On record

Prince, Piano & A Microphone 1983

"Is that my echo?" asks Prince, his voice itself a haunting reminder of his incredible talent.
20181001 Piano and a Microphone 1983

When Prince died, a thought occurred to me amidst my bewildered grief that I keep turning back to. It just injected itself into my head, without warning – “We lost the 20th Century’s Mozart!”

At the time I derided myself for the thought – yeah, you like him, but what a ridiculous idea – Quincy Jones, for one, and there are certainly others – and that’s just popular music. What about the litany of phenomenally talented, classically-trained musicians and artists that only minute factions of Society care to appreciate? What a superbly stupid statement – and yet here I am, compulsively tapping my foot to Cold Coffee and Cocaine.

That’s not to say this song alone means Prince is Mozart – but where I do find a trace of truth in the statement is in Prince’s incomprehensible and incomparable talent. I would happily wager that no mainstream pop musician in the last 100 years had comparable musical talent to Prince, and that’s a bold statement – there are many contenders (Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Damon Albarn), but none have come close to Prince’s breadth of talent or – in this case – such raw, unvarnished talent, which posthumously manages to utterly captivate and move in an entirely fresh, ethereal fashion. Prince’s brilliance continues to outshine contemporary artists from beyond the grave.

Much has been written by way of review of this record already, and many – as I have similarly felt compelled to do – have chosen to quote the utterly banal question, “is that my echo?” that Prince asks Don Batts (then-Engineer) at the album’s open. It is for good reason: upon multiple listens, the harmless question serves as a kick-off to a 34-minute piano rehearsal so unvarnished that it is eerily akin to sitting in the room with Prince. This sensation – and it is powerful – renders the entire record infinitely more captivating. It is an album that commands attention as you listen to each sniff, foot-tap, throat clearance and whimper from Prince while he runs through a medley of songs, ranging from super-hits (Purple Rain, the least interesting track on the record), to previously unheard songs (Wednesday, Why the Butterflies?). Then, you remember that almost all of these songs wouldn’t be released for another year, at least (Strange Relationship did not appear on-record until 1987).

It is at this point I must confess to the scope of my Prince fandom (in case it was not already obvious). I had already heard Piano and a Microphone 1983 a long time ago.

My copy is called ‘1983-00-00 Piano Rehearsal’. I think I first got hold of it when I was 16. Back then, to get ahold of unreleased Prince, you had to befriend people in online fan fora and post each other CD-rips of bootlegs you had managed to get your hands on (customarily, someone would send you one as a ‘gift’ to get you started). The copy circulating has been alluded to in a few reviews – the quality is sub-par; the tape has warped, distorting Prince’s voice to make him sound deeper than reality. You can still hear some of the tape warp in this official release, during Mary Don’t You Weep. On my bootleg copy, Why the Butterflies? is innocuously titled Mama. I can remember listening to it – Cold Coffee and Cocaine, in particular. I was infinitely curious, but the quality irritated me to the extent that I am not sure I ever returned to the bootleg (just hoarded it in my own, personal vault). My mistake.

17 Days – the opening performance (it feels strange to call a tape recording of a rehearsal an album) – proves to be one of the album’s highlights. I say this as someone who has likely heard at least 50 variations of the song, across sound-checks, live performances and various demo iterations. The song is born again, and may well be my favourite rendering aside from the official release. Time and time again, I find myself compelled to put the record on, just to hear the innocuous “is that my echo?” before the cascading piano pours into my ears – “Good God!” indeed. I come back to the original bootleg, sitting there harmlessly in my library and think “how did you miss this for all these years, you fool!”

The medley that follows is familiar territory to many a Prince fan, albeit newly fresh and engaging in its unparalleled intimacy – particularly in light of the expert job Michael Howe (also clearly a Prince nerd) has done in restoring the tape, bringing powerful emotion out of a home recording. To the non-fan, it is a wonderfully intense – and yet similarly harmless (it’s just piano) – introduction to a musical talent and originality that we are now, truly missing from the world.

Reviewing this release as an album also feels incongruous – pause a minute to consider that this genuinely was ‘just’ a rehearsal Prince had taped, before tossing it into the vault to forget about (part of his maniacal habit for self-analysis as his career verged on superstardom). The finesse and dexterity of Prince’s musicality is a spectacle to be heard, even in the intimacy of a home recording. His vocal range and lucidity at such a young age (twenty-four) is prodigious. The recording in and of itself serves as anchoring testament and proof of Prince’s musical majesty, although this snobbish high-horse is not why I compel you to listen to this record – nor is it the most interesting point to dwell on. What is truly compelling about this record comes on side B, after Prince closes out side A by asking Betts to flip the tape over.

Side B contains two unreleased songs: Cold Coffee and Cocaine – an excellent display of Prince at his humorous best – and Why the Butterflies? It is on this last song I want to dwell. It opens with Prince hesitantly feeling out the keys on the piano, an aura of intensity dwelling against the non-silence of tape hiss quietly humming in the background. There is uncertainty to Prince’s playing – something almost unheard of in his music. He plays some chords and finds a rhythm but pauses, dissatisfied, to practice the chord progression again. Happy, he resumes, mhm’ing in approval.

We are listening to Prince write a song.

It is for this reason that I believe this may never have seen the light of day – this tape captures Prince in a moment of pure creation, feeling his way through a dim, musical idea bubbling up through him. Consequently, it also captures Prince at his most vulnerable. Aware of his acute egomania and self-criticism, Prince has allowed himself, at the end of a rehearsal, to feel out an idea on record – and what a hauntingly beautiful idea it is, the cries for mother filled with an existential yearning that adds urgency to the need for an answer to every question that follows. It is a beautifully poignant close to the recording, lingering long after the listening is over, with Prince’s increasingly desperate cries of “Mama!” (the kid from a broken home) continuing to echo through my head.

“Is that my echo?”