"We'd like to give you a Christmas present right now," Prince told the crowd at the Civic Center in St Paul, Minneapolis, on December 26, 1984. "This is a new song. We've never played it before, but… from us to you." He counted The Revolution in, heard Bobby Z's snare hit, then struck one of those back-to-front chords that made everything sound like it was crumpling, devastated, into a heap on the floor. The first few lines were howled: "Last night / I spent another lonely Christmas / Darling, darling / You should have been there..."
It was, as he promised, the first time that he'd ever played "Another Lonely Christmas" live. It would also be the last. Recorded by Prince alone in February that year, it would end up as the B-side to "I Would Die 4 U." But it never found its way into his rotation. Listening back to all six minutes of it now—hearing Prince tell a story about death and devastation and lingering midwinter agony over careening guitars and sinuous keys—it's difficult to see why. Maybe there was just too much otherworldly material to get through on the Purple Rain tour already.
"Another Lonely Christmas" is emotionally brutal. That opening chorus gives way to gauzier verses, Prince reminiscing about (and to) a lover who's nowhere to be seen: "Remember the time we swam naked in your father's pool? / Boy, he was upset that night but boy, was that ever cool." Hints of disaster creep in, line by line: she hated (past tense) the number nine; her sister was out on the ice earlier, alone; he sings about "Good Heaven..." and the "Northern star..."
In the third verse, the song erupts in a clash of major chords: "Baby you promised me you'd never leave / Then you died on the 25th day of December." He's singing to a ghost: "Your father said it was pneumonia / Your mother said it was stress / But the doctor said you were dead / I say it's senseless." That was seven years ago, and he's drunk himself into a stupor on daiquiris every Christmas since.
"That song is a work of fiction" Prince said of "Another Lonely Christmas" in a strangely formatted 1997 interview, and that seems to be all he ever said about it. There's obviously a kernel of non-fiction buried in in there too. It's little surprise that—approaching the apex of his fame and his powers, during the sessions for what would go onto be his best-selling album—he ended up writing a song so utterly broken-up and lonesome. This is the guy who wrote the lyrics for "Nothing Compares 2 U" in an hour, then remarked that they came out "like a sneeze." If the recently released studio session Piano and a Microphone 1983 taught us anything, it's that Prince was more than ready to sing through seclusion around that time.
Superstardom isolated him in the mid-80s. Neal Karlen interviewed Prince for Rolling Stone in 1985—it was his first full interview in three years—and he sounded dejected when discussing life at his home in Minneapolis. "Sometimes it gets lonely here," he said. "To be perfectly honest, I wish more of my friends would come by." He was overthinking things: "I think they love me so much, and I love them so much, that if they came over all the time I wouldn’t be able to be to them what I am, and they wouldn’t be able to do for me what they do."
But there's much more to it than psychodrama. The song is a timestamp, consumed by a memory that keeps coming back year after year. It sets aside one day to remember a tragedy, just when everyone's supposed to be smiling. He'd revisit that idea two years later, on the devastating "Sometimes It Snows in April," singing about a friend who'd died "after a long-fought civil war." The narrator couldn't shake despair: "Springtime was always my favorite time of year / A time for lovers holding hands in the rain / Now springtime only reminds me of Tracy's tears / Always cry for love, never cry for pain." Thirty Aprils later, Prince would die at Paisley Park, and "Sometimes…" would become his eulogy to himself, a reminder of death in the spring.
Christmas tends to be the worst, of course. The wide smiles and sickly sweet commercials are more prevalent than "lovers holding hands in the rain." Grief will hit some people hard this Christmas, just like it does every Christmas, and hobbling through to January is just about the only thing that anyone can do about it. On "Another Lonely Christmas," Prince doesn't figure that things are going to get any better. It's been seven years, and still all he can do is get blind drunk every December 25. That probably isn't the solution. Even Prince knew there was no real cure for loneliness.
Alex Robert Ross is on Twitter.