Religion. According to Oxford Languages, the top definition of the noun “religion” comprises “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” But in the 21st Century, the language authority’s tertiary definition of religion seems better suited to encompass a broader application of the word, as “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.”
Toledo-based author (and former Toledo City Paper Assignment Editor) Jason Webber’s personal relationship to the music and life of the artist Prince could well fall under this latter definition. Webber’s debut book, Purple Bananas (202 pages) traces Webber’s early life as an adopted child raised by abusive parents in a fundamentalist Christian household, through his wayward teenage years, and then into the travails of adulthood. He found Prince’s music provided an effective means of coping. Titling his memoir with a reference to the 1984 Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy” reinforces Prince’s centrality to his personal growth. To Webber, Prince, through his iconic persona and his musical work, typifies personal spiritual guidance, not unlike a certain shepherd.
The Arc of Grief
Prince’s 2016 death was a triggering event for Webber, who began writing the book later that year. The book’s structure suggests it’s a vehicle for exploring grief.
Purple Bananas begins on the day Prince died, April 21st, 2016. Webber explores how his initial incredulity at the news of Prince’s passing gave way to pain. From there, Webber rewinds through his family history, setting the foundation of his troubled childhood, a period characterized by physical and emotional abuse at the hands of both his parents and the religious elders of the Southern Baptist ministry he and his family followed in Southern California.
Discovering Prince’s song “1999” in A Local Prince Fan’s Foray into Memoir By Sonny Forrest the early 80s catalyzed Webber’s relationship with the artist’s music that helped the author evolve from a self-described “sheltered church mouse who’d been trained to practically fear his own shadow.” In the process of becoming his personal and professional self, Webber labored through several ill-fated relationships, worked on the staff of infamously ornery Toledo May-or Carty Finkbeiner and then as the internal publicist for the freak-rap duo Insane Clown Posse’s flagship label Psychopathic Records.
Contrasting the prologue centered on the trauma of Prince’s passing, the book ends with Webber’s experience making a pilgrimage to Paisley Park, Prince’s former residence-turned fan museum. The trip constitutes a ceremonial end to his grieving process; Webber leaves Paisley Park having garnered something akin to closure.
The idea of music as an expression of spirituality isn’t new. Religious ceremonies have incorporated music for centuries. Composer and music educator George Whitfield Andrews’s 1916 essay “Music as an Expression of Religious Feeling” describes music’s emotional charge as especially conducive to religious devotion. “Other arts have the power to act upon the soul,” Andrews wrote, “but probably none so intensely or universally [as music].”
In the book, Webber credits Prince’s music for saving him from taking his own life. “It wasn’t one of those cries for help,” Webber said. “I had the water turned on in the tub, and I was gonna lay down and open my wrists, but the song ‘Anna Stesia,’ it saved my life.” As the book progresses, Webber more assertively supplants his fundamentalist Christian upbringing with a quasi-religious devotion to Prince.
For believers in higher powers, the artist’s work fatefully intervening to rescue Weber might constitute an act of providence. Prince as a deity resonates in light of critic Lary Wallace’s remark regarding Prince’s particular appeal to members of Webber’s Generation X, because Gen Xers were “raised to worship celebrities instead of gods.”
Prominent Prince scholar Touré claimed in his 2013 book I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon, that Prince “was the best in history at articulating himself as a pop star who is a Jesus figure.”
But Webber insists that he was compelled by Prince’s music more as a fan than as a religious acolyte. “Growing up with all that fire and brimstone mania around me,” Webber explains, “it definitely made me keep my feet on the ground. I was able to take what I needed from Prince’s music and what I wanted from Prince’s music. I was able to absorb that and use it as a tool to get through the trials and tribulations of life.”
Though the author augmented his flesh with tattoos of Prince’s hybrid female-male-ankh symbol and the face from Prince’s “When Doves Cry” video, he said, “I never considered myself a fanatic. I considered myself someone who really understood what it was he was putting out in his music. And it just spoke to me on very many deep levels – spiritually, emotionally.”
However, because Prince’s estate didn’t grant Webber permission to reprint the specific lyrics that most influenced events and emotions depicted in the book, some of the sentimental nuances can feel, at times, tenuous.
Making It Through
Webber is now a father alongside a committed partner and holds a respectable job in nonprofit communications. He shoulders a professional reputation and the responsibility as his family’s breadwinner.
The discipline required to retell a personal history fraught with abuse, religious shame and relationship failures necessitates a high degree of self awareness. A degree of (sometimes deprecating) self evaluation is how Webber toes the line separating his memoir’s cathartic qualities from out-
“I still feel like there’s a certain element of self indulgence just by publishing this thing. And I struggle with that,” Webber said. “Because on one hand, there’s nothing more narcissistic and self-serving than writing a memoir.”
“But this wasn’t about self indulgence and it wasn’t about ego,” Webber said. “It was about catharsis and it was about trying to exorcise pain.”
Though the book’s emotional valence might diminish among readers unfamiliar with Prince’s music, Webber’s goal is for the book to ultimately serve as a guide. “I’m just trying to hold the book up as an example of, for one, what not to do,” Webber said. “But also just so that people understand, goddamnit I made it through.”
Purple Bananas is now available through bookbaby.com.