Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Neal Karlen’s “This Thing Called Life,” recounting the writer’s decades-long relationship with Prince and the singer’s evolution from “Dirty Mind” provocateur to Brother Nelson of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
He would really begin to learn, or care, about other people and their needs starting around age 40. He gave away instruments and computers. He funded libraries and school lunches. He gave a million dollars a year to the Minneapolis Urban League. And he didn’t care that his philanthropic efforts, even though they dwarfed most celebrities’, were kept as quiet as if they were his most lethal secrets.
But eventually he tried. He hugged long-lost friends. He talked nostalgically once in a while. And it saved his life, long before an overdose of fentanyl took it. ...
By 2003, he was tagging along occasionally as I worked on a book about kabbalah and met with a handful of Hasidic rabbis in St. Paul. “Do you believe in reincarnation?” he’d asked one rabbi with a beard to his chest, a dozen children, and the distinction of being the only Hasidic rabbi to ever appear in “Random Notes,” Rolling Stone’s gossip column.
This rabbi, as it happened, was responsible for reconverting Bob Dylan back to the Judaism of his birth from his foray into evangelical Christianity. Prince seemed unimpressed that this man, who looked like he’d been animated off a box of Smith Brothers’ cough drops, had blown the mind of the mind of his generation.
He said he’d like to visit the old rabbi. “Do you believe in reincarnation?” he asked, as a tryout.
“I believe you can be reincarnated in your own lifetime.”
Prince, satisfied, went on to ask questions during the coming weeks, combing the kabbalah and his own life. Had he, Prince wondered, created a monster in Morris Day? A golem — the monster on which Mary Shelley based Dr. Frankenstein’s creation — based on the kabbalistic giant with no soul who destroyed his maker?
And a dybbuk — the dislocated soul with no physical being who haunted the souls of the unlucky. Could that be the voice inside him that had forever been pushing him on to do more, more, more, no matter how tired or hurt he was?
And he wanted to know about fame. The rabbi was a real-deal Hasid, whose outreach and willingness to engage with the real world had brought more than a few celebrities to his door in times of dread. “Why don’t you move to Los Angeles, and become a celebrity rabbi?” Prince asked, honestly curious.
The rabbi stroked his beard and stared Prince down — a virtually impossible task — I’d never before seen anyone overpower Prince with silence. That was Prince’s shtick.
“Los Angeles is a wonderful simulation of real life,” the rabbi finally said.
“Yeah?” Prince shot back. “Well, then what about rabbis in Los Angeles?”
The rabbi stared him down again, this time for seven minutes and seventeen seconds, before saying: “They are excellent simulations of rabbis.”
Prince laughed, for what seemed like the first time in a year. ...
We’d gone into the rabbi’s study and sat down on industrial-looking gray chairs that appeared to have been bought from a used office furniture store that in turn had gotten it from a high school principal’s office, circa 1971. To the immediate left of the desk sat a fax machine that beeped in newspaper clips, typewritten pages, and scrawled notes, written in both English and Yiddish.
“How have you been?” the rabbi asked. “Have you been reincarnated?”
“I don’t know if I’m a good person or bad person,” Prince said, ignoring the question. The rabbi thought a moment, chin in his palm, before saying, “The point isn’t whether you’re a good person or a bad person — you’re a person and we’re stuck with you.”
Quiet and gloom soon descended again upon the room. “How do I repent?” Prince asked.
“You want to repent? For what?” the rabbi said, lightening the mood Prince had brought into the room. “Laugh. Dance. Make fun of yourself. Make fun of God if you want — in the right way. Don’t be too reverent about life. We have enough of that, everybody saying they have all the answers. If you want to make fun of rabbis, do that, too, me included. I do.”
“I made a lot of money off the profane and blasphemous,” Prince said.
“Just because someone is profane doesn’t mean they are not wise enough to have left behind a valuable commentary,” the rabbi responded. “Have you left behind a valuable commentary?”
“I don’t know what I’ll be leaving behind,” he said. “That’s the thing.”
Christ, I hadn’t heard him sound this unsure of himself ever, and I never would again.
Prince asked him about people coming to the rabbi wanting to kill themselves. “You must have talked to a lot of people who come over who want to commit suicide,” he said.
The rabbi nodded. “What do you say?” Prince asked.
“They come and tell me, ‘My life has no meaning, my family counts for nothing, I’m a terrible human, I’ve accomplished not a thing,’ the usual. And I say, ‘Why stop there? Why not stick around and at least come up with a full list. You’re also boring, unpleasant, sloppy, you’re a terrible friend, you aren’t funny ...’ ”
Prince laughed. The rabbi noted his reaction. “They laugh, too. That usually gives them the distance to see that the world is not revolving around them.”
And then he told the rabbi about [his father] John Nelson, the abuse, his inability to write him out of his life. The rabbi launched into a parable.
“A king’s son once went astray from his father. The king sent a messenger to order the son to return home. The young man angrily refused, saying, ‘I cannot.’ Finally the king sent another emissary. This time the message from his father was, ‘Return as far as you can — and I will come to you.’ ”
“Would your father come to you, meet you halfway?”
Prince refused to answer. Finally, he changed the subject. “How do you do good if you’ve got ... what is that devil inside a person called?”
“What if that dybbuk keeps you from doing good?”
“God needs your good deeds, done your way. It’s okay being a schlemiel, if that’s what you are. You do good as best you can.”
“A schl ...?” Prince asked.
“An idiot,” the rabbi responded. “What are you?”
“Prince of what?”
“Myself. Of my art. Of my world.”
“And you’re satisfied with that?”
“Good,” the Hasid continued. “The only blasphemy that exists is to say, ‘If only’ — ‘if only I were born like this, if only I had this kind of parents, if only I were someone else!’ ”
From “This Thing Called Life” by Neal Karlen. Copyright ©2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.