"Dorothy was a waitress …" #PrinceTwitterThread
The cult-iest of @prince cult classics; this opening line of "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" (henceforth, TBoDP) is as resonant a song opener as "Dig if U will…", "I was dreaming when I wrote this…", or "I guess I should've known…" — despite not being a single.
First, some housekeeping: I'm Arthur, and I host The Music Snobs podcast (@TotalMusicSnobs). And this is an exploration into my favorite Prince song and Side 1 closer of Sign O' the Times.
Second, some background:
An expert account of the making of TBoDP is from engineer Susan Rogers and can be heard at the 9:22 mark in pt. 2 of @SlingshotAnnie's SOTT podcast.
TL;DR, pt. 1: In early 1986, Prince had a studio built in his new home. And because he was so anxious to start working, sent Frank De Medio, a studio legend who built the mix console, home before completing the necessary troubleshooting. TBoDP was the first song recorded.
TL;DR, pt. 2: Prince brought in lyrics based on a dream. He recorded drums in one take, w/ his lyrics likely taped to a tom, as he sang the song in his head. He played the remaining instruments.
TL;DR, pt. 3: While taping, Rogers discovered the console's output sounded "muffled". Knowing better than to stop his creative flow, she let Prince work. Despite the loss of high-end, he liked the finished product. The quote: "This console's nice. It’s kind of dull, isn't it?"
Prince and Susan Rogers recorded & mixed TBoDP, start-to-finish, in roughly a 24-hour period during March 13-14, 1986. We'll come back to these dates. (Thx, @PrinceVault)
For the uninitiated, recording artists would *swear* by consoles. They're central to the sound of a song. In fact, #davegrohl made the documentary *Sound City* based solely on his purchase of the Neve 8028 analog console used to record Nirvana's "Nevermind". It's deep; trust me.
What made Prince's API/De Medio console (now housed in Studio B at @PaisleyPark) so special, was that it's based on the one used at Sunset Sound for Controversy, 1999, PR, etc. That console was maintained by Frank De Medio, which is why Prince hired De Medio to build one for him.
Why burn thru tweets over a mix console? Because it's the very reason TBoDP *sounds* the way it does; it adds to the song's character. And b/c Rogers fixed the "problem" that manifested while Prince was recording, every song thereafter benefited from the API's full capabilities.
Put literally: no other Prince song sounds like "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker". Full stop.
Now, back to those dates. What was happening around mid-March 1986? A lot, actually: "Kiss" was in Billboard's Top 20 (as was "Manic Monday"); Parade was a couple of week's away from release; and tour rehearsals were in full swing.
Also, not a week before recording TBoDP, the Revolution made a cameo appearance at Sheila E's San Francisco show on March 8, 1986.
What makes this bit of context so interesting is that it demonstrates how Prince operated in two timelines: one for Right Now and another for What's Next. But, that's an aside, so I'll get back to "Dorothy" and try to stay on topic.
It would be interesting to know if Prince had the dream that prompted him to write TBoDP *after* he got back from the Bay Area. While I would presume that he did, there's always a fine line between what happened and what you'd *want* to have happened. Here's what I mean:
Much of what makes TBoDP unique is that it's more of a production than a song; it's the *mood* that Prince creates that draws you in. Of course, we hear the LM-1 drums, but according to Rogers he's playing — and he's not playing to a click track (think metronome).
What this means is that the song is all feel, and it's a key as to why the live versions are so different from the original. (Hold that for later.) But you know who else was really good at harnessing mood and feel into their music? Sly Stone.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that Prince visited the Bay Area and was magically inspired to write TBoDP. But I am acknowledging that inspiration comes from many sources, and P had several influences that hail from that part of California. Okay – I'm moving on…
One last part about the music before I get to the lyrics, and it's a somewhat advanced topic: the pedal point or repeated tone. It's a technique where you repeat the same note in each chord throughout an entire section of a song, which can create dissonant or unexpected harmony.
"Dorothy" uses the note of E as the pedal point tone in the A-section. A couple of the chords don't naturally feature an E at all. This gives TBoDP an unpredictability, and gives the chord progression a floating quality befitting the uncommon vibe of the song. On to the lyrics…
Ultimately, "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" is a song about self-care. Let's unpack…
Lyrically, Prince is narrating an experience. We have three voices: his, Dorothy's, and a proxy for us to join the conversation. ("What you say?", "Tell us what you did.", etc.) And apart from a single couplet, none of the lyrics rhyme; this is very stream-of-thought.
He's in a café on a promenade & I'd bet the farm that he visualized France. He'd been in Nice for months shooting "Under the Cherry Moon", and they've got a 7km walkway called the Promenade des Anglais. So anyway, he meets Dorothy, a nightshift waitress with great people skills.
Now he's there to escape heated conflict & clear his head ("Earlier I'd been talking stuff in a violent room/Fighting with lover's past"), and orders — of all things — a fruit cocktail. This triggers an attraction for Dorothy. ("You're kinda cute, you wanna take a bath?")
Say what you want about Prince, he's always been a promoter of cleanliness. He agrees to the bath on condition that he leaves his pants on "because I'm kinda going with someone" – a relationship that may or may not be complicated by what went down in that violent room.
At some point during the bath, P's pants come off. But — and this is important — DP doesn't look at him. ("Instead she pretended she was blind") Afterward, he returns to the violent room, repeats the bath ritual, and resolves his conflict. All based on his connecting w/ Dorothy.
The bath sequence provides some insight. Despite their questionable choices, no sex takes place: we don't even know if Dorothy got into the bath w/ Prince. And him wanting to keep his pants on is drawing a line at how far he's willing to go before completely breaking trust.
We could even call this "safe sex". In Jan 1986, public health experts predicted twice as many new AIDS cases for that year & Prince was well aware of this atmosphere. TBoDP gives us a restrained Prince. (As much as you can get from a guy who accepts a stranger's bath invite.)
Now about that song on the radio. It's the most information about Dorothy Parker that we get.
Side note A: Let me just say: if you want to talk about an artist whose lyrics make you *feel* some s___? Look no further than @jonimitchell.
Side note B: My friend and PrinceTwitterThread co-host @deejayumb outlined the influence and admiration Prince had for Ms. Mitchell here:
Joni's "Help Me" is about a woman who's quick to fall in love, even though the object of her affection may not reciprocate. But she loves the *feeling* of being in love. This is Dorothy Parker, & "Help Me" is her "favorite song". ("Help me, I think I'm falling in love again")
I want to shine a light on the legacy of TBoDP. Prince played it live several times using a very different arrangement in the late 1980s and throughout the 2000s. Here's an official, late career, release as part of the One Night Alone box set:
This is a version many are familiar with; he also played it on the Tonight Show w/ Jay Leno. Note that bassist Rhonda Smith is playing a line that Prince plays on synth in the recording:
But here is an earlier version from 1987 that more closely follows the original structure. Note that bassist Levi Seacer Jr. plays the bass line from the original:
So, whichever bass line Prince wanted to use, it could potentially affect the feel of the song's performance. In both cases, he either segues or incorporates Madhouse's "4" to stretch out. Here's the original version:
While he did play TBoDP once during the "Sign" tour (in Vienna, the only known occurrence), it was always a favorite addition to tour after shows. This is during the performance in Oakland in November 1988.