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Alan Leeds, who worked as Prince's tour manager for seven years and ran the now-defunct Paisley Park Records from 1989 to 1992, still remembers a late-night chat he had with his wife several years ago. "I remember saying, 'You know where this is going to end up? This is going to end up with Prince playing on Sundays in a purple church in Chanhassen,'" Leeds recounts. "People will be dressed in ruffled shirts, looking like it's the Eighties, watching him preach and play 'Purple Rain.'"
The prediction seems particularly prescient given the way things went down at Paisley Park during "Prince: A Celebration." Some 2,000 fans, most of them paying members of npgmusicclub.com, had congregated to take in nightly concerts featuring the likes of Nikka Costa, Common, Erykah Badu, and the Time, and spend their days sampling The Rainbow Children. According to online dispatches filed by enthusiasts who paid $70 for a chance to glimpse their idol on his turf, Prince was unusually relaxed, practically ubiquitous. He appeared frequently on Paisley's stage and sporadically attended daily listening parties, where reverent attendees sat in prayerlike circles, took in the new CD, then dutifully discussed its content, which is said to be heavily influenced by the singer's religious convictions. ("Today, the unimaginable happened. I got to sit in a room and talk about God and music with Prince. I talked with Prince, he listened, and answered me," reads one message posted on www.prince.org. "I somehow knew the day would come but was not expecting it today.")
Funk bassist and Jehovah's Witness Larry Graham, whom Prince credits for bringing him into the fold, was on hand to help spread the good word. Prince fan and filmmaker Kevin Smith was recruited to document the moment. That in itself was a delicious bit of irony: Smith directed the 1999 movie Dogma, a send-up of organized religion in which God comes to earth as a woman. "Maybe we're almost there," Alan Leeds sums up with a chuckle. "Maybe Paisley Park is the church."
For the time being, the gospel according to Prince combines a conservative, religious ideology with an ambitious critique of the music industry. The book is neither complete nor consistent. It is, nevertheless, a revelatory read.
According to the Encyclopedia of World Religions, Jehovah's Witnesses, who maintain a complete separation from all secular governments and want little or nothing to do with other religious denominations, are here to pave the way for God's Kingdom, which they believe will emerge after Armageddon, an apocalyptic event prophesied in the book of Revelations (and, come to think of it, Prince's break-out hit "1999"). Jehovah's Witnesses meet in churches called Kingdom Halls, are baptized by immersion, insist upon a high moral code in personal conduct, disapprove of divorce except on grounds of adultery, and, based on their reading of the Bible, oppose blood transfusions.
As Pioneer Press music columnist Jim Walsh pointed out in a June 15 column, Prince has been on a spiritual quest since the beginning. From "Controversy" to "God" (the B-side to "Purple Rain") to "The Cross" and beyond, Prince has publicly struggled with larger questions of faith. In the past, though, his spiritually oriented art has been abstract, mixed with metaphors that suggest a theology of liberation, one without barriers--sexual or otherwise. For Pulse's Erin Anderson, who attended a conservative Lutheran church when she was young, Prince's early music was an inspiration. "He was someone who helped me break away from the way I was brought up. He was someone who pushed the boundaries of just about everything," says Anderson. "Listening to him now is like listening to a big brother tell you that everything he said when you were growing up was a lie."
Besides alienating progressives of both genders, Prince's evangelical leanings have altered his live performances. Even though insiders at Paisley Park say Prince is still capable of swearing up a storm behind the scenes, cleanliness is next to godliness onstage. "We want to put on shows that even little kids can listen to," the singer said at the June press conference. And sure enough, the Xcel Energy shows were family-friendly. To get things going, the man who spent much of the Eighties baring his libido gave a mock sermon in which he chastised a woman in the front row for wearing a miniskirt. Then it was off to the new power gospel hour, for a takeoff on "You Are My Sunshine." There was no raunchy talk about "Head," no "Cream" spilled on the stage, no "Darling Nikki" masturbating with a magazine. In fact, very few classics were played in their entirety. In part this was due to the medley-driven nature of the program. But, as Anderson observes, there aren't a whole lot of Prince tunes that would get a G rating without being butchered.
More than one journalist has wondered in print whether Prince will be going door to door with other Jehovah's Witnesses, spreading the good news. It's hard to imagine, though. Not because of the artist's reclusive nature, but because Prince's attention is divided between God's way and another, more secular crusade: his fight against the very industry that helped make him a millionaire.