Iʼm twenty years old, maybe twenty one. Weʼre four deep in my little two-door Saturn, on our way back from a show in the city. Itʼs late. I canʼt remember who played, but they were good. (They were all good back then, or at least I thought they were.) Weʼre passing the auxiliary cord, sharing our music. “What do you got?” One friend plays a classic rap tune and we all sing along. Next, some obscure, squawking jazz freakout that we all try, and fail, to endure. Weʼre laughing, smoking, talking about girls and bands. The windows are open, the cross-breeze is warm. My friend in the backseat takes the cable: “I never meant to cause you any sorrow . . . ”
The laughter stops, and then, when that voice, that immortal, otherworldly, sui generis voice finally hits on “Honey I know . . . ” we all say it in unison: “Oh, my God.”
* * *
Put aside, for a moment, the résumé—the forty-plus albums, the tens of millions of records sold, the thirty-plus Grammy nominations (including seven wins), the groundbreaking genre (and gender)-bending experimentation, the vast shadow galaxy of B-sides, bootlegs, and assorted rarities, the only truly sublime Super Bowl halftime performance, the countless honors and tributes—and consider these words from Prince Rogers Nelson, one of the last great American rock stars, recently deceased:
Youʼve gotta have belief. Itʼs the only way to make it through this maze. And God is here, Heʼs everywhere, He ainʼt dead, contrary to popular opinion. And He will come again and it will be the most beautiful, powerful, electric moment, the skyʼs gonna go all purple and red.
Some fans dismiss such statements as another of Princeʼs many (and there were many) quirks. Oh, thatʼs just how he is, they shrug. Heʼs intense. Heʼs some kind of religious nut now. Above all, they insist (because they are still fans, after all) heʼs complex. Of his complexity there can be no doubt. Singular among pop stars, His Royal Badness embraced and absorbed and mastered such a wide array of styles, wrote, produced, arranged, and performed so many unforgettable songs, and was so beloved by so many disparate groups of people, that as an artist he is virtually impossible to categorize.
Prince sang about elemental things. Love, sex, desire, bliss, loss, heartbreak, pain, the joy of musical creation: It’s all there. But it’s not all on an equal plane. In smut he found animal release; in love, bliss; in spectacle, humor; in dance, defiant joy; it is only through the Almighty that he expected salvation. Both enamored of and constricted by this world, Prince insisted on the next.
Like all of us, he found worldly pleasures irresistible, but also knew they were fleeting. He often flouted morality, but never affected indifference to it. He lived in tension—between sin and grace, man and woman, rock and funk, black and white. Take, for instance, these words printed above the lyrics to 1988's hilariously vulgar “Lovesexy”: “The feeling u get when u fall in love not with a girl or a boy, but with the heavens above.”
In 1981ʼs “Controversy”—that gigantic, throbbing, floor-quaking disco-funk rocker—his refusal to be categorized is on full display, as he both courts and mocks his critics by repeating (or is it anticipating?) their questions:
Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?
Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?
In the third verse he answers: by reciting the Lordʼs Prayer.
* * *
Itʼs December 2012, a week before Christmas. Weʼve been home from the hospital for several days. I am twenty-eight now, a new father, still nervous, uncertain of what exactly it is I am supposed to do. He looks up at me, silent, all brown eyes and chubby cheeks. I kiss his forehead. Quietly, now. We have to be quiet. Mommyʼs asleep and our walls are made of cardboard. Itʼs very early: still dark, but there are dewdrops. No, please donʼt cry. Itʼs all right. Where is that record? I know itʼs on this shelf. Wait, no, itʼs over there. Shhh. Everything is okay: “I never meant to cause you any sorrow. . . .”
He falls asleep during the solo. After it fades, I say a prayer, lay my newborn son in his cradle, and come back to the turntable for one more spin. Just one more.
Stephen Niezgoda writes from Alexandria, Virginia.