First Avenue Night Club in Minneapolis was starting to fill up. I sat on the end of the bar sipping a Purple Rain, a drink made famous by the 1984 Prince movie filmed in this legendary venue. Whether Prince ever drank one himself remains a mystery, but as I sipped my violet colored libation, I had to smile. I was going to visit Paisley Park the next morning at 10:30. It was the Graceland of Prince Rogers Nelson and it had barely opened to the public less than six months ago.
Minneapolis has a lot of great things to see, but it’s most iconic figure is the artist who defied his distribution company and created more music that Lennon and McCartney. He was born in there in 1958 and died in his studio home in 2016. Prince was quoted as saying that he loved living in his home city, because “it gets so cold, it keeps the bad people out”. At first glance, Prince’s vast complex called Paisley Park looks more like a NASA building than a mecca of music. It’s secrets are closely guarded. After you’ve shown your electronic ticket, your phone is placed in a neoprene bag and hermetically sealed so that no one except the guard at the exit can unlock it. If you’re caught taking a picture, you’re banned from the premises for life. Prince allegedly didn’t like cell phones and cameras in Paisley Park, so the “WWPD? laws” are heavily enforced even from beyond the grave. There’s two tours available, the General Admission (which I took) and the VIP which consists of a longer, more private intimate experience, according to the website. Standing behind the rope and looking at the muraled walls and outlandish decor, it seemed pretty obvious that Prince had created his own universe at Paisley Park.
Prince loved paisley symbols, my guide pointed out, because they could be any color and he embraced diversity in all things. Paisley Park took it’s name from a song on Around the World in a Day, and the artist even had a cat named Paisley. Paisley patterns and the color purple appear everywhere in Prince’s home studio, pictures of doves, pictures of himself and of course, his ubiquitous “love” symbol. This iconic motif was created to be a mix of the astrological Mars-male, Venus-female with a little Christian cross tossed in.When Prince became embroiled in a lawsuit with Warner Brothers over the distribution of his music, the executives made it clear that they owned the rights to his name. Undaunted, the artist began playing concerts with the word “slave” painted on his face and switched his name to the symbol that Warner Brothers didn’t own. Since no such font existed, the media started referring to him simply as “The artist formerly known as Prince”. Considered to be one of the boldest moves in music history, Prince was eventually able to gain control over his name and recording rights in 2000. His symbol still is plastered everywhere from his personal effects to the foyer floor.
The main room of the complex is a big circular shaped space with smaller rooms surrounding it. Each room represents a different album, period or concept depending on how you want to look at it. The costumes on display are amazing as well as the guitars and video memorabilia. The most shocking visual is how small Prince really was. The costumes are so tiny it’s questionable if even a kid could fit into some of them. Even more remarkable is how such a tiny man could be such a rock star and sex symbol. Prince had no fear and he knew how to take “cool” and sell it. In the foyer area, to the left of the giant symbol is a smaller symbol on a shelf, attached to the urn shaped like Paisley Park that contains Prince’s ashes. There are few rock stars that seem to transcend death but one can’t help feel that maybe Prince might still be hanging around Paisley Park. Prince’s pet doves are on the second floor in elaborate cages and were even featured in one of his songs with an “ambient singing” credit. They allegedly went quiet for months after his death until his music started being played in the complex.
The main recording studio room has been left almost as Prince left it. It was here that he spent countless hours in this space producing music that he released, stored or bequeathed to other artists. “Manic Monday”(Bangles). “Nothing compares 2U” (Sinead O’Connor), and “I Feel For You” (Chaka Khan) are a few examples. The guide explained that there has been so much music found in his vaults, that a new album could be released every year for at least the next 100 years. The highlight of visiting the studio room is being able to listen to a song or two that have never been released from Prince’s vaults.
1984’s Purple Rain won Prince an Academy Award and established his rock star status. The Purple Rain room in Paisley Park is bathed in purple lighting, has one of the stunt motorcycles from the film, a purple piano and his iconic purple jacket in the spotlight. Clips from the film play on the giant wall. Adjoining this space, is the Cherry moon and Graffiti Bridge room where props from both films are displayed as well as clips from those movies. Prince’s sitting room is truly a rock star room with it’s unusual custom furniture and futuristic Schimmel Pegasus piano that looks more like a UFO than a musical instrument.
The biggest room in the complex is the nightclub where he filmed Graffiti Bridge and threw huge last minute parties for his fans. If you showed up, you might get to hear Prince perform on one of the stages or play ping pong with him. After the party was over, some fans could spot him riding his bicycle around in the parking lot. The club space is huge and features a giant video screen, instruments from his all-female band 3RDEYEGIRL and the famous purple grand piano Prince last performed with in his Piano and Microphone tour. The piano was custom made by Yamaha and painted to match a swatch of cloth from Prince’s purple couch. Ten different shades of purple were rejected by the artist until Yamaha discovered the perfect one. It was the last piano he played in front of his fans and remains in the place where he played it.
The NPG room is amazing as well. It’s an extension of the concert room but smaller with a little more of an intimate lounge feel. There’s great mood lighting, murals, sitting areas and lots of purple. There’s stairs and doors that go to seemingly secret places. The tour doesn’t show Prince’s private spaces. I have no doubt that they would be more interesting than everything else. The final area of the tour shows memorabilia that was collected from fans after his death. Fan mail, flowers, poems, and everything in purple are all lovingly placed on a wall before the exit. Prince’s Superbowl performance plays on the screen. The artist sang Purple Rain in the pouring rain for the largest audience of his career. The gift shop doesn’t have anything for sale that Prince would have worn himself and surprisingly there is not one raspberry beret for sale. The management could probably take some tips from Jimmy Buffet who seems to make money off of anything he’s ever sung about.
There’s a deli fridge at the end where the same chefs who cooked for Prince, have recreated a few of his favorite meals and offer it for fans who are curious what the star liked to eat. I can personally vouch for his taste in chocolate cake. The tour was fantastic from beginning to end and really offered some insight into one of rock and roll’s most misunderstood stars. I left even more of a fan than when I entered.
If Paisley Park is not enough Prince for you, you can visit Prince’s childhood homes, his elementary school, middle school, church, places where he performed and his favorite record store, The Electric Fetus. This handy guide will help you do a self-guided tour to all things Prince. And you can finish your day off with a Purple Rain at First Avenue. You can even get the souvenir cup.