No longer do tourists make mere visits to Minneapolis to commune with Prince. Ever since the city's iconic son overdosed in April 2016 at the age of 57, such trips have become veritable pilgrimages. The tourism bureaus of Minneapolis and Minnesota now prominently host itineraries on their respective websites, featuring points of interest such as First Avenue, the nightclub where Purple Rain was filmed; Prince's childhood home on the city's north side; and the downtown studio where he recorded his first demo. Prince tourism is definitely "a thing," according to Erica Wacker with Explore Minnesota, the state's tourism office. "If you ask somebody what they know about Minnesota," she says, "it's lakes, loons, fishing, and now Prince."
Prince famously said he liked Minnesota's cold "because it keeps the bad people out." It seems that he may have held the same attitude toward any masochistic sojourner willing to try to pay him a visit. Fans who take an excursion 20 miles southwest of (and a world away from) Minneapolis to the artist's Paisley Park estate and studio in Chanhassen—now a museum where one can glimpse Prince's ashes interred in an elaborate ceramic-and-glass urn modeled after the residence—have perhaps more in common with the dusty sinners groveling their way through northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or the Muslims piously making their hajj through the desert on the way to Mecca and Medina, than with anybody who could be described as a vacationer.
Prince tourism is indeed becoming a cottage industry in the City of Lakes, and although it can feel slightly ghoulish, my Catholic upbringing allows me to appreciate the sometimes awkward veneration of saints. To mark the one-year anniversary of Prince's death this past April, for instance, Paisley Park hosted Celebration 2017, charging as much as $1,000 for access to four days of headless yet moving performances from the likes of the Revolution and the New Power Generation. The sky-high ticket prices were expectedly tsk-tsked by local media. And while the Prince estate could've been perceived as shaking down the most fervent fans willing to mourn their idol at any price, there's no denying that even when he was alive, Prince aroused an ecstatic religiosity in his true believers. In online forums, fans parsed his cryptic scripture in a search for signs of an invitation to the legendary after-hours dance parties he hosted at his home.
In truth, though, Paisley afterparties were a pain in the ass. After driving to the middle of nowhere, you'd stand at a frigid park and ride waiting for a shuttle that would drop you off in a line outside the residence where aggro security guards would pat you down for any forbidden alcohol or drugs. Once inside the mythological building, fans would be offered frozen pizza and energy drinks while security skulked around waiting to eject people foolish enough to take their cell phones out of their pockets.
Yet despite all the reasons not to go, I still get a pang of Catholic guilt that I only made it out there twice while Prince was alive. Because all of that groveling at gate was worth it when on the other side, once safely ensconced in his sanctum sanctorum, you actually got to see Prince play guitar. He was divine, and all you had to do was put up with some paranoid bullshit out in the suburbs to see him.
So is the pilgrimage worth it now that he's gone? In the posture of a sinner realizing that I'd taken Prince for granted while he remained on our earthly plane, I set out for Chanhassen to take the $100 Paisley Park VIP tour.
After Prince passed, his estate hired Graceland Holdings—the firm that has managed Elvis's residence turned temple in Memphis—to transform Paisley Park from Prince's living quarters and creative compound into the estate's museum and shrine. Graceland would base the museum plans on Prince e-mails in which, according to Graceland employee and new head Paisley Park curator Angela Marchese, the artist had laid out his vision for album-based galleries.
When the doors to the museum opened to the public in October 2016, there were inevitable complaints from Prince acolytes. Some protested what they saw as thieves in the temple hastily pursuing profit (the Graceland residence in Memphis itself didn't open for tours until five years after the King's death); among others there was hand-wringing over the appropriateness of the placement of Prince's ashes (the urn has since been raised from the floor to the more reverent balcony level). To its credit, Graceland Holdings spent money on a new roof for Paisley Park, built several new galleries thematically tied to Prince's major albums, and diligently cataloged more than 6,000 artifacts stored in the basement—guitars, handwritten lyrics, and (yes) blouses.
The docent on a recent tour was a man in his late 40s named Mitch, who sported a salt-and-pepper goatee. Originally from New York, he moved to Minneapolis six years ago to work in education but ended up devoting his life to Prince. Now he presents himself as a humble friar in a long-sleeved purple T-shirt. When I asked him if I could take notes on my phone, Mitch seemed alarmed before calmly instructing me to go back to the guard desk to get one of the straitjackets to which every cellphone is committed. When I got back to the tour he explained, "We do our best to keep it the way it was when he was still here."
The VIP tour takes about 70 minutes and includes a visit to studios A and B, the video editing suite, and Studio C, which has been converted into the Purple Rain room, where Prince's 1985 Academy Award for best original song score is displayed alongside the purple 1981 Honda motorcycle from the movie. The attendees hailed from as nearby as Blaine (a suburb of Saint Paul) and as far as Germany, Sweden, and Australia. Mitch kicked things off with a short speech about Prince's generosity during his lifetime—all the music that he gave us, his invitations to fans to listen to it inside his own home—followed by a moment of silence that allowed the group to contemplate Prince's sacred remains encased in the miniature Paisley Park urn.
Mitch's tone throughout was reverent but sunny. He demonstrated the low-key ebullience of a hip youth pastor, and was prone to cracking wise with the older German ladies. "OK if I turn it up a little bit?" he'd ask with a grin as he cranked the volume on an exclusive Musicology tour clip from a Canadian stop in 2006. Mitch explained that he was lucky enough to have attended a show on that particular tour. "There's plenty of room to dance back there," he reminded the Deutschlanders, pointing to a carpeted area in Prince's video editing suite. When the clip ended he gently downshifted to a more somber note. "His loss came entirely too soon, but we're lucky to have had him as long as we could."
The highlight of the tour was the walk-through of studios A and B. In the latter room, he invited us to take a turn rallying on Prince's Titan ping-pong table before he gathered us onto the parquet floor of the live room and ticked off the albums that were recorded in the space: Graffiti Bridge, The Black Album, and Emancipation as well as two by Prince's jazz-fusion band Madhouse. Mitch explained that the control board was built by the great audio engineer Frank DiMedio and was installed in Prince's house on Lake Riley before being transplanted to Paisley Park when the artist completed his move there in 1987. Mitch mentioned that the first song Prince recorded on the board was "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" from Sign 'o' the Times.
In Studio A we were shown Prince's LinnDrum drum machine (set to 68 bpm) and his Oberheim OB-X synthesizer, which Mitch explained were both literally instrumental to the austere power of the bassless "When Doves Cry." He pointed out the AKG C12 VR condenser microphone and the chair where Prince would perch to record his vocals. "He would sit down because he was the vocalist, the recording engineer, and the producer," Mitch said. "The only guy in the room." It evoked a poignant picture of the lonely little genius toiling in the middle of the night. A genuine workaholic, he died alone in the elevator of his own recording studio. Mitch then queued up a snippet of an untitled jazz track that Prince was working on the month of his death, and pointed out the drummer's isolation booth, and where the saxophonist and the bass player would've been standing in relation to their bandleader.
At the tour's end, Mitch divulged aloud that even though he'd never met Prince, the man's music helped him to know himself. He implored the group to band together to keep Prince's legacy alive, to go back to our local hamlets and spread the gospel of the tiny purple love god. The pitch was heartfelt and earnest, but it was impossible not to wonder whether this kind of door-to-door evangelism was what Prince would've requested of his disciples.
As a devout convert to the Jehovah's Witnesses' faith, Prince was deeply religious, but he was also full of contradictions. He was a reclusive artiste who loved God and celebrated sex. Even if he'd intended Paisley to ultimately become a half museum, half shrine, it was hard to believe these somber, reverential tours could ever fill the vacuum of freaky creation left in his wake.
The penultimate space Mitch took the tour group through was a 12,500-square-foot sound stage where Prince would play freewheeling funk jams until the dawn licked Chanhassen's horizon. I took a moment to appreciate the brand-new purple Yamaha piano Prince introduced at a pajama party in April 2016, days before he died. He reportedly played a snippet of "Chopsticks" and implored those assembled who were worrying about his health, "Wait a few days before you waste any prayers." It's been more than a year now, and we're still left whispering into the dark, wondering what he would've wanted. v