Before April 21, 2016 every Prince fan had a secret. It was the same secret for every fan, no matter where the fan was. Some of us blabbed the secret to anyone who would listen, but some of us tucked it deep into our throats. We did this, not because we were good at keeping secrets, but because we were embarrassed by the secret. It was a silly secret, a secret most of us had no business possessing because we knew better. It was an unrealistic secret, more of a fantasy, really. Now, almost six months after Prince has passed away, the secret has morphed into a regret, for some a howling chasm of despair. The secret was simple, almost elementary in its design.
The secret was this: Every Prince fan assumed that they would one day get to meet him face to face. This wasn’t a dream. This was an assumption.
Now, most of us were pragmatic. We knew that we were unlikely to ever end up in a place where Prince would appear, given our rote and plebeian circumstances. “This thing called life,” as it were. Prince was never going to show up at our job between concerts, or pop into the McDonalds you go to every day to pretend your lunch hour isn’t just another sixty minutes your job is sucking away alongside the other eight. We knew that if we were ever going to meet him that we would have to make the effort, to take the extra step. We knew our chances were greatly improved if we could just get to where we knew he was most of the time, where all of the magic happened. That’s where Paisley Park comes in.
We knew we’d have to get inside Paisley Park, his massive studio complex and residence, filled to the top of its industrial white walls with sexy dreams and enough unreleased music to choke Billboard’s Top 100 list in any given year (a worthy goal). Every true Prince fan has wanted to get into Paisley Park since the paint dried on the parking space lines back in 1988.
And then in April, there was no more need for the secret. Rather, there was no longer a path toward realizing it, a million bucket lists suddenly made confetti run through a million heart-shaped shredders.
There is a looseness to much of the music that Prince composed after the creation of Paisley Park, though “composed” perhaps renders an inappropriate distillation of his process. The music of Musicology, Diamonds & Pearls, The Gold Experience, The Black Album, Graffiti Bridge – pretty much most of the stuff released after 1988 – leans heavily into band arrangements, sporting jam session sensibilities that having unfettered access to a pristine and customized space affords. After the creation of Paisley Park the music shifted from songs that were composed without concern for whether or not they could be recreated live (“When Doves Cry” doesn’t care if you can play it or not) to band music. It is music you invite people over to play with you, to figure out in the air of timeless freedom. Paisley Park isn’t a recording studio in the traditional sense. If a studio can be a kingdom, Paisley Park is that land. With its production guts buried in an enormous windowless complex it’s easy to get lost in casino time, losing track of what time or day it is, what the weather outside might be. We’ve made a lot of noise over the years about Madonna’s penchant for reinvention, but how impactful were her personas and guises? Prince created palates that did not exist before he realized them. He recorded music that denoted whole shifts in eras. You don’t have nasty ‘90s R&B without “Darling Nikki”, and an entire generation of singers chasing its lessons, and the same was true for “Lady Cab Driver” before it, and “Do Me Baby” before it. I don’t know what they would have been singing about in 1994, but it wouldn’t have been jeeps and slow jams.
After Prince died, the buzz about what would happen to Paisley Park was immediate. The company that oversees Graceland was brought in to set up Paisley Park as a museum, which was more or less in line with Prince’s wishes. One wonders at what point in his life he began establishing the building as such in concrete terms, and how close what’s there meets that vision. In any event, it opened for public tours this past weekend, then suddenly stopped operations as the Chanhassen city council decided it wasn’t comfortable with the amount of traffic and safety concerns that come with the level of tourism such a site was likely to generate. As of this writing the city is allowing twelve more days of tours to happen, and no one doubts that the organizers will be able to navigate whatever conditions are set before them to open the space full time.
Even in death, Prince gets what he wants.
I had been to Paisley Park a few months ago, a detour on another equally amazing trip I can only recount off the record, and stood outside the gate. I expected to write about the experience almost immediately, but the words wouldn’t come. There wasn’t enough there to write about, or rather, what was there was clearly missing something. The moment was a memorial, but too impersonal. I brought everything to that moment because I had to. The experience wasn’t official, and it wasn’t Prince. Prince was not speaking through the gate. There was no exchange. Also, his death wasn’t worthy of his life, and, still trying to wrap my head around that, the right words simply never came. I needed to go inside – to make the secret real – and I believed that, eventually, that day would come.
That day was this past weekend, the second day Paisley Park was open to the public since his death.
I was planning to go on one of the tours later in the month after it had been open a few weeks, but notable social critic and hip hop radio legend Jay Smooth hit me up and asked if I’d be interested in going when he was going to be in Minneapolis. Needless to say, plans got changed. We were to be joined by food writer, sustenance smuggler, and all-around awesome person Tamara Palmer. I was adorned in my commemorative Charlie Brown Still Misses Prince shirt, we had amassed our little purple crew, and Paisley Park siren-called to us over a chilly autumn Chanhassen sunset to come take a peek behind the curtain. While Paisley Park wasn’t going anywhere, it was beyond cool to be one of the first people to get inside, two days after it opened (and nearly closed, and then barely reopened just long enough to avoid my having to eat a plane ticket). So this trip almost didn’t happen, save that Prince knew what was up. As far as I’m concerned, Prince asked me to be there for the express purpose of telling you something about the experience. I’m going to walk you through the tour in my unapologetically biased and fanboy manner. My impressions will not be objective. As I have written elsewhere, I did not hold Prince in my mind as some distant celebrity, but as a friend who was notoriously hard to get on the phone and who was really bad at checking his email. Also, I sprang for the VIP tour, so I may recount more detail than people who have taken the general admission tour.
(And really, what’s with those people? I don’t know how you get the chance to go inside Paisley Park and you don’t spring for the VIP ticket. It’s only a hundred bucks (for now). And while I get that general admission is a fraction of that – $35 – how you gonna’ come that far and not go all the way? I fear for those people’s discounted souls.)
A shuttle picks us up at a parking garage and takes the back road to Paisley Park. I know it’s the back road because I drove there before; it’s a straight shot when you’re not trying to mollify your suburban neighbors. Either way, I wondered if the places I saw along the way were places Prince frequented. Did Prince go to that movie theater? Did he ever pop in to that Jimmy Johns? Did Prince ever fill up at the gas pump I’m using right now? Is that the Walmart where he picked up his prescriptions? Everybody in Minneapolis has a Prince sighting story, an anecdote in which he shows up and hides in the balcony or has a special table or bought some records. It’s not unreasonable to think that over the course of thirty years of Chanhassen living he didn’t stop into the Speedway once. And once you commit to that law of averages in your head, it’s almost like he could still be anywhere, might still peek out from behind a limo window or breeze by on his bicycle.
Upon arrival, people are milling about the front, taking pictures of the lighted entrance and the cubist architecture. We take all the pictures we can now because once we pass into the foyer photos are strictly forbidden, evidence of such resulting in a permanent ban from the premises. Paisley Park had been open for exactly one day and already people have been banned for life for taking rogue pictures. The mind boggles at the logic at play there. It’s not exactly a cost prohibitive adventure so anyone with a burning desire to see the inside will eventually get to. Al Roker did a field report from inside the complex earlier in the week for the Today show. He went in some spaces the VIP tour doesn’t even get you, so what’s the real benefit to being the cat who took a picture knowing you’ll be banned for life? How could you allow yourself to risk being banned for life from Paisley Park? What if they do something cool there later and you want to come back and can’t? If I actually carried a phone I’d happily let them bag and lock it (which is what they do with your phone until the end of the tour). I didn’t want to court suspicion (or risk temptation) so I let them hold on to my tablet, which they didn’t have a provision for, so I ended up leaving at the desk with my name written on the back of a discarded receipt. Not the safest transaction, but if my tablet had gotten stolen in Paisley Park that was almost an anecdote worth the aggravation. “Yo, Paisley Park ate my tablet! Prince killing my Candy Crush score, son.”
I am initially struck by how small the space seems, even with its high glass pyramid ceilings. It’s not really small, just smaller than it was in my head. It’s mansion small, and mad colorful (it used to be all white). The entryway is lined with silver, gold, and platinum records and cassettes from around the world, all snugly protected by plexiglass thicker than the shields in any carryout I’ve ever been in. It’s almost cute to see a silver award for Purple Rain cassettes. “Hey, you sold two hundred thousand tapes through August 1984, Prince. Congratulations!” Ha. Give it a few more months and they’d be upgrading that Maxell to platinum. During the week after his death he sold 4.41 million albums and songs and had five albums in the top ten of the Billboard 200 chart. Some artists – artists you love – never have an album in the top 100. Some never make the chart at all. Prince put five old ones (back) in the top ten at the same time. That is the first time that’s ever happened since they created the chart. Even in death, Prince is still setting records, begging the question, how gone is Prince really?
Stairs to the second floor are roped off and groups are corralled into the atrium proper, where you really start to get a sense of being in the middle of Prince’s world even though you just got there. Off to the side are small rooms dedicated to early albums, sporting looped videos, wardrobe and a few choice instruments from the time periods, but not much else. Across the atrium is the “Little Kitchen”, which is less a kitchen and more of a break room. There is a coffeemaker and an espresso machine, a refrigerator, a couple of diner booths and a loveseat facing a television. There are some extra blankets to add to the red one already draped there. Thanks to the Little Kitchen I also now have to watch Divergent because it was on top of a stack of DVDs next to the TV. Thanks, Prince…?
Much has been made in the news about the decision to showcase his ashes in an urn in the atrium. My party discussed this before we got there, wondering if it was something they should warn people about ahead of time. In person, it wasn’t as affecting as I imagine they painted it in their planning meetings. Some people cried, of course, but for most it’s a curiosity. What ashes are on display are tucked away in a small model of Paisley Park behind more glass, which was supposed to be poignant but seems almost too small a gesture. The display would probably have had more power at the end of the tour than the beginning, especially since it wasn’t opened to showcase its inner details. It just looked like an architect’s rendering, not a memorial or shrine.
More chilling – and not a feature of the tour guide’s spiel – was the oddly cut section of wall to the side by the front staircase. I kept looking at it, trying to figure out why such a design decision had been made, a seemingly random jagged series of cuts in the drywall. I considered that it might be a secret door (we would see a couple along the way) and shrugged it off as roughshod contractor work until I was able to review video of the area from previous on-site interviews after the fact. The reality is more jarring: it’s where the designers have blocked off the elevator where Prince’s body was found. I’m glad I didn’t know that ahead of time, since I probably would have just stood there staring at the wall while the tours kept passing me by. The “urn” wasn’t without its power, but it was devastating to think of how close I had been standing to where he had been found, where his spirit divorced the world, where the music and the soul of it ceased. Covering it up was not a good call; it was the only call. There are people who would have run crying out of the building if they knew what was behind the huge framed pinwheel of Musicology concert tickets masking the new construction. Right out the gate the tour inadvertently – perhaps unavoidably is a better word – puts you closer to him than most of us were ever going to get. If you believe in places of power, it’s hard to consider it anything but.
The tour guides (who, as it turns out, don’t know much more than any real fan) make a point to keep telling us that most of the rooms are as Prince left them, which I found strained credibility upon entering “his” office. The office has a desk and some chairs and is decorated nicely enough, but I know he has one on the second floor near actual residence areas that probably got more use. There is a short stack of books on a table, a few of which are about Egypt. They have a cute conversation piece on display: a suitcase propped against a wall. The docent for this area informs us that it’s filled with DVDs, which is odd, but not outstanding. Prince loved movies. There are DVDs scattered here and there throughout the tour, more movies than books, and there are televisions in almost every room. Also, the office features the first cat carrier sighting.
Entering the video editing suite confirms that Prince is not only black, but 1970s black. Mirrored walls and closet doors abound, carpet is everywhere, black and glass is the palate, and there are more afrocentric metal sculptures and wire music note hangings. I don’t buy the “untouched” rooms sell they keep giving me, and little things like that make me feel like I’m not too far off the mark. There is a secret door here – one I didn’t see coming in, so actually secret – which our guide tells us was full of videos and that no one knew was there until after he died. Pretty sure that second part isn’t true, but I roll with it. I got my Encyclopedia Brown on, testing my sneaking suspicion by noting that, while there are two framed movie posters hanging in this room (Metropolis and Bird), there’s a wall with a conspicuous hanger and no picture, and wondered if our host knew what had been on that wall. He didn’t, but assured the group that whatever it was, Prince had determined it needed to be empty. I was going to need the training of these guides to tighten up a little because I’m pretty sure no one bought that. Prince has every other wall in the building accounted for, but in the editing bay he took a picture down and left the hook up? Not buying it. Put something on the wall and amend this part of the speech, Paisley staff. Also, another cat carrier. Seeing tiny cat carriers in his more private areas is somehow endearing and hilarious. Now I want to know the cat’s name, where it is, who’s loving it now, if it actually liked Prince or if it was, you know, a cat.
As we started to move into studios, first B then A, things got more on mission. Considering Prince spent much of his time in those rooms, these were the places I felt more like I was supposed to be. The actual engineering booths were off limits, but you could peek through the glass and get a sense of how he spent day after day, creating, and how the space affected his work. The designers have at least situated a few fake candles and sheets of notes around to make it look Prince-glazed. Standing in these studios – posing with his piano for a picture (VIP), playing on his ping pong table – you get a real sense of how these high quality spaces designed to bend to one’s creative will. In one studio a dedicated space for piano is lined with granite, in another it’s wood for drums. Despite assumptions to the contrary, there isn’t a wall filled with guitars like some kind of musical armory. The studios seem rent-ready, not Prince ready, and a well-placed sheet of handwritten lyrics doesn’t change my impression of that. The tour group was treated to snippets of an unreleased song he had recorded for a jazz album he was looking to release, and it’s a great song: funky, playful, and slathered with groove…better than anything on his last couple of albums. I could have done with more of that. I could have done with a new song in every room, really. Now THAT would drum up some repeat business, and it would generate a real sense of resonance with what Paisley Park represented: artistic freedom. You couldn’t get any closer to Prince now than listening to unreleased music in the room where he made it. That’s practically a religious experience, and one they should capitalize on, not because it would make them money, but because it would make the museum the kind of place I have to imagine Prince would have wanted it to be: a place that made people happy and excited and appreciative of the work that went into his art. So the beginnings of a win/win, really.
There is no Paisley Park without Purple Rain – the movie and the album – so I had high expectations for a room dedicated to that part of his career, an era that cemented his place in music for all time. The Purple Rain room used to be a dance rehearsal studio, and still feels like one: the far wall is still mirrored, the rest of the room is still white, and there’s a small control booth by the entrance that I’m reasonably sure has been gutted. The room is still a little unfinished in the corners. The room contains a whopping six items: one of his coats, his Oscar, one of his motorcycles, a bound copy of the script, the electric piano he played, and one of his guitars. Contrary to rumor, this isn’t a room that plays the movie on loop; it plays a smashed montage of clips on loop. At this point in the tour that I determined that the organizers were either stingy, greedy, misguided, or all three. As museums go, it’s got a long way to go: there’s not much information here, and while I appreciated seeing what I saw, I knew there was so much more that could have been displayed. The room is huge and swallows up the bank of items in the middle, to the point that it makes these high powered items seem small. There should be three times the amount of stuff in this room as there is. You shouldn’t be able to get through the Purple Rain room in three minutes. This was a bit anti-climactic, an exhibit they could have put in a mall or a local gallery, no sold as a museum exhibit.
The rooms that followed are dedicated to two of his other films – Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge – were equally underwhelming. A movie poster, a single outfit, maybe an instrument. I mean, Graffiti Bridge was filmed inside Paisley Park. They couldn’t roll out something more significant than a couple of items in half of a room? The missed opportunities were starting to mount and I felt myself slipping out of fan mode and into critic mode, which was not the plan. Parts of Paisley Park seem modest in their construction: murals that are in fact wallpaper, frayed edges on pieces here and there. Some of the wardrobe pieces expose an assembly line’s care. This is not to disparage Prince or his things, but to more fully realize the man behind the icon. If you had to play fifty shows on the road you’d need some back-up trenchcoats too, and they wouldn’t all be pristine. And my god, how small the outfits are. It’s one thing to know he was diminutive, but another to see an iconic outfit that was splayed fifty feet tall on cinema canvas (and thus remained fifty feet tall in my mind) on a mannequin the size of my twelve year old niece.
After a jaunt down the Hall of Influences (a mural Prince had done years ago featuring artists he helped build up and artists he was in turn inspired by) and a hallway of awards, we were led to the infamous massive soundstage area, which was draped entirely in black. This is the largest space he would perform concerts in. Now it contained five raised platforms featuring items dedicated to various tours. The exhibits were still stingy – a few outfits and a key instrument from the tour (a signature drum set or piano) – and was swallowed up by darkness. The saving grace of this space was the video montage they had running of live performances, played through the house sound so loudly that you were able to get a sense of what it was like to be there when he performed live. I watched the video for a while and let the space work its magic. In that moment, I was almost overcome with all of the things that I had missed about my friend, and how close I was now to what he had embodied. And it’s kind of cool to see video of him playing an instrument that’s now less than ten feet away from you.
From the soundstage you step next door to the NPG Music Club, his personal nightclub in a box, which might be the coolest space we came across, and coincidently, the least manipulated by museum hands. It’s ready for a party right now, and with the music blasting and the lights all dimmed, all I needed was for someone to hand me a drink so I could get my wallflower on.
Having walked the halls of Paisley Park, I feel like the world has gotten him wrong on the recluse tip. What is it we’re all working toward? Retirement? What happens when you can retire at 28 and all you want to do is make dope music? When you can build a complex that encompasses everything you like to do? Who needs to go to a concert when you give the best concerts in the best space, invite the whole city, know they’ll pack the joint, and can release a video or album of the show the next day? When all time is studio time? When you can create without interruption, without checking in, without asking for time off? When you can look in a room and say, I made The Black Album and Batman there, then put it in your basement for years and everybody knows you did that? Why go to a club when the best club in town is yours? Prince would say in interviews that he didn’t subscribe to time the way other people did, and Paisley Park conveys a real sense of being out of regular folk time and space, while not holding you at a rich man’s arm length.
After his passing, Wendy Melvoin said, “When you create you can speak to him.” What about when you’re where he created, where you’re not sure, somehow he is still creating? What does Paisley Park say back? As I write this, feverishly, I am creating. Let me tell you what Prince told me: that I’m working hard enough, but not living hard enough. That I can have whatever I want in life but I’m going to have to kick a billion asses to get it. That money can buy happiness, even time, but those things are going to expire before the money runs out, so spend wisely. That I shouldn’t be so hard on squads and the people who love them. That immortality can be a drug, but the crash is always fairly human and mundane. That the best advice you can get is to shut up and listen, even when it sounds like no one is speaking. These are things I knew but, doing the work of a good friend, Paisley Park reminds me of. They are things it reveals to me about myself, pushing me on a course from Prince’s too-small death to his enormously large life.
Through all of this I realize how selfish some of us have been. Prince could only accomplish what he did as we know it with Paisley Park. It takes many thousands of dollars per week to run a place to enable an artist to do what he did, which is almost every album since Sign o’ the Times and the thousands of hours of rehearsing, experimenting and producing he did otherwise. We railed against his tightness over his catalog and the dearth of his internet presence, his legal team shutting down every video as it popped up. Yet you can see every dime and byte of it squirreled away in Paisley Park. There’s a reason why people aren’t touring the homes and landmarking the sidewalk outside of 99% of artists’ homes. For everything Prince had, he deserved more, and I dare say better. I’m not saying I’ll never buy another bootleg, but I’ll feel really conflicted about it now.
Before you leave the interior of Paisley Park there is a section of preserved fence memorials (not actual fencing from the property. Don’t go looking for a jailbreak hole in the perimeter). It is laid against a wall where the curators have kept some of the graft fans have left outside. I recognize some of the pieces. They picked good ones, but it’s far from representative. The fence was an enormous and beautiful thing that we all knew couldn’t last. At least someone recognized the value in displaying a sliver of it, since some of it just ended up in the mud.
The way out leads you, of course, through a gift shop that’s really a tented area that was parking before. There are racks of gear from his most recent tours and a few general Prince-themed bits. I considered walking out of there with the internet-generated meme shirt of “This could be us but you playing”, which sports the iconic pic of Prince and Apollonia on his motorcycle, smiling, ready to dance and ride and make love to one another in Minnesota barns. And then I thought of her in that moment, what she might make of all this, but then she doesn’t need the tour. Any memory she has of him is worth more than anything on the tour. Plus, the shirts run mad small.
I spring for a poster, a bag and the tour book. I also prepaid for the Prince’s Favorite Foods sampler plate, which is a veggie offering of various entrees. Something tells me these were things he might have tried, but weren’t on the regular menu. My man ate Doritos; I saw him. Ain’t nobody spending 12 hours in the studio fueled by kale chips or that orange breakfast of champions, squash. Still, get it if you go. It’s probably not canon, but it’s got some good stuff on it and it’s only $12. We all tried the dessert offerings and agree the Rice Krispie/chocolate/peanut butter treat is a winner.
Walking out of the tented area you find yourself back in the music-less night, an ecstasy exciting your skin, the sadness of concrete welling inside of you as the ocean crash of nearby traffic escorts you back to your un-purple life. You take more pictures of the same exterior you shot when you arrived, but now it means something else. This is the post-coital version, the morning after shot. The little bushes have new meaning now, and the walls look less like industrial siding and more like canvas. You want to rush home and make something, to create, to be glad for what you have. And to blast some Prince music with new appreciation and insight.
Flying home, the fog I got lost in driving to the wrong airport terminal lies over Minneapolis like a rumpled comforter beneath me. I am going home, somehow full and empty at once. All of the creative neurons in me are firing, as if sipping from the water fountain in the NPG Music Club I have tapped into a fount of youth and creativity. I typed the first two thousand words of this essay with two thumbs on the way home, totally forgetting that I was supposed to be terrified of flying. I went to my friend’s house and missed all of his parties, forgot where he kept the spare key, smelled the candles already blown out, didn’t get to honor any of the favors I said he could call upon me for. Elvis left his building, been gone a long time. But Prince? You couldn’t pry Prince out of Paisley Park with a crowbar-shaped exorcism.
If you’re a fan, you should go. There is a magic to the place that the tour guides can’t convey, though they’ve been trained to try. If you are an artist of any stripe I command you to go. If something doesn’t click on inside of you after walking through Paisley Park (and just the meager half of the complex we’ve been afforded) then you are no artist. It’s supposed to be a museum, but it’s not good at that yet. It is extremely good at being an oracle, a place to listen, a place to learn. It should be a library, the loudest library in the world, a library you must dance in for admission. Libraries archive but they also educate. And Paisley Park has just as many lessons to teach as it does memories to impart. Getting in the gate feels like an accomplishment – and for longtime fans, it is – but whatever you get out of it after that genuinely hinges on whatever you’ve brought in your heart. It’s not just a corny-sounding line in a song; that part of the titular song is real. Knowing that makes you wonder what else Prince said that sounded weird was just him recording what he observed. Even in death, Prince stays magical.