Controversy, 1981

Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?

Note: This is the third and last post on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. Please read the first and second parts before proceeding.

Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?

Of the famous questions Prince asks in the lyrics to “Controversy,” he only answers one–or two, depending on how you count them. The questions are, “Do I believe in God?” and, “Do I believe in me?” The answer–to both, presumably–is “yes.”

More even than the nuances of race and sexuality, this distinction between “God” and “me”–the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the flesh, etc.–was the prevailing theme of Prince’s career. This in itself hardly makes him unique: the “comingling of the profane and the spiritual is an age-old Black music trope,” writes cultural critic Touré. “Quite often in Black music history the erotic and the divine, or the concerns of Saturday night and Sunday morning, are close together in a song or a playing style or an album or a career”–including those of Prince progenitors like Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others (Touré 125). But while the majority of these artists vacillated between “God’s music” and “the Devil’s,” Prince’s innovation was in combining the two: making gospel-informed music that erased the fine line between matters of the body and the soul.

Ephemera, 1977-1978

Down a Long Lonely Road

Of the home demos currently in circulation from mid-to-late 1978, some are more “demo”-quality than others. Today’s is one of those tracks: “Down a Long Lonely Road,” a light sketch of a song with a not-inconsiderable gospel influence. To be honest, I don’t have much to say about it. It feels like it was recorded just to get a stray melody on tape, or even as a test to hone Prince’s abilities at layering vocals; like the much more fleshed-out “For You,” it’s an a cappella recording, with Prince harmonizing across multiple tracks. The whole “song” consists of just two lines, repeated ad infinitum: “Down a long, lonely road, I’ve been cryin’ / Lookin’ for someone to care.”

For fans, the appeal of this demo is in its intimacy: it’s a rare (if low-fidelity) opportunity to hear Prince’s ever-strengthening vocals in isolation, without the baroque studio frippery of the aforementioned “For You.” It’s also, as mentioned above, a strong early indication of the influence of gospel music on his songwriting and performance style. It’s a well-known aspect of Prince’s “origin story” that he was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, from which he’d later say the “experience of the choir” was the only thing he took with him (VH1 1997). On “Down a Long Lonely Road,” he makes himself the choir, or at least a vocal group; were it not for the unusual delicacy of his singing voice, it would sound for all the world like some old Folkways recording of a long-forgotten Black church group from the 1940s.

It’s unclear–but doubtful–if “Down a Long Lonely Road” was ever intended for completion, either by Prince himself or a side project. More likely, it was something he recorded in the moment and filed away: part of what must be interminable hours of musical detritus from a man who, lest we forget, spent most of his waking life in the studio. That we’re able to hear it now is an interesting bit of happenstance: this is one of the tapes that just happened to leak to collectors, so now it’s under the microscope. Next time, we’ll pick up with another such recording–but with guitar!