Prince’s Death Imbues ‘Moonbeam Levels’ With a Dark New Meaning: 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
In the wake of Prince’s sudden death, his long-discussed vault of songs transformed from mythical idea to stark reality. News came that someone had to physically drill into what looked like a huge bank safe inside his Minnesota home, finding stacks of actual unreleased songs inside.
But what then? How should we balance Prince’s known wishes – to say nothing of the idea that these songs might be of (relative) lesser quality, prompting their exclusion from official releases in the first place – with the more base notions of nostalgia and commercial gain?
Put another way: What fan didn’t simultaneously long for and secretly dread the idea of being the person who swung open that fabled vault door? You’d know – you just know – that some great stuff had been inexplicably cast aside, but you’d also worry over how the release of second-tier songs might tarnish Prince’s memory.
Then, “Moonbeam Levels” arrived as the previously unreleased bonus track on 2016’s greatest-hits collection Prince 4ever. A vintage R&B ballad driven by this gloriously stormy guitar solo, it made irrelevant – at least for a moment – any argument against future Prince-related archeological digs. That left us only to mull over the way time itself alters everything.
Recorded on July 6, 1982 just before “Lady Cab Driver” during the sessions for 1999, “Moonbeam Levels” was never part of that album’s official track listing, according to PrinceVault. The tune was then slated to be part of the Purple Rain movie in 1984, “but they made the decision not to use it, for whatever reason,” Revolution keyboardist Matt “Doctor” Fink told Las Vegas Weekly‘s Matt Wardlaw.
Even back then, the backlog of Prince songs was immense.
“Prince worked out close to 70 tracks before the film was put into motion,” Fink added. “The script was being worked on pretty much all of the summer of 1983 leading up to filming in the fall and early winter months. Prince and [director] Al Magnoli sat down and listened to all of the demos that Prince made for the movie, and then they narrowed that down.”
It seemed, for a time, that “Moonbeam Levels” might still emerge from Prince’s song purgatory. He also reportedly considered the track for an aborted follow-up album to 1988’s Lovesexy, before turning his attentions to the Batman soundtrack project. That was the last mention of “Moonbeam Levels,” however, for decades. Elvis Costello revived the song during the Music of Prince tribute concert held at Carnegie Hall in 2013 – but otherwise “Moonbeam Levels” appeared to be doomed to a life of shoddy, unauthorized releases.
In that world, bootleggers commonly referred to this track as “A Better Place to Die,” and their alternate title underscores how circumstance ultimately changed “Moonbeam Levels” forever. By the time Prince 4Ever was released, in the months following Prince’s fatal overdose in an elevator at his home, a different, far darker connection had been made.
Go past the soaring musical setting, and his key lyric here was already shot through with an awful sadness. Today, “Moonbeam Levels” also boasts an entirely coincidental, but nevertheless simply devastating new context: “Please send all your moonbeam levels to me,” Prince sings, “I’m looking for a better place to die.”
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