“… it’s the church thing that I hear in his music that makes him special, and that organ thing,” Miles Davis once explained. “Prince is like the church to gay guys. He’s the music of the people who go out after ten or eleven at night.” Miles Davis followed and got to know Prince and eventually worked with him. He considered him a friend. Yet with the greatest respect to the late Miles Davis, this summation does not seem to be complete. Prince was perhaps that but much more–and still is–for many people; he was and is so meaningful to individuals who did not and do not subscribe to a particular religion or popular spiritual doctrine. The quote casts Prince’s famously androgynous image which, in reality, appealed to both straight and gay listeners of both genders as his primary appeal–which may or may have not been* true. Mr. Nelson was most readily known for his sexuality which he flaunted to no end in the prime of his pop music career. That at least was his lure–until he had pulled you in. Then you really listened. And listened. And in most cases, there was just something there that resonated with you. One may then realize how good the music really is, and that she is listening to a true musician appealing to the senses in a way that was not previously experienced. But there’s more. What you hear that’s often just as provocative as his sexuality is his appeal to the spiritual.
The sexuality and spirituality one-two punch appear to be a philosophical duality in the view of commentators and critics who compare him to Marvin Gaye (“Sexual Healing” versus “What’s Going On” for example), apparently another well-known saint and sinner in one, in this respect. This type of persona requires a unique view or radical acceptance of these two strongholds of the human condition in one mind (and, yes, soul). There are the physical passions which are a potent driver of life experience and, perhaps, creativity in the case of some of our favorite popular musicians. There’s the search for meaning often within religious scripture based often on many American’s Judeo-Christian upbringing. Prince, at one point, was a Seventh Day Adventist** whose “the end is near” message could his explain his appeal to apocalyptic symbolism that had a great pull on the American listener during the Cold War-era. The sexual passions and the search for meaning are the two strongest drives for many of us beyond the desire to breathe, drink and eat. So dissatisfied with the limitation of scientific explanation (at least in the present), some skeptics have co-opted religion-derived practices in addition to altered state experimentation (i.e. psychedelic drug use) to appease the inner self that will innately always be striving for more. Some of these even may be, not so coincidentally, fans of His Royal Badness who have found his music uplifting especially when divorced from an oppressive theology (notwithstanding post-millennial works such as The Rainbow Children). At the least, many secularists acknowledge the need for self-actualization which does not always have a clear boundary with the emotional and psychological experience of the spiritual. It would seem that at least during much of his prime, Prince realized this on some level as he actively provided motivational themes in his lyrics (think: “Let’s Go Crazy”).
People need sexuality (even if a latter day Prince advises more self-control), and they search for meaning in a “spiritual” sense. This is something that happens throughout the world among all of humanity. There are countless religions and countless believers. Those not subscribing to any particular religion still reach for something philosophical and science-supported to fill the in the gaps. Stoic philosophy is reemerging in the popular culture among entrepreneurs and scientists with themes that often are seen in the Eastern traditions especially Buddhism. Meditation is becoming a secularized practice with science-backed promises of cognitive and psychological benefits. A more recent trend of boldly secularized “spirituality” (and use of the term “spirituality” itself) has emerged as exemplified by neuroscience expert Sam Harris and skeptic/newsman turned meditation popularizer Dan Harris (apparently of no relation to the former) of ABC News and author of the book 10% Happier. Dan now has a podcast on the subject of meditation and mindfulness while Sam Harris has published bestselling books on the subject of the human need for (non-religious) spirituality and practice. Harris’ skepticism of religious teaching in general is not disputed, but he proclaims this aspect of experience is a true human need.
Prince knew about this need for many of those whose way of living or values do not appeal to the church’s agenda and do/did not fit into their flock. It seems as if he actively sought to appeal to those on the fringes that the church neglected. These groups included those who we refer to now as the LGBTQ, diehard individualists, the philosophical loners, the young wanderers, the curious, the freethinkers and any one who the religious mainstream would consider lost–outsiders in traditional Christianity in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s especially. These would be the misfits that often enjoyed things like Punk music and styles of dress that may be considered androgynous, asexual, or somehow pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable (think: “Uptown”). These are people who may not identify with a recognized group in society. They are those who rejected tradition out of a negative experience of life similar to what Prince himself is said to have experienced. Or perhaps they felt liberated from a unique family experience. It is possible Prince was exposed to a bit of both himself. Yet his religion seemed to stick with him despite his seeming critical stance on organized religion (“Annie Christian”) at times, his appeal to controversy (political and sexual) and emergence as a famous musician signed to a major label at the young age of 18–eventually becoming a major global force in pop culture.
No matter how controversial his most visibly sexual and even socio-political content became, his appeal was broader than these two things. It was even bigger than the Minneapolis sound that he helped create. As his appeals to the sexual and often sensual waxed and waned, Prince became much more boldly spiritual in the various stages of his life. Sometimes it was presented in a more broadly inspirational mode with songs like “Diamonds and Pearls”, for example. Yet on the same album, there is the song “Thunder” which is more definitively about Biblical spirituality as he promises “to see Jesus in the morning light”. It is obvious that Prince knew which song would be the most appealing commercially, and of course, so did his record company. It was accessible even to those trying to find their way in life and looking for more generalized inspiration. After the dark period associated with the legendary Black Album and its aborted release, Prince dared to combine the two elements that obsessively possessed his soul into one concept on the album LoveSexy with the symbolic cover photo of him bearing (almost) all. On this album, he was, sometimes, a horny evangelist who professed a love that was not with a “girl or a boy” but with “the heavens above”. Yet it’s as if more vague themes like “Thieves in the Temple” (from Graffiti Bridge), angry yet spiritual, were a potential gateway drug to religious experience in his eyes. It was an invitation to his world of open-hearted spiritual connection–one that, album after album, included songs about salvation (“The Ladder”) and even Jesus Christ (“The Cross”).
Prince’s ultimate spiritual mission is laid bare in a song known mostly to die-hard fans. The song is out-of-the-box lyrically even for the unconventional Prince. “Strays of the World” was a song intended for the 1995 Warner Bros. release Come, an album seen as filler to get Prince a step closer to release from his contract since his relationship with Warner Bros. became undesirable. The song was later released on the NPG Records multi-disc set Crystal Ball, a collection of previously unreleased music once known only to fans with access to bootleg recordings. The song itself is a direct appeal to those he refers to as “strays of the world” who are welcome to “come on in”. It is reminiscent yet not as ingeniously crafted as the Purple Rain era “I Would Die 4 U”. It is different and could not be interpreted as a love song from a man who might be identifying himself as an individual’s savior (literally or figuratively). On it’s own, it remains a fascinating call to all of those who feel alone in life. His allusion to the divine as “Love” is a barely perceptible reference that appears repeatedly and consistently throughout his catalog and is a characteristic (pre-2000) Prince motif. His emotion is unrestrained even as his vocals tease in a quasi-whimsical tone when he sings “all ye boys and girls, all around the world”. The experience begins to climax with Prince symbolically intoning “thence we’ll kiss the rising sun/make love to the moon.” It is not complete until you hear him belt “come on in/the door is open”. Listening to his words, the lyricist’s intent is clear more than in any of his previous work. He intends to lead the listener home, no matter who they are or where they may be in life.
It goes without mentioning that Prince was, for most of his career, on a mission. His gospel was, at times, Jesus yet it was always “love”. It was love in every Roman sense (“agape”, “eros”, and so on). It was his address and his unspoken mantra “love 4 one another” that began before his internet ventures and well beyond the short-lived web URL (www.love4oneanother.com) used to release his music. It was not completely clear what Prince meant or intended for you (or his latest object of desire), but he wanted to see you happy and safe (even if through religious salvation), if only in the end (“the purple rain”). He wanted to help you “get through this thing called ‘life'”. It was the inspiration for “When Doves Cry” and it was the intent of “1999”. It wasn’t so much in “Soft & Wet” (not yet), but it would emerge over time. He believed in Love’s promises. He “knew” his status as a highly skilled and gifted musician was only an instrument for a higher purpose and the greater good. He may have at once thought that greater good included greater physical pleasure, but mostly he wanted to bring you “love”, “universal love”(see the “Space” remix) possibly and joy. His own love for humanity was not always directly expressed but it directed his efforts. In times of crisis, he wanted to warn you (“Sign O’ The Times”). Yet he offered hope (“Diamonds and Pearls”). He had vision (“The Love We Make”). Yet he wanted to play (“Raspberry Beret”). But overall, he wanted to “make a better day” (“Alphabet Street”). And for many such as myself, particularly as I struggled through my college years, he did just that.
We all need love, and we are all to an extent “strays” in the sense of family, religion, or other social groups. We all have ways in ways in which we don’t identify completely with those groups that tell us who or how we must be. And many of us found our solace in the music of a human being who seemed to transcend all of that. But now he’s gone. And where do we turn?
We miss him, and for most of us, that is not going to change for a long time. That is so clear now. There’s a gap–a void. For some, a black hole. What do we have to fill it with besides that with which he left us–our “old friends”, his songs? But is that enough? We’re feeling lost, yet we hold on to what remains. Is that enough? His very existence on this planet was much more than about his music. Prince embodied something greater–he was a living human force for being nothing but what you believed you should be. Even fans may be reluctant to acknowledge this truth: he was our leader. Now he is gone. And we’re left to mourn.
Even more, we are left to carry on. We can’t be Prince, but we can fight for the respect of what he has left behind and what it means. For “strays” such as myself, what remains is the inspiration, the hope, the joy, the thoughtfulness, the fun, the character, and the memories of a personality enshrined in a grand body of work–the work of a prolific innovator with a message. Our mission, now, is to honor and celebrate him and share that message. Love each other and party up! Even if not literally. We have to keep going. We have to live. We have to live to uplift the memory; that is, the memory fostered and inspired by the music and the performances. We have to treasure the meaning of the lyrics. We have to remember all of the things that he did–electric and profound. It is in this that we will return to the experience and share it with others. It’s an example of what art can and probably should be. It is an example of what life can be. In its purest form, the music is just a record. But dammit, in the context of human life, it is a record of history and bold ideas; and of an era or even multiple eras as individual as the man himself. It is the evidence of an unbearably unique soul. It is evidence of so much, but if nothing else, it is a legacy of love. It is a legacy of humanity. It is a legacy of boldness and truth. It is the legacy of the spirit and mission of Prince. It is the legacy of it’s creator–a legacy deserving of our ultimate gratitude and our ultimate respect. In us, this legacy lives on.
Source of Miles Davis quote: Pitchfork.com
*Given Prince’s continuing impact it is hard to get the tense precise which I know to be significant to those mourn him. This fact is noted in the interest of authenticity. So I ask that you read this however best suits you. Prince’s impact past and present can never be overestimated.
**Prince converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith in 2001. Interesting note: His marriage to Mayte Garcia was performed at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis in 1996.
For another perspective on Prince and interesting musing please checkout my friends at “Califragisexy: joy, funk, laughter, wonder, and the career of Prince” at this link: https://califragisexy.com/