Prince Guitarist Reflects on the Artist's Spirituality, Politics, Sense of Humor

Dez Dickerson GETTY - S 2016
Amy E. Price/Getty Images for SXSW

Dez Dickerson describes his experience with the artist as "the best of times and the worst of times."

Dez Dickerson was 23 when he auditioned for a young performer named Prince in 1979. After 15 minutes, he was hired as lead guitarist for the singer's band. Over the next five years, while the Purple One became an international sensation, Dickerson and Prince shared some extraordinary experiences, not least of which were discussions about religion, philosophy and sometimes politics.

Dickerson says he was "a fairly radical liberal, striving to be a junior hippie" at the time and, from all indications, Prince had a similar outlook on life. But on Dec. 22, 1980, at 11:30 p.m. in his living room at 2409 Castle Ave. in North St. Paul, Minn. Dickerson had an epiphany. From that moment on, he was a born-again Christian, and his politics began to swing right.

"It was during our Christmas break from The Dirty Mind tour," he told The Hollywood Reporter from his home in Tennessee. "I told everybody about it. I probably seemed to be a raving lunatic because I was so impacted. All I could do was try to explain my experience.

"I talked to the band about it, I talked to Prince about it. He was like, 'Oh, that's cool. I've got my relationship with God, and you've got yours.' He wasn't fazed at all, and he didn't think it was odd. He said it was 'awesome,' and he said he also had a close relationship with God."

Dickerson says he wasn't surprised by the reaction from Prince, who died Thursday at 57, given how "warm and generous" he was, despite some reports to the contrary from some journalists who complained he was egotistical and standoffish.

"He didn't trust them," Dickerson said of Prince. "Early on, he really felt betrayed by journalists. The first few interviews he did, reporters didn't bother listening to what he said. They would just write the stories they wanted to write."

Dickerson, who left the band after Prince's breakthrough album 1999 and just prior to Purple Rain, describes his experience with the artist as "the best of times and the worst of times."

"It was exhilarating, frustrating, life-changing," he said. "We were ambitious kids who did things that surprised even us. He surrounded himself with people who could keep up with him, then he'd push us to go further."

After his religious turnaround, Dickerson said that deep dialogue was commonplace in Prince's inner circle.

"The band had a lot of spiritual discussions, in no small part due to the fact that what we were presenting musically and visually was so extreme," he said. "It led to soul-searching. 'What is truth?' I wish I had a transcript of our conversations. It was a major part of the experience."

Dickerson kept in contact with Prince usually through surrogates; the last time he was face to face with him was for an hour in 2004, though he spoke to him on the phone two weeks prior to his sudden death.

"The contents of that conversation will remain confidential," he said.

"His views were pretty idiosyncratic in some ways," he said of Prince. "He eventually landed firmly in the Jehovah's Witness faith and seemed at peace there. The thing we always shared is that there is a God, and we're not Him. We'll all be accountable to that reality."

Dickerson said Prince shunned lengthy interviews, preferring to share his message through his music.

"His views are clear in the song 'Controversy': 'Are you black or white, are you straight or gay? Do I believe in God, do I believe in me?' It's all there in plain sight," he said.

One of Dickerson's "most important" anecdotes came a few years after leaving the band. "There were times he was profoundly burdened by spiritual issues. I actually wrote him a personal letter of my experience and hand-delivered it to his home. His assistant met me at the door, said she was about to deliver his mail to him, and I saw her put my letter on the top of the pile," he explained.

"The next day, I saw on the news that Prince had canceled some concerts and was going into prayer and meditation. All's I know is that it was a profound enough area of study for him to take the brakes off of music and delve into spirituality."

Dickerson described his letter to Prince only in broad strokes.

"I laid out my overview of my spiritual journey and my life-changing moment to a fervent belief of a real God, a sovereign creator and authority over all, and the things I learned about his son Jesus," he said. "There are times when you just get a sense in your gut. The letter seemed to be the right thing to do at that moment."

Dickerson said he remembers Prince using the term "Light, with a capital L," on several occasions.

"He thought he was privy to a spiritual truth he felt responsible to share. Not overtly evangelical, but it's there if you dive deep into his lyrics. The 'Light' referred to things he knew that others weren't exposed to. I never asked him to elaborate," he said.

Dickerson describes himself politically as "a clear thinker who is a disciple of Jesus," because he says the term "Christian conservative" has been hijacked. He hadn't spoken to Prince about politics in years, but added: "There are folks he was close with who are notoriously far left. There is the reality that we align ourselves with those we agree with, but then again, I have friends who are crack-pipe leftists and others who are extreme evangelicals."

But the most important thing Dickerson says he'd like people to remember about Prince was that he was a good person, and a practical joker. "I laughed more in those five years than any other time in my life," he said.

"There was a reporter in Minneapolis he trusted," Dickerson recalled. "He arranged for a private interview in our dressing room, but Prince set us up to wreak complete havoc. My job was to give the reporter a completely serious interview and in the background Prince and other bandmembers started this knock-down, drag-out fight, while I completely ignored them and kept very serious, while they were yelling and throwing things at each other.

"It was a cage match while I just carried on with the interview. The reporter was freaked out until we had a candid-camera moment and let him in on the gag. That was one of the epic practical jokes of all time."