Sometimes It Snows in April: Prince’s Holy Mission

I am still not over my grief from Prince’s sudden death at age 57 on April 22nd. For almost 35 years of my life, Prince was a constant source of joy and refuge. He was so much more than a pop song writer, or a virtuosic guitarist, or a spectacular entertainer.

Saying you were a Prince fan was always shorthand for being at least casually nonconformist, for being liberal on the gender-identity-spectrum and sexually open-minded, and for having an enjoyment of complete inhibition. Prince’s music exudes passion and confidence but also extreme loneliness and eccentricity. It also developed a holy mission through his career. Over the years, I found on countless occasions that revealing a love of Prince could be like a secret handshake with new friends, co-workers, or even strangers. It created an instant bond, a deeper understanding.

I chose to perform his song “Sometimes It Snows in April” as one of our tribute songs at Greenpoint Reformed on April 24th for a number of reasons. The song is a somewhat obscure track on his 1986 Parade album and seems to concern the protagonist, Christopher Tracy, from Prince’s film Under the Cherry Moon, released in tandem with the album. Tracy dies at the end of the film. However, the lyrics of “April” and the character of Tracy in the film do not seem to match. The song is narrated by a lover/admirer of Tracy, also absent from the film. Here are the lyrics:

Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war,
Just after I’d wiped away his last tear
I guess he’s better off than he was before,
A whole lot better off than the fools he left here
I used to cry for Tracy because he was my only friend
Those kind of cars don’t pass you every day
I used to cry for Tracy because I wanted to see him again,
But sometimes sometimes life ain’t always the way

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last

Springtime was always my favorite time of year,
A time for lovers holding hands in the rain
Now springtime only reminds me of Tracy’s tears
Always cried for love, never cried for pain
He used to say so strong unafraid to die
Unafraid of the death that left me hypnotized
Now staring at his picture I realize
No one could cry the way my Tracy cried

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad
Sometimes, sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last

I often dream of heaven and I know that Tracy’s there
I know that he has found another friend
Maybe he’s found the answer to all the April snow
Maybe one day I’ll see my Tracy again

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
But all good things, they say, never last

All good things, they say, never last
And love, it isn’t love until it’s passed

Considered with the events of Prince’s life and death (in the month of April), the song makes a perfect choice for a tribute to the musician’s life and mission. Replace the name “Tracy” with “Prince” (as D’Angelo did in his now-famous performance on Fallon) and you have a seemingly uncanny self-tribute by Prince about himself. But the artist wrote the song 30 years before his death with obviously no knowledge of when or what conditions he would die. So, replace the name “Tracy” in the song with “Jesus” and you will then have the true subject of the song, I believe, and the subject that Prince at the end of his life would have most wanted to be remembered.

In April, we celebrate Jesus’s afterlife and from this one can infer meaning in the snow of April that the song utilizes as the main metaphor. Some of the key lines of the song are “Always cried for love, never cried for pain,” and the last line, easily misheard as “Love isn’t love until it’s past,” it is actually “Love isn’t love until it’s passed.” Passed, as in given, or spread, and also with the double-meaning of “passed-on,” as in death. Jesus’s love for the world was complete with his death and ascension to heaven. It is one of Prince’s best lyrics, and that’s why it’s given special treatment in the tag-ending of the song.

Like most young people, Prince struggled with mainstream Christianity (as a child, he was raised Seventh Day Adventist) and outright rejected it in his early career. His mother became a Jehovah’s Witnesses and it would be years before he embraced it completely as his own religion. His 1981 Controversy album features two songs (“Annie Christian” and the title track) that utilize Christianity ironically, and his biggest success, Purple Rain famously kicks off with an ironic call to worship in the song “Let’s Go Crazy.” He has a conversation with God who damns him to hell for not sincerely repenting on his 1985 album Around the World in a Day in the song “Temptation,” and then offers “The Ladder” about how “everyone wants salvation of the soul.” So for him to write plaintively (however through a veil to “Tracy” ) about the death of Jesus in 1986’s Parade album makes perfect sense. It also sets up his spiritual crisis around 1987/88, when he recalled thousands of copies of his Black Album, convinced it was the work of the devil, and released the spiritually galvanized Lovesexy instead. The rest of Prince’s career is full of earnest spirituality delivered in odd assortments of symbolism and meaning. His heart and passion is true, and that always comes through with the excellent music, lyrics and production.

After his spiritual awakening, Prince made a concerted effort to rectify the seemy darkness of his earlier career, in his work and in his personal life. A practicing Jehovah’s Witness, he refused to play his raunchy earlier material and regularly tried to bring others into his faith. There are numerous anecdotes from almost everyone who worked with him, from the 1990s forward, in which he cornered them and spoke at length about his passion for Christ, hoping to convert them. Questlove has a funny story about that, recently broadcast on NPR’s Fresh Air.

He wrote many, many songs and complete albums (Lovesexy, Rainbow Children) narrating his spiritual journey. His relationship with God was the message to which he devoted the most time in his 40-year career. He equated God with love, compassionate sexuality and his musicianship. I believe it is that which he would most want to be remembered.

So I interpret “April” as one of Prince’s most straightforward ballads about his love for the passion of Jesus, and I also have a sentimental attachment to the song. When I first heard it, around 1987, I recognized it as a song that would be played in memory of Prince after his death. My whole life, I always took comfort in the assumption that Prince—with all his seeming eternal youth and ability—would be delivering great music and artistic and personal integrity well into his 80s or 90s. I was looking forward to seeing what grace he would exude in old age, or how he might humbly accept the limitations of age. Like so many fans, I am heartbroken. It was very, very difficult to sing the song in church with tears in my eyes.

In any event, I believe Prince would be very happy to know that that song had new meaning for his fans, and particularly that it was being played in church. Prince’s mission, beginning around the time that “April” was written, and escalating thereafter, was to allow his music to be a vehicle to bring his fans into a relationship with God. I often dream of heaven, and I know that Prince is there.

Jason Benjamin is the Music Minister of Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY. His Milton Street Revival Band performs there at 11AM services every Sunday