wendy Melvoin. “He was like, ‘I don’t want to see any of you there, you’re not allowed to go there.’ ”
Until the last minute, Prince’s managers were still trying to persuade him to show up for the session. “At the American Music Awards, he keeps telling me the only thing he’ll do is play guitar,” says Bob Cavallo, one of Prince’s managers at the time and a producer of the Purple Rain movie. “So I call Quincy, and he says, ‘I don’t need him to fucking play guitar!’ and he got angry. I said, ‘All right, I don’t know, he’s not feeling well’—I start this whole campaign that he’s getting the flu. I say to Prince backstage, ‘I’m gonna say you’re sick—if you go out tonight and you’re seen, I can see the headlines: ‘Prince Parties While Rock Royalty Saves Millions’ or whatever the fuck they want to write. They suspect you anyway. You’ve got to stay home, ride it out, and be sick.’ ‘Okay,’ he says. (Prince and his entourage) go directly from the American Music Awards to some fucking club on Sunset. On their way out, his bodyguard—idiot guy—smacks somebody, the press picks it up, and that was it.”
After Prince, who won three trophies and delivered a blistering performance of “Purple Rain,” left the awards ceremony, he and his entourage sped back to the Westwood Marquis hotel—at least for a while.
“We implore him, no matter what happens at the awards, we cannot go out in the streets and celebrate if you’re not going to go to A&M and show up for this,” says Leeds. “Fargnoli and I were like, ‘Dude, the eyes are on you, okay? You just cleaned up. The two biggest things on the planet tonight are this recording session and you, and everybody is going to want to know why that’s not one thing. So take your awards and keep your ass in the hotel. You cannot run the clubs the way you usually do, with two bodyguards, chasing girls. Not tonight, not while this is going on.’
“So that was good until about two in the morning. I think Bobby and his wife, Vicki, and me and Gwen were the last ones to leave his room. We stayed with him on purpose—but it was a big night, and he was on cloud nine. We left him around two, two-thirty in the morning, and at maybe four o’clock, four-thirty, the phone rings and it’s Chick. ‘Hey, buddy, better get back up!’ ‘What?’ ‘Well, we were at [the popular club] Carlos and Charlie’s, and Big Larry, the bodyguard, he’s in jail, the sheriff’s got him.’ I’ve had scandals on tour where musicians got busted and shit happens, but I’ve never read anything that was on page A1. It was just plain weird.”
The UPI wire service story led with the contrast between Prince’s problems that night and the good vibes of the “We Are the World” session: “Quick-fisted bodyguards provided a violent counterpoint to a night of international camaraderie.” Ken Kragen, one of the USA for Africa organizers, was quoted as saying that “the effort would have been much more marketable with Prince’s participation.” The Los Angeles Times later offered a pithy summary of public opinion, writing that Prince’s actions “led many to think of him as an arrogant jerk.”
It was left to others to try to pick up the pieces. “I was doing all these interviews at that time, and everybody wanted to know why he wasn’t there [for the recording session],” says Wendy Melvoin. “I wasn’t allowed to say the real reason—which he would’ve gotten his fucking ass kicked hard for… I had to say, ‘We were in a mobile truck somewhere, he couldn’t make it, duh-de-duh.’ I knew there’s no way I can say, ‘Because he thinks he’s a badass and he wanted to look cool, and he felt like the song for “We Are the World” was horrible and he didn’t want to be around ‘all those muthafuckas.’ ”
“It was horrible. He had us go to Carlos and Charlie’s and have a fucking party. I remember it perfectly, thinking, ‘This is so wrong. This is so wrong.’ We were embarrassed. Everybody in the band was horrified. And that’s where it felt like, there’s something shifting here, where he’s getting nasty. The entitlement—it was almost like a kid with too much candy.”
“I think he was just too self-involved,” says Coleman. “Even though he was reading all the magazines, he wasn’t reading Time magazine; he was reading music magazines and fashion magazines. So his view of the world, politics, or anything—he just didn’t know. He wasn’t in tune with that. That wasn’t his cause. He just became his own cause; the message went away.”
As bad a decision as it may have been to blow off the “We Are the World” recording, it is worth remembering that Prince was in the middle of a tour that included an ongoing charity component that raised $250,000 for Marva Collins’s work in Chicago and included multiple food drives and four free concerts for special-needs children. He would write a song, “Hello,” that would be released in July as the B-side to Around the World’s “Pop Life” and would present his side of the incident with the paparazzo.
When he spoke to MTV at the end of 1985, Prince offered something close to humility. “We had talked to the people that were doing USA for Africa, and they said it was cool that I gave them a song for the album,” he said. “It was the best thing for both of us, I think. I’m strongest in a situation where I’m surrounded by people I know. So it’s better that I did the music with my friends than going down and participating there. I probably would have just clammed up with so many great people in a room. I’m an admirer of all of the people who participated in that particular outing, and I don’t want there to be any hard feelings… The main thing [the song ‘Hello’] says is that we’re against hungry children, and our record stands tall.”
Five days after the AMAs, following a sold-out show at the 80,000-plus-seat Superdome in New Orleans, he recorded “4 the Tears in Your Eyes,” the song he contributed to the USA for Africa album. “We had a mobile truck there, and Prince recorded the song during sound check,” says Susan Rogers. “As soon as the check was done, he came back into the truck and we stayed up all night, did the overdubs, finished it, mixed it. The next day we’re still there, we’ve been up all night, and he’s got another show to play. He was hungry, and he said, ‘Do you think you can find any food here?’ So I left the truck and went upstairs, and there were some people who were clearing out a room; they had catered a party and they had some leftover cold cuts and bread and pickles and chips and warm soda that they were going to throw out. I asked them if I could have some of it, and they said, ‘Yeah, help yourself,’ so I made up a couple of plates and I brought them back, and he and I had our leftover sandwiches and our warm soda, and we finished the track.
“A bit later, I remember reading in People magazine that at the ‘We Are the World’ session, they had champagne and caviar. In the papers, they had just torn Prince up: ‘How dare he? He doesn’t care about starving kids.’ And I thought, ‘No, actually, he was the one who went hungry on their behalf, who sat up all night and was happy to eat stale bread and warm soda to make a track for your record. He’s the one who didn’t have caviar and champagne.’ But you can’t say those things. I asked him, ‘Aren’t you going to say anything?’ And he said, ‘No, if you say anything, they got you.’ ”
The USA for Africa album shot to number one, and “4 the Tears In Your Eyes” was well received by critics, though it didn’t generate any real radio interest or move the needle for the project. And the damage was already done. Bob Cavallo looks back on the “We Are the World” fiasco as a crucial turning point in Prince’s entire career. “All of the superstars there just said horrible things about him,” he says. “I don’t know that they said anything to the press, but I know how incensed they were.
“I believe that moment is what made people ambivalent about his greatness. When you get negative press going, you need twenty years for people to stop reflecting on it. And if guys like Springsteen or whoever are talking about how great he is, like they used to, it would add to the legend. But instead, everybody kind of backed off, like, ‘What the fuck kind of idiot is he that he would go to some dance club instead of just going there and singing two lines in the song?’”
Saturday Night Live opened the February 2 episode with a sketch about the situation. Cast member Rich Hall, playing MTV VJ Mark Goodman, introduced the bit, saying, “As you know, Prince did not appear in the big USA for Africa video because he was busy bailing out his bodyguards after they beat up some of his fans outside of a Hollywood restaurant.” But now, the “sultan of screen” had organized his own video effort for world hunger. Billy Crystal, as Prince, sang:
I am also the world, I am also the children,
I am the one who had to bail them out, Now ain’t that givin’!
It’s a choice I made! The kids will have to wait,
There’s got to be another way to get on MTV
Cast members playing Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Willie Nelson all entered the studio, trying to sing, but each time “Prince” signaled to his bodyguards—played by Mr. T and Hulk Hogan—who manhandled the other artists and tossed them out of the room.
Two months later, Prince played the final date of the Purple Rain tour, to an audience of 55,000 in Miami’s Orange Bowl. He ended the show saying, “I have to go now. I don’t know when I’ll be back. I want you to know that God loves you. He loves us all.” Just two weeks after that, with minimal warning, his new album, Around the World in a Day, arrived in record stores, and the Purple Rain era was over.