Prince's genius changed my life: How I quit my network job — and found religion — to his funky beat

On the occasion of #PrinceDay, let us celebrate the life-changing powers of these memorable tracks

Published June 7, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

Prince   (AP/David J. Phillip)
Prince (AP/David J. Phillip)

So, you know how we say music moves us?

Wow, has Prince’s music moved me.

At first, in the mid to late ‘80s, a lot of that movement was on dance floors and dorm-room futons. By the early ‘90s, I was moving all over my own living room as I grooved to my old stand-bys ("Sign O’ the Times," "Lovesexy," "The Black Album," "Dirty Mind," "Purple Rain") and new releases ("Diamonds and Pearls," and the "Batman" soundtrack). Living alone was a new kind of freedom, and dancing to Prince however and whenever I wanted was a cherished celebration of that freedom.

But Prince’s music stirred much, much deeper movements in me. In 1995, when I was turning 27, I went through one of those Life Moments that are all about an invitation to Move. Do you know those kind of moments? When your soul feels a deep stirring, an inner-urge to move in some new way, some different direction. But even as you feel the stir, you know that if you really let yourself go, you’re gonna knock into some aspects of your life that have been neatly and orderly stacked around you, comprising what you thought was your life until that moment.

In the winter of 1995, a number of things had aligned to precipitate such a dramatic shift. I had just returned from a two-month leave of absence from my job. I had accepted a fellowship from the French American Foundation, working for France’s national television news, France Deux, and meeting with members of France’s government and journalism establishment. For those months I lived in Paris’ Latin Quarter (thus named because the neighborhood’s history went so far back that at a certain point they actually spoke Latin there). For the first time in my adult life, I was an ocean away from my family and friends – and this was before email or Facetime; oceans were vaster then. For the first time I kept a journal. And, yes, I had long conversations on abstract subjects with new friends in smoky cafes. Very Parisian.

Coming back home to New York City was a strange re-entry. The cultural norms that I encountered every day suddenly struck me as particular choices, no longer the unnoticed backdrop of my busy, productive life. Most of my friends were in the midst of happily continuing their busy, productive lives; they weren’t necessarily interested in listening to me muse on my new cultural perspectives. Luckily, I reconnected with an old friend from college who had grown up in London, and had spent part of her junior year in Asia. Nicole offered a bridge between my time in Paris and my life back at home – more smoke-filled evenings sharing insights and questions about the nature of culture, thought, and the process of human growth.

Also at this time, I had returned to my job at ABC News where I was an Associate Producer for the news magazine "PrimeTime Live." I was assigned to work on an upcoming piece: Diane Sawyer was preparing to interview Robert McNamara – the former Secretary of Defense under Kennedy – timed for the release of his new memoir, "In Retrospect," about his responsibility regarding the Vietnam War. Reading galleys of the memoir fascinated me: they told the story of one man’s journey from Whiz Kid to Wise Man, and the cost paid in human lives for the youthful overconfidence shown by McNamara, Kennedy and the rest of Camelot in their own smarts and abilities.

So this was the cocktail I was mixing that winter, and it packed a punch. I started questioning the underpinnings of my own career goals. Was I gearing up to be another successful Whiz Kid? And if I kept pursuing my ambitions as a broadcast journalist, what would be the unwitting cost of my own youthful overconfidence? I started noticing how fame and power led to isolation and disconnection. Putting together a weekly live broadcast is a team effort, and it takes a lot of hardworking, talented and good-natured people to do it. But dynamics changed whenever Diane Sawyer was in the room – and it wasn’t because of who she was as a person, or the nature of her work. Diane was as hardworking, talented and good-natured as everyone else on staff. It was because she was famous and powerful. People just weren’t as authentic when she was around.

On a lighter note, I was also discovering new aspects of myself and the world around me. An analogy came to my mind that winter: It was as if, before my fellowship in Paris, I was a hand that had always worn a glove and didn’t know it. Then, in France, that glove of culture had been peeled off. On my return, I was uncomfortable slipping the glove back on because I was suddenly aware of it as an imposed layer that was not really me. As winter turned to spring, I allowed myself to be true to myself more, even as I was discovering who that self was. Inspired by my friend Nicole’s encouragement, my continuing journaling, and letters back and forth with those I had met in France, I questioned my own assumptions, I paid more attention to my gut instincts, and I tried to open myself to new experiences. As I experimented, I noticed new connections blossoming between me and the world around me. Taxis weren’t just the fastest means to get me downtown – they were an opportunity to speak to the person sitting a few inches away from me. More often than not that stranger in the front seat had lived in a culture I had never visited, and had tales to tell if I asked. Central Park wasn’t just the stunning view from my twelfth-floor balcony, it was a place enticing me with its natural beauty. Even trees have a story to tell, I learned, if your curiosity and patience give them a chance.

So, you may be thinking: what does this have to do with Prince? Well, as this change in me was unfolding, a tension arose. The parts of me that were emerging were met with resistance within and around me. In order to even discover my own instincts and curious nature I had to wave off inner voices that quickly jumped in with, “That’s not the way people walk/eat/talk/smile/dress/wear their hair here.” Newly aware that these inner critiques were more glove than hand, so to speak, I was able to dismiss them. But I was surprised, and sometimes wearied, by how strong and frequent these voices were.

And the tension was not only an inner tension. It turns out that being on staff at a network news program is not an easy fit with a meandering-through-the-wilds-of-the-city-letting-the-world-surprise-you-at-every-turn approach to life. One day I got so frustrated with the office politics that I didn’t go in to work. Instead I stayed home and listened to Prince.

One song grabbed my attention that day. It was as if it was meant for me at that very moment. Now, I have to pause here and say that I don’t know how anyone talks about music, really. The experience of listening to it is so full and immediate, especially if there is that alchemical connection between you and the particular work — it defies words, doesn’t it? It certainly does for me. I had a particular group of friends in college (all guys) who introduced me to some really great music — Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, Velvet Underground. But inevitably, as we sat around listening, they would start talking about the music. This enhanced the whole experience for them, but I swear I couldn’t keep up. How could they listen and talk at the same time? And what the hell were they saying? Apparently talking about music requires a vocabulary that I’ve never mastered.

So here is the place where I need to talk about music, but what I really want to say is: Go listen to Prince’s “Walk Don’t Walk.” It’s the eighth track on "Diamonds and Pearls." Upbeat, eager and innocent it begins, simple and pop-y. But there’s a curve ball: the lyrics don’t match the sound. The sound is of joy and new discovery and delight, but it’s paired with voices articulating all that should not be done. Immediately as I listened I recognized this contrast. This was the tension I was living.

The tune’s joy and confidence build, even as the voices of conformity build in strength and assurance. Don’t talk if it’s against the rules, just walk away and be a fool. That’s what they want you to do. So it goes, until Prince’s own voice chimes in underneath, calling the whole thing into question: “Yeah, that’s what they want you to do.”

Then a musical bridge kicks in. It’s punctuated by honks and beeps — Prince somehow makes these stressed out traffic noises at once cacophonous and melodious.

I heard this song as the perfect reflection of my last few weeks of experience: the gleeful, almost childlike exploration of the world, following my feet wherever they would lead me, and delighting in whatever I found. The tensions within and around me beeping and honking, clearly alarmed with this break in the rules.

After this bridge, the song’s energy moves up yet another notch, and the lyrics offer a different message. So you gotta walk like you wanna make it! Don’t walk like you just can’t take it! Go walk on whatever side you like…Don’t walk wherever they tell you to — Psych! The sun will shine upon you one day if you’re always walking your way.

In my living room that day, this song met me right where I was and urged me on in the direction I was already moving. If I had been considering toning down my new explorations in curiosity and courage, now I was contemplating turning up the volume. Prince was singing something that some core part of me already knew: I could trust my gut, be different, take leaps of faith. If I did, authenticity and trust would open up a joyful path. Even if I didn’t quite know where I was strutting and skipping to, and even if my gleeful dance caused others around me to honk in warning, “You’re going the wrong way!” it was OK.

I mention leaps of faith, and I think it’s important to mention here that I had always been an avowed atheist. In the throes of this new experience I still was an atheist. So what was this “faith” that was allowing me — even urging me — to move in new freedom? Time in France had loosened the grip that the various spheres of influence had on me (not only American cultural influences, but also ways of being that I had internalized from my family, my own habits, and so on). My faith was in that tiny wedge of space that was opening up in my soul. Finding and resting in that space gave me immediate access to life in a way that felt truly new. The more I sought out time there, the larger this wedge became. The space was like a magic playground where the world and I could meet. I was connected to life in ways I had not understood or experienced before. And these connections were not due to some special quality in me, they were inherent in the very nature of life. In a word: Creativity was the living truth I was opening up to. Is it any wonder Prince was there waiting for me?

“Walk Don’t Walk” crescendos and (finally!) gets funky. Prince and the female voices still sing together, but individual voices are more distinguishable. There’s a real call-and-response.

A woman sings, “Tell me now, just walking.”

And Prince answers, “Said I’m walking on your side of the street!”

“Tell me now just walking.”

“I’m talking to the people I meet!”

“Tell me now just walking.”

Then together: “Alright! Oh Yeah!”

Oh, this was good news to me in its purest form. It was a truth that my soul was singing. Being true to yourself is not just about trusting that the sun will shine upon you one day. It’s about trusting the life connection that your own authenticity and creativity open up. That connection bonds you to other people. If you walk on your own side of the street, despite the voices telling you where to go, you will find that you are not alone there. Other creative, authentic souls will find and celebrate your march, strut, skip, meander, stroll — even your limp or crawl. And you will find that your side of the street basks in the sunshine of your very own capacity for solidarity and compassion.

Prince was singing to me that day, and I was listening — over and over — soaking it in. My day off from work had transformed into a day on. My friend Nicole, who was working as a documentary film editor, had introduced me to the notion of the role of the unconscious in the creative process. She had told me that when she found herself stuck during editing, she knew it was time to go outside to take a walk in order to, as she put it, “let the unconscious work on it.” This whole day became a day devoted to letting my unconscious lead the way.

My decision to skip work that day had come out of frustration. But when I let go of my frustrations and grooved to Prince that day, I was no longer bothered by the large discrepancy between my idealistic, hopeful view of the creative, healing potential in broadcast journalism, and the colder, sadder reality of my work situation, unfolding inevitably towards my resignation. I was walking on my side of the street. And it felt good.

If my sunny, hopeful, confident walk was going to lead me out the door of ABC News so be it. But I wasn’t going to turn my back on anything or anyone who was staying at "PrimeTime Live." Something in Prince’s groovy last verse made me feel hopeful for all of us. I wanted to leave on an encouraging note. I wanted to share this freedom. Just as “Walk Don’t Walk” was fueling my enthusiasm and courage, I wanted to spur on my friends and colleagues at "PrimeTime" to break free of the “don’t walk/don’t talk” vibe. I had a vision that if more people engaged Diane in creative back-and-forth, great things would come.

Using my home phone, I dialed in to voicemail to change my outgoing message at work. I still had Prince going in the background, and I tried to match the music’s upbeat joy and freedom. I remember recording a few different versions until I really felt like I was speaking with full-on authenticity.

And then, without listening to it, I walked out the door to enjoy a few hours in the park.

I don’t remember exactly when I called in to check my messages. Was it that night? Was it the next morning? Whenever it was that I did listen to my outgoing message I remember thinking, “Oops. Prince is a recording artist, and I am not.” Without the context of my extended, repetitive jam with Prince and the New Power Generation, my voice – alone on the voicemail – sounded pressured and manic. And my playful double entendre of an invitation to the caller (“If you have any questions – talk to Diane Sawyer!”) just sounded weird. Crazy even.

There were 21 messages in my inbox. I made my way through all of them. It’s not accurate to say I listened to them because each one was just a moment of silence followed by the sound of a phone hanging up. I imagined that the talking happened between the messages, as word spread around the office about what I had done and people called in to hear it for themselves.

“Walk Don’t Walk” ends with the bouncy music continuing as it has from the beginning; as it slowly fades out, Prince whispers, “Walk. Don’t Walk. Walk. Don’t Walk.” Should I have left that message? Was it brave and hopeful? Or should I regret that it made me seem really nuts to those 21 callers — and maybe now to whomever reads this? Those are the whispers I hear in this moment. I’ve realized that whispers of one kind or another will always be with me. Back and forth they go, nudging me towards creative, openhearted risks, and pulling me back towards prudence and caution. But they are just whispers. Thank God for the music and the dance of life. Thank God for Prince.

That outgoing message was, for all intents and purposes, my notice of departure from ABC News. I did go back into the office to tie up loose ends. I passed on my production notes for the McNamara piece. I met with the Executive Producer and with Diane. I said goodbye to folks. I remember when the executive producer’s administrative assistant heard I was moving on. Knowingly she nodded and asked:

“60 Minutes?”

“No. I’m going to see what life has in store.”

She looked aghast. Scared for me. “There’s nothing out there,” she warned me.

I smiled. And walked on.


Cut to April 21, 2016.

When I found out Prince had died it didn’t compute. In a haze, I found the lyrics to “Walk Don’t Walk” and posted them to my Facebook wall. Years ago I had told a friend that I wanted that song to play at my funeral. In all these years I had never once thought about Prince’s demise.

Slowly it started to sink in. In an email a few days later, a friend who had been my on-again-off-again boyfriend in college summarized the way the memories crept back and then flooded in: “Like many born in 1968, my Prince collection is on cassette and vinyl at my parents’ house. Thus, all of this music and these memories are coming down all of a sudden. And they are very fond and you are featured prominently.”

There was one song that I most longed to hear again. But it wasn’t “Walk Don’t Walk.” There are probably a dozen Prince songs that I feel are deeply ingrained in my being. There are dozens more Prince songs that just make me want to dance. And, of course, all those Prince songs that are futon worthy. But from Thursday afternoon until Saturday morning, when I finally got it together enough emotionally and technologically to actually play it, I just yearned to hear “Anna Stesia.”

It’s from the "Lovesexy" album: the only album whose release date I actively and eagerly anticipated for most of my sophomore year in college. Because it was all one track, I kinda had to listen to all of "Lovesexy" every time I hit play on the CD player. But that was fine by me. That whole album became part of me. And there was one song that just went so deep. That felt like it was mine. “Anna Stesia.”

As I went to listen to it last week I knew what to expect: a soulful, plaintive beat and a deep, lonely longing that resolves in pleasure and connection. Yeah, it’s a damn sexy song.

So imagine my surprise when I heard it for the first time in maybe twenty years. Listening to it last week, it was clear that “Anna Stesia” is a song about religious conversion. It’s about following longing and the desire for connection through sex until the higher self finds fulfillment and joy…in God. Um, how did I miss that for all of the late eighties?

So maybe now is the time to mention that when I left ABC and followed my feet it led to all sorts of surprising and wonderful places. The past twenty-one years have been filled with adventures, experiences, and deep commitments that I couldn’t have imagined, even as I eagerly moved towards them that day I listened to “Walk Don’t Walk.” One of the most surprising and long lasting arrivals that followed from that dramatic day of departure was my self-discovery as Catholic. Not something that was ever on this Jewish girl’s list of “what I want to be when I grow up.”

As I went through my religious conversion in the year following my departure from network news, Prince’s music was a companion on the journey. His song, “The Cross” from "Sign O’ the Times" became one of my new favorites. It was great to discover that beloved musicians like Prince and John Lennon and the Neville Brothers, who had been with me for a long time, had spiritual nuggets to share with me now that I was ready to receive them.

But I had never noticed that “Anna Stesia” was a religious song! And lest you think that perhaps this middle-aged chaplain and doctor of theology is projecting my own current proclivities onto her fave teen love song, here are some of the lyrics:

Maybe, maybe, maybe I could learn to love
I mean the right way, I mean the only way
if I was just closer to something…I don’t know…
Closer to your higher self… Closer to Heaven… Closer to God….
Save me Jesus, I’ve been a fool
How could I forget that you are the rule,
You are my God. I am your child
From now on, for you I shall be wild! I shall be quick! I shall be strong!
I’ll tell your story, no matter how long.
We’re just a play in your master plan. Now my Lord I understand.
Love is God    God is Love    Girls and Boys Love God Above

You see what I’m seeing?

And it’s not just that song. The whole "Lovesexy" album is one big celebration of the discovery of the spiritual through the sexual, and the sexual as creative expression of the spiritual. As Cat says in her fantabulous rap on “Alphabet Street”:

You kiss your enemies like you know you should then you jerk your body like a horny pony would.

Dripping with sexiness and bowing down in awe to divine love are not contrary or even separate experiences. They are one. Lovesexy.

Oh Prince!

Since hearing that Prince has died, I’ve been at once hungry to connect with others who mourn him, and also wary of press coverage of this cultural event. I don’t want to know the details of his death. I don’t want to hear a re-hash of the publicized details of his personal life. I always got the sense that Prince was a shy person, and I want to honor that. My connection to him was through his music and through his tireless authenticity. The lure of his famous persona is powerful, but I don’t want to be distracted by it.

My music-talking college buddies have had my back on this one. They’ve been sending me links to set lists, articles, and clips that have moved them. Via email, we’ve been sharing reminiscences, favorite Prince covers, and so on. A clip of Prince playing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the piano during a sound check in Osaka, Japan caught me in its thrall for a whole afternoon last week.

Something I heard Questlove saying in an interview with Terry Gross made me sad. He was saying that Prince had a cuss jar, and when Questlove told him that he had learned to curse by listening to his early albums, Prince looked a little crestfallen. Questlove wondered if Prince worried about the negative impact of his early music on his fans. He also told a story of how Prince showed up one time while the Roots were recording, and he talked religion at them for four hours while they fell asleep from boredom.

Oh Prince! It makes me sad that I will never get to tell you about the positive impact you’ve had on me. I really want you to know. I want you to know that you did tell the story of God through your music, and no matter how long it took to absorb it, that story took hold in my soul.

Your unfettered, no-holes barred creativity was a gift to this world that I receive even on the days when I don’t hear your music or have a single thought about you. Your all-chakra jam still gets my juices flowing, and I promise you I will let that freedom course through me as I tell my part of the Big Story, whatever that may be. Now that you’re no longer in the world doing your integrity thang, I sense that there are a whole lot of people feeling the call to step up our game. Wherever you are, Prince, you’re walking on our side of the street, and we’re gonna have to let our own authenticity move us, so we can keep this party going.

By Elizabeth Berne DeGear

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