1999 single (1982) / The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)
During one of the moon landings, an astronaut dropped a feather and a hammer to show they would hit the ground at the same time. They still lie on the lunar surface in the same place they landed 50 years ago.
In How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore Prince shares the same level of remote abandonment as that single falcon feather, 240,000 miles away from the nearest falcon. He too has been dropped into a cold deserted landscape, and lies discarded next to the only object connecting him to the world he once knew – in his case, the stubbornly silent phone. Nothing exists for him except heartbreak and the increasingly unlikely remedy.
Prince pours overwhelming loss into every corner of this classic B-side. He takes the chord progression from Heart and Soul and tears holes in it, twisting it up in knots. His voice, thrown through the wringer and broken in several places, runs the gamut from wistful remembrance to the tortured scream of a soul in purgatory. The only thing grounding the swelling vortex of pain and stopping it from swallowing everything in sight, is the sound of his foot stomping a rudimentary beat, and a finger-click during the first mention of the title that briefly snaps him out of his wallow.
In early performances, Prince ramped up the feeling of loss by opening up new chasms of silence. 1999 Super Deluxe included a DVD of an 1982 performance where he breaks off from the song and mutely lies down on his piano, pounding the top in impotent frustration. During both live recordings on this release, lyrics get abandoned mid-line and the piano drops out completely for half the song’s duration, leaving us with a sole tambourine metronome and an acapella chant of “how come u don’t call me”, while Prince whips up the crowd into a raw screaming mess. We’re beyond the orbit of entertainment at this point and entering the realm of scream therapy.
Later performances, although similarly structured, lose this searing build up and catharsis. The full band treatment on One Nite Alone… Live puts on a show but the spaces are filled with saxophone and panache, leaving no room for the churning ache of heartbreak. Some of the tricks remain – like when he screams into the mic and leaves the echo reverberating around the hall for an eternity, but when the band comes back in they add a capital G to the loss felt in the original. I’m sure it sounded incredible in the moment, but home alone, on headphones, it can’t touch the very first transmissions from Prince’s pit of despair.
In 2019, the gods bestowed us with a second studio take. This unexpected gift actually has a proper ending instead of a fade out, offering a resolution its predecessor refuses to provide. It’s neither better nor worse, but its appearance was like discovering Da Vinci made another painting of Mona Lisa from a different angle. On rainy nights I keep a fire lit that a third take may one day walk through the door. That may seem greedy but my yearning has to be directed somewhere and the phone stopped calling with newly-recorded material many years ago.