17: Darling Nikki

Purple Rain (1984)
Purple Rain was the first Prince album I bought. Chosen partly because I knew and loved the singles, but the real clincher was seeing the title of track five. I’d recently started dating a girl named Nikki and I naively earmarked this song as mixtape material. Remember mixtapes? Those personally cultivated repositories of subtle messages and meaning. Well, that plan was abandoned two lines in, but it no longer mattered because by that point in the album I had already been converted. My future was purple.

Darling Nikki is a sexual fantasy that goes heavy on the fantasy. Prince has a wild night of passion with a castle-dwelling fiend who extracts his signature in a Faustian pact for his soul then disappears, leaving him forever transformed. It’s the dark heart of the album and his character’s lowest ebb in the film, where his performance appalls all onlookers, including his girlfriend who flees humiliated, and the nightclub owner who tells him “no one digs your music but yourself”. Everyone seems oblivious that they’ve just heard rock’s equivalent of a Caravaggio. 

Prince created this song to inject danger into the Purple Rain album which at that point he felt was veering too mainstream. And the danger goes deeper than the opening lines which torpedoed my mixtape plans and Tipper Gore-ed a moral panic within the pearl-clutching heart of America. The danger is present in every beat, in every scream, in every grind. The melody – a gothic reimagining of Vanity 6’s 3×2=6  – sounds like a tentative descending of a spiral staircase into the dark dungeon depths of Prince’s unbitted lusts. And the final throat-shredding screams of “your dirty little Prince wants to grind, grind, grind…” makes every Heavy Metal frontman that has ever lived sound like a tired toddler in comparison.

Of course, after this swan dive into the profane, Prince felt the need to purify the air with a taste of the divine. I’m reminded of Plato’s allegory of the soul being a chariot powered by two winged horses pulling in opposite directions. After letting his primal horse of base desire plunge towards the earth, the driver had to let the noble horse of spiritual aspiration take over and soar towards the heavens lest they crash. Darling Nikki plunged deep and fast. A Christian message hidden in the purifying sounds of Lake Minnetonka wasn’t enough to right this chariot, not least as the message was placed, in part, as a prank to fool those expecting to uncover evidence of satanic corruption. Another hidden element was needed to restore harmony. On the record’s inner sleeve there are printed lyrics at the end of Darling Nikki, not of the backwards prayer, but of an extra verse that is never sung. This verse contains the key to the entire symbology of the album, born out of a spiritual experience he had prior to its recording, and if you’ve not yet spotted it I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing it here.

Prince wasn’t Darling Nikki’s only victim. With the help of the PRMC labelling her public enemy number one, she reached folklore status and lured generations of curious teens into her castle. She beguiled a multitude of rock bands to cover her and showed Michael Jackson how to grind by inspiring him to write Dirty Diana. As for me, she nudged me down this purple rabbit hole and for that I’m forever grateful. Consider this a note from me saying thank you for a funky time… 

This is no one night stand though. My relationship with the real life Nikki didn’t last the summer. Darling Nikki, however, is for keeps.