Piano & A Microphone 1983: The dilemma in loving Prince's posthumous album, a masterclass in music
The first album to be released since his death in 2016, is more a snapshot into the life of Prince in 1983, than a well-planned, produced masterpiece.
I love Prince. I loathe his estate and record company for posthumously releasing an album from the vault of a man as private as him. I loved what I listened to, though. But then I hate that I loved what I listened to.
That, my friends, would largely be the gist of what I’m going to ramble about in the rest of this article. Only someone who truly values the idea of privacy and appreciates the genius of their favourite musician will ever find themselves in this unenviable state of personal dilemma.
Uncertainty swirling in my mind, I started listening to the album that opens with Prince’s stark words, “Is that my echo?” You stumble into Piano & A Microphone 1983, feeling like Prince is talking to you. Any guilt that I felt until that point, just had to wait.
The first album to be released since his death in 2016, is more a snapshot into the life of Prince in 1983, than a well-planned, produced masterpiece like Leonard Cohen’s swansong, You Want It Darker who died months after Prince. With an uneasy sense of foreboding, Cohen’s album was much like David Bowie’s farewell album Blackstar that released two days before he died in January 2016. With both Cohen and Bowie, there’s a strong feeling of them seeing their end, both of whom died of ailments they were already suffering. Fans were caught largely unaware with both deaths, most of us not even aware that they were suffering. In contrast, Prince had collapsed in April 2016 and news spread that his private jet had to make an emergency landing. The internet was full of theories that Prince was slipping, even though the notoriously private singer is said to have gotten discharged from the hospital against medical advice. Before we knew it, the musician was found dead and fans lost one of the most talented musicians of the generation. No swan song, no final tour, nothing.
Context is critical to understanding why Prince’s posthumous release evokes so many feelings. And we as fans don’t get a well-thought-out album but one of the most important slices of Prince’s musical history. Piano & A Microphone makes Prince’s fans time travel to 1983 over 35 minutes to treat them to the music of a genius in the making.
Recorded on cassette tape on 21 September, 1983 in the artist’s home studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota, the album finds Prince singing and playing the piano to songs such as an early version of his classic Purple Rain, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, and the gospel classic Mary Don’t You Weep, among others. Prince is fresh off the success of his album 1999, but he hasn’t yet seen the superstardom of Purple Rain that went on to win an Oscar and Grammys the following year.
Fans of the artist have heard poor quality bootlegs of this tape in the past, but the opening of the vault has given them a chance to listen to it with the sonic quality that Prince expected of his cassette tape. The then 24-year-old Prince offers his remarkably gifted voice and piano-playing virtuosity in what seems like an intimate jam session. You hear him hit some wrong notes, you experience his thought processes, you are seduced by the chanteur extraordinaire that Prince was.
The nine-track album features the artist in an avatar that is undoubtedly his richest but — typical to his nature — most underrated. His only tools are his voice and his piano. No trace of his legendary guitar-playing skills, nor the showmanship that defines his on-stage persona. Here is a musician at the threshold of superstardom, with no inkling that the following year would change his life.
17 Days opens the album with Prince sounding like he’s still figuring how he wants to take the song forward. It’s self-indulgent, there’s a piano solo that sounds like an after-thought, but it still pulls you into Prince’s mind space. Mary Don’t You Weep has been a widely covered gospel song — from Aretha Franklin to Bruce Springsteen, legends after legends have given the song their own treatment. Prince makes it a decidedly blues song, steering clear of the African-American Christian overtones. He growls and croons across the octave, his piano playing being both rhythmic and melodious. It’s a Prince we wish we had heard more often.
The album traverses the jazz and the blues genres, while showcasing a singer who improvises, beatboxes, and plays the piano with such passion. Above all, it is honest to the session. Why the Butterflies flies after several false starts, where Prince corrects himself over and over. You can hear him toying with the melody and the rhythm structure, and you almost imagine what it’d be if you were a silent spectator to this session in a studio. At one point he even asks, “Can you turn the lights down?”
As intimate as this feels, one can’t escape feeling like they’re clandestinely watching a master in his comfort zone, working with his best tools to craft brilliance. Add to this mix the fact that this master was most peculiar about his penchant for privacy and need to not feel exploited by his record labels, suddenly it feels voyeuristic to partake in this experience.
To start with, privacy and respecting others’ need for it weighs very heavily on me. As a person who fiercely guards my space, I can only relate to how much someone who lived a good part of his life in the public gaze, would want to defend his own. As much as Prince was a public figure, his entire life has epitomised the celebrity paradox; where all the newsprint in the world couldn’t do the man justice because he safely put away his most riveting side into a vault.
As part of their investigation into the musician’s tragic death in 2016, the Carver Country Sheriff’s Office opened the vault, pictures of which give one an idea of just how meticulously Prince’s works have been archived. It was then brought to the attention of his millions of fans that there’s enough unreleased music in that vault to release one album a year, for an entire century.
Prince died without a will. Like Jimi Hendrix and a whole lot of others, family members barely in touch with the artist find themselves in a position to decide what needs to be done with the estates of these artists. Prince left behind a sister and four half-siblings, all of whom stand to inherit a portion of his million-dollar estate.
We, as music fans, may grudge bands for vehemently not regrouping after a band member dies, or not releasing new music under the same band name after they break up. How is it that we’re not perturbed even a little by how their works are bandied about posthumously? What if they never intended for a song or album to see the light of day? Who are these people to decide what goes public and what remains private? How are we okay consuming something so vicarious, forgetting that this is the very experience these artists didn’t stand for? How would Che Guevara feel about his face being plastered across a range of merchandise that only feeds the capitalist system he loathed? How can we readily consume the music of a man who went to the extent of changing his name into a symbol, just to stick it to his record label? Call him eccentric but he stood for something. What do we stand for today that isn’t publicised on social media? Do we no longer understand the respect privacy ought to be accorded?
I shudder to imagine what Prince would think of this release today. One could only imagine that if he wanted to have a version of this 25-year-old tape officially released, he’d have done it already. I loved feeling like Prince was singing around me in this album. And every time I said a mental “wow”, I felt guilty for liking it. The music fan in me knows this album is a masterclass in music. The Prince fan in me is disappointed for him. It’s a terrible place to be at. But do the labels and the estates really care?
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