38: When You Were Mine

Dirty Mind (1980)
Where did Prince write When You Were Mine? Sources vary, although all agree he wrote it in a hotel room during the Rick James tour. Prince’s draft of the The Hits’ liner notes place the hotel in North Carolina, yet the published notes say it was written in Florida while the rest of the band were at Disney World. Fink concurs with this story but in an 1997 interview Prince said he wrote it in Birmingham, Alabama after listening to John Lennon. It could have been worked on across all three states, or memories of hotel rooms have blurred into one. What’s more important is its psychological location. As Prince wrote in his liner notes: “this was not a happy period.” He was stuck on a stressful tour that he was only doing for exposure, bumping egos with the headliner and (early on) dealing with some antagonistic audiences. Therefore the Florida story is the most illustrative. His band unwound from tour pressures by taking in a theme park, while Prince retreated into his music and created his own magical kingdom. When You Were Mine is pop perfection. A new wave nirvana. Shelter from the grey, tedious messy world by climbing inside a bubblegum palace where being cheated on has never sounded so good. Because the Dirty Mind album reinvented Prince as a sexual taboo breaker, critics often peg When You Were Mine as a song about a menage a trois. But I think that’s relying too much on one surely-metaphorical line. There wasn’t somebody literally sleeping between them. The singer was simply aware he was being two-timed and didn’t make a fuss about it, but now that his girlfriend has left him for the other man he loves her even more and begins following them around. It’s more a song about stalking than threesomes but, like Every Breath You Take, you don’t notice because it’s shiny, happy radio nectar. Unbelievably, it was never released as a commercial single but it was the b-side to Controversy and found a second life through a parade of cover versions. The first one, by the British band Bette Bright & The Illuminations, arrived the year after Dirty Mind was released. Two more appeared before Cyndi Lauper recorded what would become the best known cover. In January 1985, she released her version as a single, allowing When You Were Mine to finally roam the happy hunting ground of mainstream daytime radio. At the dawn of the 80s Prince spun gold out of tour-misery straw, but it wasn’t until the midpoint of the decade that somebody dazzled the market with its brilliance.