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 its most iconic figure is the artist who defied his distribution company and created more music than either Lennon or McCartney combined. 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, with its own closely guarded secrets inside. 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 are two tours available: general admission (which I took) and a VIP tour, which consists of a longer, more private, much more 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 its name from a song on Around the World in a Day. 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.
The artist's now-iconic motif was created to be a mix of the astrological Mars/male and Venus/female glyphs 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 a symbol that Warner Brothers couldn't possibly own. Since no such glyph existed before Prince invented it, the media started referring to him simply as "the artist formerly known as Prince." Considered one of the boldest moves in music history, it eventually allowed Prince to regain control over his name and recording rights in 2000. The symbol of his independent spirit is now 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 shows how small Prince really was. His 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 massive 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 as though 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 himself 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" (recorded by the Bangles); "Nothing Compares 2 U" (sung by Sinead O’Connor); and "I Feel For You" (covered by Chaka Khan) are but a few examples. There has been so much music found in his vaults, our guide explained, 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.
The film Purple Rain, released in 1984, won Prince an Academy Award while establishing his rock star status at the same time. The Purple Rain room in Paisley Park is bathed in purple lighting that spotlights one of the stunt motorcycles from the film, a purple piano and his iconic purple jacket. Clips from the film play on one giant wall. Adjoining this space, are the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge rooms 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 its 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. But you'll also notice during your tour that there are flights of stairs and doors that go to seemingly secret places. That's because the tour, much like that of Graceland, doesn’t take the public through the musician's private spaces—though I have no doubt they would be more interesting than everything else.
The final area of the tour take fans through a collection of memorabilia that was sent to Paisley Park by fans after his death. Flowers, poems, fan mail and every possible purple-colored object ever made have all been lovingly placed on a wall before the exit. Nearby, Prince’s famed Super Bowl performance, in which he sang "Purple Rain" in the pouring rain to the largest audience of his career, plays on the screen.
There’s also a deli fridge at the end where the same chefs who cooked for Prince have recreated a few of his favorite meals, offering them to fans who are curious about 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.
The gift shop, however, doesn’t have anything for sale that Prince would have worn himself; surprisingly, there is not even one, single 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—margaritas, parrots, you name it.
If Paisley Park is not enough Prince in one trip, you can cross Minneapolis visiting Prince’s childhood homes, his elementary school, middle school, church, various 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. Finish your day off with a Purple Rain at First Avenue; you can even get the souvenir cup.