When Prince went into the studio to record the series of songs eventually released as Piano & A Microphone 1983, it was just another day. There was no concrete purpose, no specific event he was preparing for. To simply call it a rehearsal forces an unnecessary narrative. Music poured out of him with the same ease with which anyone else might take a breath.
The first standalone release from the semi-mythical vault presents a portrait of the artist in his element, in possibly the only place he was ever completely comfortable or felt at ease letting his guard down.
Sessions like this were common at the Kiowa Trail home studio; Don Batts operating the recording equipment, Prince at the piano playing a stream-of-consciousness medley of known, soon-to-be known, and never-to-be-heard-again compositions. Several recordings just like this circulate among the fan community. Some have vocals; many more do not. This particular recording session most likely occurred in late summer 1983, somewhere around the Revolution’s debut at First Avenue and Vanity’s exit from his world altogether.
The underlying spirit of each work is intact, but different dimensions come into view.
Though recorded in a studio setting, this record fits better into the world of live albums. If you’re worried these will just be mellow renditions of songs you already know and love (as acoustic or piano versions generally tend to be), fear not. The tunes are immediately recognizable, but a solo piano and vocal format requires a different approach to the performance, arrangement, dynamics, and sentiment. The underlying spirit of each work is intact, but different dimensions come into view. Gone is the resigned depression from “17 Days,” replaced by an almost manic and pleading desperation that serves the song just as well. “Purple Rain” may be slight and loose, but there’s a triumphant air in its delivery.
The playful abandon with which the medley starts turns wistful with Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of U,” appearing here in more or less the same form it would over the years to come. On “Mary Don’t You Weep,” Prince spirals further into melancholy. The spirituality you might expect is replaced by an infectious and uncertain blues. The improvised lyrics are unfocused, but the subtext points to a creeping sense of loss. So much so, that it feels telling when elements of “Strange Relationship” creep in before appearing in full (for those that don’t know, the song is almost certainly about his feelings and thoughts toward Vanity). He begins to sniff infrequently, and you realize that he’s been doing it more frequently over the past couple of minutes. Is it just a case of the sniffles, or is there something more emotional being held at bay? His focus broken, Prince plunks out several chords before collecting himself to move on.
Having “International Lover” (mixed with a curiously uncredited “Do Me, Baby”) follow seems almost fitting as a palette cleanser. Not only had these been performed almost nightly since their respective releases, both songs have a theme of seeking comfort, or at the very least, distraction, from the everyday. Prince resets, forcing whatever demons away before getting to the newer ideas. “Wednesday” was at this point still planned for Purple Rain and was to be sung by Jill Jones’ Kid-obsessed waitress character. So wholly does he inhabit each song, it’s hard to guess whether the hesitation in the delivery is intentionally serving the atmosphere of the song’s aura, or because he’s still mulling over the chord progression. Focusing more on refining the groove than coming up with committed lyrics, Prince is just having fun with the alliterative “Cold Coffee & Cocaine.” Just because the Jamie Starr persona comes out to play doesn’t necessarily mean it was meant for The Time. By the same token, just because cocaine gets mentioned, there doesn’t have to be a real-life reason for it. He completely changes gears for the slow and sparse “Why The Butterflies?” Instead of a bouncy groove, it’s the space between notes that keeps the funk alive on this more serious joint. The slight dissonance and prolonged pauses create an aura of suspense and uncertainty that last all the way through to its abrupt end. The tape was labelled with only the last two song titles and presumably forgotten about. With preproduction for Purple Rain ramping up, it’s not hard to see this tape getting lost in the shuffle and forgotten for thirty-plus years.
As the first Vault release, though, Piano & A Microphone 1983 is bittersweet. The fan community was very divided over this release, some were even angry about it. Never mind the ‘what would Prince have wanted?’ argument; that’s a losing battle on all sides. The sonic imperfections present amidst the then-growing public concern over how the vault material was being cared for are also moot. Caring for decades-old reels, tapes, and hard drives is a far more complex discipline than many are prepared to acknowledge. But having the second consecutive posthumous release focus on the Purple Rain era… Real or not, it implies a lack of faith or interest in the rest of what Warner Bros. has access to. There was also a feeling of bait-and-switch. A mystery album was hinted at when Prince’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” was released. Many assumed the surprise single indicated a mid-80s outtake compilation was coming, even if there really weren’t any dots to connect at the time.
The title and talking points raised some concerns as well. ‘Piano & A Microphone’ was the title of his final tour, Prince had dropped a few hints that a live document of it was in the works. The Estate said this album would show how his career went full circle, finishing just as it began. Depending on where you start counting from, this session occurred seven years into a forty-year career. Prince already had eight albums behind him (if you count the three albums he wrote and played the majority of for Vanity 6 and The Time). The ‘come full circle’ narrative only works if it’s not thought about too closely.
Most importantly, though, it questions the mystique of the Vault. Prince claimed on several occasions that he recorded a song every day. Averaged out over a forty-year career, taking into account that there were surely days he was nowhere near a recording studio and the numerous documented days where a whole albums-worth of material was cut to tape… the potential for the number of compositions to be safely in five-digit number-land becomes real. Had the first material released been something nobody knew anything about, it would have gone a long way towards preserving the integrity of that mythology. Instead, two out of three previously unreleased songs are raw and rough, far from being finished products. What’s more, the material collected here was already available on at least three different bootlegs. The quality may not have been as great, and some bootleggers decided to reorder the tracks for no good reason, but these exact performances were out there and rather easy to come by.
Now, we can’t be upset about getting official releases of content that we are not supposed to have in the first place. Nor should the Estate generally be concerned with what super-fans might already have. But the first standalone release sets the tone for everything that comes after. The unspoken fear that many fans have is that they may just want to legitimize existing bootlegs rather than offer up anything untested. TIDAL had already done this on a few occasions, such as with a live album they streamed in mid-2018 called 3 Nights Live In Miami 1994.
The promotional campaign could have been more thought out. Live albums, in general, don’t sell as well, and this one was spoken of as a rehearsal. From its announcement on June 7 to its eventual release on September 20, Piano & A Microphone 1983 just couldn’t keep the anticipation going. In fact, at this point in time, it has yet to sell the 500,000 units for the RIAA to certify it Gold. “Mary Don’t U Weep” was hyped by the media for two months, but mostly in connection to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman movie. When the Estate finally released a proper music video for the song, the heirs undercut that promotional tool by voicing their dissent on social media. A 7” single of “17 Days (Piano Version)” was distributed with issues of Rolling Stone in Germany. As promotional efforts go, these were half measures.
Those concerns aside, there was a lot to be happy about with Piano & A Microphone 1983. The attention to detail is impressive. The sound is as clean and clear as we could ever hope for from a thirty-five-year-old source. The photos used were taken by Allen Beaulieu, the photographer responsible for most of Prince’s iconic images during this period. Had Beaulieu’s work not been used, something would have felt off. Handwritten lyrics for “17 Days,” “International Lover,” and “Strange Relations” (as it was apparently titled then) adorn the packaging. It also came with a booklet featuring reflections by Don Batts, Lisa Coleman, and Jill Jones. While Don’s essay speaks in more of a general nature and Lisa’s comes across as more of a first-listen commentary, Jill gives a bit more insight into this era and these songs. The only real detractor was that the full experience is only available on the pricy limited-run Deluxe Edition LP.
Piano & A Microphone 1983 is a testament to how completely Prince inhabited every note he played, regardless of the audience or destination of the recording. It’s an intriguing listen, but sales and lasting presence have shown that it just wasn’t what the world had been holding its breath for. For the casual listener, it offers the opportunity to hear what an amazing talent Prince truly was. For the fan, it offers hope that nothing in the Vault is off limits for release. As a musical time capsule, it is a more-than-worthy addition to the official catalog.