If Prince was the sun in 1980s Minneapolis’ musical solar system, bands like The Time were planets that developed their own rich and fertile ecosystems while navigating the intense gravitational pull of his control and creativity. Benefiting from Prince’s modular imagination, where musicians were swapped in and out to create the most successful pairings and collaborations, The Time formed in 1981 from the components of smaller groups like Flyte Tyme, solo acts like guitarist Jesse Johnson, and Prince’s childhood friend, drummer Morris Day. Day quickly found himself shuffled from the rhythm section into the spotlight, while his showmanship offered an equal but wildly different energy than Prince’s. Flamboyant where the Purple One was mysterious, inclusive where his mentor was singular, and openly comical instead of impishly sexy, Day led a band exploding with equal measures of musical chops and showmanship.
The juxtaposition was too promising to ignore three years later when Hollywood came calling and offered Prince an opportunity to leap onto the silver screen with Purple Rain. As Prince recruited his many associates to join him on the project, writer-director Albert Magnoli chose Day as his on screen nemesis, embodying irresistible, crowd-pleasing energy in direct contrast to The Kid’s idiosyncratic, fearfully insular style. (Mind you, Prince was writing part or all of The Time’s songs at the same time he was developing his own, so the hard-won generosity The Kid shows in the film’s final scenes remains largely a fictional conceit.) Purple Rain went on to become a runaway hit, and the music in it a part of the pop culture firmament of the 1980s - extending easily to “The Bird” and “Jungle Love,” The Time’s two big numbers.
Thirty-five years later, Day still outwardly exudes the prissy flash of his character in the film, wearing suits that you need sunglasses to properly look at. But sitting down in person, he’s decidedly quieter and more introspective than one might expect. Appearing late last year at a screening of Purple Rain to commemorate the film’s anniversary, he generously answered questions from fans and signed copies of his new memoir, On Time. Day also sat down for a brief but intimate conversation with Birth.Movies.Death. where he talked about what took him so long to write his own account of that collaboration with the late, great Prince, revealed some new details about the formation of The Time, and indeed, his own stage persona, and reflected on a remarkable legacy as a musician and performer that took him from the back beat to center stage.
2019 was the 35th anniversary of Purple Rain. After writing your own memoirs, do you have a most vivid or favorite memory from either the making of the movie, or the phenomenon that sprung up around it?
One of the most memorable moments was right here 35 years ago, because that was the first time that I saw the movie, and the last time. I haven't watched it in its entirety since then.
Yeah. And it was such an innocent effort, because Prince was going to do a movie, and we agreed to go along for the ride. But then they started saying, “the dailies are fucking awesome.” And then they said, “you in particular are doing an awesome job.” Sometimes they would say Prince had a bad day, and then sometimes they would say, The Kid actually had some good scenes today. So fast forward I come to the Chinese Theatre, I get out of the limo and fucking people were going crazy. So that was my first moment where I was like, we might be onto something here. So I think that was the most memorable of it all.
Why was now the right time to write your memoirs?
To be honest, I never really thought I had the patience to do a book. Everybody [suggested] I should do a book, but particularly after Prince passed, pretty much every outlet you can imagine, print, talk show, variety show, everybody wanted to talk to me. And I was like, I'm not feeling this, so I didn't talk to anyone. But a year passed, and my manager Courtney Benson ran into David Ritz and [Courtney] was like, you should think about doing a book with Morris. David got in contact with me, it was a good opportunity for me to tell my story for anyone who's interested in hearing it related to his and my past. So ultimately all the things I tried to avoid, I ended up doing anyway. Now I'm talking to all the outlets. But now my story's available for anybody interested in hearing it who I might not talk to or might not see this. It's a great outlet, a great time, and so I went for it.
Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli said that he interviewed you and other members of the band to write the script, and he indicated that everyone was pretty forthcoming about the ups and downs of band life that fed into what became this fictional story. Were you ever reluctant to discuss those things, or were you just young and fearless about what happened behind the scenes?
Back in the day, it wasn't even that type of situation. It was more like one day Prince shows up, and he’s like, “we’re going to do a movie,” and then all these people start showing up like Albert Magnoli. We started going to a dance class, acting class, all this stuff. I had never done a movie, so I was like whatever. So the script was developed between [Magnoli] and Prince and whoever else, and by the time it got to me, I sat down and he was like, “Here's the script. Let's go page for page. How would you say it?” So I went through the whole script and revised or embellished whatever lines had been written for me. Jerome Benton and I, we did the same thing. We went through the whole thing, because we did most of our scenes together. So we just went through it and just put our own words onto it to make it have that realism, which was a smart idea on their part.
When you developed your stage persona, were there unexpected people that you drew upon as an influence or inspiration?
Early on I didn't necessarily have an idea, but to Prince’s credit, I don't know if you remember a movie way back in the day called The Idolmaker, but we would see stuff like that and then look at flamboyant characters, Elvis and James Brown, stuff like that. And he always had his eye on the prize, because I didn't know. I wanted to be the drummer in the band, and somehow I got pushed out front. I ended up being the lead singer, which I'm glad because drummers don't make money like they did back in the days when there were session musicians and they went from one session to another all day long. They could make, you know, five grand in a day. And he told me, “you need to be the singer.” Because in our band Grand Central, I would go out and sing two or three songs each night, and then go back to my security blanket on the drums. But when it came down to it and the singers that we interviewed didn’t work out, he was like, you should do it. I'm like, “I don't know how to be a front man!” So he said, “you know what? Just be cool.” He said, “just keep your hand in your pocket.” And so if you look at the “Cool” video, my right hand never comes out of my pocket the whole video. And then we were looking at stuff like The Idolmaker, looking at videos of how people dressed and came across. I guess in his own way, he was trying to school me on how to be up in front of this band. And as we got on stage and started going on tour, one thing led to another and I started learning things and picking up on things that I did well that people were receptive to.
Your character on screen is larger than life - in one of his first scenes, he gets Jerome to throw a girl in a dumpster! How close was the onscreen Morris to who you were at that time, and who you wanted to be, especially since one of the film’s themes is “fake it until you make it?”
Good point. It was very close to who I was at the time, but pretty far from who I am now, because we were developing who we were and who we aspire to be. I had no off switch, so I was the guy that everybody thinks I should be now when they come up on me. They're like, “dude, why are you so laid back?” And that's the movie, or that's me on stage, and this is me right here. Back then there was no difference. I was on all the time.
Onscreen, there's this wonderfully contentious relationship between Morris and The Kid. How much even indirectly did that give you an outlet to express any creative frustrations you had at the time?
I had a lot of outlets, because in my early introduction to music, I was a drummer. So I could beat my frustrations out, and then I got to act them out. Being close to Prince was never level, smooth sailing. It was very up and down. He was a very temperamental individual, sometimes very hard to be around. And at other times very cool to be around. So it was a very interesting, to say the least, friendship or relationship.
One of my favorite moments in Purple Rain is the shot of you pausing after making a joke about The Kid’s father attempting suicide, because it's so clear how bad you feel for bringing it up. What memories do you have of shooting that?
Early when they were sending us to these acting classes and stuff, they told you to be able to pull on some personal moments. I couldn't even tell you what moment I pulled on, but I think I was able to conjure up a real emotion at that point, which was good for me not being an actor - but being a musician (laughs). So I just kind of dove into that moment where I was like, well, that's kind of fucked up.
Prince had this ‘musical industrial complex,’ all these bands that he was supporting and developing. What would you say was the key to the Time’s success among those many projects?
I think the success was sort of unpredictable. I don't think even he knew what he had when he signed us, or when we put the group together, because he really had the idea after we went through a series of singers and this and that. Finally he said, “okay, I want you to sing.” And he [chose] certain musicians that we had in Minneapolis to be in the band. And I was like, all due respect, but I want most of the guys from Flyte Tyme. So that was my choice, and he went with it. And I don't think he or we realized really what we had put together. We didn't realize that we had Jesse Johnson, who would go on to be a solo artist and do well. And we didn't realize we had Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam who went on to do super well. He didn't realize he created a Frankenstein monster, that could at times outdo him, as excellent of an entertainer as he was. I didn't know! And so the rivalry that they talk about so much was really the Frankenstein monster that we created - but he didn't know and no one knew. So it started out innocent, and man, we worked, we rehearsed and the next thing you know, we started trying it out. We were just doing our thing, and people were saying, “man, you guys kicked Prince's ass.” And don't get me wrong, he was Prince and there were nights where he kicked our ass big time. But it just worked out that way.
Accounts of Prince’s behavior from his ex-wife and from other people have drawn back the curtain a little bit on who he “really” was. When you wrote this, what ultimately was something that you wanted to highlight either about what side of him people didn’t see, or the relationship that you two shared?
More importantly than to somehow identify how he was, I was just telling my story. And I think my story sort of highlights how he was as an individual. So I don't think I was trying to spell anything out or spotlight anything in particular. I was just trying to just say, “Hey, this was my life. This guy was an important part of my life from the time I was 14, 15 years old.” And I was just kind of telling my story - and it was complicated. It was great, but it was complicated.