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Go to Paisley Park While It's Still in Your Heart

Our trip to Prince's Paisley Park
Our trip to Prince's Paisley Park Album cover art

Matt’s, a 1950s era bar and grill in midtown Minneapolis, invented the culinary delight known as the “Jucy Lucy.” It’s a grilled all-beef patty stuffed at the center with gooey and delicious cheese. They serve ‘em simply as they did when they first concocted 'em. The Chatterbox Pub is right down the street, in a neighborhood that resembles a mix of Montrose and the alphabet address parts of Galveston. Chatterbox serves tasty Minnesota beers, the tastiest being Modist Dreamyard, an American IPA which is also great to quaff while listening to Joe Bartel and the Vandalia Cretins play at the Kitty Cat Klub over in Dinkytown.

Yes, you are still here on the Houston Press web page and have not somehow meandered over to Minneapolis' own City Pages. What sounds like a travel pitch for the Twin Cities is just that, mostly because this region is home to Paisley Park, Prince’s private estate and production compound. This week marks the third anniversary of the place opening to the public as a Graceland-like museum, just months after Prince's death in April 2016. The lure of visiting the playground and homestead of one of modern music’s most prolific, beloved and accomplished artists should be enough to plan a trip.

I happened to be in Minneapolis recently, so I visited. After the 90-minute tour, I vowed to return home and encourage any Prince followers to get there sooner than later. If you have any interest in seeing where Prince lived and worked or in gaining a sense of the city’s appreciation for him, book your flight now. Minneapolis might not sound like the travel destination you’d put before New York or San Francisco, but the fact that it was stomping grounds for Prince’s high-heeled boots is good enough reason to go. At the moment, his presence continues to hang over the city like a big purple cloud promising to burst any time and drench folks in, well, you know.

For instance, a couple wearing fresh Paisley Park gear from their own visit dined alongside us at Matt's. While  drinking a Dreamyard at Pizza Luce, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” flooded the place from the sound system. His funkiness maybe didn’t inspire the bohemian atmosphere at Kitty Cat Klub, but you’ll think of him there because there’s live music. The same goes for catching a show at First Avenue, where Prince cut his teeth and parts of Purple Rain were filmed. Wherever live music’s being performed in the city, the purple specter of its greatest musician seems to lurk.

Will it always be that way? It’s hard to imagine his influence waning; but, I did notice a lot of Lizzo music on repeat during my stay. The Minneapolis pop sensation (by way of Houston) is very current and very beloved in Minneapolis and rightfully so. It’s a stretch to think she’d ever completely replace Prince in the hearts of locals, but she and others will continue making music and adding to the city’s music lore. Minneapolis has been home to fantastic acts – The Replacements, The Bad Plus, Atmosphere and Prince protegees like The Time, to name a handful. It’s still Prince’s city today, but new acts with talent and upside will evaporate a few of those hanging purple clouds over time.

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Paisley Park
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

What’s it like to go to Paisley Park? You need to buy a ticket. Buy it in advance. Waiting until the week of your planned visit is a risky game, every tour sold out the week I was there. You can buy admission in various packages – a general admission tour is least expensive, but the VIP access ensures you get a single keepsake photo on the tour. No photography is allowed otherwise. One package includes a Saturday night dance party at the NPG Music Club. This is Prince’s private onsite dance club. He would open it to the public and make surprise appearances on occasion.

You’ll need to budget between $38.50 and $160 for a single admission and will want to buy a keepsake in the tiny gift shop at the end of the tour, the last thing you see after gazing upon sections of chain link fence pulled from the grounds, sections that were preserved with wreaths, signs and other items affixed to them, left lovingly by grief-stricken Prince fans days and weeks after his death. Our tour guide said even now, years later, people still leave little bits of themselves behind, like the faithful offering something to a deity.

Prince was not a god, he was just a man, albeit a mysterious and intriguing one. Walking the halls he walked, seeing the space where he fixed his own meals and watched Minnesota Timberwolves basketball made him a little more accessible.

Paisley Park is a 65,000 square-foot complex in Chanhassen, a city on Minneapolis’ outskirts. From State Highway 5 it looks like an office building that would be right at home along Highway 59 here in Houston. I snapped a pic of it from the highway because visitors are made to lock their smartphones in a pouch in the building's lobby. About 30 of us gathered there for an afternoon tour, people of all backgrounds and ages. A friendly woman named Karen checked me in from behind a counter, which had a television showing back to back Prince videos. There’s a mural here with Prince’s face staring at a hand holding a rainbow. Of the more earthly displays on view, gold and platinum records line the lobby walls, which are 30 feet high and painted sky blue with white clouds, like the suit Prince wore in the video for "Raspberry Beret." There’s a framed letter to Prince’s estate from President and Michelle Obama expressing condolences. As you walk into the building from the lobby you pass beneath a photo image of Prince’s eyes, peering down at you from on high.

The tour’s first stop is an atrium, a perfect and ample space for advising the gathered of what’s to come. Prince’s famed symbol is etched into marble tile floor here. Doves coo in a cage upstairs, a level of the compound you won’t see on the tour. You don’t see Prince’s personal living spaces – no bedrooms, bathrooms or dens – and neither do you see the compound’s elevator, where Prince was found dead.

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This was the last place we were allowed to photograph before entering Paisley Park
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

The atrium boasts four pyramid-shaped skylights. Our tour guide, Karla, said they would glow like purple beacons when Prince was there and recording. Surrounding the atrium are exhibit rooms dedicated to some of Prince’s best-loved albums - Dirty Mind, Controversy, Sign o’ The Times, Diamonds and Pearls, Lovesexy and The Black Album (which, with a note of humor, was restricted from access).

Everything in the vicinity is eye candy for the Prince fan – clothing he wore, guitars he favored. But one of my favorite items here was the handwritten lyrics to “Soft and Wet,” one of his first big hits. The words are written in cursive in a Mead spiral notebook. The notion of him scribbling music history onto lined notepad paper the way we draw up grocery lists demystifies Prince a little. There are all sorts of moments like that on the tour, things you spot or hear from the tour guides which make Prince seem more like one of us. It’s one of the best reasons to take the tour, in my opinion.

Next we visit Studio A, a massive recording space with cherry wood walls and no right angles. A grand piano, bass and acoustic guitars sit in one of the many over-sized recording booths which surround the general space of the studio. The booth has granite walls and floors to enhance the sounds of those instruments. Other booths are reserved for drum kits and electric guitar and Prince kept his drum machines, keys and vocal mikes in the engineering room where he could reach them. Everything was designed to ensure supreme sound quality for recordings done there by Prince and artists like Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Celine Dion.

The tour guide played a snippet of music Prince was recording for Blue Note before he passed away. It was a jazz-funk throwdown. There’s a video segment of Prince and Larry Graham talking about music, the recording process and not being afraid to be one’s self and do things that are true to one’s self. Hearing his actual voice  and musical voice so confidently in this space is haunting.

Outside the studio, a large mural Prince commissioned for his Las Vegas residency runs the length of its wall. He is at the center of the mural and to one side are his influences – Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, James Brown, Sly Stone, others. The opposite side depicts acts Prince influenced like The Time. We hang a right and are in the Purple Rain room, which was once also a studio but is now a spacious exhibit devoted to Prince’s best film. The space includes the Recording Industry Association of America’s designation of the soundtrack album going platinum 13 times over. There’s an Academy Award on display, for Best Original Music from a 1985 film. One of the motorcycles he rode in the movie is parked in a roped area. A leather-bound version of the script, the piano he danced atop in the film, which still bears the scuff marks of his heels. If you were alive during that time and following Prince, it’s a treasure trove and a memory jar. What I remembered mostly was the night my mom, my wife and I went to see Prince live at the Summit on the Purple Rain tour. That was nearly 35 years ago.

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There are signs of Prince everywhere in Minneapolis, like this one at First Avenue
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

This space is the size of a small gymnasium and the tour guide told us that’s where Prince would haul in a basketball goal to shoot hoops, a favorite sports pastime. She said Prince was aware of Charlie Murphy’s “True Hollywood Story” depicting the night the Purple Yoda mastered Murphy and his friends at the game and always quipped it wasn’t that he was so good at basketball but that Murphy and his crew were so awful at it. We view hand-scribbled notes for the script, just a few yards from an American Music Award. There’s space dedicated to his other starring-role films, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge, but those rooms are much smaller in size and scope than the Purple Rain room.

Another extended hallway doubles as one of the coolest trophy rooms of all time, with many of Prince’s awards encased in the walls. MTV Music Awards, Soul Train Music Awards, a boatload of Grammys. On yet another Mead spiral notebook (hey, that’s how Prince did it) there were handwritten notes to the address he gave about taking his name back after being the "Symbol.” Another room stores Prince’s rare Schimmel Pegasus Piano, a hydraulic-driven futuristic thing with a $100,000 price tag at the time Prince bought it. There are only 13 in the world, according to the tour guide

All this Prince overload brought a rush of memories to me, and the rush came bursting through in the building’s sound stage. Movies, television and videos were filmed in this 25,000 square foot, three-story tall space. It’s a weird place to find one’s self crying at three in the afternoon on a Saturday, surrounded by strangers.

There are more artifacts here. A purple Roadster and a Bentley, for instance. Lots of his iconic clothing, like the afore-mentioned cloud suit. There’s a lot to see but I’m rooted to the spot when the video for “1999” appears on an overhead, massive screen in this space. Red and purple spotlights mimic the lighting in the video. As I watch I can hear my tour mates singing the song behind me and I tell myself a 54 year-old man should not be fighting back tears while watching the video to one of Prince’s signature dance jams. I tell myself I shouldn’t feel the sting of tears because I’m on a museum tour and who cries while viewing the exhibits in an art collection but sentimental old fools? But it’s dark in this cavernous space.

The others here are dancing to Prince’s request that we party through the destruction which surrounds us, a message timely as ever. I’m standing with my back to those people, gazing up at one of the first Prince videos I ever saw and, what the hell, I let the tears well up. A lot has happened in my life since I first saw the video and at that moment, music did what it does and moved me to consider who I was when I first heard the song and who I am now. If you can pick songs from an artist’s catalog and attach significant memories from various ages to those songs, the artist qualifies as a favorite artist. Prince is a favorite of mine.

Karla took us into the NPG Music Club, weirdly the only space on the tour where no music was playing. It’s a posh and silent space this afternoon. There’s a kitchen at the back of the club where Prince’s favorite meat-free meals would be made and lounge tables and booths. There is a stage for live music, of course. Karla said she'd  been to shows in the club. Sometimes Prince would appear, sometimes he wouldn’t. One night he played an exhaustive set, she said, and afterward everyone in the club – a couple hundred people — were invited to accompany Prince to a movie. Prince had a special arrangement with the cinema in Chanhassen that meant he could call and someone would come open the place up for him to see a film, no matter the time of day. On this particular outing, some sleepy kid had to wake in the dead of night to open the theater for Prince and his ardent fans to watch the James Bond film Spectre. Prince bought the popcorn and soda.

This is another reason to get to Paisley Park now, if you ever intend on going. The people who take you through the space met Prince. They knew him in a more personal way than the average Prince fan, so the tour includes these personal anecdotes that shed more light on the type of person he maybe was. There will be fewer of these people around as time marches on.

I’ve been to Graceland. My dad was an Elvis Presley fan and, by proxy, so was I. I didn’t have the same reaction there. No tears were shed for The King. For one, once I got there Elvis had been dead 26 years. The impact of a talented life cut tragically short had long dissipated. There were no tour guides with humanizing stories of Elvis, just a headset with a pre-recorded guide. Elvis died right about the time Prince was emerging, at a time I too was emerging in my own life.

Things that were important in that part of my life were punctuated by Prince’s music; but, others left those punctuation marks too, and surely others to come will do the same as I move into this latter phase of my life. When those artists create new music to soundtrack what's yet to come in my life, Prince’s star might fade a little for me, the same way Elvis’s dimmed once Prince arrived. I’m glad I took the trip to Paisley Park now while that star is still burning hot.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.