For Prince, it’s all about sex, God and rock ’n’ roll

Jim Walsh

Why has the news that Prince has embraced the faith of the Jehovah’s Witnesses been met with so much suspicion? Why should such a revelation surprise anyone, coming as it does from a man who has spent most of his 43 years, and his entire recording career, celebrating God?

Maybe because it is the Big Unspeakable in the media and in polite society in general, because thanks to right-wingers and other God cops, to reveal such a personal relationship is to be in cahoots with nutcases, extremists and zealots.

But one man’s cult is another man’s church, and the fact remains that the B-side to Prince’s most famous single, “Purple Rain,” was “God.” Furthermore, one of his best-ever songs, the one that gets played in basketball arenas and on radio stations all over the world, kicks off with a vocal that sounds as if it were recorded in the Grand Canyon, and as if it belonged not to a pop star but to a preacher: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called life.”

Which is what Prince, like the rest of us, has been doing all these years - getting through this thing called life. To many, his public persona is that of control freak, media-manipulator and/or sexy mofo, but where it counts —in the grooves—the little man has always been asking big questions.

And the one constant to his search has been his faith, which he has sung about on every record he has released, in songs such as “The Holy River,” “The Cross,” “Gold,” “I Wish U Heaven,” “God’s Spirit,” “And God Created Woman,” “Thieves in the Temple,” “The Work,” “Anna Stesia,” “The Truth,” “Annie Christian,” “The Ladder,” “Mountains,” “Soul Sanctuary,” “Spirit,” “Gold,” “Count the Days,” “Into The Light” and, yes, “My Name Is Prince.” Among many others.

So what’s the big deal? I mean, in the middle of “Controversy,” for heaven’s sakes, he recited part of the Lord’s Prayer. One of his most memorable covers was Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” for which he changed the lyrics to, “What if God was one of us?/Just a slave like one of us?” And the easiest way to find Paisley Park at night is to look for the glowing peace symbol that rests atop the studio’s highest spire and cuts the Chanhassen sky like a beacon.

The truth is, Prince has done more in the name of love-slash-God than many do-gooders who ostensibly give their lives to one religion or another. And it is hilariously ironic that conservative Christians regularly come out against Prince, or burn his records, because it’s obvious that they’ve got dogma in their ears.

That, or sex makes them nervous. Or, they don’t consider sex to be God’s work, but I do. Call me Jimmy the Blasphemer, but I’m here to say that when Prince sings about getting nasty, he’s also singing about getting right with God, whether it’s “Head,” “Erotic City,” “Sex in the Summer,” “Housequake,” “Hot Wit U,” “Pink Cashmere,” “Gett Off,” “Insatiable,” “Shhh” or “Pussy Control.” Among many others.

And he’s always, always, always singing about love. Which, again, is to say that he’s singing about God, as he does on such love celebrations as “Live 4 Love,” “Love for One Another,” “Boys and Girls,” “Love... Thy Will Be Done,” “Noon Rendezvous,” “Adore,” “I Love U in Me,” “Eye Hate U,” “When 2 R in Love” or “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Among many others.

Then there’s the music itself - magnificent, miraculous, merciless bass-bumped funk - which is arguably the most Godlike music ever created because it fuses the torso with the head, heart, and soul like nothing else. And it occurs to me that by doing so, by getting us to dance, Prince isn’t necessarily preaching about what he’s found specifically, so much as encouraging us to find what works for us, and to believe in something bigger than ourselves, be it Jesus, Jah, Jehovah or Jolt.

Which is what happens to most musicians somewhere along the way. Most musicians, if they don’t start out believing in God, end up doing so, because after a while they can’t believe themselves, or what they’ve done. There are countless examples of musicians saying, “That wasn’t me. That song just happened. I didn’t write that, it came to me in a dream, fully formed.”

In doing so, they both embrace and distance themselves from their gift - a necessary survival tactic, because its power to move souls is so profound. And, for the gifted one, often overwhelming.

Last summer around this time, I hung out with Prince and his bass player, Larry Graham, for a couple of hours in Prince’s office at Paisley Park. Prince had asked me to come out to the studio to discuss a column I wrote, an open letter in which I requested of him one more “great record.”

I expounded on my need for him to be a big star again, to reclaim his throne and to kick all the bad music off the airwaves. He couldn’t have cared less about my version of success, or what I thought the world needed from him. He said, “I’ve been to the top of the mountain, and there was nothing there.”

So he found something. He told me about it, as he scrolled through the text of my column on his computer, reading almost every line out loud, laughing, challenging, questioning. When he got to the bit where I’d written, “Several lesser lights have made off with your crown because you’ve been distracted by the task at hand (making music that describes right now) by music industry-grousing, name changes (and) cryptic religious questions but no answers,” he stopped.

He smirked, and raised his eyebrows at me. At the time, I saw those eyebrows as a condescending expression of the know-it-all nouveau religious. But I’ve since come to the conclusion that they were saying two things: “The answers are out there,” and, “No one but you can provide you with the answers you need.”

He’s right, of course. Everyone’s answers are different, because everyone’s questions are different. And Prince - who has lived one of the weirder lives known to man or God, starting with the fact that he comes from a broken home and grew up a black genius in mostly white Minnesota - has found some answers and some peace, and I for one am happy for him.

Tonight and Saturday, he’ll continue his continuing question-answer session at the Xcel Energy Center, as well as on his forthcoming album, “The Rainbow Children.” About which I have a very good feeling, by the way, because I have faith, as Prince’s soul brother Terence Trent-Darby once sang, in these desolate times.