Far From the Border, Prince Builds a ‘Big Tall Wall’
Prince was an extraordinary talent with a carefully orchestrated and elusive persona. Despite the fabled list of lovers, fiancées and wives who shared his body, bed and heart over the years, Prince proved to be as human as the rest of us in his failures to fully understand affairs of the heart and the complexities of romantic relationships. His anguish over one failed relationship inspired one of his best-known unreleased songs, “Big Tall Wall," a track intended for Dream Factory, the project that morphed into Sign 'O' the Times.
The big tall wall certain politicians sing about is intended to keep people out. The one Prince sings about here is intended to keep one person in – namely, Susannah Melvoin, twin sister to Wendy, former lead singer of the Family (now fDeluxe) and one-time fiancée to Prince.
In his book, Prince: The Man and His Music, author Matt Thorne wrote, “I feel embarrassed bringing up ‘Big Tall Wall’ in front of Susannah Melvoin.” For an unreleased song, the track has certainly followed her around for the past 30 years. As with "Wally," it was likely written in heartbreak and anger after she called off their engagement and moved into a circular apartment building in nearby Lake Calhoun. In the song, Prince sings, “I'm gonna build a big tall wall / Stone circle so U can't get out / Big tall wall / True love is what it's all about.”
While the imagery brings to mind Rapunzel, and the story stars a Prince, there is no fairy tale ending here. In this song, Prince is an anti-hero, more on par with the big bad wolf than Prince Charming or even Flynn Rider. He sings, “B is 4 bold / Girl, that's how U make me feel / I is 4 ignorant, the situation's real / G is 4 my girlfriend / U know I got another 1 / But that ain't gonna stop me and U from havin' fun.”
Countless Prince songs have involved his lovers loving – even being aroused by the fact – that he has other lovers. Such was the privilege of writing the lyrics of songs to be sung by the likes of his other lovers, including Sheila E., Vanity, and Jill Jones. “He wanted her in his life," engineer Susan Rogers said of Susannah in Alex Hahn’s book, The Rise of Prince, “But he couldn’t go to to sleep and wake up with the same person every day.”
The imprisonment themes of “Big Tall Wall” would likely never fly today in the wake of the long-overdue #metoo movement; though rumor has it another version exists that reframes the song, as PrinceVault puts it, “to depict a positive, loving relationship.” Perhaps that one will escape the confines of the Vault someday for everyone in the Purple Kingdom to hear.