This is the 74th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
By the time Prince released “Dirty Mind” in 1980, he had already released two albums, the second of which had included Prince staples “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel for You.” But as Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote for AllMusic, “Dirty Mind” was unlike anything Prince had previously done:
Neither “For You” nor “Prince” was adequate preparation for the full-blown masterpiece of Prince’s third album, “Dirty Mind.” Recorded in his home studio, with Prince playing nearly every instrument, “Dirty Mind” is a stunning, audacious amalgam of funk, new wave, R&B, and pop, fueled by grinningly salacious sex and the desire to shock. Where other pop musicians suggested sex in lewd double-entendres, Prince left nothing to hide — before its release, no other rock or funk record was ever quite as explicit as “Dirty Mind,” with its gleeful tales of oral sex, threesomes, and even incest. Certainly, it opened the doors for countless sexually explicit albums, but to reduce its impact to mere profanity is too reductive — the music of “Dirty Mind” is as shocking as its graphic language, bending styles and breaking rules with little regard for fixed genres.
To casual fans, the most recognizable song from “Dirty Mind” is probably “When You Were Mine.” There are a few legends about how the song came about, both taking place in hotel rooms. One story had Prince writing the song a Florida hotel room after he’d declined to join his band on a trip to Disney World. Another story placed Prince in a hotel room in Birmingham, Alabama, listening to John Lennon.
But those stories are not as interesting as the song is itself, which had Prince pining for an ex-lover. That topic is a safe one for pop and rock music, but in Prince’s hands, the ode to a former flame featured sexual imagery, suggestions of threesomes and bisexuality:
When you were mine
I gave you all of my money
Time after time
You done me wrong
It was just like a dream
You let all my friends come over and eat*
And you were so strange
You didn’t have the decency to change the sheets
Oh girl, when you were mine
I used to let you wear all my clothes
You were so fine (so fine)
Maybe that’s the reason
That it hurt me so
I know (I know)
That you’re going with another guy
I don’t care (don’t care)
Cause I love you, baby, that’s no lie
I love you more than I did
When you were mine
When you were mine
You were kinda sorta my best friend
So I was blind (so blind)
I let you fool around
I never cared (didn’t care)
I never was the kind to make a fuss
When he was there
Sleeping in between the two of us
(*”Eat” is how it sounds in Prince’s version, though some sites list it as “meet.”)
Prince identified the gender of the person to whom he was singing — “Oh girl” — and indicated they had a history with her new boyfriend — “When he was there/Sleeping in between the two of us” — implying that Prince’s narrator was bisexual. Even when the gender of the singer changes, there’s a suggestion the narrator or the ex is bisexual. Some of the artists who covered the song changed the lyrics, but if someone simply tweaked the genders of the ex or the ex’s new partner, there’s an implication that at least two of the three people are having a same-sex encounter. The lyrics could be changed so that everyone could be gay, but the song has to be changed substantially for all three people in the love triangle to be perceived as straight.
Bette Bright and The Illuminations covered “When You Were Mine” for the 1981 album, “Rhythm Breaks the Ice.” Perhaps it was the sunny backup singers, but Bright sounded almost cheery compared to Prince, whose delivery had given his version a sense of melancholy. Bright changed the gender of her ex, and instead of singing “I know (I know)/That you’re going with another guy,” she changed the “you’re” to “I’m.” In this version, the ex’s new partner was a woman.
Cyndi Lauper covered “When You Were Mine” for her 1983 debut album, “She’s So Unusual.” (This, of course, was the same album that had her version of Robert Hazard’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”) In an interview, Lauper said she didn’t yet know Prince when she first heard the song, but she loved the story that the song told. Her version, which omitted the “Oh girl,” had more forceful keyboards, with a drumbeat that never let up. And because it was Lauper, she phrased some of the words in weird ways sounded like had a case of the hiccups. If we all could only sound so good when had the hiccups.
Mitch Ryder — the same Mitch Ryder of The Detroit Wheels — also released a cover of “When You Were Mine” in 1983. His single, from his album “Never Kick a Sleeping Dog,” reached Number 87 on Billboard’s Hot 100, making it the only version of the song to chart in the US. Jettisoning the keyboards for guitars, Ryder’s version had somewhat of a country flavor.
Synthpop singer Cristina, who performed a variation of new wave called “no wave,” included “When You Were Mine” on her 1984 album, “Sleep It Off.” Cristina sped up the tempo to a breakneck pace but managed to make the synthesizers even more herky-jerky than than Prince’s or Lauper’s versions. Cristina alternated between singing the lyrics and delivering them in fragmented spoken word form in an affected accent that was hard to place. But we can place this about it: it was weird.
Swedish pop duo LiLi & Sussie released a cover of “When You Were Mine” in 1985. Recorded in Swedish, “När Du Var Min” sounded like a karaoke track. But a catchy karaoke track.
A folk version of “When You Were Mine” by The Blue Rubies appeared on the 1989 compilation, “Legacy: A Collection of New Folk Music.” The stripped-down bare performance recast the ex’s new partner as a woman, as DiFranco replaced “I know/That you’re going with another guy” with “I know/That girl is takin’ up your time.”
Swiss band Züri West released a Swiss German version, “I Ha Di Gärn Gha,” on the band’s 1994 self-titled album. With a little less synthesizer and more guitar than Prince’s or Lauper’s versions, Züri West’s cover sounded more upbeat, as everything from the handclaps to the delivery sounded cheery and exuberant.
Japanese rock band The Pillows covered “When You Were Mine” on the B-side of the single, “Swanky Street.” Singer Sawao Yamanaka sounded as if he were singing in a barrel at the other end of the room, but it didn’t weaken the track. If anything, that helped bring out the infectious guitars, handclaps, and back-up singers.
At a concert in Minnesota in 1999, Ani DiFranco performed “When You Were Mine” with Maceo Parker on the sax as part of an encore. In her version, DiFranco used the altered lyrics that The Blue Rubies had used, singing “I know/That girl is takin’ up your time” instead of “I know/That you’re going with another guy.” Because this version had little instrumentation, it put all the attention on the lyrics, which DiFranco infused with whimsy, humor, regret, and frustration. Which, of course, is true of most songs performed by DiFranco, as she is able to convey so much with so little.
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, which was a project of musician Owen Ashworth, released a cover of “When You Were Mine” on “Young Shields.” As was true of every Casiotone for the Painfully Alone song, this cover was performed on a Casiotone keyboard. Ashworth’s robotic, monotone vocals made the song even more melancholy.
The Marianne Pillsburys gave “When You Were Mine” a pop-punk feel, starting off slow before going into a handclap-happy frenzy.
On the Twitter profile for John Heart Jackie, the duo is described as such: “If Johnny Cash & June Carter took acid and made a record with Stevie Nicks & Lindsey Buckingham.” John Heart Jackie’s version of “When You Were Mine” sounded as if were recorded after the acid wore off (or maybe before it had kicked in in the first place). The cover, which at times was so quiet as to sound a capella, conveyed a sense of melancholy without being cynical.
In 2011, hardcore band Skarhead included “When You Were Mine” on its album “Dreams Don’t Die!!!” Dreams might not die, but the singer sounded like he might as he screamed out Prince’s lyrics over piercing guitars and pounding drums.
Ghost Mice released a folk version of “When You Were Mine” on its 2015 EP, “100 Ways Demos.” But don’t let the word “folk” lull you into think this was sedate, as this was delivered with the bratty energy of pop-punk. And adding to the layered gender dynamics of the song, Ghost Mice’s version featured both male and female vocalists.
Merge Records once referred to Lambchop as “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band,” though such a description seems too narrow in its scope. Lambchop’s style, though definitely informed by the country environs of Nashville, owes a lot to jazz and the fact that these guys are just weird. In 2017, the band released a slowed-down “When You Were Mine” that was as twangy as it was depressing. And it was beautiful.
At least a few artists have played “When You Were Mine” in concert as a tribute to Prince. Tegan and Sara performed the song at a concert in 2013…
…Bob Mould performed it in 2016, just a few days after Prince’s death…
…Har Mar Superstar performed it with Sean Tillmann dancing around in spandex…
…and Lake Street Drive performed the song on an episode of “Charlie Rose.”
One of my favorite parts of “When You Were Mine” is the mystery that comes from the non-identifiable orientations of the narrator, the ex, and the new lover. That a song like this exists at all is noteworthy, because even though society has grown a little more comfortable with the idea of same-sex relationships, we are still driven by binary expectations of heterosexuality or homosexuality. In “When You Were Mine,” there was no binary, nor was there an explanation. The listener is presented with three people, and is left to read between the lines in any number of ways.
In the year and some change since Prince passed away, much has been written about how he fundamentally changed music and the people who make it. So deep was his influence that if you happen to be younger than Prince’s career (like me), it’s hard to imagine a world where it was not already a given that Prince was a musical genius. It’s easy to treat Prince like Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Shining” and think of him as always having been there.
But he wasn’t, and that’s worth remembering when considering “When You Were Mine.” Prince nonchalantly addressed sexuality in a pop song as it were commonplace. It’s a lot more commonplace now, and we have him to thank.