The juxtaposition of sex and religion permeated Prince’s work in the 80s. It was amongst the reasons why I was so attracted to him as a musician. The ecclesiastical harmonics of his opening serenade, less evangelist and more cathedral, indicated a religious bent that would stay with Prince through to the end of his life – “Save your prayers for a couple of days” (how strangely prophetic as it turned out). This quest to find a spiritual answer embroiled him just as it embroiled me at the time.
Come 1987/88 I was beginning to ask questions of the Catholic religion I had been baptised in as a child. I could not reconcile what I perceived as the avarice of the church with the message it purported to promote. At the time, I saw an organisation less concerned with shaking the dust off their shoes as they moved from one town to the next but one focused on offertory plates and contributions from the congregation that were more financial than spiritual. Obviously, that was a simplistic argument – one that can be counter-argued and debated but it was the frame of mind I found myself in at the time. The church appeared to be more a fund rather than a place of worship or a place of sanctuary. It didn’t help that Wales of the 1980s wasn’t a particularly affluent place and prospects were slim. To have an organisation dripping in wealth asking for money appeared heartless. So I started to cast about for answers.
Into this walked Prince; this musician who wrote paeans on love and lust, devotion and reverence. A man with a penchant for the apocalypse who combined a fascination with religion with one for sex…what more could a teenage “Catholic” boy desire? And he walked into this time in my life just as he himself appeared to be going through a similar sort of journey. My journey took me through agnosticism to atheism, basically. That’s the short version. Prince’s journey took to him Jehovah.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Prince’s career was that period between 1987 and 1988, as he removed the Revolution from his side and struck back out on his own. The experiment culminates in his “dark night of the soul” and an epiphany that halts the release of the Black Album and provokes Lovesexy instead. On that album and tour prince wrestled with his spiritual self, culminating in the hauntingly beautiful ballad Anna Stesia – a corruption of the Greek for “resurrection” a clear indication of his mindset. The tour held this song at its centre. It was the moment the show would transform from the profane to the sacred (no coincidence that Ravel’s “danses sacrée et profane” would feature in the movie Graffiti Bridge – Prince wearing the struggle on his sleeve with that film). For all the exploration and struggle Prince obviously found no answer. Songs like Violet the Organ Grinder, Thunder, My Name is Prince, Strays of the World, Solo, The Same December and The Love We Make continued to narrate the continued questioning. It was obvious he felt there was a guiding hand but wasn’t sure what that hand was.
Enter Larry Graham. The rest is history. Prince’s conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses gave rise to arguably that last important record of his career, “The Rainbow Children”. An album that espouses his new faith and, in my opinion, tries to go some way to justify his decision to accept this answer as the right answer. After that, Prince’s spiritual equilibrium affected the content of his music. Gone was the anger, gone were the questions, gone was the desperation to find himself. Prince was happy. His music accordingly reflected this. He had found solace in this organisation and it gave him peace. And I cannot argue with that. I may be of the Bosola school and believe us all to be but “a box of worm-seed” but Prince found his God and it brought him a sense of completeness and oneness it is not for me to dispute. It is here that I find myself asking a question: did this contribute to his death?
The focus since Prince’s death has been on his addiction to pain-killing drugs and, as we know, it was a fatal overdose of these pills that killed the man. The debilitating pain Prince was in is becoming more apparent as each day goes by. Associates commenting on their knowledge of his struggles with hip-joint problems – Jimmy Jam stating that Morris Day eulogised the affect of hip surgery to Prince and suggesting he do the same, etc. At the heart of this issue is whether Prince’s refusal to have treatment stemmed from his religious beliefs. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have very straight forward beliefs where it comes to medical treatment and a complex operation to replace a hip-joint or two will have countered these. Prince may have believed that through pills and prayer the pain could be managed – possibly even cured. That it couldn’t be managed nor cured possibly led to Prince breaking this tenet of his religion and receiving the treatment. The autopsy report states there was a scar on Prince’s left hip (and one of his lower right leg too). This could be an indication that Prince did indeed have surgery to try and relieve the pain – Sheila E states Prince had the surgery in 2010, although other reports question whether the surgery was completed or not. The presence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in this frustrates and angers me.
People carry out many acts in the name of religion; acts of kindness, act of vileness. They state the action is seated in their beliefs, that it is what their God wants them to do. I find it just as curious that a God would want you to kill and maim in their name as he would want you to refuse treatment for a medical complaint. When I was a teenager and struggling with the concept of religion, I saw in Prince a person who may find some answers. I saw Prince as a pioneer and a fierce sceptic; a leader. It’s funny how “you say you want a leader, but you can’t seem to make up your mind” was actually written about himself. Prince found his answers and it may have helped kill him. At times like this, and with regards all the decisions being made in the name of religion, you must remember that behind each of these decisions lies the fragility of mankind. The responsibility of whether or no to kill, to seek help, to behave kindly handed over to an imagined figurehead means those carrying out the actions are absolved.
I preferred the Prince who asked questions, not the one who found his answers.
(The quotation heading this article is from Morris Day’s Facebook account – it runs as a tagline for a photograph he has put on his timeline.)