The Meaning of Purple Rain
The meaning of words and phrases in modern culture seem fragmented. This may be because of the wide array of media and the tendency of different generations to channel themselves into the cultural media streams of their own generation. The meaning of "Purple Rain" is one of those phrases that divides along age and cultural lines. Although the popularizers of the terms might still be alive, they have not spoken out on the meaning of their words.
Joe: Lost In America
Dewey Bunnell of the 1970s rock group, America, wrote the lyrics to "Ventura Highway", where we first find reference to "Purple Rain". The last stanza of the hit song goes:
Wishin' on a falling star
Waitin' for the early train.
Sorry boy, but I've been hit by purple rain.
Aw, come on, joe, you can always
Change your name.
Thanks a lot, son, just the same.
Leading into this stanza we hear someone (the narrator) asking "Joe" how long he is going to stay in "this town". Joe says he has been "hit by purple rain". This could point to a wanderlust as some speculators have conjectured. However, this would beg the question, why would the narrator then tell Joe that he could always change his name? This implies that Joe is on the run, and the reason he is on the run has to do with purple rain. Some believe that "purple rain" in this case is a drug that makes the character too lazy to settle down in a place and consequently to work. This again seems unlikely (although a reference to "alligator lizards" in the air gives credence to this theory). It is more likely that Joe is not merely subject to the blues, and possibly have drug problems, but has legal difficulties he is loathe to face. In this sense, the "purple rain" may simply be a hail of personal problems that is too formidable to face.
Prince, Standing Out in the Rain
But as noted above, the term "purple rain" belongs to more than one generation. It was brought to the fore by another, later, rock star. It is the name of the title song of his most popular album as well as the movie that was made about his life. The performer's name was "Prince" or at least this is the name he claimed for his early career. He changed it to a symbol and later reverted to "Prince". His full name (given at birth) was "Prince Rogers Nelson".
The Lyrics for "Purple Rain" are somewhat repetitive, but the first stanza runs:
I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain
I only wanted to one time see you laughing
I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain
It would seem that in this case the "purple rain" has come to nearly the opposite meaning Bunnell implied in "Ventura Highway". The desire for the woman's laughing means that the narrator wants the woman to be joyful. The color of royalty has traditionally been purple so this rain must obviously be connected to Prince in his "princely" mantle. He wished the woman would have accepted the love he wanted to shower upon her. Some have carried this notion to the idea that the rain is actually his tears. But rain could also be a pun. Replace rain with "reign" and we see he wanted the woman to be happy under his rule. This makes Prince's purple rain even less like Bunnell's. Purple rain for prince is control, connection, even security; the rain that hit Joe keeps him unsettled, unsecure, and on the road.
As unalike as the meanings for "purple rain" might be, the two songs have similarities in that they are both a wistful yearning for what might have been and a realization of the impossibility that the longed for condition could ever be. In fact, the narrator of both songs seems to be the one doing the longing. They want the other person to do something, something that other person seems positively unwilling to do.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that the America lyrics for "Ventura Highway" had any influence on Prince. The "purple rain" theme fits too nicely into a penchant Prince seems to have for hidden meanings. As much conjecture as there has been over the term "purple rain" it has hardly become common parlance. Perhaps this was the way it was meant to be. Purple rain certainly seems personal to Prince, and Bunnell's Joe may have simply been looking for a word to rhyme with "train".