The Second Disc

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Prince Week Day 3: He Would Die 4 U

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This particular installment of Prince Week is an unorthodox one. The Second Disc is usually a place for just catalogue type stuff, since that is the gateway to most of our feelings about classic music. But sometimes the feelings themselves are worth writing about, if they’re particularly strong. It’s with this in mind that The Second Disc presents a bit of an emotions-based look at Prince’s music.

The following (admittedly lengthy) essay is something I’ve worked on for a few years in college, and it never particularly had much of an audience there outside of a few writing workshop classes. Perhaps it is still not ready for prime time, as it were; should that be the case, treasured reader, please call me out on it. But writing needs its risks every now and again, and in that spirit I present a glimpse into how art – particularly the music of Prince – can affect something as nuanced a subject as faith, in addition to nourishing our hearts, minds and ears.

Hit the jump to read how Prince changed my view of religion.

There’s nothing shocking about religious indifference. People tend to chafe against authority, and I suppose I’m no different. But I can’t bring myself to let it all hang out in authority’s face like some people tend to do. No matter how much you smoke, drink or screw, you will probably smoke, drink or screw more confidently with at least some sense of adopted beliefs. And the reason I know this so well is because I listen to a lot of music by Prince.

It may imply a crisis of conscience that I’d start taking notes on the spirituality of a guy who spent seven years as an unpronounceable symbol, but if I’ve learned anything about faith in the past few years, it’s that you have to sometimes accept things that don’t make any sense at all. Some people are going to see Jesus burned into the side of that piece of toast they were about to eat for breakfast; how much crazier am I because I heard the word of God from the man behind Purple Rain?

Like many crazy tales of faith, mine has an appropriately inauspicious beginning. I spent the Sundays of my formative suburban youth attending Catholic Mass. I never gave a lot of thought to what I was doing there and whether or not it was “good,” but what does anyone know about God before the stories of the Bible are taught to them? I certainly didn’t have a clue; I took a Bart Simpson doll to Mass and frequently mispronounced my parish as “Scared Heart Church.”

I took an afternoon out of every week from first to eighth grade learning the basics of Catholicism in CCD class (known to older folks as catechism and inexplicably shortened to three letters in the past two decades). As with most religious experiences, there was a sort of surrealism to CCD. There was an overpowering smell of incense in the religious school that Sacred Heart had built, and I can’t envision anything I did there without framing my mental image in the kind of haze you see in cheesy romantic dream sequences.

There were a lot of high points and low points in CCD, most of which were concentrated in the latter half of my years as a pupil. In fifth grade my CCD instructor was a vaguely Gothic and explicitly ditzy teenager who seemed about as interested in teaching us as the rest of the students were in being there. And I’ll never forget her crazy boyfriend, who would frequently visit the classroom and roughhouse. I’m talking crazy-immature nonsense, like knocking baseball caps off of fifth graders heads and terrorizing the regular class’ pet hamster (which I’d bet at least ten dollars as having died as a result of this guy’s shenanigans).

If that wasn’t absurd enough, the next year fared even worse; I had a kind but extremely zealous teacher whose fire-and-brimstone teaching ethic scared me back into the Dark Ages. She was convinced that a life not let in Christ, often characterized by not going to church and instead playing “Nine-tendo” games (this was how she pronounced it), guaranteed us a spot at Satan’s pad. It didn’t stop me from trying to beat Super Mario Kart, but I would get really stressed if I couldn’t accurately complete the weekly homework of summarizing the Sunday Mass’ homily (and getting a church bulletin to prove I had been there).

By contrast, the last two years of CCD leading up to my Confirmation were great. My seventh grade teacher was a kind older priest whose Phil Donahue-like appearance belied his vivacious approach toward the Good News, and my final year was taught by the charismatic son of the catechism director. Through them, my vision of God and His place in life became almost a utopian vision, where hard work and humility would get you a place in the kingdom of heaven, which was led by a very benevolent, New Testament God. I was enthralled to the point where I kept attending church even after my confirmation was completed. I even joined a youth group with several other peers.

There was really nothing quite like feeling closer to God, and I was happy to be where I was at the otherwise confusing years of middle school. Predictably, that’s when things went to hell.

Around this time, allegations of pedophilia and abuse were rocking the Church, and at the zenith of the scandal I read a piece in Rolling Stone that focused the scandal on the perspective of a young man who, as a boy in suburban New Jersey, had been the target of a priest whose physical resemblance to my beloved priest (the priest in question had a last name that was one letter different from my favorite priest’s surname) was beyond troubling. Then, in an unrelated but equally unsettling occurrence, that charismatic instructor, a middle-school teacher by day, had been arrested and convicted on similar sexual misdemeanor charges.

Though I never shared it with many people, I was heartbroken over what had happened, definitely more so than any adolescent heartache I thought I’d endured. Up to that point, God was extremely important to my life, more than Star Wars or getting an A in Spanish. And I took great comfort in the fact that although not everyone on Earth understood me and always made me feel happy about myself, all I had to do was think about the love of the Lord and I was safe from anything. The notion that a priest would violate someone as confused and awkward and trusting as I could be was painful to consider, and it began to crystallize a sense of paranoia I still have about people and their religious motivations.

So, with my love and trust of God diminished, I became relatively aggressive toward what the Church seemed to stand for, namely the gaudy ceremonies of the Catholic Church. If there was a God – and I didn’t feel like I could take the “if” off that phrase for years – I was going to praise Him on my own terms. No bread, no wine, no gleaming collection plate. God knew I existed and believed, so what more could I have needed? At the same time, of course, there wasn’t much unity in understanding faith on your own, and I was sorely missing some kind of network to support my pursuit of the divine mystery.

This was how I felt when I went to a Sam Goody at the local mall with my friends one weekend around the age of 16. The record chain was in the first phase of their ultimate liquidation, and plenty of items were red-tagged. On impulse I bought the Purple Rain album for something like $8, which in hindsight was a potentially ridiculous decision. If my memory serves me correctly, my justification for its purchase was as ridiculous and embarrassing as they come, something along the lines of “Hey, I think a lot of rock critics like this album.” I’ve always felt people who purchase records based on what SPIN or Paste say is good are absolute idiots; and yet, here I was buying an album that VH-1 would lionize on around a half-dozen occasions since the decade began.

But that was my life back then. By the time I got to high school, I had a thorough working knowledge of the most dominant pop-cultural artifacts of the past three decades, a knowledge I credit to simply reading a lot of predominant greatest-entertainment-ever lists and adopting their opinions as my own. Of course, this included a lot of Prince’s work: his ambitious double-album 1999 and its chart-blazing singles, the monumental Purple Rain in 1984, the unforgettable No. 1 hit “Kiss” (and the No. 2 hit that same week, “Manic Monday” by The Bangles, which Prince also wrote), the Sign ‘O’ the Times double album in 1987 and his ridiculous decision to change his name in 1993, touching off an acrimonious battle with Warner Bros. Records. In my readings I’d noted some other tidbits of Prince lore, from his penchant for pseudonyms (“Joey Coco” and “Alexander Nevermind” were some of his best false names) to his composition of all the songs in Tim Burton’s Batman film in 1989, and I figured I knew all about him I needed to know, until I made the decision to add Purple Rain to my collection.

I knew much of the album for its radio hits – the dark, spare bitterness of “When Doves Cry,” the frenetic, danceable triumphs of “Let’s Go Crazy” and “I Would Die 4 U” and the cathartic guitar-gasm of the title track. What I didn’t know was how those songs combined with the others – the throwaway pop of “Take Me with U,” the achingly romantic “The Beautiful Ones,” the schizophrenia of “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki” and the ass-shaking sass of “Baby I’m a Star” – and formed this fantastic patchwork that told a story you can mostly understand through its music (I actually would argue that only with the added visual flair of the Purple Rain film – not considered a classic by anyone’s standards – do you get the fullest understanding of what Purple Rain did to Prince’s career). Nonetheless, for the first time was I understanding and appreciating a pop album for its underlying themes – lust, love, loss and redemption – rather than just celebrating its singles (no easy task for a 16-year-old who came of age during the days of Napster).

Interestingly enough, my enjoyment of Purple Rain didn’t spark an obsessive following of Prince’s music, a trait I usually exhibit after discovering some sort of retro band; for instance, I had bought a compilation by The Police one winter in high school and I bought Message in a Box, a four-disc set compiling all their albums and nearly all their vinyl-only B-sides, a few months later. In fact, by the time I went full speed ahead with my love of Prince music, the only other album of his I owned was the Batman album, which is quirky fun on a surface level and outright mediocrity at a deeper level

It took a real leap toward the deep end to get me to recognize Prince for more than the eight or so songs that still get heavy radio airplay (which, if you’re playing along at home, would be “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” from 1999, the aforementioned singles from Purple Rain, “Raspberry Beret,” “Kiss” and “Sign ‘O’ the Times”). Fortunately, Prince’s unbridled performance at the Super Bowl in 2007 was just the kick in the ass I needed. Hearing him play for a wildly adoring crowd that seemed to ignore the fact that he hasn’t had a hit song in over ten years quite literally brought me to my knees. My roommates and girlfriend had no idea what all the fuss was about, but you trying reviewing the final portion of the performance – where he performs “Purple Rain” in the fucking rain! – and try not to feel something in your chest.

From there, it was full purple steam ahead. As would become customary in college, I’d start roving through Wikipedia and other time-wasting Web links to bolster my knowledge of Prince. A community radio show I’d taken to listening to, dealing in pop-music obscurities and calling itself “Crap from the Past,” had celebrated Prince’s birthday in 1999 and 2003 with all-Prince shows (the show is ironically based in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis, which certainly helped their zeal). I downloaded those promptly, and proceeded to pore through a trove of bootlegs His Royal Badness had accumulated over the years (with literally thousands of songs to his credit, one could argue that the well has no bottom).

In my search, there were at least two songs discovered in my frenzy for purple music that really helped me understand just what Prince had to say about God. The first was “Paisley Park,” a track from Prince and The Revolution’s Around the World in a Day album from 1985. Like much of the album in question, “Paisley Park” is a post-Vietnam hippie jam; it’s like Prince got stoned and decided to make Sgt. Pepper Part II, with a stomping beat and some blistering guitar work to boot.

The other song was “Love…Thy Will Be Done,” a song Prince co-wrote for Martika, a teen-pop chanteuse who hit it big with the anthem “Toy Soldiers” in 1989. Prince got together with Martika (to what extent is still uncertain) and co-wrote and produced some songs for an album, and in traditional fashion played most of the instruments as well. (This particular tune was actually a Top 10 hit but forgotten today.)

Both “Paisley Park” and “Love…Thy Will Be Done,” while admittedly not his most important works, are really good examples of The Artist’s most prevalent themes. “Paisley Park” (which would later become the name of his recording complex and imprint label on Warner Bros.) is a kaleidoscopic picture of a colorful, flawless utopia. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and everyone (“colorful people whose hair on one side is swept back”) is happy and free. Even the sounds of crashing waves and cawing gulls buried deep into the mix attempt to bring the listener to a very real, very serene place.

“The girl on the seesaw is laughing for love is the color this place imparts,” Prince’s singsong lyrics explain. “Admission is easy – just say you believe and come to this place in your heart.”

And in the latter song, there is a focused, expressed mutual love between two beings with enough power to be celebrated in almost a religious fashion, with chorus effects and an organ-like set of synth chords. “No longer can I resist the guiding light/The light that gives me the power to keep up the fight,” she sings softly during the emotional bridge of the song. “I couldn’t be more satisfied…Even when there’s no peace outside my window, there’s peace inside.” It’s a love that all creatures should be lucky enough to feel, whether purely emotional or otherwise.

And here’s where the revelation lies: the only place I’d ever had such a strong feeling about life and emotions before “Love…Thy Will Be Done” was in church. But while the post-Catholic me could feel blessed enough that God was supposedly in my corner, there was no real set of conditions in which expressing this felt right – at least, other than through the music of Prince.

It’s funny how the situation plays itself out, when you think about it. Here I am, a white kid who cares more about the songs sampled in rap albums than the verses themselves, moved to both trusting God and being myself because a short, fruity-looking black guy and his guitar inspired me. They don’t write inspirational books like that – nobody thinks to go crazy, get nuts or look for the purple banana ‘til they put you in the truck. No, this kind of motivation takes a special kind of curiosity about life and love – and sex of course..

That’s right – sexuality in Prince tunes is the curveball he throws that makes my side of the debate harder to argue. While Prince certainly cares about the universal love between the self and his mate, his God, his soul and his world, most people know his songs for their independently voracious sexual appetite. His first single, released all the way back in 1978, was called “Soft and Wet,” and he hit a bawdy peak in the 1990s, with songs like “Sexy MF,” “Peach” and “P. Control” (I believe you can fill those metaphors and abbreviations in for yourself).

Everyone, even if they’re not a Prince superfan, is at least subconsciously aware of his sexier work, especially because he managed to sneak a lot of the undertones in on his radio hits. “Little Red Corvette,” the song that solidified Prince’s star power among black and white audiences, worked well because it got by on so little, taking the simple fast-cars-fast-women formula of modern rock and roll and amplifying it by about 5,000. Bill Haley and His Comets never thought to add “Trojans, some of ‘em used” or “I’m-a try 2 tame your little red love machine” in a song, and that’s probably why nobody cares about those guys past “Rock Around the Clock.”

But Prince wasn’t finished with the musical lovemaking. In 1985, he turned car copulation into a roll in the hay and replaced synths with strings and ended up with “Raspberry Beret.” He went back to the car for “Alphabet St.” in 1988, but added voyeuristic overtones and 12-bar blues. “Gett Off,” recorded with his band The New Power Generation in 1991, set the bump-and-grind action to a James Brown beat.

“Alright,” you may be thinking, “Prince likes singing about getting into girls’ pants. What’s wrong with that?” Of course, the short answer is that nothing is wrong with it – but the full answer is much more complicated. It’s difficult – some might argue impossible – to have a real discussion on human sexuality without having the tone of conversation lead toward either extreme of near-pornography or academic stuffiness. There are plenty of academics out there into studying what turns us on as a culture, but more often than not these researchers are missing the bigger point that the “field research,” if you will, is about a hundred times more awesome.

But of course, the only popular figure whom I’ve seen do a good job of encapsulating both sides of the love-lust scenario is Prince. When you get deep into his musical catalog, you are quickly forced to consider two things simultaneously. First, you must understand that Prince is a musician who meditates on the nature of his creator in song and tries his hardest to do whatever is asked in order to attain peace in the afterlife. Then you have to come to terms with the fact that this same man has worn a trenchcoat, heeled boots and bikini briefs on stage and has written songs with lines like “I sincerely wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth.”

Clearly, suburban white America is going to stand up and take notice, and I was no exception. Sure, it was closer to 2004 than 1984 when Prince reconfigured my views on sexuality, but he had the most convincing argument. As a Catholic, you are taught to fear and suppress the urges your body is overcome with, especially through your teen years. By the time I had turned my back on Catholicism, I had argued what pretty much everyone against abstinence education and the like ends up arguing: if God made you in His image, then the urge to want to see that girl in your math class naked can only be something He hard-wired into you. Why would this be a bad thing if it’s a natural thing?

With Prince, though, it was different. Listening to songs like the title track to 1981’s Controversy, boasting the chant, “People call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black or white/I wish there were no rules,” gets you one step closer to realizing that you can have your cake and eat it too. There’s nothing wrong in indulging in the pleasures of the body, as long as you do it with confidence that you’re doing it for the right reasons, because that’s what God would want.

By essentially throwing religion, sex and music into a blender, Prince is a refreshing change from our usual upbringings where so much that is seemingly bad for us is couched in an air of mystery without explaining the real story. But Prince’s other cool factor is that – when he was successful, at least – he never let one outdo the other. He laid all the cards out on the table. Yes, we’re equal, he says. And we’re crazy. And we have a lot of sex. But that’s okay. What you’re doing is okay. And while you’re at it, here’s a face-melting guitar solo.

You have to admire his tenacity at conveying what seems like two opposing factors equally through his work. You also at times have to wonder why he did it the way he did. Me, I always thought he was actually trying to live a Godly lifestyle. He was raised from humble beginnings (poor, divorced musicians in Minneapolis), had a multitude of talents (he could play 27 instruments, according to early bios), he had plenty of “disciples” (side projects Vanity 6, The Time, Mazarati, Sheila E., Sheena Easton), resisted the temptation of sin (his funky, widely bootlegged The Black Album, originally intended for release in 1987, was canceled apparently at the behest of the Lord himself – or a huge hit of Ecstasy, depending on your source), made decisions that alienated all but the truest believers (a series of crippling mail-order debacles in the late 1990s, provoking him to become an early adopter of getting music out through the Internet) and even enjoyed a death and resurrection (changing his name to that symbol and keeping it until 2000).

I realize that’s a lot of information to process. It’s made doubly confusing when you learn that Prince changed his game around in 2001 by adopting the Jehovah’s Witness faith, and proceeded to de-eroticize his work. It’s definitely a confusing statement from an artist whose music indirectly forced the Parental Advisory stickers on album covers. But let’s face it: the best thing about pop music is its transitive, malleable nature. It can mean everything and nothing to everyone and no one. And if you look at the music of the once and future Prince from only one perspective, look at it from mine: here is a man who made me believe in the divine after a centuries-old religious organization scared me into stopping. And I don’t have any qualms about it. So Welcome 2 The Dawn; as Prince would say in the ‘80s, and here’s a guitar solo for your trouble.

Written by Mike Duquette

June 6, 2010 at 20:28

Posted in Features, Prince

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