Driving through downtown Chanhassen, the last thing you see before you turn the corner and glimpse Paisley Park is the cross and steeple of the neighborhood church. Which seems appropriate, given how many Prince devotees from around the world have flocked to the music icon’s recording studio and party pad. Although the devout Jehovah’s Witness would have cringed at the thought, he had reached an untouchable God-like status in so many of his fans’ minds. Prior to his death and especially now, Paisley Park is Mecca.
Most trips out to Paisley Park began the same way. A smoke signal would appear above the Purple One’s compound — in recent years, that would come in the form of a cryptic tweet, but back in the nineties, it might’ve been as subtle as a fan noticing that the lights on the building’s white brick exterior had turned to his signature violet hue — and the mayhem would begin to unfold. Devotees would race out to the Twin Cities suburb, lining up at the property’s gates in their finest heels, sport coats and teased hairdos. And before the doors could even open, the entire block would be vibrating with the anticipatory feeling that anything might happen that night.
Seriously, anything. Like the time Madonna dropped by after her show at the local arena and 30-odd fans watched in awe as the two superstars exchanged knowing glances while Prince serenaded her. Or when he crashed the stage during an Alabama Shakes performance, ripped one perfect guitar solo and disappeared. Or when he brought Kendrick Lamar all the way to Minnesota to perform one blissful song.
Of course, not every trek to Paisley Park was a historic event. More often than not, fans were allowed inside to dance for a couple hours to a blaring mix of Prince jams, seventies funk singles and eighties pop hits before getting booted back into the Chanhassen night. No alcohol was served and cell phones were prohibited, so the experience could feel a bit like a junior-high lock-in, everyone shuffling their feet and craning their necks to see if Prince might make an appearance.
But the anticipation that something incredible might happen, that incredible things have happened, that they might just happen again — well that anticipation was intoxicating enough to keep even the most fatigued person bouncing until 2 a.m.
I’ve visited Paisley Park enough times now that if I think about it long enough, it all blurs into one long dream: turning off my cell phone. Walking through the gate and up to the stark white building — blocky and oblique, like something out of Beetlejuice. Catching the first glimpse of the motorcycle from Purple Rain that leans on its kickstand in the lobby and catches my breath every single time. Standing in awe of the larger-than-life, purple plush furniture and the giant screens that are always showing random movies like Finding Nemo or the one where James Franco visits Oz and wondering when the great and powerful Wizard of Minneapolis would make his debut.
Of all my experiences over the past decade, though, one night stands out above the rest.
It was the 30th anniversary of the release of the Purple Rain soundtrack. It would become Prince’s best-selling album — and, as it turns out, the highest selling record to ever come out of Minnesota — and I had just published an interview with the drummer of the Revolution, Bobby Z, who played on the album and was at the music icon’s side for much of his early career.
That evening, I received my summons: “P wants to know if you want to come out to a private celebration tonight.”
Five hours later, I was inside Paisley Park, chatting nervously with Bobby Z and a handful of insiders, and then there he was: P. After spending so many nights in that building standing on the sidelines and watching from the crowd while he performed, it was disorienting to have Prince stride across the room, walk right up to me and stick out his hand. I stammered out some kind of greeting while he opened his eyes wide and, I kid you not, stared directly into my soul.
Over the next two hours, I did my best to keep up the conversation while Prince flitted around me like a hummingbird, played me his latest music and told an unending string of jokes. He is funny, I realized, laughing from my gut as he spoke in silly voices, gave everyone around him a hard time and shot witty one-liners back at me whenever I asked him rote questions.
We talked about the music he liked, the radio hits from his childhood, the documentaries he’d been watching. We talked about how he wanted to be a saxophone player when he was a kid but how he took to the piano a little easier. We talked about how his words ended up twisted around in most interviews and how he’d rather just have a conversation with someone than try to give them a sound bite.
All the while, I couldn’t help but marvel at how tender and sweet and charming Prince was, how oddly normal it felt to be standing there with him amidst the purple velvet chairs, trading barbs and shooting the breeze. So much has been made about his mystique, but on this night, chatting one-on-one with him, it seemed so obvious that he was just a shy, intensely creative guy who enjoys his space and his privacy.
Before I could attempt to psychoanalyze him too much, though, Prince snapped me out of my reverie.
“Do you want to dance?” he asked, smiling and reaching out his hand. Before I could respond, he snatched it back and laughed. “Just kidding.”
After a pause, he did it again. “No really, do you want to dance? Just kidding!” he said, dramatically whipping his hand away and turning on his heel.
I looked down at my feet and felt my cheeks turn bright red, shaking my head at the innocent playfulness of it all. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. And when I looked back up,he was gone.