Prince Condemns Child Abuse on ‘Papa': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
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To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
As a famously shy person, Prince often blurred the lines between reality and fiction, both in his songs and interviews. But on “Papa,” he gave a glimpse into his past when he said, “Don’t abuse children or else they turn out like me.”
The track appeared on 1994’s Come, his last record of new material for Warner Bros. before changing his name to the Love Symbol. Its lyrics portray a man who beats and locks his four-year old child in a closet “for throwing rocks at passing cars.” Then, he takes a shotgun on himself and ends his life as he questions his ability to love. After his declaration, “Papa” then takes a radical musical shift for the coda, changing from sparse funk to heavy rock as he delivers the message, “If you love somebody, your life won’t be in vain / And there’s always a rainbow at the end of every rain.”
Still, over the years, Prince remained elusive and somewhat contradictory about how much he suffered as a child. In 1985, he told Rolling Stone that the depiction of John L. Nelson in Purple Rain was exaggerated. “That stuff about my dad was part of [director-co-writer] Al Magnoli’s story,” he said. “We used parts of my past and present to make the story pop more, but it was a story. My dad wouldn’t have nothing to do with guns. He never swore, still doesn’t, and never drinks.”
However, when Oprah Winfrey interviewed him 12 years later, she asked about how much of the stories were. “He had his moments,” Prince said, adding that the most autobiographical scene in the movie “was probably the scene with me looking at my mother, crying.”
What’s undisputed is that Prince’s father was a jazz pianist for the Prince Rogers Trio, where he met singer Mattie Shaw. The two married in 1957, and they took the combo’s name and gave it to their son, who arrived a year later. The couple divorced in 1968, with Prince originally going to live with his mother. When I was 12, I ran away for the first time because of problems with my stepfather,” he said. “I went to live with my real father but that didn’t last too long because he’s as stubborn as I am. I lived with my aunt for a while. I was constantly running from family to family.”
Prince was thrown out when his father caught the 12-year old Prince in bed with a girl. In the Rolling Stone article, Prince pointed to a phone booth on the North Side of Minneapolis. “That’s where I called my dad and begged him to take me back after he kicked me out,” he said. “He said no, so I called my sister and asked her to ask him. So she did, and afterward told me that all I had to do was call him back, tell him I was sorry, and he’d take me back. So I did, and he still said no. I sat crying at that phone booth for two hours. That’s the last time I cried.”
After Prince became successful, the two reconciled, and he framed it in the context of himself showing empathy for his father, rather than the older Nelson apologizing. “Once I made it, got my first record contract, got my name on a piece of paper and a little money in my pocket, I was able to forgive. Once I was eating every day, I became a much nicer person.”
That lengthy piece shows how much closer they had become, celebrating John’s birthday by hanging out and playing pool as the Family practiced in their rehearsal space, although some walls had not yet come down. “It’s real hard for my father to show emotion,” Prince continued. “He never says ‘I love you,’ and whenever we try to hug or something, we bang our heads together like in some Charlie Chaplin movie. But a while ago, he was telling me how I always had to be careful. My father told me, ‘If anything happens to you, I’m gone.’ All I thought at first was that it was a real nice thing to say. But then I thought about it for a while and realized something. That was my father’s way of saying ‘I love you.'”
He admitted to Oprah that it helped that John L. Nelson had changed by that point. “When I met him again he was a jewel. He was the most beautiful person I knew.” But he also acknowledged that “we are again estranged. But hopefully we can hook up again. If not, you know, this is his experience, you know? And he is living his experience and what he wants. I’m living mine the way I want.”
While they were getting along, they even worked together. The melody that the Kid’s father was playing on the piano in Purple Rain was written by John, and Prince worked it into “Computer Blue” and “Father’s Song.” He also received songwriting co-credits on “Around the World in a Day,” “The Ladder,” “Christopher Tracy’s Parade,” “Under the Cherry Moon,” “Scandalous” and elements of the Purple Rain and Under the Cherry Moon scores.
John L. Nelson died on Aug. 25, 2001. It appeared that the two had worked out their differences by then. His obituary in the Star Tribune noted that he was living in his son’s former house, that he had access to Prince’s personal tailor and was spotted at a Paisley Park show two months prior.
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