15 Lessons from 15 Years of Blogging

This summer marked 15 years since I first started blogging here, and I'm happier than ever that I've chosen to live so much of my life in this place, with all of you.

Nearly everything has changed for me since I began this blog, from major milestones like getting married and having a kid to thousands and thousands of smaller moments. Along the way, the connections I've made here helped me turn "having a job" into a career that is deeply fulfilling and challenging, and opened doors to opportunities I couldn't have imagined.

But what have I learned? A lot. Some of these things may be obvious, and some may be slightly corny platitudes. But I hope a few will be useful to you. I'm far from an expert on this stuff, even after all these years, so I hope documenting my mindset when writing here might at least serve as a good reference for myself in the future.

  1. Typos in posts don't reveal themselves until you've published. If you schedule a post to publish in the future, the typos will be revealed then. This is an absolute, inviolable rule of blogging. This may be some sort of subtle lesson from the universe about our hubris in the face of fundamental impermanence.
  2. Link to everything you create elsewhere on the web. And if possible, save a copy of it on your own blog. Things disappear so quickly, and even important work can slip your mind months or years later when you want to recall it. If it's in one, definitive place, you'll be glad for it.
  3. Always write with the idea that what you're sharing will live for months and years and decades. Having a long-term perspective in mind is an incredibly effective tool for figuring out whether a topic is meaningful or not, and for encouraging a kinder, more thoughtful perspective.
  4. Always write for the moment you're in. Being true to how you feel and what you're experiencing is both more effective in connecting with a reader and more personally useful for when you revisit your work, serving as a reminder of exactly where you were at the time.
  5. The scroll is your friend. If you write a bad post or something you don't like, just post again. If you write something great that you're really proud of and nobody notices, just post again. One foot in front of the other, one word after another, is the only path I've found to an overall body of work that I'm proud of. Push posts down the page, and the good and the bad will just scroll away.
  6. Your blog can change your life in a month. If you want to understand an idea, or become a meaningful voice on a topic, or change your own thinking about a concept, write a little bit about it every day for a month. The first posts might suck, but invariably the exercise and the discipline of doing the writing are transformative. Sometimes the rest of the world even notices it.
  7. There is absolutely no pattern to which blog posts people will like. I've had pieces that I worked on for years that landed with a thud, ignored by even my close friends, and I've had dashed-off rants explode into huge conversations on the web. I've had short pieces or silly lists that people found meaningful, and lengthy, researched work that mostly earned a shrug. And of course, I've had pieces that I put my heart and soul into that did connect with people. If there's a way to predict what response will be online, I sure don't know it.
  8. The personal blog is an important, under-respected art form. While blogs as a medium are basically just the default format for sharing timely information or doing simple publishing online, the personal blog is every bit as important an expressive medium as the novel or the zine or any visual arts medium. As a culture, we don't afford them the same respect, but it's an art form that has meant as much to me, and revealed as many truths to me, as the films I have seen and the books I have read, and I'm so thankful for that.
  9. Meta-writing about a blog is generally super boring. (That probably includes this post.) Any housekeeping writing about how it's been a while since you've written, or how you changed some obscure part of your blog, doesn't tend to age very well and is seldom particularly compelling in retrospect. The exception are genres like technical or design blogs, where the meta is part of the message. But certainly the world doesn't need any more "sorry I haven't written in a while" posts.
  10. The tools for blogging have been extraordinarily stagnant. One of the reasons the art form of blogging isn't particularly respected lately is because the tools essentially stopped evolving a decade ago. The experience of writing, for most people, isn't even substantially different than it was when I started 15 years ago, despite the rise of the social web and mobile apps taking over during that timeframe. This matters because tools deeply influence content. And this stagnation is particularly egregious when we consider that almost every common behavior on the big social networks is a subset of what we originally thought blogging might be.
  11. If your comments are full of assholes, it's your fault. I've already written about this a lot, but it's still true. If you're not willing to invest in managing a community of commenters, then you're not ready to have comments.
  12. The most meaningful feedback happens on a very slow timeframe. It's easy to get distracted in the immediacy of people tweeting replies in realtime, but the reason I write is for those rare times, years later, when I get an email from someone I might only barely know, saying that something I wrote meant something to them. Sometimes they email years later to say they thought I was wrong, or that they've changed their mind, but invariably it feels like a profound and personal connection, often around the least expected and least obvious ideas.
  13. It's still early. Anyone who's ever heard me talk about blogging has heard me say how, when I started, I thought "There are already 50 or 100 blogs! I'm too late! Everything's been done!" And then, of course, the next 50 or 100 million blogs showed up and I realized that maybe I was early. Particularly as the idea of personal blogging has fallen out of fashion or even come to seem sort of old-fashioned online, there's never been a better time to start.
  14. Leave them wanting more. One sure way to trigger writer's block when blogging is to think, "I have to capture all my thoughts on this idea and write it about it definitively once and for all." If you assume that folks are smart and curious and will return, you can work around the edges of an idea over days and weeks and months and really come to understand it. It's this process that blogging does better than pretty much any other medium, and it's sharing that process with you that's been the greatest privilege of writing here for the last decade and a half.

Thirteen is Understanding

They say the best way to see if you really understand something is to try to explain it to another person. I'll never really understand what happened to my beloved city thirteen years ago today, of course, but I've had in mind that my young son is now old enough that I'll soon have to answer some question about 9/11. Already, he's been downtown and we've looked at the new World Trade Center tower and admired the sleek new skyscraper. It won't be too many more visits until he asks why they built this new skyscraper, or what was here before, or what those big reflecting pools are for.

There's no part of that day that one should ever have to explain to a child, but I realized for the first time this year that, when the time comes, I'll be ready. Enough time has passed that I could recite the facts, without simply dissolving into a puddle of my own unresolved questions. I look back at past years, at my own observances of this anniversary, and see how I veered from crushingly sad to fiercely angry to tentatively optimistic, and in each of those moments I was living in one part of what I felt. Maybe I'm ready to see this thing in a bigger picture, or at least from a perspective outside of just myself.

At a darker level, there's also the understanding that horrible things will happen again. I've accepted that the events of 9/11 did not catalyze enough change to meaningfully alter our path as a culture. We can promise to Never Forget all that we want, but that won't stop people from being in pain, from suffering, from attacking or being attacked. We can bemoan surveillance culture and compromises in our civil liberties, but even these wrongs have not substantially changed who we are. It does not diminish the memory of that day to remind ourselves that this kind of horror is not unique. And truly taking that belief to heart is, to me, the first sign that I've contextualized the events of 9/11 into my own life with perhaps some of the perspective that others have been able to arrive at more quickly.

And with that little bit of perspective comes a renewed sense of obligation. Even though I may understand a bit more about the world than I did 13 years ago, I still share every bit of the resolve that I found on that day, a conviction that I have a fundamental, unyielding duty to be more kind, more forgiving, more neighborly in serving my city, more thoughtful to my family and friends, and more courageous in speaking up about injustice. I have so much work to do to even approach any of those goals, but I find a great deal of comfort in realizing that understanding more has brought me to the same conclusions about what matters.

In Past Years

Each year I've written about this anniversary, in hopes of recording for myself where I am and what I've felt. These are personal observations, not speaking to any of the larger issues raised by 9/11, but I hope others find something of value in the observances.

Last year I wrote Twelve is Trying:

I thought in 2001 that some beautiful things could come out of that worst of days, and sure enough, that optimism has often been rewarded. There are boundless examples of kindness and generosity in the worst of circumstances that justify the hope I had for people's basic decency back then, even if initially my hope was based only on faith and not fact.

But there is also fatigue. The inevitable fading of outrage and emotional devastation into an overworked rhetorical reference point leaves me exhausted. The decay of a brief, profound moment of unity and reflection into a cheap device to be used to prop up arguments about the ordinary, the everyday and the mundane makes me weary. I'm tired from the effort to protect the fragile memory of something horrific and hopeful that taught me about people at their very best and at their very, very worst.

In 2012, Eleven is What We Make:

These are the gifts our children, or all children, give us every day in a million different ways. But they're also the gifts we give ourselves when we make something meaningful and beautiful. The new World Trade Center buildings are beautiful, in a way that the old ones never were, and in a way that'll make our fretting over their exorbitant cost seem short-sighted in the decades to come. More importantly, they exist. We made them, together. We raised them in the past eleven years just as surely as we've raised our children, with squabbles and mistakes and false starts and slow, inexorable progress toward something beautiful.

In 2011 for the 10th anniversary, Ten is Love and Everything After:

I don't have any profound insights or political commentary to offer that others haven't already articulated first and better. All that I have is my experience of knowing what it mean to be in New York City then. And from that experience, the biggest lesson I have taken is that I have the obligation to be a kinder man, a more thoughtful man, and someone who lives with as much passion and sincerity as possible. Those are the lessons that I'll tell my son some day in the distant future, and they're the ones I want to remember now.

In 2010, Nine is New New York:

[T]his is, in many ways, a golden era in the entire history of New York City.

Over the four hundred years it's taken for this city to evolve into its current form, there's never been a better time to walk down the street. Crime is low, without us having sacrificed our personality or passion to get there. We've invested in making our sidewalks more walkable, our streets more accommodating of the bikes and buses and taxis that convey us around our town. There's never been a more vibrant scene in the arts, music or fashion here. And in less than half a decade, the public park where I got married went from a place where I often felt uncomfortable at noontime to one that I wanted to bring together my closest friends and family on the best day of my life. We still struggle with radical inequality, but more people interact with people from broadly different social classes and cultures every day in New York than any other place in America, and possibly than in any other city in the world.

And all of this happened, by choice, in the years since the attacks.

In 2009, Eight Is Starting Over:

[T]his year, I am much more at peace. It may be that, finally, we've been called on by our leadership to mark this day by being of service to our communities, our country, and our fellow humans. I've been trying of late to do exactly that. And I've had a bit of a realization about how my own life was changed by that day.

Speaking to my mother last week, I offhandedly mentioned how almost all of my friends and acquaintances, my entire career and my accomplishments, my ambitions and hopes have all been born since September 11, 2001. If you'll pardon the geeky reference, it's as if my life was rebooted that day and in the short period afterwards. While I have a handful of lifelong friends with whom I've stayed in touch, most of the people I'm closest to are those who were with me on the day of the attacks or shortly thereafter, and the goals I have for myself are those which I formed in the next days and weeks. i don't think it's coincidence that I was introduced to my wife while the wreckage at the site of the towers was still smoldering, or that I resolved to have my life's work amount to something meaningful while my beloved city was still papered with signs mourning the missing.

In 2008, Seven Is Angry:

Finally getting angry myself, I realize that nobody has more right to claim authority over the legacy of the attacks than the people of New York. And yet, I don't see survivors of the attacks downtown claiming the exclusive right to represent the noble ambition of Never Forgetting. I'm not saying that people never mention the attacks here in New York, but there's a genuine awareness that, if you use the attacks as justification for your position, the person you're addressing may well have lost more than you that day. As I write this, I know that parked out front is the car of a woman who works in my neighborhood. Her car has a simple but striking memorial on it, listing her mother's name, date of birth, and the date 9/11/2001.

In 2007, Six Is Letting Go:

On the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, and especially on September 12th, I wasn't only sad. I was also hopeful. I wanted to believe that we wouldn't just Never Forget that we would also Always Remember. People were already insisting that we'd put aside our differences and come together, and maybe the part that I'm most bittersweet and wistful about was that I really believed it. I'd turned 26 years old just a few days before the attacks, and I realize in retrospect that maybe that moment, as I eased from my mid-twenties to my late twenties, was the last time I'd be unabashedly optimistic about something, even amidst all the sorrow.

In 2006, After Five Years, Failure:

[O]ne of the strongest feelings I came away with on the day of the attacks was a feeling of some kind of hope. Being in New York that day really showed me the best that people can be. As much as it's become cliché now, there's simply no other way to describe a display that profound. It was truly a case of people showing their very best nature.

We seem to have let the hope of that day go, though.

In 2005, Four Years:

I saw people who hated New York City, or at least didn't care very much about it, trying to act as if they were extremely invested in recovering from the attacks, or opining about the causes or effects of the attacks. And to me, my memory of the attacks and, especially, the days afterward had nothing to do with the geopolitics of the situation. They were about a real human tragedy, and about the people who were there and affected, and about everything but placing blame and pointing fingers. It felt thoughtless for everyone to offer their response in a framework that didn't honor the people who were actually going through the event.

In 2004, Thinking Of You:

I don't know if it's distance, or just the passing of time, but I notice how muted the sorrow is. There's a passivity, a lack of passion to the observances. I knew it would come, in the same way that a friend told me quite presciently that day back in 2001 that "this is all going to be political debates someday" and, well, someday's already here.

In 2003, Two Years:

I spent a lot of time, too much time, resenting people who were visiting our city, and especially the site of the attacks, these past two years. I've been so protective, I didn't want them to come and get their picture taken like it was Cinderella's Castle or something. I'm trying really hard not to be so angry about that these days. I found that being angry kept me from doing the productive and important things that really mattered, and kept me from living a life that I know I'm lucky to have.

In 2002, I wrote On Being An American:

[I]n those first weeks, I thought a lot about what it is to be American. That a lot of people outside of New York City might not even recognize their own country if they came to visit. The America that was attacked a year ago was an America where people are as likely to have been born outside the borders of the U.S. as not. Where most of the residents speak another language in addition to English. Where the soundtrack is, yes, jazz and blues and rock and roll, but also hip hop and salsa and merengue. New York has always been where the first fine threads of new cultures work their way into the fabric of America, and the city the bore the brunt of those attacks last September reflected that ideal to its fullest.

In 2001, Thank You:

I am physically fine, as are all my family members and immediate friends. I've been watching the footage all morning, I can't believe I watched the World Trade Center collapse...

I've been sitting here this whole morning, choking back tears... this is just too much, too big. I can see the smoke and ash from the street here. I have friends of friends who work there, I was just there myself the day before yesterday. I can't process this all. I don't want to.

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The Semiotics of Like

We don't do nearly enough to examine what it means when we perform common actions on our social networks. These aren't just guttural, reflexive responses! They are actions with meaning, choices that signify something emotional and expressive, just as surely as our body language does.

Today, Mat Honan on liking everything he saw on Facebook for two days:

I like everything. Or at least I did, for 48 hours. Literally everything Facebook sent my way, I liked—even if I hated it. I decided to embark on a campaign of conscious liking, to see how it would affect what Facebook showed me. I know this sounds like a stunt (and it was) but it was also genuinely just an open-ended experiment. I wasn’t sure how long I’d keep it up (48 hours was all I could stand) or what I’d learn (possibly nothing.)

And about six months ago, Pew explored the types of social clusters that define conversation networks on Twitter. These can function as, essentially, a catalog of the different modes of friending and replying on the network.

Pew Twitter network clusters

What's key here is that people are experimenting. When Mat tries a different way of using the Like feature on Facebook, he's testing its boundaries and exploring the meaning of using it in different ways. This is key. And not just because we need to understand the algorithms that shape so much of our lives (though we do), but because it can open up our minds to new ways to express ourselves.

Of course, I have a dog in this fight. I've done experiments about being mindful of whom I retweet and amplify. I'm the guy with a comprehensive theory of favoriting on Twitter. And I spent all day building an app (sign up now for free!) that is about plumbing the depths of this expression.

But even putting aside my own peccadilloes, what seems to be glaringly missing is a broader discussion about the ways we bend and stretch these apps we use every day. Where are the hacks and the cheat codes and the unexpected discoveries? Sure, the billion people who simply see these services as utilities to talk to their friends aren't going to try to break their networks, but those of us who are geeks seem to have settled into a too-comfortable acceptance of what we're given.

How are we going to find out what we really mean when we act if we don't start doing more experiments about how we express ourselves?

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I Know Times Are Changing

Prince performing on August 3, 1983

0:00 — 0:10

In the summer of 1983, Wendy Melvoin was just 19 years old. She’d flown halfway across the country from Los Angeles for her first professional gig as a guitar player, joining her girlfriend Lisa Coleman in the band where Lisa had been playing keyboards. Almost from the moment she landed, Wendy was thrown into the grueling rehearsals that were taking place in a warehouse in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, right where West Lake Street meets Highway 7.

Rehearsals in the warehouse involved learning dozens of songs, with many of them being created or rearranged on the spot; it was weeks and months of rigorous practice before Wendy was deemed ready to play with the band.

Her debut gig was a fundraiser for a local dance troupe, the Minnesota Dance Theater Company. The temperature on the night of the show was as sweltering as one might expect in early August. The six members of the band made their way over to First Avenue, the evening’s venue, to charge their way through a dozen songs over the course of 70 minutes.

The band challenged the audience with a setlist where half the songs were brand-new, premiering more than 45 minutes of material that no one had ever heard. After almost an hour, Wendy began the penultimate song of the set. A few slow chords, heavily chorused, served to introduce the audience to a new, unfamiliar ballad. For the first ten seconds of the song, the only sound heard was Wendy’s guitar ringing out.

Ten months later, on June 25th 1984, the world got its first listen to those broad, mournful chords as the title track of a brand new album: Purple Rain.

0:50—1:00

A few weeks later, Wendy and Lisa were back in their home state of California, joining their boss Prince, who was having a very auspicious visit to Los Angeles. On August 20, less than three weeks after the charity gig, Prince had been asked to come onstage at a James Brown concert, at the behest of Michael Jackson, who had been singing with Brown onstage. It was the only time the three men would occupy a stage together, and seemed an almost-explicit anointing of Prince by both the funk legend and the man who was then enjoying the height of Thriller’s success.

But despite the recognition, Prince and the Revolution were focused on their work. A few days after the James Brown show, Wendy and Lisa conducted a string section to record a string and piano accompaniment for Purple Rain that Lisa and Prince had arranged. In addition to Lisa adding a much more expressive piano part, there was a three-piece string section which included Lisa’s brother David Coleman on cello. It’s this string part that we can hear rising so dramatically behind the first chorus in the song.

The full version of this orchestral accompaniment track is over ten minutes, matching the original length of the song and then continuing into a more complex coda. But by the time these sessions in Hollywood were done, both the new orchestration and Purple Rain itself would be shorter, to better focus on the purpose for which they were created.

1:50—2:00

Though the idea of “blue states” and “red states” wouldn’t catch on for another two decades, it’s an appropriate framework for Purple Rain’s goals; The song was designed as a perfect amalgamation of red and blue tastes. Much has been made of Prince’s pioneering role in bridging white and black music, of bringing together funk and soul audiences with more conventional rock fans. But little has been said about exactly how he achieved this effect.

Prince simply made use of one of the most potent and consistent techniques of his career: careful appropriation of popular trends in pop music, filtered through his unique sound.

Traditional evaluations of Purple Rain’s songs have tended to describe it as a particularly original creation, given that it includes such distinctively Prince-ly works as When Doves Cry and Darling Nikki (both of which he wrote and performed entirely by himself). But Prince was always watching closely to see what was popular around him, and he put those observations to use in creating the album.

J. Geils Band’s Freeze-Frame, the title track from their 1981 hit album, and likely in the set of the shows on October 9 and 11, 1981, where they shared the bill with Prince.

For example, Prince had shared the stage with the J. Geils Band in 1981, as part of a legendarily ill-fated opening gig for the Rolling Stones where Prince and his band were pelted with objects by the crowd while being booed offstage. A scarring incident, to be sure, but Prince must certainly have noticed that Geils did not get booed offstage. And with good reason — the band’s single Centerfold had just been released two weeks before the Stones show, and would top the charts not long after in February 1982. On the heels of this hit, the band would release Freeze Frame, which was nearly as successful and got to #4 on the Billboard Top 100. Even more striking, the song’s b-side, Flamethrower, went top 20 on the soul charts. The band had an unlikely appeal to both black and white audiences, crossing over in a mirror image of what Prince was striving for.

The “Special Dance Mix” of Let’s Go Crazy, originally available in 1984 on the 12" release of the single.

Little wonder then that Let’s Go Crazy, written just a year later, would incorporate the same staccato organ stabs and driving beat as Freeze Frame (heard quite clearly in the full-length version of Let’s Go Crazy), substituting Prince’s trademark Linn drums for the more conventional sounds of the Geils song, and replacing the “freeze frame!” shout with a similarly percussive “oh no, let’s go!” refrain.

Similarly, in rehearsals from the summer of 1983, we hear Prince referencing what he heard at Paradise Garage, the legendary NYC nightclub. In 1983, that would certainly have included Laid Back’s White Horse, which topped the dance charts that year. Prince‘s creation myth for his song Erotic City was that it was recorded after he and Sheila E. attended a P-Funk concert together and were inspired to stay up all night making the song. And while there may be elements of truth to that story, it’s obvious that he also wanted to create a pastiche of a hit song that was doing well in the clubs.

Erotic City remained a staple of black radio for years after its 1983 release, despite being a b-side and ambiguously containing the word fuck/funk in its chorus.

Laid Back was, of course, a white group (they were from Denmark, a homeland as white as Prince’s) succeeding in a very black genre, synth-driven dance music. It’s little wonder that Erotic City would try to mirror that success, and perhaps inevitable that the song ended up as the b-side to Let’s Go Crazy. Both of Prince’s songs ended up being bigger hits than the earlier works that informed their creation.

But though it’s established that Prince would seek out references as inspiration for his concerted effort at crossing over, who could provide sufficient inspiration for the anthemic title track that his upcoming movie required?

For this, we can again look both to the acts Prince was seeing on the road and what was hitting on the charts in the summer of 1983. During the tour for the 1999 album, which had only ended a few months prior, Prince had been playing in many of the same venues as Bob Seger. Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink explained the appeal to a circumspect Prince: “It’s like country-rock, it’s white music. You should write a ballad like Bob Seger writes and you’ll cross right over.” In perhaps his least Prince-sounding quote ever, Prince mentioned Seger when both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, “We are both midwesterners and Seger had a lot of influence on me at the start of my career; he certainly influenced my writing.”

It’s not just Seger that was influencing Prince to move into rock balladry. Chick Huntsberry (the giant Santa Claus seen at the James Brown concert above) who was then Prince’s bodyguard and was becoming close to Prince, had been encouraging him to move in the direction of the country-inflected pop ballads that were then all over the charts. Tour manager Alan Leeds recalls Huntsberry’s reaction after first hearing Purple Rain, “He said, ‘Wait until you hear the song he did last night. It’s gonna be bigger than Willie Nelson.’.” Indeed, the guitar solos and even Prince’s vocal inflections of rehearsal versions of Purple Rain show far more of a country-rock influence than the final version.

Stevie Nicks, no stranger to country-informed rock ballads, has also attested that Prince sent her a demo of Purple Rain while he was still in the early stages of creating the song, either for her to write lyrics for or to use as her own song. They certainly knew each other at the time (Prince had contributed synths to “Stand Back” earlier in 1983), but it seems likely that he was refining the song for his own use rather than offering it to her.

Then there is perhaps the clearest antecedent to Purple Rain. Just four months before that August concert where Purple Rain was debuted, Journey released Faithfully, which despite only peaking at #12 on the Billboard charts was recognized as a signature anthem for the band right from its debut. It was reaching its peak airplay in the summer of 1983, just as Prince was creating Purple Rain in the warehouse rehearsals with the Revolution. Though Faithfully is anchored by its opening piano riffs rather than a guitar, it’s not difficult at all to hear echoes of the structure and progression Jonathan Cain wrote for Journey in the final version Purple Rain.

The debt owed to Cain may even have been acknowledged by Prince. In a hard to find Swedish interview in early 2012, Cain claims that Prince asked if it was okay that Purple Rain makes use of the same chords as Faithfully, with Cain demurring that the songs were sufficiently different.

All of this evidence makes it clear that Prince was deliberately scouring as many different sources and influences as possible to design a rocking guitar anthem with maximum mainstream appeal. That goal is never more obvious than in the two key events that happen at 1:50 into Purple Rain.

It is at this point we hear Prince’s guitar enter the song for the first time. Until that point, he had only been contributing vocals. From that point on, Prince’s guitar only increases in importance and centrality to the song, cementing its place as a rock song architected explicitly to appeal across racial boundaries.

Just as important is what we don’t hear. Elided in this transition is an entire minute of the original recording, removed during the same sessions when the string accompaniment was added. This editing serves to erase an entire original verse from the song.

All summer long, Prince had been toying with the lyrics to this lost verse, never quite resolving them into a coherent form, but consistently including them as part of the song. The night of the definitive performance, they were vague, if passionately delivered:

Honey I don’t want your money, no no no.
I don’t even think I want your love.

If I wanted either one, baby, I would take me some money and buy it.

I want the heavy stuff. I want the purple rain. I want the purple rain.

In rehearsals to that point, Prince would often sharpen the final line into “I want the heavy stuff... I want to see what you’re made of.” But, in addition to the contradiction contained in the lyrics (“I don’t want your money… I would take me some money and buy it.”), the message of this verse contradicted the song’s role in the narrative of the film.

And so, the verse was cut, affirming that Prince was doing whatever he could to construct a song which could serve as a signature song not just for an album, or for a film, but for a career. While the Purple Rain album was full of abbreviated edits of songs that he would later perform in their full versions during live performances, that wasn't the case with this missing stanza. After the Hollywood sessions where these edits were made, Prince would never again perform these lyrics as part of Purple Rain.

Purple Rain lyrics

Prince’s original hand-written lyrics for Purple Rain, including the deleted third verse.

2:45—2:55

During the weeks of rehearsal of the Purple Rain material, the band’s sound had been captured almost every day on a simple 24-track recorder that served as the destination for the many cables snaking around the warehouse. The mix for those recordings was managed on a console that was balanced on a few road cases. These machines were usually staffed by David Leonard and David Rivkin. Rivkin was brother to Robert Rivkin, better known as Bobby Z in his role as drummer for the Revolution.

There were new combinations of gear being rigged up for the band on an ongoing basis. Prince’s signature sound to that point had been due in no small part to his use of many of the earliest drum machines, and the show relied on drum machines that didn’t yet allow for the advanced digital controls that bands rely on today. So Prince’s tech Don Batts was forced to hack those primitive drum machines to allow Bobby Z to control a wider range of instruments live on stage.

Linn LM-1 Drum Computer.jpg

A Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, the same model Prince used in his early 80s work. (Wikipedia<)

That same kind of seat-of-the-pants recording technology was used to capture the First Avenue show. The charity show was being recorded thanks to the last-minute addition of a mobile recording truck, brought in from the Record Plant in New York at Prince’s behest. (The Time’s performances of Jungle Love and The Bird earlier that evening, recorded under the same conditions, would be used as the basis for their hit singles and album in 1984 as well. Five major pop hits were recorded in one truck in less than three hours.)

When Prince created When Doves Cry for the album seven months later, he was famously able to remove the bass line from the song in the studio because he had cleanly recorded all the tracks at Sunset Sound’s studios in Hollywood. By contrast, recording conditions for the tracks used on Purple Rain were rife with all the imperfections of a live show.

At 2:45 into Purple Rain, the precarious recording conditions become particularly obvious, when feedback from Prince’s guitar starts to seep into the track. Obviously, given the screeching solo that is to follow, some amount of feedback was necessary and desirable. But nothing attests to the truly electric nature of the song’s creation better than the unexpected feedback that pops up throughout the second half of the song.

4:40—4:50

While Prince and the Revolution had been carefully rehearsing Purple Rain all summer, adjusting each detail of how the song was structured and played, Prince’s nearly-unequalled ability to spontaneously take a live performance to the next level was certainly on display that August night.

Exemplifying this ability is the repeated lilting motif that Prince begins playing on his guitar at 4:40 in the song. For all the countless times they’d practiced the song, even earlier on the same day as the First Avenue performance, Prince had never played this riff during Purple Rain before. In the original live show, it’s clear that Prince realizes he’s found something magical, returning again and again to this brief riff, not just on guitar but even singing it himself during the final fade of the song.

Just as striking is how this little riff shows the care and self-criticism that went into making the song Purple Rain. Like any brilliant 25-year-old guy who’s thought of something clever, Prince’s tendency when he thought of this little gem was to overdo it. In the unedited version of the song, Prince keeps playing the riff for almost another minute, pacing around the stage trying to will the audience into responding to it.

But during those same sessions where the strings were added to the song, Prince ruthlessly chopped down a riff he clearly loves, keeping just enough to serve as a stirring melodic hook for his guitar solo, and leading the song to its soaring vocal climax.

5:15—5:25

At any Prince concert of the last 30 years, the highlight is typically the audience’s singalong to the descending falsetto line that crowns Prince’s guitar solo. But the origins of that signature line are a little more obscure.

Matt Fink, famously rechristened “Dr. Fink” in his role in the Revolution after the surgical scrubs that became his sartorial signature, had been in Prince’s bands from the earliest days. Indeed, Fink’s place in the band was deeply rooted in many ways—the warehouse where the band was rehearsing that summer was just half a mile from the high school he had attended only a few years prior.

It was during the sessions in that warehouse that Fink had first added a descending piano line to the coda of the song. Even as late as a few days before the First Avenue performance, this was merely a striking countermelody adding drama to the end of the guitar solo in the song.

Prince and the Revolution - Warehouse rehearsals

Still from video footage of rehearsals at the St. Louis Park warehouse. Robert (Bobby Z.) Rivkin on drums, Matt Fink on keyboards, Prince on guitar, Wendy Melvoin on guitar.

But by the day of August 3rd, when the band was performing its final rehearsal preparation, Prince had realized the power of Fink’s melody. In practice just hours before the public show, the melody became a soaring vocal hook, evolving in the final performance into perhaps the most affecting part of the song, expressing all of the emotions too powerful for Prince to capture in a lyric. Like Journey’s earlier Faithfully, or U2's later 80s anthems, it also provided a perfect stadium-ready sing-along line, again telegraphing Prince’s ambitions for the song while remaining true to the artistic intent of the piece.

6:40—6:50

Purple Rain is a particularly unusual song for the length of its instrumental coda. Before it fades to a series of striking and unexpected chords performed by the string ensemble, it has one last great hook, a simple piano motif performed by Lisa Coleman.

Given Prince’s legendarily controlling tendencies over his intellectual property, it is perhaps no surprise that the song Purple Rain has almost never been substantially sampled by other pop artists.

But clearly some songwriters consider the tinkling piano at the end of the song to be up for grabs, perhaps because it’s not one of the more obviously recognizable parts of the song. As a result, that piano melody has unexpectedly become the part of the song which lives on in pop radio. Alicia Keys made it the very first thing we hear in her 2007 single, Like You’ll Never See Me Again.

Similarly, Mariah Carey’s first single in 2014, You’re Mine (Eternal) opens with those same notes. Both songs have a pleading, even regretful tone that leaves no doubt their songwriters were making use of the motif to explicitly evoke the emotional context created by Coleman’s work in 1983. Both artists have also covered Prince’s songs from this era, with Keys covering the 1982 b-side How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore early in her career and Carey including her version of Purple Rain’s The Beautiful Ones on a 1997 release.

8:30—8:40

As Purple Rain fades to an end, the last thing we hear is the audience’s applause. While parts of the track had additional applause dubbed in to cover for the original audience’s subdued reaction to the then-new song, it seems clear this final applause is the actual response that Purple Rain inspired at its debut.

Just over a month after the Purple Rain album was released, the film Purple Rain debuted on July 27, 1984. Later that summer, Prince would simultaneously have the number one film, album, and single in the United States. On September 26, 1984, the song Purple Rain itself was released as a single, reaching number two on the pop charts, kept from the top spot by Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and going gold with over 500,000 copies of the single sold. The Purple Rain soundtrack album has sold over 20 million copies in the last 30 years.

Though Prince has half a dozen singles that did better on the charts than Purple Rain, the song has obviously become Prince’s signature work. It has taken different forms over the years; At an intimate show at his Paisley Park studio in 2002, he did a one-off piano rendition that omitted the famous guitar solo. In recent years he’s even let guitarist Donna Grantis solo on the song. Prince has trotted out Purple Rain to open the Grammy awards with Beyonce, and to shut the Super Bowl down with its best halftime performance ever, complete with a marching band.

Prince - Superbowl

Like the album it completes, Purple Rain has remained provocative and affecting. The song has aged over the last 30 years, especially extraordinary given that Prince was only 25 when he composed it.

During the filming of Purple Rain, a few months after the song was recorded, a love scene between Prince and the movie’s female lead Apollonia was filmed, taking place in a barn. The literal climax of the scene featured a rainstorm, with the sunlight filtering through the storm to provide an image of purple rain.

By the final cut of the film, that scene had been edited from the film. It had been deemed unnecessary.

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