Prince, “When You Were Mine”

Prince at Coachella, 2008.

Prince isn’t known for his talkativeness with the press, but there is a quote taken from an interview with Tavis Smiley of PBS that shows the admiration he has for his longtime fans. “When you don’t talk down to your audience, then they can grow with you,” he said. “I give them a lot of credit to be able to hang with me this long, because I’ve gone through a lot of changes, but they’ve allowed me to grow, and thus we can tackle some serious subjects and try to just be better human beings, all of us.”

Those fans to whom that quote refers know that the Prince phenomenon began well before 1999 and Purple Rain. For one shining example, there’s “When You Were Mine”, which can be found on his third album, 1980’s Dirty Mind. The song is old enough that it predates his obsession with shortening words into letters. (That’s why it’s not “When U Were Mine.”) Yet it still stands as one of his most convincing lust-gone-wrong songs.

The song also displayed Prince’s budding musical versatility, something that would come to the fore in his subsequent commercial breakthroughs. Although His Purpleness was already known at that point for sweaty R&B workouts and soul come-ons, “When You Were Mine” strikes the aural pleasure center via the kind of melodic New Wave for which Ric Ocasek might have traded his best pair of Wayfarers. Featuring snapping drums and Farfisa-styled synths (all played by you-know-who), the song doesn’t contain an ounce of flab.

The love triangle at the core of the song isn’t the genteel type featured in so many other pop music tearjerkers. That’s clear when Prince sings, “So I was blind/ I let you fool around.” It’s clearly an open relationship, but one that gets away from the narrator to rather tawdry effect: “You let all my friends come over and meet/ You were so strange/ You didn’t have the decency to change the sheets.”

For all of these salacious details, the guy also clearly harbors genuine feelings for this girl, even if he admits them sheepishly: “You were kinda sorta my best friend.” What he isn’t afraid to declare, with increasing intensity, is his regret for letting things get so out of hand: “I never was the kind to make a fuss/ When he was there/ Sleeping in between the two of us.”

In the final verse, the narrator admits that he has crossed the line from suitor to stalker: “Now I spend my time/ Following him whenever he’s with you.” The kicker line of the chorus (“I love you more than I did when you were mine”) can be read two ways. Sentimentalists might say that his love continues to grow even though he’s separated from her. Cynics would counter that he only wants her now that he can’t have her.

“When You Were Mine” quickly proved to be a sturdy source for cover versions, with Mitch Ryder and Cyndi Lauper churning out excellent takes within a few years after it was first released on Dirty Mind. Yet none of those other versions have the original’s searing falsetto vocals or its fearless commitment to the subject matter. Qualities like that never go out of style, which is why Prince has been holding court for so long.

Read the lyrics.

Prince’s music is not available to stream.