No…not Prince. Say it ain’t so…That just can’t be.
Sigh. Apparently, Prince Rogers Nelson really has, somehow, died, at age 57. It seems too early to try to grasp what he meant to us, but it’s erev Pesach, the time of urgency. My man Jay Michaelson just posted a beautiful, Jewish, spiritual appreciation of Prince in The Forward: “A Jewish Tribute to Prince, Holy Unifier of Spirit and Sex”. Check it out. In it, he quotes a passage from something I wrote up. Here is my full piece:
Prince’s artistic legacy is vast, dizzyingly so, such that it’s still possible 2B sucker-punched in the gut by a lyric, a riff, a whole song, even after listening to him 4 decades. Years after I began serving annually as a prayer leader for the High Holidays, and learning scholarly Jewish texts, I found myself knocked out by a Prince song I had heard many times, but never really heard, an obscure song called “There is Lonely”, an unfinished-sounding blues joint on a non-album called The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale, a collection of unreleased songs from 1985-94 that Warner Bros. put out in 1999 to fulfill contractual obligations. In other words, 1 of Prince’s throwaways.
“Is it me or did the room just get darker?
Is it me or did I just lay down and die?
Is this a dream or did the world just crumble at my very feet?
How in heaven will I ever be all right?
There is lonely, and there is lonely,
and then there is how I feel right now.
Perhaps only Cain, when he’d slain his brother
could ever come close to knowing how.”
For the love of God, the 5-foot Minnesotan symbol of American depravity has cut to the essence of the problem of sin: It is loneliness. When I sin against U, I am ruptured & alienated from U; from the suppressed, best, true version of myself; from humanity; & from God, the 1 Who always sees me in my potential goodness, no matter how far and how persistently I stray. This is the deepest loneliness. Dealing with guilt and brokenness is at its core about treating our alienation and restoring solidarity, about reviving the truth that we are 1 with our fellow humans and with our best potential. Part of me wants to jettison the traditional liturgy and just sing this on loop for an hour at Ne’ila, to close Yom Kippur. I don’t do that, but for the past several years, the blues melody to this song is how we sing the 11-stanza song at the core of Ne’ila, “U’mi Ya’amod” at New York’s Kehilat Hadar, where I lead the service:
“Who could even stand, if You remained fixated on sin?
And who could get on their feet if You enacted strict judgment?
Forgiveness is with You, Who have said, “I forgive!”
Mercy, too, is in Your character — grip on to it!”
I can’t sing that without Prince anymore. A lot will be written about Prince and radical freedom. This little moment may escape people’s attention, but it shouldn’t: going dark into the loneliness of sin, he points toward the way out: we are not slaves to our bad habits or hurtful relationships. The way out of sin is the fundamental human posture: solidarity, responsibility, and love. 2nd chances are real and they await us if we are brave enough to receive them.