Showing posts with label America. Show all posts
Showing posts with label America. Show all posts

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Hard Purple Rain

There are many songs with the word “purple” in the title: Prince’s “Purple Rain,” The Jimi Hendrix Experience’ “Purple Haze,” Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes,” Van Morrison’s “Purple Heather,” Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater,” and, of course, the oft-recorded standard, “Deep Purple,” originally written as an instrumental by pianist Peter DeRose in 1933. So, what then are we to make of the line in America’s “Ventura Highway,” “Sorry boy, but I’ve been hit by a purple rain”?

I have been asked this question many times, and my answer has as much to do with metrics as it does with the way lyrical content in rock music may be rooted in the way songwriters construct lyrics nonsensically and/or onomatopoeically. Consider Paul McCartney’s original words for “Yesterday”: “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs...” In other words, nonsense words and phrases are substituted as syllabic “place holders” during the composition of the melody on the assumption that the actual set of lyrics will be finalized later. There is a wonderfully comic enactment of this process in David Byrne’s film True Stories (1987), in a scene in which John Goodman previews a song he is writing titled “People Like Us.” As he sings the unfinished song to a female friend of his, he is forced to substitute phrases and monosyllables for the unfinished lyrics while attempting to maintain the melody: “In 1950 when I was born, papa...I haven’t written this verse quite yet...Six feet tall in size 12, na, na, na, na, na, people like us.”

In the case of “purple rain,” a monosyllabic word (color) does not fit the metrical rhythm, for instance, “Sorry boy, but I’ve been hit by a blue rain.” Or, “Sorry boy, I’ve been hit by a green rain.” While “yellow rain” works metrically, the phrase may have certain unintended connotations. In The Grateful Dead's "Unbroken Chain," the phrases "blue light rain" and "lilac rain" appear, but given that "blue light rain" is "light," one cannot be "hit" by it, and "lilac rain" suggests a particular scent or aroma more than a kind of rain. Before America recorded “Ventura Highway,” of course, there was Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze,” “haze” in this context suggesting a confused state of mind, drugged, metaphorically “stoned.” More importantly, though, was Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” recorded in 1962. Without pushing the analogy too hard, “Ventura Highway” loosely employs the question-and-answer refrain pattern of Dylan’s song, as in “Sorry boy, but I’ve been hit by a purple rain/Aw, c’mon Joe, you can always change your name/Thanks a lot son, just the same.” The problem, though, is that “Sorry boy, but I’ve been hit by a hard rain,” does not work metrically, but also—and most importantly—because the songwriters are deliberately avoiding the explicit allusion to Dylan’s famous song. “Purple rain” thus avoids any direct allusion to "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," but like “hard rain," to be "hit" by "a purple rain" metaphorically suggests some kind of adversity, calamity, or hardship.