The song “Purple Rain” begins with an apology. “I never meant to cause you any sorrow, never meant to cause you any pain.”
In the context of the movie Purple Rain, that could have meant Prince’s “The Kid” character apologizing for betraying and hitting his girlfriend Apollonia. Or Prince could have been channeling the guilt of the Kid’s father, Francis L., like Prince’s own father, a struggling musician. The fictional film version had hurt his wife and his son, and ultimately himself, with his abuse and his controlling nature. Or the Kid could be talking to his parents, the mother he didn’t protect or the father he disappointed, and apologizing to them just for not being a different child, one who could take all of them away from their problems.
Whatever the context, “Purple Rain” is a song about pain, which is unusual for the kind of iconic global hit it became. The singer is sorry for the trouble he’s caused. He’s sorry that he’s ruined things. And even if it’s too late to make things better, he wants you to know that he wishes he could.
He wishes we could go to a place where it could all be washed away. The paradise he picked, Purple Rain, doesn’t exist on Earth, but he passionately believes in it. In the song, he uses his guitar and his voice to scale every possible note in search of it up there. He frantically plays and sings his way higher and higher, soaring in an ecstasy of creation until for a moment we’re all there with him in the Purple Rain, his characteristically weird name for heaven, where everything is forgiven and we all love each other again.
Thematically it’s a little like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” I guess, except the song wasn’t political but personal. Prince didn’t point the finger at priests or corporations or people who made war as the obstacles to a better world. He started with himself. He apologized, and then he tried to make things better the only way he knew how, by using his extraordinary gifts to make beautiful things.
Prince’s greatest moment may have come on February 4, 2007, at halftime of Super Bowl XLI. It was a miserable game. Not only was it not a close contest, but it was played in a torrential downpour that made the game hard to see, and an ordeal for the spectators who of course had been bled for every last cent en route to their seats. The athletes on the field for the most part didn’t rise to the challenge of the conditions, and played a sloppy game, adding to the impression of an overhyped, expensive letdown.
Then Prince came out at halftime and acted like he didn’t even notice the weather. He started with his usual concert-opening anthem, “Let’s Go Crazy,” and then did something nobody ever does at Super Bowls: He forgot to promote himself. He played other peoples’ songs, a weird mix including everything from Hendrix/Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” to “Best of You” by the Foo Fighters, a band whose members had no idea this was coming. He wasn’t selling himself, just music.
Then at the end, when he played “Purple Rain,” nature upstaged the most scripted event on Earth to unleash torrents of water on the stadium. The joy on Prince’s face was unmistakable as he screamed his guitar higher and higher while buckets of rain came down on him. It was something you never see anywhere, let alone on TV: pure happiness. And tens of millions of people swayed along to his by then familiar ballad about the hope of finding something better in this world.
That was all of us at our best.
The world we live in today may have just become too angry for someone like Prince. If that’s the case, maybe it’s our turn to look inward and apologize. At the very least we should recognize what we lost yesterday. Goodbye to Prince, who was the best of us.